Looking Back at 2015: Politics

by Michael Sean Winters

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Today, I would like to begin a retrospective of the year that is fast coming to an end. This blog looks at religion and politics, and the estuary where they intersect, so I will break my look back into two posts. This morning, let’s look back at the year in politics.

The rap on American politics has long been that it is about interests and not ideas. Our famously anti-intellectual bent, however, contained a blessing: People negotiate interests and will go to war about ideas, and so our domestic politics has been largely pacific. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discerned a pattern in the battle of interests, arguing that normally, the moneyed interest is the most powerful in American politics but, over time, every generation or so, the pursuit of those interests left other important claims on the nation’s politics unmet, and so progressivism would step forward and assert the claims of the non-moneyed interests.

Writing in 1945, before the rise of popular culture, Schlesinger could not foresee that Americans in the non-moneyed classes would be co-opted, infantilized actually, reduced from the status of citizen to the status of consumer, and that this reduction would, in turn, make them more malleable to causes not their own. We live in a political world today that is the product of that reduction, in which neither ideas or interests dominate, but vanity, mere vanity.

No one, including myself, predicted this time last year that the political landscape would give such concrete evidence of this decline, all of it for the worst, in the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure of the first order. Since he announced his candidacy for the presidency last summer, he has dominated the political conversation. That dominance is largely attributable to confluence of cultural forces: Our celebrity culture, which conflates personality with news, our media culture, which is driven by ratings, and our political culture, which has been seething for years with anger, much of it inexplicable and some of it not, all have combined to make the Trump phenomenon possible. Whatever else you say about the man, he is a master of manipulation in the public square.

And what has Trump accomplished with this extraordinary ability to dominate public discourse? He has made that discourse uglier, more vicious and more vacuous than at any time in my lifetime. His politics are the politics of scapegoating: All that is wrong is somebody else’s fault, mostly immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. Nativism has a long history in this country, but even a cursory look at demographic trends shows the limits of its appeal. I confess I am a bit surprised at the currency it has achieved, surprised and scared. Are we Americans really such a hateful people?

Trump also encourages what has long been the principal moral defect of the contemporary Republican Party, its propensity to view the world through a largely economic lens, to see “winners” and “losers,” and to equate economic success with moral virtue. This, too, has a long, sad history in American history, but it got worse when Republicans started reading Hayek and Rand. This past weekend, I had occasion to recall, and read again, this brilliant essay by Leon Wieseltier about Paul Ryan in 2012. It perfectly captures the ugly moral analysis of mainstream GOP thinking, and the superficiality of that thinking too.

The link between the Trump and the mainstream is a distorted individualism, an erroneous autonomy, that does not add up to a viable politics. But, mainstream Republicans were always conscious of the danger of overstepping, at least rhetorically, and they knew that their proposals would have to be modified in negotiations with Democrats. For Trump, every time you think he has gone too far, he simply rises in the polls. Restraint is not in his toolkit. Judgment is not in his repertoire. Empathy is not in his heart.

I would give a limb to hear what someone like Sen. Mitch McConnell really thinks about the current state of the GOP nominating contest. He must be terrified. Not since Barry Goldwater secured the Republican nomination has the GOP faced the kind of debacle that appears headed their way. If Sen. Ted Cruz were to vault ahead of Trump, that would be little comfort to McConnell, and even he must know that Sen. Marco Rubio is a pretty boy, lacking in gravitas, a mouthpiece for the ideas of others. And, realistically, those are the only three contenders with a real shot at the prize.

None of the contenders in either party, with the sole exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders, has diagnosed the core domestic problem facing the country, the unbalanced economic outcomes that reward the billionaire class, while the middle class disappears, the ranks of the working poor grow, and the loss of social capital reifies these disparities, condemning future generations to a life largely dictated by their zip code at birth. The Republicans think that de-regulation and lower taxes will fix this endemic problem. Democrats worry more about treating the symptoms than the disease and, when push comes to shove, will go to the mat for Planned Parenthood but not, for example, to help stave of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

And, Sen. Sanders has not mustered a majority, even within the Democratic Party, to confront the problem he correctly diagnoses, and his own allergy to religious language and moral analysis deprives him of some constituencies he would need to be able to deliver some remedies. Whoever puts her hand on the Bible and takes the oath of office as president on January 20, 2017, it is difficult to imagine them achieving some of the structural reforms in our economy that are needed.

