Democracy on the critical list: How do we escape this toxic political cycle?

Will American politics ever break free from its "Groundhog Day" nightmare? Someday -- but it might not be pretty

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 8, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

        (<a href=''>RichLegg</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(RichLegg via iStock)

Everyone understood that the Republicans would make substantial gains in the 2014 midterm elections. That’s business as usual in the dumbed-down Newtonian physics of American politics. Almost every midterm since the current two-party system began to take shape at the end of the 19th century has involved the president’s party losing seats in the House and Senate. But this week’s calamitous wipeout came as a surprise to everyone, Republicans included. Even GOP strategists cautioned that the struggle for control of the Senate would be close. It wasn’t. And I didn’t hear anybody predicting that Republicans would win their largest House majority since 1930, or that Republican governors would be elected in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, three of the bluest states in the country.

Some liberals find themselves scrabbling for reassurance amid the dregs of history in the wake of Tuesday’s catastrophe: Hey, Warren G. Harding’s Republicans lost a total of 84 House and Senate seats in the 1922 election! (That must have been about the Teapot Dome scandal. Although, seriously, who cares?) Even the sainted FDR lost 79 seats in 1938, amid a vigorous Republican counterattack against the New Deal. First of all, any time you start comparing your political fortunes to those of Harding, quite likely the most corrupt and incompetent president of them all, you’re in big trouble. More important, the paralysis, dysfunction and widespread public apathy – or public antipathy – of our political era distinguishes it from all others. This week’s shocking result is big trouble, all right. For the Democrats, most obviously, but also for the whole system and for the Republicans too, even if they don’t know it yet. As I observed while watching Fox News the other day, some of the savvier people on the right understand this already.

This is not a “seismic shift” in favor of the Republicans or the so-called conservative agenda, no matter what John Boehner and Mitch McConnell may say this week. Reading an off-year election result as an indicator of larger societal trends is like interpreting a blizzard as evidence against global warming. The political clock is already ticking toward 2016, when the pendulum will swing in the other direction and Democrats are nearly certain to win back some or all of what they just lost in Congress. If the human conundrum known as Hillary Clinton runs for president she will be the prohibitive favorite; Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. No, what the dire 2014 midterms really tell us is that the entire electoral system is on the critical list, stuck in a “Groundhog Day” wave pattern of bitterness, stagnation and cynicism. For one thing, it’s built around two political parties who despise each other with a passion and who represent profound cultural divisions in American society, but whose vague ideologies (as I have repeatedly argued) are suspiciously similar when it comes to fundamentals.

Viewed from a traditional social-science perspective, the 2014 election results appear nonsensical. Historians of the future, if there are any, will look back on this one as a head-scratcher, or possibly a tolling bell. Opinion polling clearly tells us that the public dislikes both political parties, but in general Republicans are even less popular than Democrats, and Congress is seen as even less trustworthy than President Obama. On a whole range of issues, from marriage equality to the minimum wage to tax policy and healthcare (as long as we avoid the O-word), majority public opinion is closer to the stated Democratic positions. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the highly relevant question of what Democratic politicians really believe, how they behave when they hold power and whom they actually serve.

Yet somehow the Democrats, who are notionally the party of cosmopolitanism and diversity and tolerance, and who have asserted for the last 15 years that they represent an “emerging majority” that will be along any day now, managed to get absolutely blitzed by an opposition party that increasingly represents one race, one gender and one region of the country, and whose only agenda is obstruction and negation. I know what the Republicans are against – they’re against Obamacare and immigration and taxes and environmental regulations and gay marriage and abortion. Broadly speaking, they’re against women and gays and black people and Muslims and Mexicans, all of whom are plotting to spread Ebola, but they have learned by trial and error to speak about those things in modulated tones, and with asterisks. But can anybody, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell included, tell me what the Republicans are for? OK, they’re for war and they’re for oil. Obama is for those things too, so I guess their problem with him is that he isn’t for them enthusiastically enough. Oh, and he’s black.

