My 30 minute talk about liberal democracy and the ethos of comedy, followed by a 30 minute discussion, was last night (February 17th). You can view the talk on YouTube by clicking on this link.
Category: 2020 election
After the 2016 election, David Runciman in the London Review of Books wrote a prescient piece about how democracies die when we take them for granted. I do think (but, then again, what do I know—and I certainly don’t have any way to influence what happens) Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th.
Republican twaddle about a stolen election will collapse as the next two months unfold because their lack of substance means no court in the land will credit that narrative. But counting on the courts is a thin reed when so many judges are right-wing nut cases.
Ninety percent of Republican politicians and government officials know that cries about a corrupt election are unjustified. They are only spouting the narrative because the Trump base is now their base, their source of power, and they alienate that base at their peril.
The trouble, of course, is that the base does not have this cynical relation to the stolen election story. The base believes. The last four years (nay, the last ten; ever since the rise of the Tea Party) have shown the extent to which the base drives the party, not the other way around.
A digression: I understand that the full story is more complicated, since the Tea Party is only partially a true base, grassroots phenomenon. But it would be a bad mistake to deny that a true populist base exists for the Republican party—and that that base stands at some odds with the party officials. Perhaps it is simply more accurate to say that the far right wing of the party has now taken it over, and not speak in terms of “base” versus officials. The trouble with dropping all references to the “base” is that it discounts Trump’s ability to enthuse voters, among them many who have rarely voted before. Leftist Democrats would like to mirror that right-wing success—in taking over the party and bringing many new voters to the poll.
The party hacks are counting on the courts and our other democratic institutions to hold the line—just as they have counted on the taboo against political violence to keep their inflammatory rhetoric from inspiring wide-scale actual violence. They believe their words will have no serious impact, will be seen as the empty rhetoric they are, just what a politician has to say to curry favor. That’s why their words are cynical; those words are designed not to effect what they say, but to manipulate those to whom they are addressed.
But Trump’s words have never been cynical; he is at one with the base in believing in the corruption, malfeasance, and devilry of his opponents. And to the extent that he has transmitted those convictions to 40% of the American populace, it would be foolish to think it will all blow over, that our democratic institutions and norms will somehow keep that genie bottled up. The bottling up will work until it doesn’t—and then we will have not the slow erosion of norms that the punditry keeps bemoaning, but full-scale collapse.
When the hacks cynically parrot Trump’s non-cynical words they place a faith in our democracy that is touchingly naïve. They think that democracy is not vulnerable to their attacks, which aren’t, after all, sincerely meant. They still think they can contain and control the beast of the anti-democratic, authoritarian right, using it as a lever to obstruct and oppose anything the Biden administration attempts to accomplish. But by making our government utterly dysfunctional, utterly hamstrung in its efforts to even begin to address our society’s (and world’s) multiple crises, they feed the notion that we need a different kind of governance altogether—a strong man, authoritarian kind.
The next four years are going to be ugly as Biden tries to ride the whirlwind. Right-wing media and a fair number of right-wing politicians are going to push the illegitimate government line hard. Biden may be able to undo some of the administrative, executive level damage that Trump has done, but his scope for action beyond that will be extremely limited.
And the prospects post-Biden are even grimmer. The roused right wing is not going away—and its fury at losing will be even more frightening than its triumphant displays during the Trump years. It is no rhetorical hyperbole to say that American democracy is at risk. And one of the risks is a complacency about its strength and resilience in the face of attacks, no matter if those attacks are made cynically or meant sincerely.
The friends of democracy are going to have to fight long and hard for it. And their fight will be handicapped by the right wing’s hold on the courts and on the majority of state legislatures. Gerrymandering and voter suppression will proceed apace, with nary a checkpoint to curtail these practices in the whole governmental apparatus. The hounds of the right-wing media will continue their hunt. Please, oh democrats, don’t be deer in the headlights.
In response to my last post, my colleague Max Owre wonders why Democrats cannot convert the majority of voters who agree with liberal policy proposals (medicare for all, increased minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich are some prime examples) into votes for Democratic candidates. And another colleague, Sabine Gruffat, tells us that her father voted for Trump on the basis of Trump’s being good for the economy and out of the conviction that the Democrats’ “socialism” would lead to economic disaster. (Their responses are on my Facebook page.)
It doesn’t matter for many voters that any objective measure shows that Democratic presidents since 1930 (Eisenhower is a notable exception) have been better for the economy than Republican presidents. (Greater over all growth rates under Democrats, and a more equitable share of that growth across the board. Links below.) Similarly, surveys that show a majority supporting government financed medical care also show that voters don’t believe that Republicans have tried (and desire) to shrink Medicare and abolish the popular pre-existing conditions rule that is part of ObamaCare.
But much more important than this ignorance is to realize (despite what political junkies would like to believe) that policy has almost nothing to do with how people vote. The Republicans have won the rhetorical war over the past sixty years; they have managed, against all evidence, to brand the Democrats as socialist, unpatriotic, bad for the economy, and hostile to the economically bereft unless they are non-white. The increasing “partisanship” of the U.S. political scene is a product of the deliberate strategy of demonization that was initiated by Newt Gringich in his attempt to delegitimize the Clinton presidency. That effort was then taken up by the right wing media, has continued unabated to this day, and has been a fabulous success.
Recently, the novelist Joseph O’Neill has recommended a similar strategy for the Democrats. They should, he argues, brand the Republicans as the party of incompetence and malevolence—a party that is unfit to govern. Whether he is right or wrong on the specifics, the larger point is that it isn’t policies that win votes, but the “big picture” characterizations.
