Tag Archives: politics

Getting Through This

Since the election, I’ve been trying to get comfortable with uncertainty rather than maintain a positive mental attitude.

I spent last week vacationing on an island with almost 300 Unitarians of all ages. We listened to chautauqua-style talks, played games, flew kites, and did a great deal of staring out to sea.

Unitarians, for the most part, are liberals. And liberals, you may have noticed, can be pretty depressing people these days. In the course of the week, I had many conversations like these:

  • A minister told me he can name 30 people in his (not terribly big) town who have been “disappeared” by ICE.
  • An EPA employee is watching her agency get disassembled, and deciding whether to keep fighting or give up and take a buy-out package.
  • A mother has serious doubts about her children’s future, both in a global-warming and a where-will-the-jobs-be sense.
  • A NASA researcher described administration proposals to simply turn off instruments on functioning satellites because they might provide data documenting climate change.
  • A grandmother raged about the early warning signs of a police state.
  • A former state Democratic Party official worries that the divisions of 2016 won’t heal in time for 2018 or even 2020.

And that’s not to mention all the people who expressed shame because they can’t make themselves pay attention to the news. They are the kind of folks who until recently have prided themselves on being committed and informed, but lately they’re choosing not to know things that they believe would only make them angry or frustrated or depressed. (These news-avoiders appear to be a fairly big club, though they never hold meetings.)

But the strangest thing, at least for me personally, was the number of people I already know, who read this blog, or the columns I write for UU World magazine, and expected me to provide a hopeful vision, one in which Right and Justice must ultimately prevail.

I’m not sure where they got this idea. I certainly have never advertised myself as a purveyor of hope, or posted a “5 Reasons the Good Guys Have to Win” article. The best I can figure is that it’s my affect: They know I dive deeply into the news, week after week, and yet I don’t seem to be depressed or angry or in despair. How do I do it? Maybe they think the secret sauce is that I’ve seen the ending already in my rose-colored crystal ball: I know the cavalry arrives in the final reel and saves everybody. Or maybe I have some deep insight into the Platonic essence of the Universe, which tells me that the Form of the Good is eternally triumphant, and the Trumps of this world can never ultimately prevail.

That’s not it. I mean, I do have a deep belief that the Trumps can never ultimately prevail, but that’s only because nobody ever ultimately prevails. If you look far enough into the future, people die, empires fall, civilizations crumble, and species go extinct. Ultimately, the Sun blows up, and if you keep looking far enough past that, the Universe goes cold. We may or may not save the world this time, but even if we do, the world won’t stay saved. It never does.

So anybody who is looking for an everything-well-be-fine message from me is barking up the wrong tree. My grand cosmic perspective is that shit keeps happening until it stops, and then (at some point) nothing ever happens again. If you find that comforting, you’re welcome. My bill is in the mail.

But I suppose that leaves a mystery: I see the same appalling developments everyone else does. So why aren’t I depressed or angry or driven by some desperate energy?

The answer to that one is simple: I’ve been here before.

I don’t mean that in a spooky deja-vu sense. But during a life crisis many years ago, I developed some habits and attitudes that are serving me well now.

Back in 1996, my wife was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer. At the time, that was right on the borderline of survivability. Again and again, people told us hopeful stories of their friends or relatives who lived through breast cancer, but invariably it was the less serious stage-1 version. In the media, we found a few stage-3 or stage-4 survival stories, but they were miraculous. Stage 2 was a genuine toss-up. With the best possible treatment, maybe you’d live and maybe you wouldn’t.

The medical advice we got was to hit it hard, because you really only got one shot. Survivals of recurrence were another set of miracle stories, and not anything you wanted to count on. In other words, “saving” some treatment in case the first ones didn’t work was a bad idea. So we set up a truly arduous 9-month plan that shot all the fireworks, one after another. This was going to take over our lives for most of a year, and there was no guarantee it would even work.

There is a whole branch of the publishing industry devoted to the mental attitude you’re supposed to maintain during such a process. Most authors at the time recommended staying relentlessly positive: This is going to work. Forget the statistics, forget how you feel today, this is going to work.

We were tempted to go for that, but the more we looked into it, the more brittle such an attitude seemed. Some people maintained it all the way to recovery, but others broke. They stayed positive until they couldn’t any more, and then they crashed into despair.

So instead, we decided to try to accept the uncertainty. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and if everything went well we wouldn’t know until sometime in the distant future when we would look back and said, “I guess we got through that.” In the meantime, we would do whatever we could with the quantity and quality of life we were allowed to spend together. (It turned out to be a lot; 21 years this August.)

Like most people I know, in the aftermath of Election Day I felt overwhelmed. How could this have happened? What did it mean? What would happen to us?

And then, without recognizing it until a month or two later, I slipped back into my cancer-treatment mindset. I started doing whatever I could think to do, and tried to accept that I have no idea whether it will work.

I see lots of people around me either getting depressed, trying not to think about it, or working to maintain a positive mental attitude. The PMA folks reach for anything they can pin their hopes to: Trump will self-destruct, he’ll be impeached, his voters will realize they’ve been conned, the 2018 election will put the Democrats back on the path to power, Trump’s abuses will just make the Revolution come faster, and so on.

And who knows? Maybe one of those things will turn out to be true. But once again, PMA seems like a brittle strategy to me: It will keep you going until one day it doesn’t, and then it will fail spectacularly.

Instead, I’ll advise you to do whatever you can think to do to defend whatever you think is worth defending. Take your best shot, not because it will necessarily work, but because it’s your best shot. Enjoy the country and democracy you have for as long as you have it. Resist those moments — both positive and negative — when you think you know how it all turns out.

You don’t know. None of us do. So do whatever you can think to do, and what happens will happen. If things go well, we won’t know until someday years from now, when we look back and say, “We got through this.”

Turn the Page

Since Ronald Reagan, America has lived under a regime of conservative ideas that Democrats have sometimes been able to resist, but not to overcome or replace. That aging regime is ready to fall, but Bastilles never storm themselves. The Democrats’ 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal: Bad as he is, Trump is just one example of the larger problem.

I keep hearing two theories about how Democrats can retake Congress in 2018 and start retaking the country. The first is to run against Donald Trump, who is an embarrassment to the nation, is historically unpopular, and may turn out to have committed impeachable offenses. The second is to run on a clear, positive agenda that can win back the working-class voters who have wandered away from the party of FDR and into the hands of the current huckster-in-chief.

Each approach has its virtues, and either would probably produce some gains in 2018, as mid-term elections usually do for the party out of power. But neither is quite right. Neither reflects the way that major change happens in America.

Beyond anti-Trump. The pure anti-Trump message is the easiest one to see through. The reason it’s not enough to run against Trump is that Trump isn’t the whole problem, not by a long shot. Yes, he’s corrupt. And yes, it’s dangerous for the country to have a president who understands so little about what presidents do. But think about the worst of what’s going on right now: trying to pay for a major tax cut for the rich by kicking millions of the working poor off Medicaid, undoing what little President Obama accomplished on climate change, and (though this isn’t getting nearly as much attention) sinking ever deeper into the quagmire conflicts of Syria and Afghanistan.

Just about any Republican president would be up to more-or-less the same stuff. A generic Republican president — picture President Pence, if you need a specific face — would also be favoring employers over their workers, letting big corporations manipulate the marketplace, looking for ways to make it harder to vote, insisting that God created exactly two totally distinct genders (and that only opposite-gender couples can form a real family), favoring Christianity over all other religions, and portraying the inner city as a war zone that needs an occupying force of militarized police (collateral damage be damned).

“Trump is bad” is not an argument against any of that stuff. If you’re an anti-Trump Republican, “Trump is bad” becomes an argument for keeping Speaker Ryan in place as adult supervision.

We saw in Tuesday’s disappointing special election in Georgia that Trump’s unpopularity isn’t necessarily contagious. In a historically Republican suburban district that nonetheless nearly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Jon Ossoff was a fresh young face with none of Hillary’s baggage. And yet, running against Karen Handel rather than Donald Trump, he couldn’t do quite was well as Clinton did (partly because Handel managed to reverse the demon-association playbook on him and run against Nancy Pelosi).

Major change doesn’t happen in America because the voters dislike one guy, even if that guy is the president. The root problem is the conservative worldview, the one that has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan. It won’t stop being ascendant just because Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing and can’t control himself.

Beyond our-policies-are-prettier-than-your-policies. But that raises an interesting question: How does major change happen? If you look at American history, a new national direction is never the result of a beauty contest.

If voters still more-or-less approve of the governing worldview, they never abandon it just because somebody else’s new ideas sound better. If they believe that the basic philosophy of the recent past still has promise for addressing the nation’s problems, they may occasionally choose a new face or opt for a pause while the country consolidates recent advances [1], but they won’t respond to calls for fundamental change. [2]

Big change, the kind we associate with names like Lincoln and FDR, happens because the public decisively rejects the ideas that have come before. Only then does a new way of looking at government have a chance to catch on. [3]

It’s important to understand what decisively reject really means. It doesn’t just mean that public stops buying the arguments in favor of those ideas. It means that the public loses patience with the very attempt to justify them. When a set of ideas has been decisively rejected, you don’t have argue against them any more; simply pointing out that these are the old, rejected ideas is enough.

FDR. So in 1932, the Great Depression was raging and Herbert Hoover was unpopular. Franklin Roosevelt probably could have won just on that. But if you look at Roosevelt’s speech accepting his nomination, he doesn’t mention Hoover’s name, or refer to him individually at all. He talks instead about “Republican leaders”, once mentions “the present administration in Washington” and twice more refers to “Washington” as short-hand. The case he makes is not against Hoover personally, but against the larger Republican worldview that had shaped the country since 1921, and whose roots went further back into the late 19th century.

There are two ways of viewing the Government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

Once elected, he didn’t reach out to the Republican Party, he destroyed it for a generation. They represented the “malefactors of great wealth” who had driven the nation into the Depression in the first place, and their worldview prevented the government from helping ordinary people.

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. …

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.

What Reagan did to Great Society liberalism. The last major paradigm shift in American politics was the transition from Carter to Reagan. It was Reagan who established the defining principles of the Republican Party we know today: low taxes (especially on the wealthy), strong defense, alliance with the Religious Right (under the label “family values”), and less regulation of business. [4]

In 1980, as in 1932, the sitting president was unpopular: Inflation and unemployment were both high. (Traditional economics had said that was impossible, creating a national uneasiness that maybe nobody knew what to do.) Americans had been held hostage in Iran for a year, and Carter could neither negotiate their release nor rescue them militarily. Japan was winning the battle of international trade.

Like Roosevelt, Reagan did not just run against Jimmy Carter, but against the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decades. In his First Inaugural Address he laid out the story that conservatives are still telling: The boundless energy and creativity of American business will produce abundance for all if only government would get out of the way.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. …  If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

After Reagan, Democrats couldn’t just be liberals. Suddenly they were tax-and-spend liberals, big-government liberals, or some other discredited species. The first and best argument against a new government program was simply that it was a new government program: Of course it wouldn’t achieve its objectives, would cost more than the wildest estimates, and would entrench yet another bloated bureaucracy. Conservatives didn’t have to make that argument; after Reagan, it made itself.

You could still hear the Reaganite echoes when ObamaCare was labeled “a government takeover of healthcare“. No evidence was needed to show that such a “takeover” would be bad. That went without saying.

Where Obama failed. In 2008, President Bush was unpopular. But more than that, his failures were deeply bound up in the failure of Reagan-era conservatism: Bush’s tax cuts built a deficit without unleashing growth. When government regulators got out of the way, Wall Street bankers turned mortgages that should never have been approved into a multi-trillion-dollar tower of worthless securities (whose AAA ratings fooled the market just long enough to crash the economy, make the banking system insolvent, and endanger the retirement savings of middle-class Americans). Our strong-but-fabulously-expensive military proved to be good at breaking countries, but not so good at putting them back together or preventing the resulting failed states from exporting terrorism.

Obama won a landslide victory and brought big majorities in Congress along with him. But he failed to charge Bush’s personal unpopularity or the crisis Bush left behind to the massively overdrawn account of the conservative worldview. He did not proclaim the end of the Reagan Era and made no attempt to chase the old orthodoxy’s defenders off the public stage, as Roosevelt and Reagan did in their day. If he had succeeded in doing so, there would be a new set of epithets that every conservative candidate or proposal would have to struggle out from under, terms like Iraq invader or bomb-everywhere Republican or sub-prime conservatism or free-the-wolves deregulation or middle-class-destroying cuts. (Those are just off the top of my head; no doubt professionals could do better.) Those labels would be as instantly disqualifying as tax-and-spend liberal was in the 1980s.

Obama’s failure to turn the page is why conservative nostrums (that events have disproved again and again) are still popping up in the ObamaCare-repeal debate: Getting government out of healthcare will unleash the creativity of the marketplace to yield better coverage and care for consumers; yet another big tax cut for the rich will create the good-paying jobs that none of the previous tax cuts did; the millions who will be thrown off of Medicaid — mostly working-poor families who are struggling to get by on minimum wage or slightly more — are Takers who are about to get a much-needed lesson in personal responsibility, giving a break to the massively overtaxed and overburdened Makers who support them.

After the horror of Bush’s Great Recession, the tax-cut-and-deregulation Great Recession, no one should be able to say such things with a straight face and without shame.

Turn the page. After nearly 40 years, American political discourse still takes place in the rhetorical universe created by Ronald Reagan. Our world is still haunted by the ghosts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, job-killing regulations, initiative-crushing taxes, and poor people whose will to succeed has been sapped away by their dependence on government. The heroic entrepreneur still fights his eternal battle against the villainous bureaucrat. Private-sector spending on Mar-a-lago memberships and gas-guzzling jet-skis and AK-47s is productive, while public-sector spending on parks and roads and libraries is wasteful. A private-school teacher is a hard-working professional, while a public-school teacher is a blood-sucking parasite.

