Easy Chair — From the January 2014 issue

Donkey Business

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That the Republican Party has worked its way to a lonely and unpopular place is not news. The G.O.P.’s congressional wing has been moving rightward since the 1980s, and in the five years of the present slump they have simply picked up the pace. Once they dealt in unpopular privatization schemes, but today they have graduated to extremely unpopular shutdowns and threats of default, and those among them who hesitate are thrown to the ravening mob. Red is the color of revolution, and today the G.O.P. suffers under its own peculiar Reign of Terror, in which newly arisen extremists continuously outflank the extremists of yesterday — and public opinion be damned.

As sheer spectacle, this Tea Party Thermidor inspires a certain fascination and even amusement in the observer. But the larger question always returns: Why haven’t Democrats made the G.O.P. pay for its widely despised views? Why aren’t they threatening to run up monster victories in even the safest red districts? What combination of incompetence and bad luck allowed the party of Roosevelt to fumble away the House of Representatives in the third year of an economic crisis — and then to keep on losing it even as its standard-bearing president was reelected by a substantial margin?

Let’s find out.

After President Obama’s electoral triumph of 2012, you will recall, Democrats and liberal thinkers rode a momentary surge of demographic righteousness. Their voters made up what they were pleased to call a “coalition of the ascendant”: minority groups whose numbers were increasing rapidly, plus the vaunted millennials. This last group, it turns out, was aptly named. Many of them (and many older Democrats as well) viewed Obama’s victory as a sort of apocalyptic transformation, a final farewell to the old, square America, with all its stupid fixations on God, guns, and gays. Democrats were the face of the coming nation, and their already solid majorities would only grow.

Back then, in those happy weeks of late 2012, everyone could see that the G.O.P.’s day was done. They had become a remnant, a dinosaur faction of disgruntled white people. Plenty of Democrats took it a step further: the G.O.P., they argued, was in fact a party of racists, driven by an irrational hatred for the first black president. Republicans had departed from the realm of the reasonable and were no more approachable than were the segregationists and white supremacists to whom they were so often and so satisfyingly compared. Trying to enlighten or persuade them was a waste of time. The correct attitude toward the G.O.P. was one of complete contempt.

Then something terrible happened. The Republicans didn’t go extinct. After a preposterous series of threats and votes, the party’s congressional posse was able to shut down the federal government and bring the nation to the brink of default — and they did it by intimidating their own elders with fearsome threats of primary challenges from the right. Almost overnight, the tone changed in the liberal sphere. From what inky depths had these coelacanths arisen? Didn’t they know they represented a dying order and that their role was to fade away?

The virtually unanimous explanation: gerrymandering. Across the country, Republicans in state legislatures had dominated the last round of redistricting, in the wake of the 2010 census, and they had redrawn the boundaries of congressional districts to give their side an unfair advantage. But they had done more than this, went the argument — they had insulated themselves from modernity. Those rampaging reptiles in the House hailed from districts where white people predominated, where Democrats were a negligible force and the only conceivable threat would come from people even further to the right. Their very presence in Congress was a fantasy, an electoral will-o’-the-wisp. As proof of this thesis, liberals cited the 2012 vote totals: the Democratic House candidates took more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but they won a distinct minority of House seats.

I have simplified here in order to capture the feel of liberal groupthink as it oscillated over the course of the past year between smugness and panic. It is critical to remember, however, that each of these universally shared conclusions about the G.O.P.’s demise — or its dismaying persistence — was either incomplete, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong.

Take the matter of inevitable Democratic triumph courtesy of demographic change. It is certainly true that Obama prevailed by winning the black vote, the Latino vote, and the millennial vote. It seems only fair to expect that this coalition will deliver victories for many years to come, especially given the decades of electoral beatings Democrats endured in retaliation for taking a stand on civil rights in the 1960s.

But fairness isn’t what counts in politics. As the journalist Rick Perlstein has explained in some detail, recent American history is littered with such confident demographic predictions. In 1964, for example, it wasn’t only Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat that was supposed to have finished the G.O.P. for good — it was also the numerical decline of the farm vote. Then there was the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age to eighteen and which everyone assumed would hand Democrats an enormous bloc of votes. Biggest of all was the slow eclipse of the WASP by the rising “white ethnics” — a shift that was thought to have guaranteed Democratic majorities forever, until those same white ethnics changed their stripes so memorably in the 1960s and 1970s. “No one then bothered to consider,” Perlstein writes, “that voting behavior might not be a trait passed on in the genes, from generation to generation.”

