Regular readers of this blog know that I generally avoid partisan politics in the essays posted here. There are several reasons for that unpopular habit, but the most important of them is that we don’t actually have partisan politics in today’s America, except in a purely nominal sense. It’s true that politicians by and large group themselves into one of two parties, which make a great show of their rivalry on a narrow range of issues. Get past the handful of culture-war hot buttons that give them their favorite opportunities for grandstanding, though, and you’ll find an ironclad consensus, especially on those issues that have the most to say about the future of the United States and the world.
It’s popular on the disaffected fringes of both parties to insist that the consensus in question comes solely from the other side; dissident Democrats claim that Democratic politicians have basically adopted the GOP platform, while disgruntled Republicans claim that their politicians have capitulated to the Democratic agenda. Neither of these claims, as it happens, are true. Back when the two parties still stood for something, for example, Democrats in Congress could be counted on to back organized labor and family farmers against their corporate adversaries and to fight attempts on the part of bankers to get back into the speculation business, while their opposite numbers in the GOP were ferocious in their opposition to military adventurism overseas and government expansion at home.
Nowadays? The Democrats long ago threw their former core constituencies under the bus and ditched the Depression-era legislation that stopped kleptocratic bankers from running the economy into the ground, while the Republicans decided that they’d never met a foreign entanglement or a government handout they didn’t like—unless, of course, the latter benefited the poor. An ever more intrusive and metastatic bureaucratic state funneling trillions to corrupt corporate interests, an economic policy made up primarily of dishonest statistics and money-printing operations, and a monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy: that’s the bipartisan political consensus in Washington DC these days, and it’s a consensus that not all that long ago would have been rejected with volcanic fury by both parties if anyone had been so foolish as to suggest it.
The gap between the current Washington consensus and the former ideals of the nation’s political parties, not to mention the wishes of the people on whose sovereign will the whole system is supposed to depend, has attracted an increasing amount of attention in recent years. That’s driven quite a bit of debate, and no shortage of fingerpointing, about the origins and purposes of the policies that are welded into place in US politics these days. On the left, the most popular candidates just now for the position of villainous influence behind it all mostly come from the banking industry; on the right, the field is somewhat more diverse; and there’s no shortage of options from further afield.
Though I know it won’t satisfy those with a taste for conspiracy theory, I’d like to suggest a simpler explanation. The political consensus in Washington DC these days can best be characterized as an increasingly frantic attempt, using increasingly risky means, to maintain business as usual for the political class at a time when “business as usual” in any sense of that phrase is long past its pull date. This, in turn, is largely the product of the increasingly bleak corner into which past policies have backed this country, but it’s also in part the result of a massively important but mostly unrecognized turn of events: by and large, neither the contemporary US political class nor anyone else with a significant presence in American public life seems to be able to imagine a future that differs in any meaningful way from what we’ve got right now.
I’d like to take a moment here to look at that last point from a different angle, with the assistance of that tawdry quadrennial three-ring circus now under way, which will sooner or later select the next inmate for the White House. For anyone who enjoys the spectacle of florid political dysfunction, the 2016 presidential race promises to be the last word in target-rich environments. The Republican party in particular has flung itself with creditable enthusiasm into the task of taking my circus metaphor as literally as possible—what, after all, does the GOP resemble just at the moment, if not one of those little cars that roll out under the big top and fling open the doors, so that one clown after another can come tumbling out into the limelight?
They’ve already graced the electoral big top with a first-rate collection of clowns, too. There’s Donald Trump, whose campaign is shaping up to be the loudest invocation of pure uninhibited führerprinzip since, oh, 1933 or so; there’s Scott Walker, whose attitudes toward working Americans suggest that he’d be quite happy to sign legislation legalizing slavery if his rich friends asked him for it; there’s—well, here again, “target-rich environment” is the phrase that comes forcefully to mind. The only people who have to be sweating just now, other than ordinary Americans trying to imagine any of the current round of GOP candidates as the titular leader of their country, are gag writers for satiric periodicals such as The Onion, who have to go to work each day and face the brutally unforgiving task of coming up with something more absurd than the press releases and public statements of the candidates in question.
Still, I’m going to leave those tempting possibilities alone for the moment, and focus on a much more dreary figure, since she and her campaign offer a useful glimpse at the yawning void beneath what’s left of the American political system. Yes, that would be Hillary Clinton, the officially anointed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that she’ll lose this campaign the way she lost the 2008 race, and for the same reason: neither she nor her handlers seem to have notice that she’s got to offer the American people some reason to want to vote for her.