This rhetoric is aging badly and losing its hold. Republicans at some level know this; that’s why their ObamaCare-repeal bills in both houses have had to be jammed through quickly with as little national attention as possible. You don’t do that if you believe in what you’re doing. If you think you have a compelling argument, you make that argument in the brightest spotlight you can find.

But aging regimes don’t fall of their own weight. Somebody has to push them down. The Bastille never storms itself.

The 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal. You can propose Medicare-for-everyone into this environment if you want, and if you can manage to control the narrative well enough to keep everyone calling it that — even after you get outspent 5-1 or 10-1 — you’ll probably win. But if instead your proposal gets transmuted into a bureaucracy-bloating, tax-increasing, debt-busting, big-government takeover of the economy, you’ll probably lose.

Democrats can’t shy away from conservative rhetoric, and we can’t hope that it will just slip people’s minds if we change the subject by presenting our own solutions. We have to confront it directly: We’ve been living in a conservative era for nearly 40 years, and that is what has destroyed the middle class.

That central point needs to be backed up with direct rejections of conservative nostrums: You can’t cut your way to prosperity. Nobody succeeds in a failing community. Money isn’t speech. Fear creates violence, and cruelty will always rebound; more prisons won’t make you safe, and more invasions will just cause more terrorism. More freedom for the rich and strong means more servitude for the poor and weak. The free market destroys the middle class. The environment is economic; we are part of Nature, and if we destroy Nature we destroy ourselves. (Again, these are off the top of my head and professionals could do better. The important thing is to express similar ideas in a uniform way, so that voters will know they’re hearing the same point from many voices.)

Trump’s individual outrages and the specific problems of this or that policy should always be interpreted expansively: Specifics should be presented not because they are important in themselves, but because they anchor the larger critique. Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s typical. The ObamaCare-repeal bill isn’t just a bad policy, it’s the logical product of a bad philosophy.

Party unity. A handful of Democrats will feel left out by this message, because they hope to appeal not just to people who have been voting Republican, but to people who still believe in the Reaganite worldview. That seems like a fool’s errand to me.

But the vast majority of candidates, progressive and centrist alike, should be able to work with this national message. The positive proposals they present can be tailored to their own philosophies and their own districts. (Bernie Sanders, for example, knew better than to run on gun control in Vermont. Similarly, a rural district in Kansas, full of towns where there’s one convenience store and one gas station, both struggling, is not the place to run on a $15 minimum wage. Higher, yes; $15 no.) Some will vaguely want to increase access to healthcare while others will post a detailed 50-page plan on their web sites. As candidates succeed or fail with these specifics, other candidates will or won’t imitate them.

Some candidates will want to appear with Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, while others will invite Joe Biden or Cory Booker. But very few candidates will find themselves forced to run against the national message, or to choose between the national party and the voters they hope to represent.

Old and new. It’s hard now to remember how fresh Reaganite conservatism sounded in 1980. Whether you agreed with it or not, it started new discussions and opened new possibilities for experimentation. But what was once young and supple has become old and rigid. Discussions shut down now, because powerful organizations have staked out positions that brook no debate: There can be no new taxes. Nothing can be done about gun violence. We can’t talk to Iran. Defense spending can only go up.

That’s what old regimes look like. They’re brittle and have no room to maneuver when new problems appear. New voters come of age looking for insight, and hear only dogma. It may be hard to say exactly what should come next, but it’s easy to see when it’s time for an old worldview to go.

It’s time.

[1] The new faces I have in mind are Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, both of whom represented their party’s acknowledgement that the game had changed, and did not reverse the country’s course. Eisenhower let New Deal programs like Social Security stand, and Clinton yielded to a key point of Reaganism by announcing that “The era of big government is over.” A “New Democrat”, as Clinton sometimes called himself, was a Democrat who had learned the lessons of the Reagan Era.

[2] This a political analogy to the process Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: As long as researchers believe that the old paradigm is still fruitful and can still lead to new solutions to important problems, new paradigms don’t get a fair hearing.

The political scientist most connected with this idea is Stephen Skowronek, who introduced the concept of “political time“. Basically, he breaks American history down into a series of multi-decade eras, each dominated by its own widely accepted view of what government is about. Each president grapples with problems within that era’s political orthodoxy, which he either promotes or resists. As the era proceeds, the ruling ideology becomes more rigid and unwieldy, until it collapses under an attack by a repudiating leader, who then “resets the political clock” and begins a new era.

[3] Lincoln is a particularly good example here, because the change he is remembered for — ending slavery — isn’t what he campaigned on. Point 4 of the 1860 Republican platform explicitly denies any intention to roll back slavery in the existing slave states, and rejects military force as a means to do so:

That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

What the election of 1860 represented was not an endorsement of abolitionism, much less of a future where free blacks could vote and be assured the due process of law. Instead, it represented a rejection (on both sides) of the political climate that had endured since the Missouri Compromise of 1820: The country could no longer lurch from crisis to crisis as moderates like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or Stephen Douglas worked out complicated deals to maintain the North/South balance of power.

So the America that came out of the Civil War was fundamentally different than the America of 1859, but not because Lincoln designed a new set of policies and sold them to the electorate.

[4] These ideas are so entrenched inside the GOP that even when Marco Rubio campaigned on the need for “new ideas”, he simply repeated Reaganite orthodoxy.

Why so frustrated, America?

Divided government and partisan polarization have us stuck in a status quo that no one wants. Maybe we need fewer principled stands and more compromises.

For decades, Gallup has been asking people how satisfied they are with “the way things are going in the United States”. As you can see from the graph, results vary. Painting in broad strokes, most people were dissatisfied under President Carter, the country got increasingly more optimistic under Reagan, got discouraged again by Bush the First, were pretty happy by the final days of the Clinton administration, stayed happy for a while, and then became almost unanimously negative by the end of Bush the Second’s administration. Then the graph flattens out: There was an initial bump towards optimism when President Obama took office, but since then satisfaction has been running somewhere in the 20s. [1]

The last time a majority told Gallup they were satisfied was more than 12 years ago, around the time that we captured Saddam Hussein and thought the Iraq War might be over soon.

Ordinarily, you’d expect this level of dissatisfaction to lead to a series of throw-the-bums-out elections, but it hasn’t. Obama won a second term by nearly 5 million votes in 2012. Year after year in Congress, over 90% of incumbents get re-elected. President Obama’s approval rating is over 50%, and the candidate promising to continue most of his policies is far ahead in the polls. A handful of incumbent Republican senators are in trouble, but once again the majority of incumbents in both parties will return to Washington with the apparent mandate of their voters.

So we think things are screwed up, but we don’t seem to be taking it out on anybody in particular. Why not?

Neither party claims the status-quo. In a typical election year, the party in power tells us that things are going pretty well, while the party out of power says that things are bad and we need a change. So there’s a status-quo party and a change party.

The first step towards unraveling our current political mystery is to realize that neither party thinks it represents the status quo. Obama in 2012 didn’t run a stay-the-course campaign, and neither has Clinton in 2016. [2] Neither party’s congressional candidates are telling us that Congress is doing fine, so we should leave them in office to do more of it.

Both major-party presidential candidates talk extensively about the changes they want to make. Trump wants to scrap our trade deals, build a wall on the Mexican border, stop admitting immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce commitments to our NATO allies, get friendlier with Russia, repeal ObamaCare, repeal the Dodd-Frank rules on Wall Street, and reverse all of President Obama’s executive orders on climate change.

Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage, substantially increase spending on infrastructure, give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, let students graduate from college debt-free, put more restrictions on Wall Street, increase taxes on the wealthy, reverse the Citizens United ruling, end mass incarceration of non-whites, expand and repair ObamaCare, and invest in sustainable energy sources.

So the paradox isn’t that a status-quo-hating electorate keeps voting for the status-quo party and rejecting the change party. It’s that we have two would-be change parties dominating different parts of a divided government. Neither can achieve its vision alone, but they also can’t work together on more-or-less anything. So on issue after issue, the country is stuck in a place that no one likes, but neither side can muster the power to move it somewhere else.

Let’s look at some examples.

No one wants millions of people to keep living in the United States without legal status. The usual estimate says there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants. They have to work under the table, possibly for less than minimum wage or in unsafe or unsanitary conditions — which drags down conditions for any legal worker who competes with them. They are afraid to call the cops if they witness or are the victims of a crime. They are afraid to go to the emergency room if they’re sick, so God help us if there’s an epidemic. They may or may not dare to send their kids to school.

This is a bad situation that neither party likes, but they can’t agree on what to do about it. Throw them all out? Legalize them? Just throw out the “bad hombres”? If you legalize them, can they become citizens or just residents? Will legalization encourage more people to come, or can we prevent that somehow?

Three years ago the Senate, after much wrangling, negotiated a bipartisan compromise and passed it 68-32. And that was the last official action taken. The House has not even held hearings on that bill or any alternative. No one has any idea when or how we might resolve this situation.

No one wants to keep anticipating the next government shutdown. Back in 1974, Congress laid out a sensible budget process that used to produce a product more-or-less on time every year.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Each year the executive branch puts together a budget, which the president submits to Congress by February. Congress then either edits or rewrites it and passes a budget resolution by April 15. The various congressional committees then know how much money they have to work with, so they write 12 separate appropriation bills that spell out the programs in more detail and authorize the Treasury to write checks. Congress passes those bills, maybe with some amendments. The President either signs or vetoes them; if he vetoes, he and the congressional leadership work out their differences promptly, so that all 12 bills get passed and signed in plenty of time for the fiscal year to start on October 1.

There hasn’t been a successful budget process in years. In 2013, the government shut down for a little over two weeks, and we’ve had “fiscal cliffs” and a series of other scary deadlines that usually get met with only hours to spare.

This year’s struggle was comparatively tame: Authorization to keep the lights on past October 1 got passed on September 29. But that wasn’t an annual budget; it just keeps things going until December, when the lame-duck Congress can do it all again.

Nothing is gained by this brinksmanship. Whatever numbers and programs come out of the December negotiations — assuming something does come out of it — could have been agreed to by the end of summer.

No one wants a perpetual budget deficit. Most economists understand that a budget deficit can be useful in shortening a recession or necessary when fighting a war. But no one believes that a large annual deficit should be a permanent feature of the federal budget.

The federal government’s trillion-dollar annual deficits between FY 2009 and FY 2012 were worrying, but maybe not unreasonable as long as they were temporary. By FY2015, the shortfall was down to $438 billion — a number that used to seem stratospheric, but by then looked like progress. But FY2016’s deficit increased to $587 billion and seems to be headed back up. CBO projections have it returning to the trillion-a-year altitude by FY2022. That’s the baseline, and doesn’t assume any extraordinary emergencies. If there’s another major recession or war, the numbers could be much higher.

No one argues that this is a good idea, but (like the mule who starves because he can’t decide which pile of hay to head towards) we are caught between two solutions and end up pursuing neither: Conservatives won’t agree to higher taxes, and liberals won’t agree to spending cuts without higher taxes. So nothing happens, and the deficits continue to build.

No one thinks Medicare is in good financial shape or wants it to go bankrupt. Healthcare inflation has been lower since the Affordable Care Act passed, but Medicare is still expected to run out of money in 2028, when I’ll turn 72. (The Social Security trust fund is expected to hit zero in 2034, but for a variety of reasons that fix should be easier.)

Medicare is an enormously popular program, because no one wants to see themselves or their parents face a choice between death and bankruptcy. And there are many ways to keep it going well past 2028: raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the age of eligibility, or fold it into a larger universal healthcare program with a new funding stream. But we can’t decide which way to go, so the bankruptcy clock continues to tick down.

No one wants to leave Supreme Court seats vacant. The Constitution describes a simple process: the President

shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for

Justice Scalia died in February, and his seat is still unfilled. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March. But the Senate has not seen fit to hold hearings or votes on his nomination, so no one has had to explain to the public why Garland should or shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court.

Senator McCain recently said that the Senate might continue refusing to fill the seat after the election, if Clinton wins. If Trump were to win and Democrats regained control of the Senate, they might feel that turnabout is fair play. So there’s no telling when that seat might be filled, or what will happen if some other justice dies or retires.

Without a new justice, the Court often has a 4-4 deadlock, which leaves lower court rulings intact but does not establish any new national precedents. The longer this goes on, the more issues there are on which the country has no official interpretation of its laws.

You may blame the Senate for not acting, blame President Obama for not nominating someone Senate Republicans like better, or blame both of them for letting their relationship reach this low point. But you can’t argue that this is a good practice or a good outcome.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea well enough to find your own examples.

How did the Republic last this long? When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they were mostly worried about tyranny, so they created a system of checks and balances that kept any one person from having too much power. To get anything done in the Founders’ system, a political leader either needs overwhelming support from the public or has to cooperate with leaders of other parties or factions.

As a result, backdoor deal-making and horse-trading goes back to the beginning of the Republic, as the Hamilton musical makes clear

No one really knows how the game is played,
the art of the trade,
how the sausage gets made.
We just assume that it happens,
but no one else is in the room where it happens.

Hamilton comes out of that room with the votes for his financial plan, and Jefferson gets the national capital located next to Virginia.

We’ve made deals like that all through our history. Henry Clay was known as “the Great Compromiser” for the ways that he kept the slavery issue from wrecking the country. (In retrospect, he delayed the Civil War by several decades.) Think about that: These days it’s an insult to call someone a “compromiser”. We’re all supposed to be people of firm principles, not compromisers — much less “great” ones.