The explosion of bigotry since Obama’s election in 2008 — a matter of utter conviction for commentators ranging from Jonathan Alter to Harry Belafonte — is an equally slender reed upon which to hang the G.O.P.’s vampiric resurgence. To be sure, there is plenty of racial anxiety and prejudice floating around these days, and its ugliest, stupidest manifestations are often seen at Tea Party rallies. And for liberals, obviously, it is helpful to make as much as possible of those manifestations and pin the blame for them on the larger conservative movement. But as an explanation of the unprecedented right turn that so many have taken as a response to the economic disaster that began in 2008, an outpouring of racism simply doesn’t do it.

In a recent scholarly article, the sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza set out to examine why so many Americans reacted to the Big Slump by turning against government intervention in the economy rather than welcoming it, as they always had in the past. A spike in racism was not the explanation for this mysterious trend, Brooks and Manza concluded. Instead, they pointed to the nation’s highly partisan political culture, in which conservatism had driven not only elected officials but also ordinary TV viewers to the far right.

The problem of gerrymandering is similarly incapable of explaining the whole mess. While the power to redraw congressional districts was clearly abused on an enormous scale in the period leading up to the 2012 elections, the effects in this particular congressional election have been much exaggerated. According to the political scientists Eric McGhee and John Sides, one can just as easily attribute the persistence of the Republican House majority to the advantage traditionally enjoyed by incumbent politicians, and to the clustering of Democratic voters in urban areas.

These are quibbles, of course, but my next point is not. What is the pattern that connects these various obsessions of the progressive hivemind — the generational cycle, demographic advantage, racist robots, and gerrymandering?

The answer: each of them is an excuse for doing nothing. Why bother getting out there and building majorities capable of sweeping the G.O.P. out for good? There’s no need, insist Democrats of the optimistic kind, who believe that the impersonal hand of history will soon deliver the world to their doorstep, tied with a bow. (Ralph Nader, who has been observing the progressive collapse for decades, is irked by the demographic argument, which he described to me as “the verbal equivalent of anesthesia for the Democratic party.”) Nor is there much point in persuading Republican voters, because those guys are basically the Klan. Whichever way you choose to see it, it doesn’t make much difference. Pop another can of Duff. Don’t bother getting out of your chair.

The underlying philosophy is one of pure fatalism, of politics as a mechanical process. Everyone’s mind is already made up, insofar as they have minds. Vast forces propel angry white men this way and people under thirty that way. You and I can watch and deplore; we can blog and fund-raise, but we can’t do much more than that. Futility is a way of life for us.

1 This is a curious inversion of the conservatives’ own myth of the liberal elite, in which liberals are actually endowed with a kind of occult power that transcends democracy itself, scrubbing Ten Commandments monuments by fiat and subliminally fiddling with the people’s mores via PBS and George Clooney.

The only faction really possessed of true human agency, according to this way of looking at things, is the right.1 These days, of course, it is mainly the negative actions of the right that we think about, as conservatives unleash ever crazier schemes, from the government shutdown to voter-I.D. laws. We watch them embark on these bogus journeys and hope for the best — meaning that the buffoons will “overreach” and send a greater fraction of people running into the Democrats’ arms than would run there ordinarily.

But it’s the positive actions the right has taken over the years that we ought really to remember. These are people who do not count solely on demographics to deliver their results — they can’t, since they’re defending a system that truly benefits only a few. As we have learned repeatedly, conservatism must be entrepreneurial in order to succeed; it must organize, proselytize, demonize. Just think of the movements and pseudomovements they have drummed up since the 1970s, bringing people together to oppose the Panama Canal treaty, or to raise money for the contras, or to rally behind poor, brave Ollie North. You would think the conservative base would have been exhausted by that run — but on they go, signing up for Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots. By now even the Heritage Foundation seems to have remade itself, turning an old-school think tank into a fake-populist agitprop bureau, sponsoring town-hall meetings across the country.

