A Dream Sours

Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.

This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.

Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.

It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.

Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.

I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.

In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.

A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.

It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.

These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.

The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.

I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.

I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:

The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

As usual, I try to avoid national politics on here; as usual, I can’t resist inserting myself. This cycle has drawn everyone in for more carnage, much in the way we fixate on train wrecks. I’m not much of an idealist, have no qualms for voting for the lesser of two evils; at the same time, I tend to believe apocalyptic thinking of any stripe is overstated, and am more inclined to laugh off ludicrous claims than to fear for the future of the country. But as I’ve let show, this is an instance in which I think the choice is a clear one. Donald Trump must lose.

I’m not opposed to Donald Trump because I think he’ll cause great calamity. The risks might be somewhat higher, but he’s strongly constrained by the inertia of a powerful state. Nor do I fear the content of his provocative language: I’ve never taken the “build the wall” rhetoric seriously, and ultimately, I don’t think minority groups will see their fates be much different under Trump than they would have been under a standard-issue Republican. I’m less afraid of him doubling down on some of his claims than of him getting bored and losing interest in the whole charade.

Frankly, I struggle to see how anyone who’s tracked his behavior over the course of this cycle can have any confidence that he will actually do any of the things he says. While thankful, I also struggle to resist rolling my eyes at anyone who jumped off the bandwagon recently, as if he didn’t exhibit the same patterns of volcanic behavior all along. I see a President Trump as a bumbling clown, nutty but at least capable of reading off a teleprompter from time to time, all at the behest of his handlers, who step in to do damage control when he devolves into another tweetstorm against someone who’s offended him. (How is it that people who claim to oppose political correctness are so often the most thin-skinned?) To date I have little faith in the handlers’ ability to do that, but it’s not totally implausible to imagine Trump as a blustering figurehead and spinmaster-in-chief while a cadre around him implements its policies of choice, thereby avoiding a train wreck. Whatever you think of said policies, this leaves us right back where we started, with a group of political insider technocrats Making America Great Again. So much for the revolution.

Funnily enough, there are things about Trump’s policies (such as they are) that intrigue me. Foreign policy motivates me more than most voters, and I have deep reservations about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, which has been pretty reliably wrong over the past 15 years. On diplomacy, I prefer the calculating deal-makers to the liberal hawks, and while I have deep concerns about Vladimir Putin, he’s also a necessary partner in the Middle East and in other spheres, and handling him requires a bit more nuance than displayed in some Democratic Party circles recently. (How strange the world now seems: the Democrats are the hard-liners on Russian autocrats, while the Republicans are cozy with them.) While my takes on trade and economics are nuanced, I appreciate that Trump has prompted some good reflections on the state of the white working class, and an opportunity to have genuine debate about our blind assumptions about the Washington Consensus that have dominated both parties since the end of the Cold War. (I suppose Bernie Sanders gets an assist here, too.) A more polished version of Trump would have at least piqued my interest.

These are just a few of the policy areas where Trump sheds some light before going ten feet overboard. Arguments that immigrants hurt native-born Americans’ economic prospects are basically bunk, and I am glad to see many of the barriers to LGBTQ equality come down. But I’m also capable of putting myself in the shoes of people watching their world change so rapidly and feeling some sympathy. The immigration system does need careful management instead of wishful idealism, and people do need to be vetted some; religious conservatives have a right to worship as they choose, and raise their children in the ways they see fit. I don’t see the Clinton campaign acknowledging this reality. Her campaign makes occasional overtures toward a big-tent coalition, particularly during the Democratic National Convention, but so often appears motivated by a bunker mentality brought on by its candidate’s baggage. It fails to inspire, and the strategy seems to involve checking off boxes with all the interest groups it needs to keep happy.

My objections to Trump have much more to do with the way he has shifted the window for political debate in the United States. Or, rather, the way he’s shattered the window altogether. To be fair, Trump didn’t start this. Most popular media and cable news has been superficial garbage for a long time, and we can blame some of the toxicity on both a Republican Party that has subtly played off racial divisions since Nixon and a Democratic Party that has increasingly come to resemble a scattershot coalition of identity-based interest groups all trying to make a narrow claim at the table. But Trump has accelerated this, and brought it into the open with no apologies. Elements  of the left have sunk to his level, and political discourse, never pleasant, has degraded into self-reinforcing horror show. No figure is more responsible for this than Donald Trump.