So the upshot of all this is that nothing got done in the last Congress and nothing will get done in the next one, but this time the nothing will be a lot scarier to watch. Of course it was disheartening to die-hard Democrats to learn that the “Obama demographic” simply didn’t feel it was worth showing up to vote this year, even though the venom and evil of the Republicans was right there for all to see. (As I argued a couple of weeks ago, declining to participate in a broken system is an entirely reasonable response, whether or not we approve of it.) Voter turnout has been depressingly low for 40 years in the United States, but has now apparently drifted to an all-time nadir. Hatred triumphed over hope in a rout, which could be interpreted as the fulfillment of brilliant conservative strategy – block Obama’s agenda at every turn and bog the entire Beltway process down in pointless bickering – or as the result of several decades of post-Reagan Democratic spinelessness and groveling, which concluded with the party selling itself wholesale to Wall Street. Or both; the two phenomena have nurtured each other.

Is there any plausible way out of this obsessive, recursive cycle, in which we can expect to see President Clinton 2.0 take office in January of 2017 with a feeble and ineffective Democratic majority, only to be punished for her feminist acts of treason by the resurgent angry white men in 2018, and so on, ad nauseam? Yeah, there must be. We just don’t see what that might be yet, and anybody who says they do is full of it. Nothing endures forever, especially not in politics. The United States has already gone through at least five or six distinct systems of factional or partisan electoral politics. Back in February, I put forward the hypothesis that we have entered a new one: The current era of stagnation, gridlock and symbolic cultural warfare could be considered the Seventh Party System, supplanting the Sixth, which began with Pat Buchanan’s “Southern strategy” of 1968 and the ensuing conservative counterrevolution.

How we might possibly get out of this mess has been the subject of considerable magical thinking on all sides. I’ll take these propositions one at a time, but here are the four big ones I see. First, there’s the idea that we’ll elect some president so charismatic and large-spirited and post-partisan that he or she will heal our wounds, reach from one fortified bunker to another and forge a new way of consensus or compromise. Yes, it’s the “transformational figure” fantasy, and you can stop laughing now. Or is that crying? Then there’s the alluring notion, extensively indulged in online comments forums, that one party will conclusively win the ideological debate and banish the other to near-permanent secondary status. (This sounds comical now, but remember that when Republicans won the House in 1994 they ended 40 uninterrupted years of Democratic majorities.) Next comes the allied but distinct notion that demographic change will doom one party to irrelevance, or force it to change into something unrecognizably different. (You get only one guess.) Finally, if we conclude that none of those things is likely to happen any time soon, we introduce a fourth possibility, the big unforeseen event that leads to implosion, collapse, transformation or revolution. That one sounds the most far-fetched, but it’s a little like Nietzsche’s proverb about the abyss: The longer you look at it, the more irresistible it becomes.

1. The Transformational President

Ouch. And also crap. I’ve given Obama a lot of grief in this space (because he’s been a moderately terrible president) but it’s not like I don’t understand all the emotion, pride and history that went into his initial election. His 2008 campaign touched a profound nerve in American cultural and political life, which was partly about racial healing but also about what that might represent -- transcending the limitations and rhetorical pitfalls of American democracy, all its small-mindedness and stupidity and greed, and answering the historical call of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. I believe that Obama actually wanted to play a role in that kind of transformation, and did not realize that was no longer possible. You had to feel for the guy during his humiliating press conference the other day, the one where he promised to sip some Kentucky bourbon with McConnell. (I’d rather drink molten nails with Satan, personally.) Run for president as a post-partisan consensus builder, and this is where you end up: Spending the fourth quarter of your presidency as a lame duck, forced to play smoochy-face with an inflamed majority of flat-earthers, “climate skeptics” and country-club maroons.