Not only are they entrepreneurial at the bottom, but they’re entrepreneurial at the top. The most famous example would be Newt Gingrich and his moment of glory in 1994. The glib Georgian first confronted his own party’s complacent leadership in the House of Representatives, then tirelessly orchestrated the defeat of the Democratic majority, a partisan institution that had stood since 1931 (with just two brief interruptions). Whatever you think of Gingrich, it’s hard not to credit his audacity, whose toxic consequences we live with to this very day.

The difference between conservative culture and progressivism couldn’t be more stark. They read the RedState blog and refresh their anger; we read Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and learn the exact statistical odds of an Obama victory in North Carolina. They are all would-be organizers, alternately Sam Adams or Saul Alinsky (the enemy they love to emulate). On my side, those figures are barely remembered; the model for progressives today is academia. What we organize is panel discussions. We parse the numbers. We review the scientific literature on how the conservative mind works. We imagine ourselves as crusading journalists, exposing corporate evil for an audience of other crusading journalists, all of us sharing drinks at a new “political salon” in New York City called Tarbell, whose stated goal is to harness “the power of cocktails” — craft cocktails, that is — “to rebuild the progressive infrastructure.”2

2 Tarbell also sells high-end chocolates “emblazoned with the visages of some of our favorite muckrakers.” For a mere thirty dollars plus shipping, you can enjoy a Pimm’s-flavored Upton Sinclair or the house truffle, the Ida Tarbell (lemon, cognac, aperol).

Being on the left is about good taste and personal intellectual rectitude. The idea is to summon the right answers for the Big Exam and to castigate the dunces who get them wrong. And after watching progressive organizations in action for most of my adult life, I’ve started to think that the main reason lefties join social movements is in order to kick everyone else out of them.

So how can Democrats play the present situation differently? Suppose they were able to wake themselves up, rise from their chairs, and actually do something other than wait for the world to come their way. How then might they challenge the forty-odd House Republicans who have, as the Washington Post puts it, “consistently pushed their caucus to brinkmanship over the past several years”?

Well, they might start by taking note of the factors mentioned in the Post’s next sentence: “On average, the economy in the districts those Republicans represent is significantly worse than it is in the nation at large.” Unemployment is higher. Median income is lower. Jobs still haven’t come back, despite the so-called recovery.

People who live in these places are desperate, as we hear again and again. They are struggling through an economic catastrophe that never seems to end. Is there nothing that liberals might offer them in their situation? Nothing that could persuade these voters to turn away from a party of sabotage and market-worship and tax cuts for the rich, nothing that might make all the gerrymandering in Texas as futile as drilling for oil in Iowa?

I acknowledge that craft cocktails probably won’t do it. But unless the human mind itself has slipped its moorings (which perhaps it has), such places ought to have plenty of citizens willing to listen to traditional liberal messages. Just looking back at what I have written about in this space over the past three years, I can’t help but think that a higher minimum wage might sound good to people toiling for pennies, or that a massive public-works program might appeal to the unemployed. So would an expansion of Obamacare that covers everybody as a matter of course. Even small-business owners might appreciate that one. Organize a movement around these issues; make them ubiquitous; then let’s see how well gerrymandering protects those Republican stegosaurs.

The problem is that Democrats aren’t really interested in such an effort. Most of the congressional contingent is “worthless,” says Nader, when it comes to building a movement. And he’s right. Consider what the Democrats actually propose to those hard-bitten red-state voters: exciting measures like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new free-trade deal whose details the Obama Administration is negotiating in secret. They’re also talking big about that old favorite, “entitlement reform” — which is to say, cutting Social Security — an idea that has received a shiny new coat of paint courtesy of those ebullient millennials (or, rather, the pundits who presume to speak for them).

Back in 2004, I wrote about a place where the “gravity of discontent” pulled people to the right — and thrust them down the path to destruction. I meant to describe what I saw in that Midwestern place as an aberration. Today the gravity of discontent seems to work that way just about everywhere. But before the people on my side set out to criticize the forces that have done this to the country, they need to spend a few minutes looking in the mirror.

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