President Eisenhower and Majority Leader Johnson

President Eisenhower and Majority Leader Johnson

When FDR was preparing the country to enter World War II, he didn’t try to run over Republican opposition, he appointed Republicans to be his War Secretary and Navy Secretary — and they accepted.

We’ve had a number of periods of divided government before, and presidents of both parties have worked amicably with congressional opposition leaders, like President Eisenhower with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and President Reagan with Tip O’Neill [3]. The historic Clean Air Act of 1970 came out of President Nixon’s cooperation with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

Traitors and the principle budget. The last such bipartisan pairing was President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, who managed to shrink the deficit to the point that Clinton could claim a surplus after Gingrich left office. Clinton ended his term not just with a budget surplus, but with low inflation, low unemployment, and the nation at relative peace.

President Bush and Speaker Pelosi never developed such a relationship. Neither did President Obama and Speaker Boehner or Speaker Ryan.

One reason Clinton/Gingrich was the last bipartisan power-pairing is that Clinton is remembered in some circles as having betrayed the Left. Betrayal is a word you hear a lot in our politics these days. Paul Ryan “betrays” conservatism every time he avoids a government shutdown. Bernie Sanders “betrayed” his movement by endorsing Hillary.

Principled, on the other hand, is an entirely good word. We all want to be principled. We admire the man or woman who takes a strong principled stand and refuses to be moved. If we have a choice between framing our positions as good ideas and framing them as principles of the highest order, we choose the later. It just feels stronger and purer.

Here’s the thing, though: We can’t afford too many principled stands. Our system of government isn’t set up that way. It’s set up for people who will take half a loaf and keep the process moving. In our history, we have had one period where principle won out over all other considerations: the Civil War. It was, by many descriptions, a glorious time during which giants walked the Earth. But it was also the fucking Civil War. It was the bloodiest, most destructive period in our history, and the Republic would not have survived if we’d tried something like that more often.

So I want to throw out a radical idea: Rather than trying to found our entire platform on unshakeable principles, we should be giving ourselves a principle budget: Is this the issue we want to be principled about? Is this short list of issues the hill we’re prepared to die on?

By all means, we should have principles and try to do right by them. But at some point we all need to accept a mixture of the things we want and the things our opponents want. The alternative is to wind up with things that nobody wants.

[1] Real Clear Politics averages a lot of polls asking similar questions, and shows a similar result: All through the Obama years, the “on the right track” number has struggled to stay above 30%.

[2] Most of us don’t even remember what a stay-the-course campaign sounds like. But examine some past presidential re-election slogans. War-time presidents Lincoln in 1864 and Roosevelt in 1944 ran on “Don’t swap horses in midstream”. In 1956, Eisenhower edited his 1952 slogan: “I still like Ike.” Reagan in 1984 optimistically claimed “It’s morning again in America”. “Stay the course” was not literally a Nixon slogan in 1972, but he said it a lot. His actual slogan was “Now more then ever”.

But my favorite has to be McKinley in 1900, who ran for re-election under the unbelievably modest: “Leave well enough alone.”

[3] O’Neill’s son wrote in 2012:

No, my father and Reagan weren’t close friends. Famously, after 6 p.m. on quite a few work days, they would sit down for drinks at the White House. But it wasn’t the drinks or the conversation that allowed American government to work. Instead, it was a stubborn refusal not to allow fund-raisers, activists, party platforms or ideological chasms to stand between them and actions — tempered and improved by compromise — that kept this country moving.

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.

We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.

[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.

Do We Still Have to Worry About the McGovern Problem?

In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an issue?

If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders is or isn’t the second coming of George McGovern, the anti-establishment, left-leaning Democrat who suffered a historic landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Some writers think he is, and Democrats will be setting themselves up for another historic loss if they nominate Bernie. Others think McGovern is such ancient history that bringing him up just shows how stuck in the past the Democratic establishment is. And a few claim that Sanders is McGovern in a good way: A Sanders victory could at long last vindicate McGovern, the way Reagan’s victory vindicated Goldwater.

Reading those articles, I keep recalling a quote from the 19th-century mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss: “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” In every case, it looks to me like the author started with a desired conclusion, then looked for ways to justify it.

I think the question deserves something better than that, so I’m going to do the exact opposite: I’m going to write down everything I know about this issue and leave you with a cliffhanger at the end. I’ve thought about this and done some research. In the end, though, I have hopes and I have fears, but certainty escapes me. I can’t promise you that a gamble on Bernie Sanders would win or lose in November. All I can do is draw a clearer picture of what we’d be betting on.

Where I start. I’m a somewhat left-leaning Democrat who also really wants to win in November. If I could snap my fingers and install single-payer health care or a carbon tax, I absolutely would. But I also think ObamaCare is a huge improvement on the health care system we had in 2009, I’m glad we’re finally starting to do something (though not nearly enough) about climate change, and I’m afraid of losing all that under President Trump or Cruz.

I went to one of the early Bernie rallies (in Portsmouth in May) and I definitely felt the Bern when he talked not just about health care and the environment, but also about tough regulations for Wall Street, creating jobs with a big push to rebuild our infrastructure, investing in college for our young people, and reducing the influence that big-money donors have on our political system. The growing inequality of wealth looks to me like a problem that isn’t going to fix itself, and will destroy the American way of life if it goes much further.

But I’m also not willing to sign up for a Charge of the Light Brigade. If asking for the moon means that the voters will give us nothing, and that instead the gradual progress we’ve made under President Obama will be undone, then count me out. If that’s the choice, then more gradual progress under another President Clinton sounds fine to me. On the other hand, if that’s not the choice, if we really could have the kind of revolutionary change Sanders calls for, then I don’t want to leave those possibilities on the table. So I voted for Bernie in the New Hampshire primary, but with similar uncertainty to what TPM’s John Judis is feeling as the Maryland primary approaches.

For me it’s a real question: Is another McGovern-type loss really something to worry about, or is it a Boogie Man we’ve been afraid of for far too long already?

Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the answers unless we run the experiment: nominate Bernie and see what happens. But it ought to at least be possible to sharpen our understanding of the questions, and to know what we’re counting on if we decide to take the chance.

What the McGovern Problem isn’t. Often the McGovern Problem gets stated too simplistically, which makes it easy to shoot down: Democrats can’t run a candidate who’s too liberal. It’s as if the White House were a roller coaster, with a sign outside saying: “You must be at least this conservative to enter.”

If that’s the problem, then liberals are right to refuse it any consideration, because otherwise we give the game away before it starts. Important issues like single-payer or a less belligerent foreign policy are off the table by definition; we’re not even allowed to make our case to the country.

Republicans didn’t accept that lesson from their Goldwater loss in 1964. They continued making their case, and by 1980 the Goldwater wing of the GOP was electing President Reagan.

History shows that American political sensibilities change. Ideas that are “too radical” in one era — even liberal ideas like Social Security or child labor laws or the 40-hour week — can become common sense in the next. Who’s to say that free college or converting the economy to sustainable energy won’t join that list?

Plus, if Democrats can’t talk about what we believe in, the public will quite correctly perceive that we’re hiding something, and even a centrist Democratic ticket will face a suspicious electorate: What aren’t they telling us? What secret socialist agenda are Democrats planning to spring on the country after Inauguration Day?

What the McGovern Problem is. The problem I have in mind is much more specific than just being “too liberal”: Republicans have a tried-and-true game plan for running against liberal Democrats. A bunch of negative stereotypes sit in the public mind waiting to be activated, and they seem to work really well to cut our candidates off at the knees.

So the problem isn’t just that McGovern lost and then Mondale lost and then Dukakis lost. It’s that they lost in almost exactly the same way. There’s a buzzsaw attack waiting in the fall campaign, one that our candidates don’t face in the primaries, because it doesn’t work on a purely Democratic electorate. But we know it’s coming.

The issue that confronts every potential Democratic nominee, the one that gets labeled electability, isn’t “Are you too liberal?” but “Are you marching straight into the buzzsaw?” When the predictable attack comes — the attack you haven’t had to deal with at all in the primaries — will your candidacy survive it?

But even as we consider this question, we need to remember that the Dukakis wipeout was 28 years ago. If you’re one of the young voters whose energy is fueling the Sanders campaign, there hasn’t been a real test of the McGovern Problem — or a Republican presidential landslide — in your lifetime. Maybe the old dragon has lost its teeth by now, and all those gray-haired Hillary voters are quivering in front of shadows on the wall.

How can we know if that’s the case? I think we need to tell the story from the beginning. Then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether it’s ancient history or history that’s about to repeat itself.

It starts with LBJ. If we’re going to decide how relevant McGovern is in 2016, we need to go back a little further, to the last big push for progressive change in America: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

When LBJ assumed the presidency late in 1963, he was riding a wave of national grief over President Kennedy’s assassination. The Democrats already controlled Congress, and then in 1964 the Republicans played into Johnson’s hands by nominating their most polarizing candidate, Barry Goldwater. After a huge landslide with long coattails, LBJ began 1965 with a national mandate and 2-1 majorities in both houses.

He got a lot done. The accomplishments of 1964-1966 make a stunning list, especially from the gridlocked perspective of 2016. The Social Security Act of 1965 created both Medicare and Medicaid in one fell swoop. By itself that was a bigger change than anything that has happened under Obama, but Congress just passed it and moved on. The bill got bipartisan support, wasn’t filibustered, and Johnson didn’t have to spend the rest of his term fighting back attempts to repeal it or block it in the courts.

Jim Crow finally ended: Congress passed the 24th Amendment (that banned poll taxes), the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson began affirmative action for government jobs by executive order.

He declared War on Poverty: In addition to Medicaid, Johnson created food stamps, and funded urban renewal programs to clean out the slums. When Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, what we knew was LBJ’s version of welfare.

The backlash. The Vietnam War is usually remembered as Johnson’s undoing, but the backlash against the Great Society would have been a thing regardless. The race riots of the 1960s led to a narrative that blacks were “ungrateful” for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the advances in civil rights. The riots combined with rising crime and the Supreme Court’s focus on the rights of defendants to create the impression that criminals were being coddled and government lacked the will to defend public order. The phrase bleeding heart liberal referred to someone who had less sympathy for you than for the ghetto-raised black teen-ager who was mugging you.

School desegregation was finally hitting the North in a big way, leading professional-class whites to flee to the suburbs, and leaving the white working class behind to deal with urban racial conflict. Affirmative action led to the claim that restless blacks were being bought off by giving away the opportunities of working-class whites. (After all, a black kid who got into Harvard through affirmative action wasn’t acing out some legacy admission like a Kennedy.) The phrase limousine liberal referred to well-to-do Democrats who could afford to be idealistic about race and poverty, because they were insulated from the social impact of their programs.

Tax-and-spend liberal didn’t catch on until the Reagan years, but that stereotype also comes from the Great Society backlash: If there was a problem, LBJ was likely to throw money at it. The logic — that we were a rich country with way too many poor people, so we could fix things by moving money around — may seem a little simplistic now, given the complex social dynamics of poverty. (In hindsight, urban renewal  looks especially naive. Its high-rise housing projects quickly became worse than the slums they replaced.) But that’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you’ve tried it.

By 1968, the Democratic Party was badly divided. The only possible unifying figure, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated. The Chicago convention turned violent. A third-party run by George Wallace split off what in FDR’s day had been “the solid South”. Even in the North, Wallace appealed to the kind of working-class whites who also had once been reliable Democrats (the kind who support Trump now). LBJ’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, split the rest of the vote almost down the middle with Richard Nixon, but Nixon got a slight plurality and an electoral college win.

McGovern/Nixon. George McGovern came to national attention at the 1968 convention as the leader of Bobby Kennedy’s orphaned delegates. By 1972, he was the first candidate to understand the new rules that made the primaries decisive. (Humphrey had gotten the 1968 nomination without ever entering the primaries. 1968 was the last hurrah of the smoke-filled-room era, when party leadership could do pretty much whatever it wanted.) He ran an insurgent campaign that portrayed the existing Democratic establishment as corrupt. That culminated at the 1972 convention, when the McGovern delegates disqualified Mayor Daley’s Illinois delegation in favor of a rebel slate led by Jesse Jackson. (Without the backing of the Daley machine, McGovern managed only 41% of the vote in Illinois in the fall. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.)

In terms of policy, McGovern wanted to push the Great Society social programs further, while rejecting the militaristic Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy that had led to Vietnam. With Wallace out of the picture (after being wounded in an assassination attempt), Nixon knew that a two-party race depended on capturing the Democrats who had defected to Wallace in 1968. So the key arguments in the campaign came from an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

DfN attacked McGovern on two fronts. First, his defense plan would leave the country dangerously weak.

And second, his social programs would tax working people (pictured as a white male construction worker) and give money to undeserving people (who aren’t pictured, but are easily imagined to be blacks or young white hippies).

Less explicitly, Nixon’s campaign associated McGovern with the counterculture: people who took drugs and despised soldiers and got involved in violent protests. Nixon himself claimed support from the “great silent majority“, people who did their jobs and raised their kids and lived by the old-fashioned American values that the counterculture rejected. The flag and patriotism belonged to conservatives; they were weapons to wield against liberals (literally, in this Pulitzer-winning photo), who should “love it or leave it“.

The anti-liberal formula. By 1976, the Republican Party had been stained by Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Navy veteran from Georgia, won by projecting an image very different from McGovern. But Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, and in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged him. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which by this point was the Great Society playing defense. Reagan successfully attacked him as a liberal, and in 1988 Reagan’s VP, George H. W. Bush, ran a similar — and similarly successful — campaign against Mike Dukakis.

By now the anti-liberal attack was a formula based on a few well-defined stereotypes:

  • Liberals won’t protect us from foreign enemies. This is usually phrased in terms of naivety: Liberals want to cut defense spending and avoid military intervention because they foolishly trust treaties and organizations like the UN. They believe our enemies are like us and want to come to mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t understand that our enemies are truly evil and can only be controlled through strength.