From his first moments as a candidate, Obama never misled anyone about his intention to govern from the middle and seek compromises. Those on the right (and the left) who obsessed about his roots in the Saul Alinsky activist tradition had clearly never read Alinsky, who despite his Commie-sounding name was all about pragmatic coalition-building. And from the morning after Obama's election, the Republicans made clear that they weren’t interested in any sort of compromise with a Kenyan usurper, and would devote all their energies to a salt-sowing, forest-cutting policy aimed at disempowering Obama and undermining his legitimacy. There’s a much longer postmortem to be undertaken here, of course, including the observation that if many of us were taken aback to discover that Obama’s version of centrism involved recycling the same people who wrecked the economy under Bush-Cheney and expanding the national-security state’s war powers around the globe, we probably shouldn’t have been.

But despite the pathetic ruins of the Obama experiment, in which Mitch McConnell sips Blanton's Single Barrel from the skulls of his enemies, the dream of a leader larger than history, a Lincoln or Roosevelt or Kennedy who will transcend all the bitter and stupid infighting through force of personality, will not die. (Those three guys were immensely polarizing figures in their day, as a point of historical fact, but never mind.) Hillary Clinton will surely try on the post-partisan mantle next, although she’ll have to find a way to differentiate her sellout rhetoric from Obama’s. Several of the plausible Republican nominees – most notably Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul – will cautiously market themselves in those terms, as get-things-done achievers, no longer hemmed in by old ideology. (Paul, with his unpredictable libertarian streak, clearly poses the biggest threat to Clinton, though I don't mean that as an endorsement.) But that stuff doesn’t fly in the Republican primaries, whose terrifying “base voters” do not want a master strategist and Solomonic deal-maker. They want Joan of Arc burning with holy fire, and after all the bone-crushing and glass-eating required by the GOP nomination process, everybody comes out looking like a circus freak. What do we remember about Mitt Romney? That goddamn dog on the roof of the car.

2. Total Victory at Last!

So unless one or the other party can get over its internal pathologies, the transformational president ain’t happening, and may not be feasible at this stage of decay in any case. That leads us to the most delusional of these scenarios, the hope that someday soon the people who really, really hate you will wake up and see the error of their ways. Working-class white folks in the flyover states will suddenly understand that they’re shooting themselves in the gonads by fervently supporting the party of CEOs and bankers. Or, if you prefer, people in tight pants who live in the bicoastal megalopolis will see the scales fall from their eyes, abandon their toxic dreams of nanny-state socialistic dependency and reconnect with the self-reliant soul of America. (It was so hard to write that sentence without slipping into parody, but I tried.)

What strikes me as the funny part, and definitely not funny-ha-ha, is that lots of people appear to believe this will happen, or at least that it could. I get hostile tweets fired at me every week from guys with F-150s and wraparound sunglasses, confidently forecasting that the day of total victory is coming soon, and observing that I obviously haven’t heard about the fall of Communism. (Those are the people who are being polite.) On the other side, many liberals appear to believe that politics is a rational discourse about economic benefits, and that the NASCAR section of the electorate needs to have things explained to them like second-graders, in books with lots of pictures and no big words. The results of this immense cultural disconnect speak for themselves: Exurban whites feel increasingly patronized and belittled (with considerable justification), and when forced to choose between competing elite fractions they have no reason to trust will go with the one who looks more "relatable" and can somewhat convincingly speak their language.

I’ve written about this several times in the past, but Pat Buchanan’s infamous “culture war” speech from 1992 (which I witnessed in person) was a great moment of political insight. American electoral politics is a cultural conflict between incompatible worldviews, not a contest of ideology or a competition between specific policies. Republicans were quicker to seize on the implications of this fact by essentially becoming an all-white and predominantly Southern party, but Democrats in the Obama era have largely followed suit. This vast cultural gulf isn’t going anywhere (rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding); indeed it is only getting deeper and wider, and each side has largely given up on converting the other’s true believers. This simplifies the Electoral College map every four years, if nothing else: Massachusetts and Oklahoma and around 40 other states are basically uncontested, and whoever can squeak out a margin in Florida, Ohio and Virginia is elected president.