In a way, Clinton is the most honest of the current crop of presidential candidates, though this is less a matter of personal integrity than of sheer inattention. I frankly doubt that the other candidates have a single noble motive for seeking office among them, but they have at least realized that they have to go through the motions of having convictions and pursuing policies they think are right. Clinton and her advisers apparently didn’t get that memo, and as a result, she’s not even going through the motions. Her campaign basically consists of posing for the cameras, dodging substantive questions, uttering an assortment of vague sound bites to encourage the rich friends who are backing her, and making plans for her inauguration, as though there wasn’t an election to get through first.
Still, there’s more going on here than the sheer incompetence of a campaign that hasn’t yet noticed that a sense of entitlement isn’t a qualification for office. The deeper issue that will doom the Clinton candidacy can be phrased as a simple question: does anyone actually believe for a moment that electing Hillary Clinton president will change anything that matters?
Those other candidates who are getting less tepid responses from the voters than Clinton are doing so precisely because a significant number of voters think that electing one of them will actually change something. The voters in question are wrong, of course. Barack Obama is the wave of the future here as elsewhere; after his monumentally cynical 2008 campaign, which swept him into office on a torrent of vacuous sound bites about hope and change, he proceeded to carry out exactly the same domestic and foreign policies we’d have gotten had George W. Bush served two more terms. Equally, whoever wins the 2016 election will keep those same policies in place, because those are the policies that have the unanimous support of the political class; it’s just that everybody but Clinton will do their level best to pretend that they’re going to do something else, as Obama did, until the day after the election.
Those policies will be kept in place, in turn, because any other choice would risk pulling the plug on a failing system. I’m not at all sure how many people outside the US have any idea just how frail and brittle the world’s so-called sole hyperpower is just at this moment. To borrow a point made trenchantly some years back by my fellow blogger Dmitry Orlov, the US resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union in the years just before the Berlin Wall came down: a grandiose international presence, backed by a baroque military arsenal and an increasingly shrill triumphalist ideology, perched uneasily atop a hollow shell of a society that has long since tipped over the brink into economic and cultural freefall.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the other candidates in the running for the 2016 election will change anything that matters, in turn, because any change that isn’t strictly cosmetic risks bringing the entire tumbledown, jerry-rigged structure of American political and economic power crashing down around everyone’s ears. That’s why, to switch examples, Barack Obama a few days ago brought out with maximum fanfare a new energy policy that consists of doing pretty much what his administration has been doing for the last six years already, as though doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different result wasn’t a good functional definition of insanity. Any other approach to energy and climate change, or any of a hundred other issues, risks triggering a crisis that the United States can’t survive in its current form—and the fact that such a crisis is going to happen sooner or later anyway just adds spice to the bubbling pot.
The one thing that can reliably bring a nation through a time of troubles of the sort we’re facing is a vision of a different future, one that appeals to enough people to inspire them to unite their energies with those of the nation’s official leadership, and put up with the difficulties of the transition. That’s what got the United States through its three previous existential crises: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. In each case, when an insupportable status quo finally shattered, enough of the nation united around a charismatic leader, and a vision of a future that was different from the present, to pull some semblance of a national community through the chaos.
We don’t have such a vision in American politics now. To an astonishing degree, in fact, American culture has lost the ability to imagine any future that isn’t simply an endless rehash of the present—other, that is, than the perennially popular fantasy of apocalyptic annihilation, with or without the salvation of a privileged minority via Rapture, Singularity, or what have you. That’s a remarkable change for a society that not so long ago was brimming with visionary tomorrows that differed radically from the existing order of things. It’s especially remarkable in that the leftward end of the American political spectrum, the end that’s nominally tasked with the job of coming up with new visions, has spent the last forty years at the forefront of the flight from alternative futures.
I’m thinking here, as one example out of many, of an event I attended a while back, put together by one of the longtime names of the American left, and featuring an all-star cast of equally big names in what passes for environmentalism and political radicalism these days. With very few exceptions, every one of the speakers put their time on the podium into vivid descriptions of the villainy of the designated villains and all the villainous things they were going to do unless they were stopped. It was pretty grueling; at the end of the first full day, going up the stairs to the street level, I watched as a woman turned to a friend and said, “Well, that just about makes me want to go out and throw myself off a bridge”—and neither the friend nor anybody else argued.
Let’s take a closer look, though, at the strategy behind the event. Was there, at this event, any real discussion of how to stop the villains in question, other than a rehash of proposals that have failed over and over again for the last four decades? Not that I heard. Did anyone offer some prospect other than maintaining the status quo endlessly against the attempts of the designated villains to make things worse? Not only was there nothing of the kind, I heard backchannel from more than one participant that the organizer had a long history of discouraging anybody at his events from offering the least shred of that sort of hope.