For example, Reagan ran this commercial against Mondale. It starts “There’s a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame.”

  • Liberals won’t protect us from criminals at home. Again, they are naive about evil. They believe crime is a social problem they can solve with more welfare spending, rather than a moral problem that requires police and jails.

That led to the revolving-door ad Bush used against Dukakis.

  • Liberals don’t believe in America. They’re not patriotic, and they want to retell American history to make us the bad guys. They have no faith in the economic individualism that made this country rich, and keep telling us we should be more like France or Sweden.

Bush painted Dukakis as against the Pledge of Allegiance, and somehow a false rumor circulated that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag.

  •  Liberals want to weaken moral values. The exact content of this attack varies from era to era, depending on what the moral problem of the day is. Abortion is a constant, but there’s also pornography, video games, rock music, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and transgenderism. Usually, this is related somehow to religion, with the implication that whatever religion a liberal claims to practice is actually just a smoke screen that hides an underlying atheism, relativism, nihilism, or hedonism.
  • Liberals think they’re smarter than you are and want to make your decisions for you. Liberals are book-smart but don’t have common sense. They want to tell you who you can hire, which customers you have to serve, what you can drive, what you can eat or drink, how to discipline your children, what words you are allowed to say, and so on. Rhetoric about “the liberal elite” or “political correctness” invokes this stereotype.
  • Liberals want to raise taxes on working people to buy votes from lazy people. Nixon’s construction-worker ad became a paradigm. Mitt Romney’s “47%” hurt him only because it was too explicit. We still hear about “free stuff“, “dependence on government“, and “makers and takers“.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to communicate just how depressing the Dukakis debacle was. Entering the fall campaign, Democrats hadn’t thought of Dukakis as a McGovern-style left-winger. (Jesse Jackson had been the candidate of the party’s left wing, and Dukakis had resisted pressure to pick him as VP.) On the national scene, Dukakis was a fresh face who should have been able to slough off past stereotypes. He didn’t have a big spending program, wasn’t pushing a tax increase, and his Greek-immigrant-pride thing should have shielded him from the patriotism issue. One post-convention poll had Dukakis ahead of Bush 55%-38%.

But when the Republicans unleashed the formulaic anti-liberal attack, Dukakis proved just as vulnerable as McGovern and Mondale. His poll numbers quickly collapsed, and Bush (who had never seemed like a particularly strong candidate) didn’t just win, he romped his way to 426 electoral votes.

After 1988, Democrats had a sense of “What do we have to do?” The answer came from Bill Clinton. You can’t understand Clintonism without grasping that post-Dukakis despair.

Clinton recognized that the problem was as much image as substance: It wasn’t liberalism itself, it was getting tagged with the liberal stereotypes. You had to compromise somewhat, but you could still have broadly progressive values. You couldn’t stop Republicans from throwing the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis attacks at you, but (like Jimmy Carter in 1976) you could still win if you maintained an image that the stereotypes wouldn’t stick to. Far-right conservatives might still believe them, but the swing voters wouldn’t.

Clinton wasn’t a “Massachusetts liberal” like Dukakis: He was a Southern Baptist with a drawl who easily projected a good-old-boy sensibility. He declared himself to be “a new kind of Democrat”, and he shifted Democratic rhetoric across the board. He “felt our pain”, but always justified his programs as fairness rather than appealing to compassion, and he rooted his case in respect for traditional American values like hard work.

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

He also regularly did something infuriating if you found yourself on the wrong end of it. Like the kid who escapes bullying by finding the mob some weaker kid to bully, Clinton escaped the liberal stereotype by projecting it onto other people. A Sister Souljah moment (also sometimes known as hippie punching) is when a center-left politician repudiates someone further to the left as a way of establishing his non-scariness. (The phrase comes from Clinton’s denunciation of a black hip-hop artist.)

Clinton made a career out of stealing Republican issues and putting his own spin on them: Balance the budget? Reform welfare? He’d do it, and if Republicans wanted to oppose him they’d have to move even further to the right. In retrospect, some of Clinton’s “accomplishments” — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and his crime bill — can only be defended by observing that something even worse probably would have happened if he hadn’t gotten out in front of a popular movement that was gaining momentum.

He compromised, but he won, and it mattered that he won. That’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are on the Supreme Court rather than two more Clarence Thomases. While Clinton sometimes rattled his saber and kept defense spending relatively high, America managed to go eight years without launching a major ground war. He left office with low unemployment, low inflation, a budget surplus — and a 66% approval rating.

Every Democratic presidential nominee since has in one way or another learned from Clinton’s example, and has maneuvered to project a centrist image. (I believe that’s why Obama drops his g’s.) In that time, the Democratic candidate has lost the popular vote only in 2004, and even that election was close.

One measure of the success of the Clinton strategy is that each recent Democratic nominee has been attacked in some way that was uniquely personal, rather than just being fed to the generic liberal-killing buzzsaw. Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy”, Al Gore was so wooden you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him, John Kerry didn’t deserve his medals, and Barack Obama was a shallow celebrity who palled around with terrorists. The too-liberal case was still there, but it didn’t stick for a majority of voters, so Republicans had to try other attacks.

The downside of Clintonism. As George Lakoff and others have often pointed out, there is no centrist worldview. So while stealing Republican issues and hippie-punching figures to your left may put you in a position to rein in something really bad — to turn, say, a constitutional amendment defining marriage into DOMA, which the Supreme Court (with Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority) could later find unconstitutional — along the way you reinforce the overall conservative frame, and marginalize anyone who promotes a liberal frame. That may win elections in the short term, but makes it hard to build a movement.

For example, Obama’s attempt in 2011 to strike a “grand bargain” with John Boehner to cut the long-term deficit was a Clintonian move that backfired: Not only did the bargain not happen, but treating the manufactured 2011 budget crisis as a negotiating opportunity set up the much scarier 2013 game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Obama’s grand-bargain offer legitimized the deficit as a more important concern than creating jobs, as well as the idea that long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare might be the solution.

Even if you take a Clintonesque incremental view of change, the Democratic Party needs its idealists to produce the long-term vision that gives the party substance. Maybe we will only make progress in small steps, but somebody still needs to provide a clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

So what about Bernie? Remember: whether or not Sanders “is McGovern” isn’t about whether he can be tied to a label like liberal or even socialist. Of course he can. Everybody knows he’s challenging Clinton from the left and has called himself a socialist; that’s baked into his public image already. It hasn’t hurt him yet in those national polls that show him beating Trump and Cruz by margins far larger than Hillary’s. (One recent poll has Sanders beating Trump by 20%.)

The more important questions are first, when Republicans begin attacking him with the tried-and-true formula, will the anti-liberal stereotypes stick? And second, does that still matter the way it did in 1972, 1984, or 1988?

I think several of the stereotypes could stick to Bernie, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

  • Foreign enemies. So far, Sanders’ entire defense-and-foreign-policy focus has been on what he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or wouldn’t have done: He wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He wouldn’t give the NSA such a free hand to gather intelligence on Americans. He wouldn’t torture. He wouldn’t keep Guantanamo open. He doesn’t support defense spending at the current levels, and opposes certain specific weapons systems.

And none of that by itself is a problem. (In fact, I agree with him, and Hillary agrees with a lot of it.) But the majority of Americans are not ready to stop being a superpower. So in a general-election campaign, Sanders will at some point have to pivot back to what he would do: What level of defense spending does he support? What weapons does that buy? What Sanders Doctrine describes the situations where is he willing to use those weapons to defend our country, our allies, or our interests? (Example: Putin decides to conquer the rest of Ukraine. What do you do?)

When he does have to state a positive position on defense, is he then open to a Nixonian attack where a hand sweeps forces off the table? Is he convincing as a possible Commander in Chief, or does he look like Mike Dukakis in a tank?

  • Crime. The problem is similar: So far we’ve heard about the things Sanders wants to undo: He wants to put fewer people in jail. He wants to stop police brutality. And that’s all good: We went overboard both on the War on Drugs and on the scary-black-people image. We’ve been way too eager to interpret dark skin as a predictor of criminality, and to see prison as the solution to our fears, especially the irrational ones.

But crime is also real and has real victims. Americans want to hear that their president is serious about protecting them. Can Bernie provide that assurance? There are two Willie-Hortonish avenues of attack here: violence connected (at least in the public mind) with Black Lives Matter, like the Baltimore riots; and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (which do exist, even though in general the undocumented are not a big crime risk).

Again, there are answers to such attacks, but (as the Reagan-era adage has it) “If you’re explaining you’re losing.” When somebody shows you a real woman who has been raped by an immigrant, quoting the statistics on immigrant crime is not a compelling response.

  • Tax and spend. Sanders admits that his Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle-class taxes. To be fair, middle-class families would still benefit from his plan, because their healthcare costs should go down by more than their taxes go up. But voters are quicker to believe in taxes than in the benefits they fund. (That’s why ObamaCare was so vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections.) Plus, not even Sanders’ supporters are comfortable with their taxes going up. And again, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Look for an ad in which layabouts of various races endorse Bernie and look forward to the benefits they expect from him, while somebody else works thanklessly to clean up after them.
  • Moral values. The problem here is religion. Sanders admits that he is “not particularly religious” and, though a Jew by ethnicity and culture, does not belong to any congregation or synagogue and does not regularly attend services of any type.

That doesn’t kill you in a Democratic primary, and at various times Bernie has spoken about his beliefs in a heartfelt way that works fairly well for a liberal audience: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” But to a lot of the country, that Spinoza-like position is just a fancy kind of atheism, and polls consistently show that atheism (moreso than even Islam) is a deal-breaker for many voters.

I picture one of those man-in-the-street interview ads, where somebody says, “He claims to be Jewish, but he sounds like an atheist to me.” That’s a two-fer: Not only does it use the A-word, but it dog-whistles to anti-Semites by reminding them that at best Sanders is a Jew.

  • Thinks he’s smarter than you. Smart is good, if you handle it right. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Barack Obama was president of the law review at Harvard. But both of them know how to use their considerable personal charm so as not to seem too smart or too stuck-up about it. Both have that good-teacher ability to answer a question confidently without making the questioner feel stupid.

I don’t see that in Bernie. When challenged, he has a tendency to raise his voice and wag his finger. If I were debating Sanders, I’d be trying to bring out the side of his personality that talked down to Vermont voters in this Q&A event. (“Have you heard of ISIS?” he demands.)

Smarter-than-you is a quality that unlocks other parts of the liberal stereotype. The root Republican message is that they want you to be free to make your own choices in the marketplace, while Democrats want government to choose for you. (Unfortunately, the unregulated marketplace Republicans champion often leaves you with no good choices. What good is a menu of dozens of healthcare plans, if none of the ones you can afford will keep you from going bankrupt if you get sick?) Democrats need to communicate that they appreciate the awesome presumption that regulation involves, and that they will use that power with humility. But when Bernie Sanders thinks he knows the right answer, humility seems far from his mind.

  • Believing in America. A big piece of the Clinton/New Democrat thing was being able to invoke patriotism without sounding fake or hokey. Can Sanders do that? Bernie often compares the U.S. unfavorably to more socialistic European countries like Denmark or France, and if  you dip into the archives, he’s also said good things about Cuba and Nicaragua (when the Sandinistas were in power and the U.S. was funding the opposition). Again, a man-in-the-street ad could be effective: “I wonder why he doesn’t run for president of France?”

Does it still matter? The most convincing point in the Sanders-is-not-McGovern articles is that times have changed. Thom Hartman writes:

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true. … [In 1972] the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today. And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

And Dave Johnson says that the old manipulative tricks won’t work in the Twitter era:

Sanders’ mass appeal, big crowds and enthusiasm in spite of a virtual media blackout shows that America has grown up a lot since 1972. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to communicate past media manipulation and organize. Many people are now well aware of how Republicans use racial and other divisions to misdirect and manipulate people from seeing what is being done to us.

There’s also a demographic argument: The electorate that responded to George Bush’s racist dog whistles in 1988 was much whiter than America is in 2016. When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was organizing against Mondale in 1984, the percentage of Christians was far higher and “Nones” far lower than it is today.

So their argument boils down to this: In a less white, more secular America, where the sufferings of the middle class and the planet are far more apparent, and citizens have better ways to figure out who to vote for than watching 30-second TV ads, the progressive message is more compelling than the old liberal stereotypes. Healthcare as a right, free college, the threat of global warming, and the rest of the Sanders message will overpower the false image of wimpy, naive, America-hating, too-smart-for-their-own-good liberals.

And here, I think we reach the point where the evidence in inconclusive: America is different now, but is it different enough? Quantitative questions — questions that center on “how much” rather than yes or no — are hard to answer without running the experiment. There’s a risk and there’s a reward. How to weigh them against each other is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

Say — you want a revolution?

Changing presidents or even changing minds isn’t enough. A real revolution has to change a lot of people’s political identities.

Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment when that cycle’s Democratic congressional candidate (Katrina Swett, which would make the year 2002) came in to campaign. It was late enough that most of the lunch traffic had left already, so shaking every hand in the room didn’t take her very long.

After the candidate left, our waitress — a pleasant young woman who had been doing a perfectly fine job as far as I and my friend were concerned — came over with an inquisitive look on her face. I thought she was going to ask us whether we knew anything about Swett, and whether she would be a good person to represent us in Washington. Instead, she asked whether we knew anything about Congress. “Is it, like, important or something?”

I’m not particularly good at answering a fundamental question when I was expecting a specific one, so let’s just say that I doubt my pearls of wisdom changed her life, or even that she remembers me at all. But I’ve remembered her ever since.