The neglect afforded this central problem in our society is partly the result of the left’s continued adherence to identity politics and a puerile desire to recreate the sensations of the '60s. Watching and listening to Democratic leaders the past few years, you would think that gay marriage, and not growing income inequality, was the most pressing national issue. (Interesting, too, that the culture warriors on the left, like their counterparts on the right, overstate the significance of issues like this, both for fundraising reasons and because it makes them feel like they are in the vanguard, or manning the last rampart, respectively.)

You would also think that gay and lesbian Americans are among the most oppressed people in the country when, in fact, they rank far, far higher than most other demographic cohorts in terms of socio-economic success. Yes, gay men and women deserve full and equal treatment before the law, but gay marriage is not the basis for a governing coalition able to address the more essential problems confronting America. And, it isn’t just gay rights. You would think that civilizational disaster awaits if Planned Parenthood were to lose federal funding. The left rightly champions the rights of Muslims but wrongly thinks nothing of sticking their finger in the eye of the Catholic church. And none of the presidential candidates, when asked if black lives matter or all lives matter, had the guts to question the “or” in that pernicious, divisive question.

Foreign policy options do not fare any better. President Obama finally admitted that the problem of ISIS is a problem without any immediate solution. The American people have no taste for U.S. involvement in another large ground war in the Mideast, nor would that be likely to work. We have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and the Taliban are hardly defeated. Moderate Muslim countries and communities are engaged in a generational fight for the soul of their faith, and there is little the U.S. and its allies can do to affect the outcome. The hopes engendered by the Arab Spring of 2011 seem as distant a memory as Waterloo.

Republicans chide Obama for being weak, but they have no significantly different policy prescriptions and, instead, ridiculously claim that the fact Mr. Obama declines to use the phrase “radical Islamic terror” is the problem, as if the threat posed by ISIS was a rhetorical threat. Democrats calibrate how far they can distance themselves from the perceived failures of the president, a task especially challenging for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and they are even less willing than the president to acknowledge the limited degree to which anything the U.S. does can affect the situation in the Mideast. Still, we can hope that a President Clinton, as opposed to a President Cruz, would not make things much worse and would, perhaps, recognize that there are small steps we can take, such as abandoning the fiction that the territorial integrity of Iraq or virtually any state carved out by the Brits after World War I, is a key to stability when the continued insistence on those arbitrary borders is a recipe for chaos or dictatorship.

The failures of President Obama’s leadership are many, but none is more obvious than his disdain for the nitty-gritty of politics. He famously has no time for congressional Democrats. Unlike FDR, he has not engaged the American people in helping to chart their own future. For him, as he has said on more than one occasion, good policy is good politics, but politics is about more than policy. In Obama’s world, he knows the most and he knows best. If others are unpersuaded, it is their fault. The philosopher-king has no use of intermediate social groups like unions or churches or congressional allies.

And so, despite seven years in the White House, I do not see how Obama has made us any more capable, as a people, of addressing large issues like gun violence or climate change or immigration reform or our enormous federal debt or our place in the world. I can no longer bear to watch those images of election night 2008, the sense of possibility and expectation that reigned supreme. It is too painful. His failure to deliver on his core promise of engaging the American people in their own democracy is not the cause, but it is the occasion, for the rise of Trump and the other firebrands on the right.

Obama’s failure has also been our failure. We Americans are now raised to want easy answers to all of our problems. That is what advanced consumer capitalism does, it trains us for gratification not for character. This consumer-driven desire for an instant, usually technological fix to any and all problems, combines with and diminishes the value of our historic pragmatism.

Normally, a renewed sense of national purpose arises when there is a shared national threat: The Great Depression or Pearl Harbor or Stalin’s claiming half of Europe at Potsdam. If the financial meltdown of 2008 did not wake us from our stupor, and the never-ending violence in our streets has not roused us to a sense of moral outrage, if the plight of the marginalized, from the poor to the unborn to the immigrant, has not done more than prick our consciences, which we then dull and finally ignore, it is hard to be imagine what will stir us to listen again to the better angels of our nature. The twists and turns of 2015 offer little in the way of hope for a renewed, more vibrant democracy, for a less dysfunctional politics, for a more decent public discourse.

Quomodo sedet sola civitas. Jeremiah lamented over Jerusalem and, sadly, looking back at our politics this year, I see little that does not arouse a similar sensation. Bowling alone was bad enough, but a lonely city is an unhealthy city, and the evidence of America’s many political and civic illnesses were each day more and more pronounced this year.

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