Driving this point home, of course, is the fact that the Republicans had absolutely no policy proposals for this election. They dispensed altogether with writing a platform—and the voters barely noticed and certainly didn’t seem to care. Policies are for nerds.
The reason this election has been so disappointing to Democrats is that, contrary to what we hoped and believed, Donald Trump has not hurt the Republican brand. While his odious behavior turned off enough voters to give Biden the win, the craven enabling of that behavior by rank and file Republicans had no downside. The Blue Wave (we had one in the 2008 repudiation of George W. Bush) did not occur. Down ballot Republicans pulled more votes than Trump, with a gain in House seats (unusual for the party that loses the presidency) and holding their own in the Senate. The country has not come to see the Republicans as a party unfit to govern.
Here’s where I don’t quite know what to think. The down-ballot Republicans did better than Trump. Yet I also believe that the strength of the Trump cult largely accounts for the huge turn-out on the Republican side. After this election, will those Trump voters go back to not voting? The dilemma for the Republican party going forward is how to keep the Trump enthusiasts engaged even as the party either backs away from Trump-like antics or discovers that even would-be Trumps can’t reproduce his hold on the public imagination. The Republicans are tied to the mast of Trump because of all the new voters he has brought to them, but will find it difficult to hold on to those voters to the extent that they act even semi-responsibly as public officials. (“Holding on” here does not mean losing them to the Democrats; it means keeping them fired up enough to come out and vote.)
Doubtless, several Republican presidential candidates in 2024 will attempt to occupy the Trump lane. But I suspect Trump will prove inimitable. His ingenuous self-absorption, his lack of any filter between id and mouth, his ADHD coupled with third-grade verbal aggression, and his sheer delight in sowing chaos as a means of keeping all eyes turned his way will prove hard to reproduce via calculation. The easiest part of his repertoire to imitate with be the endless self-pitying sense of grievance, of being put upon by all. Expect lots of whining from the Republicans to continue.
Still, the 2016 primaries already showed that Ted Cruz cannot attract the adulation Trump received and it is even more absurd to think Mike Pence could. Without a cult figurehead on the right, there is a fair chance that voter turnout will return to earlier levels—and that such a drop-off (despite all those Democratic fantasies that large turn-out favors them) will benefit the left more than the right. More accurately: in our polarized time, when the party’s “brands” and the loyalties of most voters are fixed in concrete, the biggest fight is the turn-out fight, and I think Republicans are going (post 2020) to have as tough, if not tougher, time getting their partisans to the polls as the Democrats.
Meanwhile, the claims in the left-wing precincts I frequent that it was the moderate Democrats who lost and the progressives who won (especially in House races) have begun. The Democrats just need to move to the left to be more successful. That analysis is willfully blind to the make-up of the House districts. Of course, progressives win in overwhelmingly “safe” districts. And moderates lose sometimes in “swing” districts. Republican gerrymandering leads to more extreme House candidates on both sides of the aisle because there are so many “safe” districts now. To ignore the nature of the districts to make the leftist argument is specious.
I get it. It is frustrating as hell that the Republicans have achieved electoral success by moving further and further to the right. Extreme conservatism does not (apparently) carry any electoral cost. (Although Trump did lose.) So why can’t the Democrats make a similar move to the left and reap the benefits? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, as Kevin Drum is fond of reminding us by reproducing the long-running Gallup survey that shows over 35% of Americans self-identify as “conservative” while only 24% are willing to call themselves “liberal.”
If the Democratic party wants to move left, it has to create a left-leaning electorate first. That’s the rhetorical task it has flunked since 1966 The reasons for that failure are complex—and intimately tied up with the ongoing narrative of American racism—but a failure it has been.
Of course, it is not just the Democratic party that must do this work. It will also depend on vibrant, long-lasting, and active social movements. The gay liberation movement (sorry for the ham-handed label; I grasp its various inaccuracies) has been a notable success over the past thirty years. If many of my non-politically informed or engaged students are now knee-jerk Democrats, it is mostly because the right’s hostility to non-heterosexuals is baffling to them—and a huge turn-off.
The spectacular failure of American politics since 1966 has been to develop strong social movements around economic issues. Martin Luther King tried—and might have succeeded had he lived. The unions have not gone down without a fight, but they have mostly gone down. And nothing substantial has arisen in their wake. The living wage movements have had some successes—and even Florida has just voted (by over 60%!) for the $15 minimum wage. So it is not an utterly bleak landscape. But there is much work to be done. Reverend William Barber’s admirable attempt to revive King’s Poor People’s Campaign has not gotten much traction yet, but it is early days.
For me, that’s where the action is. Creating that electorate open to the left’s bread-and-butter issues even as it acknowledges the inequities (not just economic) foisted on POC in our country. And that work is going to have to take place as we leftists also watch how Republicans try to catch the Trump lightning in a bottle in their ongoing effort to direct America’s course in a vastly different direction.
On relative economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents.
On voters’ refusal to credit actual policy preferences of the Republican party:
Joseph O’Neill’s advice to the Democratic Party:
Survey of Americans who label themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal:
I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it. The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood. Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came. And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit. Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.
The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.
Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good. But Biden takes office unable to govern. He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years. And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.
The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary. And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful.
Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing. They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal). It’s all about unaccountability. Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.
The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff. Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer. Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion. Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards.
Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters. The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.” As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.
The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole. This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters. And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote).
Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better. That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters. There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats. Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse. But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.
So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024. Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.
Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified.
My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S. In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites. But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence. Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed. But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen. We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics.
I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns. I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot. Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill. The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know). No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump.
As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.” The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost. Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us. No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.
I don’t want to live in this society. But it seems to be the society I am stuck in.