By telling this story, I don’t mean to denigrate the political sophistication of young adults or the working class or women or any other category that this waitress coincidentally belonged to. But to me, she represents a group that pundits and armchair political strategists often forget: people who just don’t care about politics. They aren’t stupid or any more self-centered than the rest of us, and they aren’t discouraged or embittered or angry. They just look at politics the way other people might look at football or fashion or Game of Thrones: They have never bothered to pay attention to it, and they don’t see that they’re missing out on anything.

It’s hard to say exactly how many such people there are. But certainly they could constitute a significant voting bloc, if they saw any point in it.

The truly silent majority. In a typical presidential election, voter turnout is somewhere between half and two-thirds of the voting-age population. Mid-term congressional elections usually draw less than half of the electorate, and less than a third bother to participate in some state and local elections. (A shade over 30% voted in Kentucky’s recent gubernatorial election, yielding a surprise Republican win.) As you can see from this graph of the turnout in every presidential election since 1824, this phenomenon is nothing new; to see significantly larger turnout, you have to go back to 1900.

So in virtually every contested election in the entire country for the last century, the margin of victory has been less than the number of people who didn’t vote. That massive lack of participation provides a blank wall onto which many people can project their conflicting fantasies.

Like Ted Cruz:

The last election, 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home. Fifty-four million. Is it any wonder the federal government is waging a war on life, on marriage, on religious liberty, when Christians are staying home and our leaders are being elected by nonbelievers?

“Imagine instead,” he told the students at Liberty University, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

Real Clear Politics’ election analyst Sean Trende attributed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to “the missing white voters“, and argued that the GOP wouldn’t have to work so hard at appealing to Hispanics if it could just raise white turnout.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you can imagine that the apathetic masses only appear not to care about public affairs. Actually, they just haven’t heard the right motivating message: your message. As soon as they do, then everything will start to change.

Heck, some version of this thought pattern occurs even in the fringiest, most radical circles. The armed yahoos who took over that wildlife refuge in Oregon didn’t figure on overpowering the federal government by themselves. They imagined a nation full of anti-government patriots, ready to take up arms as soon as someone was brave enough to sound the clarion call.

When they sounded that call and only a few dozen wackos showed up, I imagine they were pretty surprised.

The discouraged liberal majority. In spite of the daydreams of militiamen and social conservatives, the statistics say that marginal voters trend Democratic. That’s why relatively high-turnout elections like Obama’s first presidential race in 2008 (57.1% of voting-age citizens participated; that would be a low turnout in a lot of other democracies) are good for Democrats, while low-turnout elections, like the midterms in 2010 (41%) and 2014 (36%), strongly favor Republicans. That’s also why Republicans like to make voters jump through hoops: They believe the ones who won’t bother will mostly be Democrats.

Those numbers justify the Great Democratic Turnout Fantasy: If everybody voted, Democrats would win every election, everywhere. The Democratic advantage would be so insurmountable that the Party wouldn’t have to compromise on wedge issues like abortion or gay rights or gun control. Democrats wouldn’t have to pander to powerful interests or rich individuals. They could put the unalloyed New Deal/Great Society message out there and wait for the votes to roll in.

In particular, what if all the young people voted? What if all the women voted? What if all the low-wage workers voted? But we’re zeroing in on my waitress, and that should make us all stop and think: Who are the people who don’t vote, and what level of participation can we reasonably expect out of them?

Levels of engagement. People relate to politics in all sorts of different ways, and devote different levels of energy to it. Here’s a rough categorization, varying according to the depth and quantity of the thought and effort involved.

  • Apostles. These are people who have a political worldview and can lay out their political philosophy — liberal, conservative, anarchist, communist, white supremacist, or whatever. They can state their principles and apply them to whatever issues come up, without any outside guidance.
  • Activists. Some cause — anything from the environment or abortion to something as local as establishing a new park or putting a stoplight on a dangerous corner — got them interested in politics. Their interest in that issue placed them on one side or the other of our deep political polarization, so they have come to identify with other activists on a wide range of issues.
  • Players. Like a sports team, a political party can be part of a personal identity; issues are just opportunities to argue that your team should win. For example: From the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal, the South was solidly Democratic. That wasn’t because the Democratic Party represented a philosophy universally accepted by Southerners. Rather, the Republicans were the party of Yankee invaders (and disenfranchised Negroes), so the Democrats were the home team.
  • Fans. Left to their own devices, many people wouldn’t care about elections. But personal identity connects them to people who do care. When election day gets close, they look to a family member, a minister, a union leader, or some admired public figure to tell them who the good guys are.
  • Impulse voters. These citizens have only a tangential connection to politics. They might not vote, or they might vote for some whimsical reason: They like or dislike a candidate’s face (or, more ominously, race or gender). Or they heard a story that made him/her look good or bad. Or a slogan appealed to them; maybe “Yes We Can” in one election and “Taxed Enough Already” in the next.
  • The alienated. Disinterest in politics can also be part of a personal identity. Politics is some stupid thing that people yell at each other about. Politicians are like televangelists or get-rich-quick swindlers: They’re in it for themselves, and if you pay any attention to them at all you’re just being a sucker.

Most public discussion of politics comes from apostles or activists, and tends to project that level of interest onto non-voters: People don’t vote because the major parties aren’t addressing their issues or speaking to their philosophy. If only we changed our platform or the emphasis of our rhetoric, they’d flock to us.

But I don’t think my waitress had a political agenda in mind, or was turned off when Candidate Swett didn’t speak to it. I believe she was in the low-engagement impulse/alienated region, and honestly had no idea why she should care who went to Congress.

Paradoxes. When you picture non-voters as disgruntled apostles and activists, the world seems full of mysteries: What’s the matter with Kansas? Why do so many working-class whites vote against their economic interests? Why do so many Catholic Hispanics vote for pro-choice Democrats? How can the country whipsaw from a Democratic landslide in 2008 to a Republican landslide in 2010, and then re-elect Obama in 2012?

But while some apostles and activists don’t vote (holding out for a candidate with the proper Chomskyan or Hayekian analysis, I suppose), I believe that the vast majority of non-voters are in the low-engagement categories. You can’t understand turnout without accounting for them.

What’s the matter with the working-class whites? Thomas Frank’s book tells you, if you read carefully: As union membership declined, players and fans who used to identify with their unions (and vote that way) started identifying with their fundamentalist churches (and voting the other way).

Why does the immigration issue worry the Republican establishment so much that they want to pull against their base? Because they see Hispanics developing a team identity and deciding that the Democrats are on their side. If that happens, a lot of impulse and alienated Hispanics (and Asians and Muslims, for similar reasons) will become reliable Democratic players and fans, regardless of other issues.

What happened between 2008 and 2010? Liberal apostles and activists will tell you that Obama betrayed their high ideals. He failed to be the transformational FDR-like leader they had hoped for, and so the excitement they generated in 2008 was gone by 2010. But that should lead to another question: Why didn’t 2010 see a progressive wave similar to the Trump/Cruz/Carson rebellion we’re seeing on the right this year? Why didn’t all the disappointed liberals of 2008 send a more liberal Congress to Washington in 2010, one that would force Obama to come through on the hopes he had raised in 2008?

My answer is that the 2008 wave wasn’t primarily ideological or issue-based. While he presented well-defined positions on major issues and had the support of many thoughtful people, Obama also brought a lot of impulse and alienated voters to the polls on the strength of his personal charm, the Bush administration’s failures, and a message that resonated at a level not much deeper than “Hope and Change”. In 2008, Obama represented not just national health care and ending the Iraq War, but something he could not possibly have delivered: a “new tone in Washington” where politicians would start working together rather than yelling at each other.

Do I wish Obama had pushed harder on progressive issues (the way he started doing after 2014, when he had no more elections to face)? Yes, I do. But do I think he could have turned the 2008 coalition into a permanent electoral force that would have transformed American politics the way FDR did? No. I think that reading of recent political history is unrealistic, because the transformation Obama was supposed to catalyze depended on alienated and impulse voters suddenly deciding to change their personal identities and see themselves progressive activists and apostles.

Why would they have done that?

The kind of political revolution we won’t have. My rough categorization has fluid boundaries. At any given moment, people are migrating in both directions across the border between the alienated and impulse voters. Fans are getting energized and becoming players, while players are getting burned by their experiences and retreating back into fandom. Disengaged people are running into some issue that hits them on a deep level and makes them dig into politics in a way they never thought they would.

But (absent some huge crisis I don’t want to wish for) big changes in the personal identities of large groups of people don’t happen overnight. In particular, they don’t happen in one election cycle. So the vision of “political revolution” that I’m hearing from a lot of Sanders supporters (though Bernie’s own use of the phrase seems a little more cautious, if a bit vague) is not going to happen: We’re not going to sweep Bernie into office and then hold that majority together as a pressure group that will either make Congress pass his agenda, or toss them out of office in 2018 if they don’t. If we get a 2008-like progressive vote in 2016, a lot of that total will be low-engagement voters who will already have lost interest by Inauguration Day.

Change in America has never happened in a single election, through the election of a radical leader. The abolition movement, for example, didn’t start by sweeping Abraham Lincoln into office. It was a long, hard grind that began decades before Lincoln’s campaign. [1]

How big changes happen. When you look at American politics on a larger timescale, though, it does include a few big changes and re-alignments: the 1776 Revolution, abolition, the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, the New Deal, civil rights, and the conservative counter-revolution we’ve been living in since the Reagan administration.

But none of those turnarounds happened quickly. Take civil rights: The Democratic Convention of 1948 split over civil rights, and Truman won without the break-away Dixiecrats. But the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965.

Ronald Reagan made it to the White House in 1980 on his third attempt, after failing to get the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976. Republicans didn’t get control of the House until the Gingrich wave of 1994.

Between 1968 and 1994, a lot happened outside of electoral politics: Starting in the 1970s, billionaires and big corporations pooled their resources to create the intellectual infrastructure to make conservatism respectable. [2] Economic conservatives made common cause with religious fundamentalists; combined with union-busting, that instituted a shift in the way Americans found their political teams. Spin doctors developed ways to appeal to white racism covertly, without setting off a backlash. [3] Conservatives developed talk radio, then Fox News and a whole media counter-culture, with its own celebrities and cult identity. [4]

The next turning point. By now, the Reagan counter-revolution has gotten long in the tooth, and its plutocratic nature gets harder and harder to deny. If you look at inequality graphs, things started going wrong for the middle class after the Democrats lost seats in the midterm elections of 1978, which pushed them towards deregulation and letting unions fend for themselves. [5] Reagan’s tax cuts accelerated that process, and by now the ascendancy of the rich — and the plight of the average American — should be obvious to everyone.

The outsized influence of money on our political process has also become obvious, to the point that majority opinion influences government action only when it happens to coincide with the opinion of the wealthy. To a large extent even before Citizens United, and much more boldly and obviously after, large corporations and wealthy individuals buy the laws they want.

It’s not hard to make the connection between these odious results and the conservative principles that have dominated our politics since Reagan: low taxes on the rich, loose regulations on corporations and banks, and a Supreme Court that believes money is speech and corporations are people.

So the Reagan paradigm should be vulnerable.

What is success? In The Democracy Project, David Graeber measures the success of a revolution not by whether it seizes and holds power, but by whether it changes “political common sense”. By that measure, he judges the French Revolution a success: It may have ended up giving power to Napoleon rather than the People, but afterwards the divine right of kings was dead as a political principle, while “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” lived on.

Conversely in America, changing the party in power does not always (or even usually) start a new era. The Republican presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not end the New Deal/Great Society era of liberalism, and the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not end the conservative Reagan era. Here at the end of the Obama administration, political common sense has not changed much in decades: The basic assumptions of what government does, what problems it should and shouldn’t address, and the range of possible solutions that can be debated are more or less what they were in 1995 or 1982. To the extent those things have shifted, they’ve flowed ever further to the right.

So a real political revolution will not happen just because we elect a new president, not even one whose agenda is as transformational as Bernie Sanders’. It’s not hard to imagine conservatives repeating against President Sanders the game plan that worked against Obama: Obstruct everything he tries to do, then present him as a failure and a disappointment in the 2018 midterm elections. If Sanders’ 2016 victory has depended on impulse voters liking the sound of him (but not changing their political identities), that plan should work again. By 2018 they will have lost interest, and Republicans will sweep a low-turnout midterm.

What would a real political revolution look like? We can’t start a new progressive era in American politics by getting low-engagement voters to show up once. The revolution does have to have an electoral component, but it also needs to proceed on two other levels.

Most simply, our appeal to impulse and alienated voters needs to be more sustainable. [6] 2008’s “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” were inherently single-use slogans. In 2010, it was impossible to pivot from “Yes We Can” to “We Would Have If Those Bastards Hadn’t Stopped Us”. (Contrast those single-use slogans with Reagan-era memes that are still with us: small government, strong defense, family values.) Here, things are improving: Bernie Sanders’ focus on “the rigged economy” is something that progressives can keep coming back to until we get it fixed. We need more such phrases.

At an even more fundamental level, though, we need to change the ways that people identify with politics. We need more Democratic players and fans, who stay loyal from one cycle to the next, so that we aren’t depending on unreliable impulse voters to put us over the top.

This level of social engineering is beyond my competence, but it’s not impossible.

The old-school method, which I believe still works, is to build on our initial success by connecting the changes we’ve achieved to positive change in people’s lives. My own family is an example: I don’t know what political identity the Muders had in the 1920s, but a story I heard again and again growing up was how in the 1930s my grandfather managed to stall the bank from repossessing the family farm until the New Deal’s farm loan program started. That saved the farm and we’ve been Democrats for four generations now.