We have the politics we deserve, and we can’t say the Greeks didn’t warn us. These are the timeless dangers of democracy, though I hastily add that I still find it the worst choice except for all the others. (I can see the Trump tweet now: “Korrupt Karl hates democracy. Sad!”) These are the consequences of dumbed-down celebrity politics, with messaging aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s a reduction of elections to a binary choice in which it is somehow our patriotic duty to choose, red team versus blue team, more about winning and losing elections than the tricky work of governance. It needs some inherent dignity to avoid collapsing into an entertainment complex. Trump exemplifies politics as the reality TV show, and his continued presence on the political stage would only set off a downward spiral of degradation. I don’t predict the imminent collapse of American democracy, but each spin down the toilet increases the odds that it won’t quite be the same afterwards.

Trumpism, to the extent that it exists, taps into a Nietzschean energy: the world, instead of three interlocking circles that explain everything, is reduced to winners and losers, with sharp lines between them. Its most fertile intellectual ground is in the dark corners of the internet, where young men, probably around my age, assume ridiculous Latin pseudonyms and peddle their profound ressentiment of those who oppose them. (Oh, the Nietzschean irony.) Trump’s election wouldn’t bring them to power, nor would his defeat silence them. But the whole Trump phenomenon runs the risk of normalizing them, of empowering this narrative of fire and brimstone, of tribe and ideology over common American future.

In a way, I’m sympathetic. I get that urge to rise up in a crusade for greatness through politics. It’s what drove my eighteen-year-old self to Washington. I understand that longing to smash the day-to-day drudgery we inhabit and unleashed a repressed inner soul in all its erotic glory. It’s hard to beat that rush, and that side of human nature never will—and never should—go away. But channeling it in ways that trump up a mediocre establishment as an existential threat endangers American exceptionalism in the best sense of the phrase, this belief in a national project that won’t ever die. Lord knows this project has had its dark patches through history, but through it all, we are all awfully lucky to be here in this day in age. It’s cute to think we’re standing on some precipice of looming demise, and probably empowering to pretend one man can change it, but, alas, real heroism for the vast majority of us probably involves something both much closer to home and much more radical than checking a box on a Tuesday in November.

Some argue it’s a good thing that certain political currents, long suppressed, are now out in the open. I’m skeptical. One often hears Trump supporters say they’re glad he tells it like it is. I hate this phrase as much as I did when I first heard a public figure in Duluth utter it some years ago.  A layer of civilization is necessary for governance within political systems—especially the American one, with all its checks and balances—and there’s a need for consensus instead of silos of self-affirming certainty about what one already believes. No one has a monopoly on truth. Our elites have failed us many times, certainly, but we are blind to how far we have to fall. It’s more than a little disconcerting to witness the sort of political awakening one expects out of dispossessed young men in the Middle East coming out of a middle-aged couple in Youngstown.

And so I turn to Hillary Clinton: embattled, dogged by scandal, uninspiringly wonkish, too far to the left to sweep to a broad mandate, but too ensconced in her establishment cadre to inspire the energy to advance a more progressive agenda. She promises four more years of technocratic plodding, vicious right-wing opposition to anything she proposes, and shady, sheltered practices that, whether justified or not, will continue to court media attention. This only drags Washington further into the muck, perhaps ups the odds of a stronger counter-reaction in two or four years.

I reassure myself in a few ways. One, whatever Clinton’s flaws, they are predictable, and nothing in her political history suggests she will do anything unexpected or drastic. Give me a mediocre status quo over the revolution any day. Two, while she certainly won’t devolve power from Washington, she has neither the charisma nor the political capital to centralize it much more either, and at least pays lip service to bringing everyone to the table instead of saying “I alone can fix it.” Three, while the Republican Party has a very complicated reckoning to come, there is at least some hope that the coming dust-up allows the party to salvage itself in a way that it never could with a floundering President Trump at the top. In the long run, his defeat may do more good for the more sanely-grounded elements of his cause, since they’ll be part of the national conversation, but not tied to an absurd, distracting figure.

I sometimes say my time in Washington jaded me, but I think a more accurate summation my takeaway from four years there was a revelation over the smallness of it all: how much life could go on without worrying about it, and how much the people in charge are stumbling in the dark and guessing, just as we all are. This doesn’t mean that some political rookie can roll in and shake it up, though. It also takes experience, and knowledge of how to play the game to at least move policy, which does still matter enough that we can’t laugh the whole thing off. Only in reality TV shows do Trump-like figures march in and prove effective.

The Yeats poem that gives this post its title, oft-quoted this election cycle among intellectuals lamenting our political fate, claims the best lack conviction. Maybe, instead, the best know that obsessive conviction is misplaced. For my part, it’s time to stop reading FiveThirtyEight, make peace with the Clinton slouch, and get back to work here at home.