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.

5 thoughts on “The Shifting Political Ground

  1. A good post on a subject that a book could be written about. A few things stick out in my mind. Teams: There is the republican party machine (and the apparatus that supports it, Koch Bros & CFG) There’s the democratic party machine and its apparatus. Ten there are the voters – republican activist voters, tea party types are in open rebellion against the GOP machine. Democratic activist voters, mostly the Sanders wing are in open rebellion against the DNC. Low information voters on both sides are confused by WTF is going on. There is no center, voters are polarized – even independent voters are highly conservative or highly liberal who refuse to operate within the constraints of a party system. Big, Big point you made Maha. On issues, with voters there’s a lot of agreement about what, if not how. Voters are vastly opposed to the tax cuts the GOP will ram through. Voters want a working health care system – the repel of Obamcare was never popular (without a replacement that would work better.) I fear we are entering a period like that after the French Revolution (which should have produced a democratic utopia) with irrational factonalism and bloodshed which lasted until a madman came to power. (We’re halfway there.)

  2. A minor quibble –

    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.

    Trump came up against the reality of the money power that controls Congress. They managed to get him to eject Bannon, for example. Trump may or may not have meant what he said, but he was simply outmatched by the political power that controls Congress.

    In a sense Trump is their perfect tool. He’s a nasty clown who generates constant spectacles which keeps the country distracted from the disastrous policies the Republicans give to him to sign, which he’s too stupid and self-centered to even care or know about their effects.

    Otherwise a spot-on piece. I especially like –

    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.

    – and the bit of clip-art that follows.

  3. Even though the tax plan is damn near as unpopular as any of their ACA repeal attempts, a reasonable case to pass it anyway can be made supported by the following logic: what with unwavering support of the base, gerrymandering and voter suppression, media willingness to take the bait for every distraction they throw out (and they’re very effective at that) coupled with virtually no effective opposition from the democrats and little action to rile up their own base, they may suffer little if any consequences. Thus it may be worth a shot to pass widely unpopular legislation the business wing of the GOP wants that the nationalist base still thinks will help them somehow, because even after the nationalists find out that Bannon’s “populism” was a con game leaving them screwed, as long as their ravenous hunger for hatred is being sated by Trump, and he’s proven to be a master at that, they’re cool.

    The Trump/GOP is being helped tremendously on two fronts.

    First, there is little if any effective opposition from the democrats. You can tell they’ve doubled down on the 2016 strategy and approach because you hear virtually nothing from them in response to the big issues of the day. And dry as dust emails from Tom Perez asking respondents to “chip in $5” don’t cut it. The basis of that failed approach, same as it was in 2016, is Trump is so bad voters have no choice but to vote for us. They still don’t seem to understand that you have to promote positive reasons to vote for you that make sense to the voters, and not just rely on them to cast a vote against the Trump/GOP.

    Some will say its the media’s fault little if any attention is being paid to the democrats, unless its a story about Clinton. And Clinton is still mostly talking about herself. But the democrats have to have voices out there that are news makers with the effect of “grabbing the mic” so to speak. Sanders, Warren, Biden and others have the ability to do that, but we need to hear more from them. Instead, we get the relatively lame, milquetoast statements designed to provide cover and not upset their own donors, like what we hear from Pelosi, Schumer et al. Watching paint dry is more motivating than listening to them.

    Democrats need to be bold in “telling it like it is” and not be so afraid of having to stand on and defend reality. Be outrageous in telling the truth. For example, Flake, who I give no credit whatsoever since he’s only speaking out now that he is resigning, and still supports Trump legislatively, got attention with his speech. What’s stopping some democrat of stature from doing the same thing? (And maybe resolving whatever the answer is to that question is key to revitalizing the Democratic party) The point of grabbing attention is it puts a narrative out there that, if pounded on, chips a way at the prevailing focus on the far right idiocy being passed off as normal. And it motivates the base and rallies other voters.

    Winning at the polls is our only chance of beating back the dangerous, bigoted and idiotic tide of the Trump/GOP. Outside groups are doing a lot, but the democrats need to start mounting effective political opposition for that to happen.

  4. We have Trump who only had to win Republican primaries ,because his audience wanted Gorsuch and a tax cut. They assumed they would prosper, ignoring the possibility of nuclear war, loss of credibility and what Ryan’s shrink government agenda would actually mean. They assumed only some brown people would be hurt and they didn’t give a shit about the country. Great analysis of Democrats. What we have here is a total lack of leadership.

  5. Couldn't click through to the NYT article (paywall, I've used up my free quota for the month), but the Headline of the Tankersley and Kaplan article ( "Tax Cuts Are the Glue Holding a Fractured Republican Party Together") is just wrong.  I think that's just wishful thinking on the part of the NYT that belongs (or caters) to the Big Money faction of the GOP.  The GOP rank & file – and the WWC Democrats who voted for Trump – may like the idea of lower taxes for themselves, but mostly they've gone GOP for other reasons (Culture Wars/Crusades,  racism, sexism, disgust with Dems).  And GOP Tax "Reform" has always been a bald euphemism for tax-cuts-for-the-rich. 

    I understand why the Democrats cozied up to Wall Street since 1992 ("that's where the money is"), but they shouldn't have sold their souls to the Banksters.  Obama screwed up real bad by not prosecuting the bastards who blew up the economy, imagining that "Too Big to Fail" implied "Too Big to Jail". 

    I was surprised to see that DOJ has FINALLY busted a Banker:

    …and really annoyed that this happened now rather than under Obama.  I think doing this in 2008 would have earned the Democrats millions of votes for decades, and we wouldn't be in this mess now.  Was it active collusion?  I hope not.  More likely, it's mere timidity, which has become the core instinct of the Democratic Party.   AAAaaarrrrgh!

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