But that snowballing sense of progress is exactly what Republican obstruction has tried to deny us these last seven years, with considerable success. The only major advance we’ve seen recently is ObamaCare, which is why — even as we push for a single-payer system — we need to stop running it down. It’s saving lives. If the saved people realize that and tell their family and friends, we’ll have a lot more reliable votes. Maybe soon all the minimum-wage workers who get a raise will join them.

But while snowballing progress is the fastest way to change political identities, it’s not the only way. An alternative is to create and support and grow local institutions that create liberal community, as the Reagan conservatives did with fundamentalist churches. Unions would be ideal, but if that clock can’t be turned back, there are other possibilities: What if instead of relating to politics through her fundamentalist church, a housewife started getting her political identity from her co-op grocery or a local environmental group? Even something that isn’t overtly political — say, a folk music cafe — can liberalize the identities of the people who feel part of a community there.

The wild card in this process — which I hesitate to speculate on because I’m such a novice myself — is social media and the various forms on online community. What can we create that people can belong to, that will reinforce their identities as progressives?

When people decide to vote or not vote, or when they stand in the voting booth deciding which oval to darken or which lever to pull, they shouldn’t feel alone. They should feel part of a community that is interested in what they are doing and why. Which community that is will determine elections for decades to come.

When you change that, you’ve made a revolution.

What about that waitress? I never became a regular at that restaurant, and young waitresses switch jobs often anyway, so I didn’t keep track of her. For all I know, by now she might have changed and become deeply political. Who can say what might have caused it? Maybe she had children and started wondering who regulates the corporations who make the processed food she’d been feeding them. Maybe she got to know the Hispanic workers in the kitchen, and realized they can’t be what’s wrong with America. Maybe she found Jesus and became an anti-abortion crusader. When you’re talking about individuals, anything can happen.

But whether she has changed or not, America still has lots of impulse voters and citizens alienated from the political process completely. You can win a single election by convincing a bunch of them that you are sufficiently different that they should take a chunk out of a single day to come vote for you. But you can’t make a revolution that way.

To make a revolution, you need to get a large number of them to change their political identities and become players or fans of your team. You need to inspire fans of the other team to get their political identities from a different part of their lives, some part that will connect them to your team instead.

That’s a lot more complicated than just getting out the vote, and it takes a lot longer. But that’s what needs to happen, if you want a revolution.

[1] Lincoln’s success, in fact, depended on finding the right compromise position on slavery — one a bit less radical than that of Seward, the early Republican front-runner.

[2] That story is told in Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money.

[3] See Ian Haney Lopez’ book Dog Whistle Politics, which I summarized in “What Should Racism Mean?“.

[4] Part of the credit for the Ted Cruz victory in the Iowa Caucuses has to go to the endorsement of Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, who appeared with Cruz in an ad.

[5] That interpretation was already apparent by 1984 when Thomas Edsall wrote The New Politics of Inequality.

[6] At an even more basic level, we need to recognize the existence of low-engagement voters, and stop being ashamed of appealing to them. Idealistic liberals look askance at Madison Avenue tactics. But phrases that speak to low-engagement voters — like Sanders’ “rigged economy” — need not be empty. If we’re communicating something real to voters — something we can back up with data and policy for anyone inspired to dive into the details — rather than just trying to trick them into voting for our candidates by taking advantage of their ignorance, we have nothing to be ashamed of.

The Political F-word

When and how should we talk about fascism?

Satirical Trump campaign logo.

When Donald Trump started talking about closing American mosques and perhaps even having Muslims register with the government, when he called for a “deportation force” to search out and expel the 11 million Hispanic immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally, and then when he justified his supporters in “roughing up” a protester at his rally, a number of his fellow Republicans began to use the word fascist.

Once you start viewing Trump through that lens, a number of his previous statements — many of which were seen at the time as so outrageous they would doom his campaign — take on a different significance, particularly his xenophobic comments about immigrants and the way his speeches rely more on assertions of his own greatness than on any identifiable policies or political philosophy. (It also wasn’t the first time he had justified the violence of his followers.)

Pundits have reacted to labeling Trump a fascist in three different ways:

None of those reactions is entirely wrong, as we’ll see. But that conclusion just raises a larger question: Would we have a basis for calling any contemporary figure a fascist? Or has the word just become an insult with no identifiable content? What is fascism, anyway?

If you try to answer that question by looking at expert opinion, you’ll find a muddle. Just about any good article on fascism starts by explaining why it’s so hard to define. Here’s how David Neiwert puts it:

In contrast [to communism], hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

Communism has a very concise description: public ownership of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberal democracy is a government elected by the majority but constitutionally restrained from violating minority rights. For fascism, well, we’ve got the example of Hitler. But what was it about Hitler that made him Hitler? [1] Given that we don’t want another Hitler regime, or anything remotely like it, what should we be looking for and trying to avoid?

In his influential essay “Ur-Fascism“, Umberto Eco warns:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple.

You can’t identify fascism by blindly correlating policies. Hitler built the autobahn and Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, but Eisenhower was not a Hitler. Reagan and Hitler both increased military spending, but Reagan was not a Hitler. Fascism also is not a political philosophy. (Eco: “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.”) It’s not an economic theory, and it’s not tied to a particular religion.

In his book In God’s Country (about the American Patriot movement of the 1990s), Neiwert adopts this definition (which he attributes to “historians and sociologists”):

a political movement based in populist ultranationalism and focused on an a core mythic ideal of phoenix-like societal rebirth, attained through a return to “traditional values.”

But Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, avoided all definitions, writing that “fascism had no quintessence”. Instead he tried to find deeper, pre-rational roots: “Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.” and “behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”

He reduced these “unfathomable drives” to 14 traits of what he called Ur-Fascism, upon which any specific form of fascism would be based. These 14, he said, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” The traits include a cult of tradition, anti-intellectualism [2], equating disagreement with treason, fear of difference, permanent warfare, and contempt for the weak. But the one that I want to focus on is #6:

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. [italics in the original]

This points to what I see as the real difficulty of defining fascism as a political movement: It’s not fundamentally about politics at all. Fascism is primarily a phenomenon of social psychology. I would summarize it as a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:

  • styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,
  • identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,
  • helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,
  • under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),
  • reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),
  • all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation. [3]

Now, I think, we’re in a position to talk about Donald Trump and his relationship to the conservative movement. Trump may or may not harbor fascist ambitions himself, but his campaign targets a segment of the population that is psychologically ready for fascism: working-class white Christian males, who have seen their privileged place in American society erode as blacks, women, gays, non-English-speakers, and non-Christians get closer to equality. What’s more, the good-paying no-college-necessary jobs that allowed their fathers to achieve the American dream have vanished, leaving them incapable of carrying forward their patriarchal legacy.

In his scapegoating of immigrants at home and foreign enemies abroad, and his vague promises to “make America great again” by applying his own greatness to a government that for decades has been run by “losers”, Trump is playing the role of a charismatic fascist leader.

But the audience he is appealing to didn’t pop out of nowhere. Its sense of grievance has been carefully nurtured and cultivated by decades of conservative propaganda, which has diligently pointed its resentment  downward at scapegoat groups like blacks, Muslims, and Hispanic immigrants, rather than upward at the wealthy bosses who profited by shipping jobs overseas.

In their defense, the propagandists probably didn’t intend to create a fascist movement. Instead, from one election to the next, it was easy to split the natural constituency of the Left by appealing to a sense of victimization among the white working class, using xenophobia, racism, and hot-button religious issues to turn them against the non-white working class, against women and gays, and against the liberal politicians who looked out for the interests of the emerging minorities. [4] As Neiwert concluded in 2004 after an analysis of Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric:

What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience.

The result is the confusion that Trump has sown inside the Republican establishment. Fascistic themes of wounded pride and affronted identity were supposed to keep working-class white Christian men voting against their economic interests. [5] But nobody was supposed to take things this seriously.

Now that Trump is doing so, establishment Republicans are starting to yell “fascist!” But that won’t work at this late date, because by now “the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds” have been woven too deeply into standard conservative rhetoric. The audience that Trump has found and speaks to are the same people whose support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hoped to gain with winks and nods.

You can, if you want, regard that last sentence as a conclusion marking the end of the article. Or you can keep reading as we make a deeper pass through the psychology of fascism and its relationship to mainstream American conservatism.

To grasp fascism and its shape-shifting nature, you need to understand a series of concepts that can manifest differently in different times and places. What follows are some “themes and memes” of fascism, and where you can hear them in conservative rhetoric today.

Volkheit. A fascist believes that his nation has an essence, which does not evolve with the times, but is a fixed and eternal ideal. In German, an ethnic group is ein Volk, and their Volkheit (i.e. folkhood) is whatever makes them what they are.

The United States is a nation of immigrants that hasn’t seen itself as English for a long time, so its volkheit wouldn’t be strictly ethnic. For a time it was defined by the constructed ethnicity “White”, but even that characterization has become obsolete. Consequently, the “essence” that makes an American an American is hard to define.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a volkheit. The yearning towards a volkheit can be seen in way that various Americans feel threatened by non-English-speaking citizens, by the equality of non-whites, by multiculturalism, by non-Christian religions, and by any transnational authority like the United Nations or the WTO. Race plays a role in defining the American volk, but other factors weigh in the scale as well.

Whenever someone uses the phrase real Americans to mean something more than the people who live in or are citizens of the United States, they’re talking about our volkheit, particularly if they cite “real Americans” as the upholders of our “traditional values”.

One place you can see this playing out is in the otherwise inexplicable attempts to make President Obama an “other”: the baseless controversy over his birth certificate, the attempt to portray him as a Muslim, the unique sense of outrage when he does things many previous presidents did without anyone noticing or caring. It’s easy to read this as simple racism, but the real point being argued is that Obama doesn’t belong to the American volk. [6]

Herrenvolk. Fascism depends on a belief in the special status of our particular volk. There is a natural hierarchy of peoples, and we are meant to be at the top of it.

Herrenvolk is usually translated as “master race”, but that’s not exactly right. Herr has an aspect of master or lord — the German word for dominance is Herrschaft — but also of a respected head-of-household. (Herr Schmidt is just Mr. Schmidt.) So the herrenvolk doesn’t necessarily hold everyone else on a leash, but in a well-ordered world all the other volk recognize its natural superiority.

The contemporary American form of herrenvolk is American Exceptionalism. When de Toqueville described Americans as “exceptional” in the 1800s, he meant only that a uniquely favorable set of circumstances — like the lack of a competing power on our continent, and the absence of an established class structure and its corresponding centuries-long grudges — had given us a unique opportunity to leave behind Europe’s baggage and make a new start on civilization. That’s why our revolution could succeed, but the revolution in de Toqueville’s France got sidetracked into the Reign of Terror.

But since then, American Exceptionalism has developed into something more than just circumstantial: We are morally exceptional, so things that would be wrong for anybody else are OK for us. Consequently, we can torture people; we can start unprovoked wars; Iran shouldn’t feel threatened by our nuclear arsenal, but we’d be justified in attacking to prevent them acquiring nukes; and so on, because we’re the herrenvolk.

Grievance. Fantasies of belonging to the herrenvolk are like fantasies of secret royalty: If a child is happy with her life and home, she doesn’t need to dream about her real parents coming to claim her. This is why fascism is a product of hard times. When a nation is doing well — its ruling class feels secure, its middle class is confident in its upward mobility, and its lower classes are more docile than desperate — fascism has no place to take root.

But once you start claiming herrenvolk status, you’re left with a conundrum: Why is my life so hard? We’re better than everyone else, so why aren’t we more successful? This is the issue Trump is raising when he complains that “America doesn’t win any more.”

Fascism’s answer is that we have been robbed of our rightful place in the world. Again, fascism’s local variability comes into play. Every fascism has to claim that its volk has been robbed. But who robbed us and how can change in every country.


Indeed, one of the lessons I’ve gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

There is no better example of this than Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of the Left as running a “grievance industry“. O’Reilly’s show is little more than a stream of grievances, of wrongs committed against whites, against Christians, against conservatives, against men, and against Real Americans of all types.

Purity. The strength of a volk is in its purity. Conversely, fascism ties a nation’s problems to its failure to guard its purity.

In Nazism, Jews were the impurity corrupting the German volk. In contemporary America, this impurity worry focuses on non-white, non-Christian, or non-English-speaking immigrants, as well as on American blacks who seem not to be assimilating into the white-dominated society.

Purity is a primal, pre-rational concern, which is why the irritation is not soothed by analyses of the economic benefits from immigration, or the overall good behavior of undocumented Hispanics and refugees, or even the rise in deportations during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, every individual crime by an immigrant sets it off again. The belief that foreigners are corrupting the purity of America is foundational; since this impurity is the cause of all our problems, the simple fact that we still have problems is evidence of its corrosive effect.

Another aspect of impurity is moral. The idealized Real America of the white suburbs and small towns of the 1950s had no place for homosexuals or the transgendered. So their presence — and even acceptance! — in contemporary America is evidence of our impurity. Again, evidence is beside the point. Forget that the gay couple living next door trims the lawn perfectly, or that their daughter is valedictorian. If we have problems — and who can say that we don’t? — the impurities we tolerate all around us must be the cause.

Our glorious past. Fascism looks back to a time before impurity set in, when the volk lived securely in its volkheit. For Mussolini, this was the Roman Empire and il Duce was the new Augustus. American conservatives similarly idealize four golden eras: Philosophically, the Golden Age was the founding era, and the Founders are portrayed as divinely inspired prophets. Economically, the Golden Age was the Gilded Age, when capitalists worked their magic unhindered by regulations. Militarily, it was World War II, when our entire society was mobilized behind the war effort. Culturally, the Golden Age happened in the Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbs and small towns of the 1950s.

