The Shifting Political Ground

Eugene Robinson:

Both major parties are in crisis, and I believe the reason is that the ground has shifted beneath them in ways they do not understand. Until the contours of the new political landscape become clear and the parties reshape themselves accordingly, I fear that chaos and turmoil will reign as the new normal.

Yeah, pretty much. For example, you’ve got one party that is hell bent on pushing through a tax cut plan that fewer than a third of Americans support. Why is that?

A couple of days ago, Jim Tankersley and Thomas Kaplan wrote in the New York Times that Tax Cuts Are the Glue Holding a Fractured Republican Party Together. Tax cuts appear to be the only issue they can still rally around, and passing a massive tax cut bill is, for them, something like having a baby to save a failing marriage. That rarely works, I understand.

Paul Waldman wrote pretty much the same thing in WaPo.

… what’s important isn’t so much the details of legislation but that this Congress pass something. They failed in their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so they have to cut taxes, not just because it’s an eternal Republican priority but because it constitutes doing something big. Otherwise their voters will decide they’re ineffectual and weak, which is what those voters thought of them during the Obama years, and part of what led to the nomination of Donald Trump.

“The attitude of the conservative base is,’‘If they don’t do this, they’re worthless,’” says Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation. Or as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham put it, “If you care about the Republican Party we better produce because those who put us here have had it with us.”

This is the more powerful theory, because Republicans in Congress went through years of being yelled at by tea partyers demanding to know why they had failed to repeal the ACA, make America immigrant-free and banish Barack Obama to the Phantom Zone. This was mostly those establishment Republicans’ own fault, since they pretended to those voters that they could resist Obama in ways that they knew were impossible as long as he was president, but over time — and with a few primary losses of their colleagues — the fear of their base became part of their psychology.

Of course, behind the scenes you’ve got people like the Club for Growth and the Koch Brothers calling the shots. That probably has more to do with it than fear of retribution of voters. Otherwise, it makes no sense that the only legislation they can rally around is unpopular with their own voters.

Trump’s plan would balloon the deficit and add to the $20 trillion national debt. … Among Republicans surveyed, 63 percent said deficit reduction should take priority over tax cuts for corporations, while 75 percent said deficit reduction should take priority over tax cuts for the wealthy.

Needless to say, Democrats were even more against the tax plan. But it’s pretty obvious there’s a huge disconnect between the Republican voter base and the stuff Republicans actually do when you let them run the government. That’s been true for a long time, but Republicans are good at distraction — look! There’s a black guy in the White House! And Hillary Clinton!

Robinson continues,

Trump is large and in charge of the Republican Party because he’s more in touch with the base than the GOP establishment is — which means the party’s leaders have lost contact with the country.

But meanwhile, where are the Democrats? Basically nowhere.

The Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), are better at politics and basic arithmetic than their Republican counterparts. This fact has given Democrats more power in Congress than they deserve.

But the party managed to lose a presidential election to a man who had never been elected to public office, who slandered Mexican immigrants as rapists, who used African Americans and Latinos as foils to help him stoke feelings of grievance among whites, and who bragged about sexually harassing and assaulting random women. You lost to that guy, Democrats.

The party of Franklin Roosevelt allowed the GOP to pretend to champion the interests of the working class. Failure to connect with white voters in the Rust Belt is only part of the story of last year’s defeat, and maybe not the most important part. Democrats failed to sufficiently energize their core constituencies — urbanites, African Americans, Latinos, women, young people.

Robinson goes on to say that there’s a big re-alignment going on. And, in my opinion, the biggest fault line is not between liberals and conservatives, but between people who think our forms of economy and government still work, or ever worked, for them, and those who don’t.

The biggest problem Democrats have is that the establishment is populated by people who are too damn satisfied with the way things are, or the way they would be if we didn’t have to constantly fight back right-wing nonsense like cutting people off from health care. Democrats too often see their role merely as protecting existing programs — and the Supreme Court — from Republicans.

The self-satisfied ones, the ones who think there’s nothing broken in the U.S. that just electing more Democrats won’t totally fix, can’t think beyond that. And they’re the ones who control the party.

See, for example, Why “Centrists” Will Sink the Democrats, If They Haven’t Already by Richard Eskow. Democrats “have lost all three branches of the federal government, two-thirds of state houses, and two-thirds of governorships,” he says. Yet they continue to offer the same old nostrums and reject change.

The Democrats have achieved their greatest political and policy successes when they have ignored the “centrists” – in reality, ever-present naysayers who cloak their negativity in the pseudo-technocratic jargon of centrism.  It’s hard to imagine that the New Deal, Medicare, or the Moon Landing would have ever happened if milquetoast Democrats like these had been in charge.

Meanwhile, the old order is crumbling.  73 percent of voters are dissatisfied with the way the country’s being governed, despite topline economic improvements. 61 percent agree with the statement, “Republicans and Democrats have done such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” That’s nearly twice as many as those who feel that the two parties are doing an “adequate” job.

The bipartisan, centrist political consensus is breaking down. That’s not an accident, and it’s not an injustice. It’s the result of repeated failures, both abroad and at home. The question is, what will replace it: something better, or something worse? If Democrats continue to follow the losing ways of the past, we probably won’t like the answer.

Back to Robinson:

We all have a mental image of the political spectrum. On the right, there is the Republican Party with a set of conservative policies — cut taxes, shrink government, limit entitlements, deregulate, etc. On the left, there is the Democratic Party with a set of liberal policies — expand health care, raise wages, regulate Wall Street, promote fairness and so on.

The rise of Trump and Sanders and the fact that some of their campaign positions were identical — we should have health care for all, free-trade pacts have harmed U.S. workers, the “system” is rigged to favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the middle class — suggest to me that the familiar left-right spectrum is no longer an accurate schematic of public opinion.

Here we have to stop and acknowledge that Trump didn’t mean any of that stuff, since he favors the rich and powerful above all else, and he certainly had no plan for health care, whereas Sanders does. But I understand why people were snookered. He said what they wanted to hear, while Clinton offered nothing but bromides. And the racist dog whistles helped.

Today’s key fault lines may be between metropolitan areas and the exurbs and small towns strung along the interstates; between those who have gone to college and those who have not; between families who have benefited from the globalized economy and those who have not; and between an anxious, shrinking white majority and the minority groups that within a couple of decades will constitute more than half the population.

I suspect the younger college-educated crowd might find themselves in more solidarity with working class folks than with the Boomer white collar professional class. I also acknowledge that the racism and other bigotries common among white working-class people is a big hurdle to overcome, but speaking as someone who came from a small town, blue collar and racially segregated background, I know that some people are educable. And to win elections, some will often do.