Dismal as it was, the event was worth attending, as it conducted an exact if unintentional autopsy of the corpse of the American left, and made the cause of death almost impossible to ignore. At the dawn of the Reagan era, to be specific, most of the movements in this country that used to push for specific goals on the leftward end of things stopped doing so, and redefined themselves in wholly reactive and negative terms: instead of trying to enact their own policies, they refocused entirely on trying to stop the enactment of opposing policies by the other side. By and large, they’re still at it, even though the results have amounted to four decades of nearly unbroken failure, and the few successes—such as the legalization of same-sex marriage—were won by pressure groups unconnected to, and usually unsupported by, the professional activists of the official left.
There are at least two reasons why a strategy of pure reaction, without any coherent attempt to advance an agenda of its own or even a clear idea of what that agenda might be, has been a fruitful source of humiliation and defeat for the American left. The first is that this approach violates one of the most basic rules of strategy: you win when you seize the initiative and force the other side to respond to your actions, and you lose by passively responding to whatever the other side comes up with. In any contest, without exception, if you surrender the initiative and let the other side set the terms of the conflict, you’re begging to be beaten, and will normally get your wish in short order.
That in itself is bad enough. A movement that defines itself in purely negative terms, though, and attempts solely to prevent someone else’s agenda from being enacted rather than pursuing a concrete agenda of its own, suffers from another massive problem: the best such a movement can hope for is a continuation of the status quo, because the only choice it offers is the one between business as usual and something worse. That’s fine if most people are satisfied with the way things are, and are willing to fling themselves into the struggle for the sake of a set of political, economic, and social arrangements that they consider worth fighting for.
I’m not sure why so many people on the leftward end of American politics haven’t noticed that this is not the case today. One hypothesis that comes to mind is that by and large, the leftward end of the American political landscape is dominated by middle class and upper middle class white people from the comparatively prosperous coastal states. Many of them belong to the upper 20% by income of the American population, and the rest aren’t far below that threshold. The grand bargain of the Reagan years, by which the middle classes bought a guarantee of their wealth and privilege by letting their former allies in the working classes get thrown under the bus, has profited them hugely, and holding onto what they gained by that maneuver doubtless ranks high on their unstated list of motives—much higher, certainly, than pushing for a different future that might put their privileges in jeopardy.
The other major power bloc that supports the American left these days offers an interesting lesson in the power of positive goals. That bloc is made up of certain relatively disadvantaged ethnic groups, above all the African-American community. The Democratic party has been able to hold the loyalty of most African-Americans through decades of equivocation, meaningless gestures, and outright betrayal, precisely because it can offer them a specific vision of a better future: that is, a future in which Americans of African ancestry get treated just like white folk. No doubt it’ll sink in one of these days that the Democratic party has zero interest in actually seeing that future arrive—if that happened, after all, it would lose one of the most reliable of its captive constituencies—but until that day arrives, the loyalty of the African-American community to a party that offers them precious little but promises is a testimony to the power of a positive vision for the future.
That’s something that the Democratic party doesn’t seem to be able to offer anyone else in America, though. Even on paper, what have the last half dozen or so Democratic candidates for president offered? Setting aside crassly manipulative sound bites of the “hope and change” variety, it’s all been attempts to keep things going the way they’ve been going, bracketed with lurid threats about the GOP’s evil plans to make things so much worse. That’s why, for example, the Democratic party has been eager to leap on climate change as a campaign issue, even though their performance in office on that issue is indistinguishable from that of the Republicans they claim to oppose: it’s easy to frame climate change as a conflict between keeping things the way they are and making them much worse, and that’s basically the only tune the American left knows how to play these days.
The difficulty, of course, is that after forty years of repeated and humiliating failure, the Democrats and the other leftward movements in American political life are caught in a brutal vise of their own making. On the one hand, very few people actually believe any more that the left is capable of preventing things from getting worse. There’s good reason for that lack of faith, since a great many things have been getting steadily worse for the majority of Americans since the 1970s, and the assorted technological trinkets and distractions that have become available since then don’t do much to make up for the absence of stable jobs with decent wages, functioning infrastructure, affordable health care, and all the other amenities that have gone gurgling down the nation’s drain since then.
Yet there’s another factor, of course, as hinted above. If the best you can offer the voters is a choice between what they have now and something worse, and what they have now is already pretty wretched, you’re not likely to get much traction. That’s the deeper issue behind the unenthusiastic popular response to Hillary Clinton’s antics, and I’d like to suggest it’s also what’s behind Donald Trump’s success in the polls—no matter how awful a president he’d be, the logic seems to run, at least he’d be different. When a nation reaches that degree of impatience with a status quo no one with access to power is willing to consider changing, an explosion is not far away.
Photo credit: "Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 3" by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.