The importance of this mythology is why any accurate assessment of American history is so threatening to conservatives that they find it necessary to promote their own pseudo-historians. In his announcement speech, for example, Ben Carson attributed the rise of America to the “can-do attitude” of the “early settlers”. His point comes completely undone if you understand the role of land stolen from the Native Americans and developed by slave labor. Similarly, conservatives can only see World War II as a battle of Freedom against Barbarism; the suggestion that dropping nuclear bombs on civilians is barbaric cannot be entertained.

Any reading of history in which America is a nation like other nations, exemplifying both good and evil, is beyond the pale.

Betrayal. Any myth of a glorious past is vulnerable to the criticism Jack Burden makes in All the King’s Men:

If it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer me that one.

Impurity of the volk is only a partial answer, and the machinations of our enemies can’t be a complete answer either, because they shouldn’t be able to stand against the herrenvolk. No, we are suffering now because we have been betrayed by our leaders and by the culturally influential classes.

For Hitler, this was the famous Dolschstosslegende, the myth that German armies did not lose World War I in the field, but were “stabbed in the back” by traitors in high places at home.

You can hear the current dolschstosslegende in Ted Cruz saying that President Obama “does not wish to defend this country”. Or Michele Bachmann’s description of Obama’s immigration policy:

We have this invasion because a political decision was made by our president to intentionally flaunt the laws of the land and put at risk the American people, our culture, our way of life, our economic standing, and also he’s willing to allow a pandemic of disease to come into our country.

The conservative version of recent American history is full of betrayals: FDR betrayed the cause of freedom at Yalta, JFK surrendered American sovereignty to the UN, the Democratic Congress gave away the victory Nixon had won in Vietnam, and Obama not only gave away Bush’s victory in Iraq, but negotiated a “surrender” to Iran.

What the Republican establishment never expected was that they too would be included among the betrayers. But when John Boehner announced his retirement, no one cheered louder than the Republican base. And who imagined that Eric Cantor would be tarred as a traitor to conservatism? Ben Carson says, “I’ll tell you a secret. The political class comes from both parties and it comes from all over the place.” And Ted Cruz writes:

In 2010, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight if only we had a Republican House. In 2014, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight just as soon as we won a majority in the Senate and retired Harry Reid. In both instances, the American people obliged. Now we’re told that we must wait until 2017 when we have a Republican president.

Trump is just echoing them when he says, “I am more disappointed in the Republicans than the Democrats.”

Cruelty. Psychologically, the key to fascism is the (usually unstated) belief that you can work out your own humiliation by humiliating others. Did you fight bravely in the Great War, only to see your country shamed at Versailles, and your family lose everything in the subsequent inflation and depression? Go beat up a union organizer, or throw rocks through the windows of a Jewish shopkeeper; you’ll feel better.

And maybe you do, for a while, but in the morning you return to the same life you had yesterday. So like any addiction, the temptation is to try more next time. Maybe if you’d killed the organizer or set fire to the shop, the feeling would have lasted.

A similar pattern explains the way Republican presidential candidates seem to glory in their cruelty and heartlessness. Trump mimicked and ridiculed a reporter’s disability (echoing Rush Limbaugh’s mocking of Michael J. Fox), Chris Christie didn’t just call for leaving Syrian refugees to their fate, he specifically said he would refuse entry to “orphans under the age of five”. Several candidates have called for the return of torture, even though it accomplishes little beyond making suspected terrorists suffer. The persistent weakness in the protect-traditional-marriage argument was that its proponents could not identify anybody who would benefit; the point was entirely to make gay and lesbian lives harder. Republican deportation policies will break up families, and no one benefits from sending DREAMers back to a country they don’t remember. But none of that seems to matter.

What does matter is that when a candidate says something that is harsh or offensive, his poll numbers go up. [7] The Republican base is angry and is looking for a candidate who will inflict pain on its enemies. That pain is not a regrettable side-effect of a policy that accomplishes something else; inflicting pain is the accomplishment.

What’s the matter with Kansas today? For decades, the Republican establishment has used fascist themes as a tactic: While their policies destroyed unions, empowered employers, shifted the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, allowed higher education to become unattainably expensive for families not already wealthy, and made it easier to ship blue-collar jobs overseas, they could appeal to working-class whites on a symbolic level, offering them pride rather than paychecks or opportunities.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost: Republicans have set the stage for America to have an actual fascist movement, one that will see them as part of the corruption that needs to be purged. Like the businessmen who funded Hitler as a way to distract workers from communism, they thought they could control this, but they can’t.

Donald Trump is taking advantage of this situation, but he is not the problem. Ted Cruz will happily fill his role if something goes wrong, and if the fascist movement can’t win the Republican nomination or the presidency in 2016, there’s always 2020 or 2024. Who knows who might step forward to claim its leadership?

In the long run, I can only see one way out of this trend: Democrats need to offer a program that will genuinely do something for the working class, in the same way that the New Deal headed off American fascism in the 1930s. Americans who feel frustrated and humiliated by the culture and economy of the 21st century need to know that they can get help fixing their lives; there’s no need to seek relief by making others suffer too.

[1] Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is almost comical in its willingness to latch onto Hitler’s superficial traits (like his vegetarianism and support for universal health care) while never zeroing in on his movement’s toxic essence. The Onion could not write a line more ridiculous than this:

The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

[2] The anti-intellectual nature of fascism is one reason it remains undefined. A real fascist is in the streets, not sitting in a library making up theories.

[3] The dysfunctionality of this program is why fascist regimes tend toward short-but-spectacular lives, particularly if the Leader is a true believer, and is not just using the movement to gain power. Humiliating others doesn’t really soothe your own humiliation, so the regime must constantly up the ante to maintain its supporters’ enthusiasm. Ultimately, no conquest and no level of enemy humiliation is enough. The world must fall, and the enemies must be exterminated.

[4] This is the theme of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? from 2004.

[5] For example, the struggling whites in Kentucky who just voted to eliminate their own health insurance.

[6] As you might expect, Trump voters believe these stories about Obama at a higher rate than supporters of other candidates.

[7] Josh Marshall has an interesting take on this: He believes that it isn’t Trump’s cruelty that appeals to the Republican base so much as his refusal to apologize for it.

How Propaganda Works

Jason Stanley has written an insightful book in the language of philosophers. Let me try to translate.

The popular view of propaganda is that it’s nothing more complicated than repeating the same lie over and over: Just keep telling people that voter fraud is a serious problem, Mexican immigrants are disease-carrying criminals, and more guns will solve the gun-violence problem; eventually they’ll start believing such things and repeating them to their friends. You pound a lie into people’s ears until it starts coming out their mouths.

But why do some falsehoods and misdirections catch on while others don’t? Why are some notions impervious to contrary evidence? How do they win out over truths whose perception ought to be in people’s best interest? Why, for example, will a person be unmoved by a hundred accounts of climate change from qualified experts, then listen to one crank claiming it’s a conspiracy to establish world socialism and think, “I knew it!”

In the marketplace of ideas, not all products are created equal. Some are born with inherent advantages that don’t depend on logic or evidence. How does that work?

In order to explain in an intellectually rigorous way, Yale Philosophy Professor Jason Stanley has to define or redefine a bunch of terms, and then argue that these concepts will survive the slings and arrows that other philosophers are likely to launch at them. For a layman like me, that makes for a slow and repetitive book (though not a tremendously long one: a little less than 300 pages). But while some of the basic ideas are familiar — motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, echo chambers, dog whistles, and so on — it’s rare to see them assembled in such a complete package.

Defining propaganda. Stanley proposes a broader definition of propaganda than just lies; it’s “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate”. In less technical terms, it’s the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, or stereotype to eliminate certain facts or points of view from the discussion.

A specific use of a slur, for example, may not contain any false information, but instead pushes out of mind the humanity of the slurred person or group. Having police pay special attention to “thugs” doesn’t sound as bad as racially profiling young black men. Undermining “that bitch at the office” is easier to justify than driving women out of the workplace. The point of view of “thugs” or “bitches” doesn’t seem worthy of consideration.

Democratic propaganda. The canonical examples of propaganda come from totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, which had ministries of propaganda and officially sanctioned media like Pravda. But Stanley is more interested in the special problem of propaganda in countries that style themselves as liberal democracies, where ideas are supposed to be debated freely in an independent press in front of a autonomous electorate. In America, the echo chambers have unguarded exits. Why do so many citizens choose to remain inside?

Stanley points up a key difference: In a totalitarian state, you can easily recognize propaganda, but don’t know whether to take it seriously. (When Hitler cast the Jews as vermin he wanted to exterminate, a man in the street might have shrugged and said, “That’s just propaganda.”) In a liberal democracy, we take the news media more seriously, but have a harder time recognizing when it contains propaganda. (Example: Judith Miller’s NYT articles about Saddam’s WMD program.)

Another difference is that while propaganda fits perfectly into totalitarianism, it strikes at the heart of democracy: If citizens are not rational actors who use the democratic system to defend their interests and values, but instead are manipulated into some other kind of public discussion, then what’s the justification for giving them a say at all?

Two kinds of propaganda. Stanley breaks propaganda down into two types: supporting and undermining. Supporting propaganda is in some sense straightforward: It promotes what it appears to be promoting. For example, a government might raise support for its war effort by publicizing real or imagined atrocities committed by the enemy.

What’s more dangerous for a democracy, though, is undermining propaganda: appeals to public values to promote goals that in fact undermine those very values. For example, by popularizing the false belief that America has a significant voter-fraud problem, voter-suppression tactics can be put forward as necessary to defend the integrity of our elections. A laudable democratic value — integrity of elections — is used to undermine the integrity of elections.

Similarly, the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justified Kim Davis in denying marriage licenses to gay couples. The democratic values of equality and fairness were invoked to undermine equality and fairness.

Flawed ideology. Those examples raise another key concept in Stanley’s system: flawed ideology. A flawed ideology is a set of false or misleading ideas that are impervious to evidence. If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

For example, suppose you are addressing people who believe (or at least take seriously the possibility) that President Obama’s anti-ISIS policy is intentionally inept, because he’s a secret Muslim. Instead of making that claim explicitly, all you have to do is activate the flawed ideology by calling the President “Barack Hussein Obama”. Your audience will add the secret-Muslim point to whatever other criticisms you make of Obama’s moves in the Middle East.

What’s more, content that is evoked like this (and not explicitly stated) is harder for the listener to filter out. Stanley gives the non-political example: “My wife is from Chicago.” If the speaker says, “I am married”, the listener might consciously consider whether or not that is true. But “My wife is from Chicago” calls attention to the claim about Chicago, sneaking in the idea that the speaker is married.

In mid-conversation, it may be hard for the listener to specify exactly what content has been evoked by “Barack Hussein Obama”, much less consider whether it is true. Similarly, when Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as “the Food Stamp President”, he evoked all the content that had been previously associated with food stamps: that undeserving people get them because they’re too lazy to work, that most of those lazy people are black, that (because he is black himself) Obama is on their side rather than the side of hard-working white people, and so on. Challenging the explicit claim — that food stamp usage increased during the Obama administration — misses the point, because that part is true. In fact, challenging it and letting supporters defend its accuracy only reinforces their impression that the unspoken content must be true as well.

Flawed ideology is social. Once a flawed ideology exists, it gets reinforced by each use. So American Christians who believe they are persecuted closely followed the Kim Davis story, and came away more convinced than ever that they are persecuted.

But where does flawed ideology come from in the first place? Stanley roots flawed ideology in self-interest, particularly our unconscious attraction to comfortable ideas that tell us we are good and justified in what we hope to do. But the ideas most impervious to evidence aren’t just the ones that further our personal interest, but the ones that support our social identity.

Stanley gives the example of the near-universal belief among pre-Civil-War Southern slave-owners that slavery was justified, and that blacks were too lazy, stupid, and childlike to benefit from freedom. To turn away from that complex of beliefs, you would not only have to realize that your own standard of living is based on a great wrong, but you would also have to indict your parents, your church, your teachers, your friends, and your entire community for conspiring to commit that injustice. Literally everyone you had believed to be good might have to be reclassified as evil. So the stakes are far higher than just increasing the labor expense of your plantation or learning to make your own bed. Changing your ideas about blacks and slavery could change everything for you.

No wonder so few people did. Ideas like slavery could not be examined dispassionately, carefully weighing evidence for and against. Hearing persuasive criticisms of slavery would naturally evoke fear of losing your whole sense of self, so you might seize pro-slavery rationalizations like an overboard sailor grabbing a life preserver.

Today, the reason so few Americans leave their unguarded echo chambers is that those echo chambers are communities that define their social identity. As our politics becomes more polarized and entire states see themselves as blue or red, changing your ideas about abortion or race or Islam or guns or capitalism could mean becoming a whole new person with new friends and memberships, maybe living in a new town or neighborhood. Even your family relationships could be shaken.

Some ideologies threaten democracy more than others. As far back as Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have recognized that different forms of government are based on different values. A dictatorship values decisiveness and loyalty, an aristocracy refinement and breeding, a plutocracy wealth. A corporate state reveres efficiency and orderly procedures. Democracies are based on competing values of freedom, fairness, and equality; and a properly functioning democracy fosters a constant debate about how to balance those values and compromise each with the others.

So the propaganda that most threatens democracy isn’t the kind that argues directly for the values of another system — if people really want more efficiency, we should talk about that — but the undermining propaganda that invokes freedom, fairness, and equality to justify actions that diminish freedom, fairness, and equality.

Consequently, the flawed ideology that most threatens democracy is the self-justifying ideology of privileged groups, like the Confederate slave-owners. If our group has some unfair advantage that is based on foreclosing the options of other people, we will naturally want to believe that our advantage doesn’t really exist (there is no inequality), or that it’s actually fair because of the comparative virtues of our people and those who lack our privileges, or that the un-privileged folks are freely choosing not to do the things that (in reality) the system discourages them from doing.

Complexes of ideas that tell us such things — that freedom, fairness, and equality demand that my people keep their privileges — are so welcome that they seem obvious and natural. “Of course,” you say, “I should have seen that myself.” That nagging sense that our way of life is unjust and unsustainable vanishes. We are the good guys, and those who want to take away our advantages are the bad guys.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis frames climate-change denial just that way in this clip from the movie Merchants of Doubt.

It’s not just a head thing. This is very much a heart issue. It’s not the science that’s affecting us. I mean, the science is pretty clear. It’s something else that’s causing this rejection. Many conservatives, I think, see that action on climate change is really an attack on a way of life.

The reason that we need the science to be wrong is otherwise we realize that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow, that the whole way I’ve created my life is wrong, you’re saying? That I shouldn’t have this house in the suburb? I shouldn’t be driving this car? That I take my kids to soccer? And you’re not going to tell me to live the way that you want me to live.

And along come some people sowing some doubt, and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.

So: personal interest leads to social identification with the people who share those interests; maintaining social identity prevents the examination of notions that would threaten our way of life, leading to flawed ideology; the false information contained in that ideology can be activated and reinforced by propaganda that may contain no false information of its own; with the result that freedom, fairness, and equality seem to demand the maintenance of our unfair and unequal advantages — “You’re not going to tell me to live the way you want me to live.” — even if it ultimately means that others will have their freedom diminished. The resulting beliefs are then almost impossible to refute with evidence, because such an argument is tied to a threat to the believer’s community and social identity.

[Propaganda is a topic the Sift returns to every now and then. My favorite previous articles in this series are “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation” and “How Lies Work“.]

Hey, Nerds! Politics is a System. Figure it out.

What 20th-century high school taught me about 21st-century politics.

I’m even older than David Roberts (who recently posted the very important article “Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.“), so I also grew up in the days before nerds became cool.

Let’s just be friends, R2.

In the popular action dramas of my youth, nerds were never the heroes. We had no equivalent of, say, Neo from The Matrix or Hiro Hamada from Big Hero 6. At best, the heroes we were offered were jocks open-minded enough to tolerate the occasional nerdy associate or sidekick, like 007’s Q or Captain Kirk’s Spock. (Nerds particularly loved Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch, because he knocked people out by knowing stuff about physiology rather than decking them with a right cross.) Even in the defining nerd-fanboy film of my college years, the jockiest character (Han Solo) was a hunky action hero while the nerdiest (R2D2) was a beeping blinking machine. No matter how many times he saved the day, was there ever a chance R2 would get the girl?

20th-century high-school nerds. One thing I remember clearly about the uncool nerd subculture of my youth: We were bitter about our unpopularity. We returned the disdain of high-school society with interest, and saw its social system as a scummy, irrational thing. Figuring out its rules and mastering its processes was beneath us, no matter how much we wished we could enjoy its fruits (or at least stop being its victims).

So we told ourselves and each other that it wasn’t a system at all. There was nothing to know about how to dress or make conversation, no reason to map the social structure or look for possible points of entry, nothing to gain from identifying and cultivating potential allies.

We weren’t just un-strategic about the society around us, we were anti-strategic. If you had taken 16-year-old me aside and tried to explain how things worked and how they could work to my advantage (if I mastered the appropriate skills), I would have argued with you: High school society represented pure irrationality. That fact was the only thing worth knowing about it. Imagining otherwise wasn’t a necessary pre-condition to figuring stuff out, it was surrender. I’d be opening my pristine mind to corrupting nonsense.

21st-century nerds and politics. I have it on good authority that high school isn’t that way any more, at least in the professional-class suburbs. I’ve watched a math geek and a dungeon master go through public high school. Each has had a diverse group of friends — i.e., not just the chess club — and girl friends whose attractiveness to non-nerds went well beyond any aspiration of mine at that age. (There must have been jocks who wanted to go out with these young women, but couldn’t raise their interest.)

Despite that progress, though, Roberts’ article points to an arena where the familiar patterns of my youth still apply: politics.

The text for Roberts’ sermon is the nerdy Wait But Why blog of Harvard-educated Tim Urban, particularly a 26K-word post about the history of cars and energy and climate change that Urban wrote at the request of arch-nerd Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Climate change is Roberts’ bailiwick (I’ve often quoted from climate-change articles he wrote for Grist before moving to Vox), so he read Urban’s long post with great interest, and mostly approved.

Except for one thing: politics. Urban expresses a disdain for politics that is common, not just among the current generation of nerds, but among young people in general:

I’m not political because nothing could ever possibly be more annoying than American politics. I think both parties have good points, both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things, and I want nothing to do with it. So I approached this post—like I try to with every post—from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.

Roberts comments:

Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I’m looking at you, Larry Lessig). And it’s a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they’re figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way. They need to develop that tree trunk knowledge that enables them to contextualize new political information. Currently, they lack a good tree trunk, as Urban’s post demonstrates.

Unexamined frames. Instead, presumably because he wants “nothing to do” with politics, Urban doesn’t look too hard at his basic political frames, like this one:

Here, Republicans and Democrats are symmetrically distributed around a rational center, with mirror-image crazy zones at the extreme left and right. If you picture the political spectrum this way, then it’s obvious what you hope for: Rational moderates on each side should get together, reject their crazy compatriots, and construct a reasonable compromise around known realities and theories supported by evidence. The fact that this almost never happens just emphasizes how irrational politicians are, and why nerds like Urban want nothing to do with them.

Roberts points out the embedded assumption:

That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.”

He offers a counter-narrative: In current American politics, the center isn’t defined by shared rationality, but by money and power. As a result, when we do have the kind of bipartisanship Urban would like to see, it’s not rational, it’s corporate. He illustrates with climate change:

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The ones talking about ambitious policy to address climate change are mostly out in what Urban has labeled crazy zones.

Two asymmetric parties. Political-science research — there really is such a thing — has shown that the two parties are not mirror images, but “different beasts entirely”. Republicans are united by ideology (or abstract principles, if you prefer a less pejorative formulation), while the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups each of which centers on a particular issue and its corresponding policies — immigration reform with a path to citizenship, Blacks Lives Matter, feminism, the environment. Democrats represent growing urban-centered demographics that can be discouraged from voting and gerrymandered out of full representation in the House, while Republicans are mostly older, better-off whites who are no longer numerous enough to control the presidency (if Democratic constituencies vote).

So that’s where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it’s gridlock.

Roberts illustrates with a policy that Urban thinks is so sensible that it should appeal across the political spectrum: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that fights global warming without shifting money from the private sector to the public sector. Roberts characterizes Urban’s expectation as “political naiveté” resulting from envisioning politics “as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met.”

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever.

Who’s crazy now? If Urban wants to further the goals he espouses, he needs a better understanding of where he is:

Urban supports what Musk is trying to do, which is accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. As it happens, out of America’s two major political parties, about a half of one of them supports that undertaking. That half a party is concentrated on the Democratic Party’s left flank, over in Urban’s crazy zone. Turns out he’s in that crazy zone too, but he doesn’t realize it.

Use your powers for good. Roberts closes with a plea for nerds to direct their nerdly powers of intellectual hyper-focus towards politics:

There is no subject more ripe for the dissection of an obsessive nerd than American politics. It is ridden with myths and outdated conventional wisdom. And the kind of people who read Wait But Why are among those most in need of tree trunk knowledge of politics.

Nerds want to make the world better, but they cannot do so without allies in the public sector. They should roll up their sleeves, hold their noses, and try to get a better sense of the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life. Only when they understand politics, and figure out how to make it work better, will all their dreams find their way into the real world.

I’ll amplify that with my own perspective: The biggest weakness of the nerd mindset is a tendency to fall in love with a vision of how the world ought to work, and (from that Olympian height) to pass negative judgment on the world as it is. Once you do that, you’ve cut yourself off from constructive action and made yourself powerless. Having decided that the World-That-Is is not worth understanding, you will never learn its rules or master its mechanisms.

When my generation of nerds did that with the social system of high school, it didn’t work out well for us. If the current generation of nerds cops a similar attitude towards politics, it won’t work out well for them either — or for a world that desperately needs well-intentioned people who can understand and organize complex systems.

Countdown to Augustus

Losing the Republic one day at a time

About once a year, I recommend that Sift readers take a look at Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels. It covers the final century of the Roman Republic, from the rise of Gaius Marius to the establishment of the Empire under Caesar Augustus. I recommend the series not just because it’s a good yarn (which it is), but because it’s a cautionary tale about how republics are lost.

Your high school world history class probably gave you a highlight-reel version of the fall of the Roman Republic — crossing the Rubicon and all that — but didn’t really cover the century-long erosion of public trust that made the big rockslides inevitable.

The highlight reel may have left you with the impression that at a few key moments, individuals failed or made bad, self-serving decisions: If Cicero and Cato had carried the day, if Julius Caesar didn’t march on Rome, if Octavian had restored the power of the Senate after Actium rather than becoming Emperor… everything would have worked out. And so people who apply the Roman model to the American Republic usually end up matching personalities: Who is our Caesar, our Cicero, our Brutus? Is there a parallel between FDR’s four terms and Marius’ seven consulships? Between the assassinations of the Kennedies and of the Gracchi brothers? And so on.

That’s a fun party conversation for history geeks, but the closer (and scarier) match is in the steady erosion of political norms.

As Chris Hayes has observed on several occasions (at around the 3:30 mark here, for example), republics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

For the last few decades, we’ve been in a Romanesque downward spiral of norm-skirting. One side does something that just isn’t done, but calibrates it to avoid a rush of public anger. And the other side responds by doing something else that isn’t (or didn’t used to be) done.

One example has been growing use of the filibuster in the Senate. Once an arcane device that showed up more often in movies than in the Capitol, the filibuster is now in such constant use that journalists now write as if the Constitution required 60 Senate votes to pass a law. The brand new use of the filibuster not just to block the passage of laws but to nullify laws already passed (by blocking appointments to the agencies that enforce those laws) led the Obama administration to push the boundaries of recess appointments, which then led the courts to push the boundaries of their norms against getting involved in political conflicts between the executive and legislative branches.

Another example is impeachment. When Democrats began an impeachment process against President Nixon  in 1974, both parties proceeded somberly and with utmost caution, because the only precedent, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, wasn’t something to take pride in. By contrast, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton in 1998-1999 had a circus atmosphere; Republicans were giddy that one of their endless investigations had turned up something they could exaggerate into an impeachable offense. Today, Tea Party Republicans see the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense as a technicality. This August, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) told his constituents that impeaching President Obama would be a “dream come true” except for the annoying little detail that “you’ve got to have evidence” and he doesn’t have any.

That follows a pattern that a Masters of Rome reader easily recognizes: The rules give an explicit power to some office, along with the implicit duty to wield that power to achieve a particular public purpose. But as the erosion of norms proceeds, the power becomes something the officeholder owns, and can use however he likes. So Congress was given the impeachment power to save the Republic from a president who had been suborned by a foreign power or domestic special interest. But the Tea Party believes a Republican Congress just owns that power to use according to its whims; the hurdle to overcome isn’t assembling the evidence, it’s acquiring the votes.

Similarly, the president has the power to enforce the laws and the Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. More and more, those institutions are coming to own those powers rather than wield them for a public purpose. So the meaning Constitution’s commerce clause changes from one case to the next, according to the whims of the Court’s conservative majority.

An abuse by one branch legitimizes an abuse by another. Congress’ inability to even compose a new immigration law (much less debate it and bring it to a vote) allows President Obama to be the champion of the popular Dreamers by stretching his powers of prosecutorial discretion. The norms of Congress used to allow simple legislative fixes to complex programs during the implementation phase; even if you opposed a program to begin with, you supported improving it once it was already established in law. But the refusal of the Republican House to allow any changes in ObamaCare short of repeal or sabotage has legitimized Obama in pushing the limits of executive orders.

That also is something an MoR reader will recognize: About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

And that brings us to the present showdown over funding the government and managing the debt ceiling. Until Newt Gingrich, government shutdowns were glitches: Congress thought it could get the laws passed in time, but something went wrong and the government had to shut down for a day or two until Congress could get it fixed. With Gingrich the government shutdown became a tactic, comparable to a labor strike closing a factory: Give us what we want, or we’ll shut the place down.

In 1995-96, the public recognized that the norms had been violated and reacted with appropriate anger. Gingrich had to back down, and his partner-in-crime Bob Dole was soundly thrashed by Bill Clinton in the next presidential election.

President Bush’s clashes with Democrats in Congress were bitter, but impeachment and shutdown were never serious threats. With the anti-Obama backlash and the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, government shutdown has again become just another tool in the congressional toolbox. And for the first time, threatening the debt ceiling has become a tactic. Both parties had repeatedly postured over the debt ceiling in the past, but in 2011 it was a brand new norm-violation to demand concessions in exchange for allowing the government to pay debts lawfully incurred. Obama blundered by not standing on principle then, and so we are where we are.

Later today I’ll have more to say about where that is, but right now I just want to point out where it fits in the larger pattern. The Republicans have President Obama in a Roman-style box: He can surrender to this new minority-rule tactic with the prospect of more surrenders in the future, or he can watch havoc unleashed on the financial markets, with unpredictable effects on the American economy, or he can break the norms himself by invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a trillion-dollar coin or choosing which of Congress’s contradictory laws (the appropriations bills or the debt ceiling) he will enforce.

In the short run, the third choice — find your own norms to violate — does the least damage to the country.  But it keeps the countdown-to-Augustus clock ticking. As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely. He may come from either the Left or the Right, but when he arrives the people will cheer — as the people cheered first Julius Caesar and then Caesar Augustus — because the trust they have placed in the Republic has been so badly abused.