3. The Demographic Long March

This is something like a social-science nerd’s version of Marxist theory. Instead of an inevitable proletarian revolution, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s influential 2002 book forecast an “Emerging Democratic Majority” that would endure for decades to come. (It wasn’t an entirely new idea, but they did the most to popularize it.) Conquest will come not from an ideological crusade but the slow grind of immigration and the higher birth rate among people of color, especially Latinos. Republicans are pretty scared about this theory, it must be said -- almost as scared as they once were of actual Marxism. As we now know, the GOP severely underestimated minority turnout in 2012, leaving Karl Rove spluttering on TV, searching for a reset button to undo Romney’s one-sided defeat.

In the fullness of time, the Judis-Teixeira hypothesis may be borne out. But an awful lot of ifs come along with that, and too many Democrats seem content to kick back with a cold microbrew and some hilarious YouTube nuggets and wait it out, confident that their principle-free, identity-less, Madison Avenue goes to Hollywood party will rule the heavens and the earth forever just as soon as the right ingredients are added to the population stew. This assumes that demographics will not alter in some unanticipated way, that Republicans will always be too stupid and too suicidal to figure out how to siphon off middle-class Asians and Latinos, and that the Democratic Party of 2040 or 2050 will present an agenda worth voting for, by people of any race or color. It assumes, in short, that democracy will continue to function and the public will take it seriously. Since that isn't happening now, I don't see much reason to believed it will happen in the future. As Obama himself observed from the podium the other day, the two-thirds of the electorate who stayed home on Tuesday had spoken loud and clear.

Even on the geeky, granular level, the effects of this change could take a really long time. My theory about the Seventh Party System holds that Democrats have an inherent advantage in presidential elections, while Republicans hold a corresponding advantage in midterms, and nothing about that will obviously or inevitably change within 10 or 20 or 30 years. Voting rates remain much higher among whites than among minorities, especially in the midterm cycles, and the machine that so effectively got Obama elected twice could do nothing to address that in 2014. That the complexion of America is changing is not in doubt. When and whether that will lead to a nonwhite-majority electorate, or a permanent Democratic edge, very much is.

4. The Big Lebowski

Here’s where we get to the possibility of some world-historical event that scrambles the entire political equation, and causes the system to reinvent itself or come crashing down. No such calamity sounds especially likely on its own: Ted Cruz loses the presidential election but incites a right-wing coup in the red states; a stolen election -- one more egregious than the one we’ve already had -- sparks widespread civil disobedience in the cities; a calamitous drought or series of hurricanes leads to panic, financial collapse and martial law. You can make up your own scenario, not necessarily less plausible than those. But as I just said, the 2014 midterms demonstrated that the political system is dangerously shallow and precarious, and that voters are motivated far more by unthinking hatred and fear than by any form of hope or reason.

Such an unstable context, where a large majority of the population mistrusts both parties and their leaders, all branches of government and most other supposed pillars of civil society, is not far from what Lenin called a “revolutionary situation,” primed for civil war or conquest, for exploitation by vanguard movements and cults of personality. Almost everyone in our society professes loyalty to the vague symbolic idea of "America," but the contradictions embedded within that idea have become ever more prominent, and it no longer functions as a unifying concept. Anyone who believes that a nation-state as big, as well entrenched and as strongly fortified as ours could never suffer a sudden collapse under its own atrophied weight and internal divisions should go talk to Mikhail Gorbachev, who has spent much of the last 23 years running a nonprofit in San Francisco.

All those far-fetched possibilities, taken together, add up to a not-impossible medium-term future in which the United States either ceases to exist – an event, sad to say, that would be widely celebrated around the world – or becomes something very different from what it is now. If such a thing happened, it could go in all sorts of dreadful directions. But I’m honestly not sure it would be worse than the more plausible disaster scenario, the world-historical transformation that is already well underway.

That’s the one in which the United States is slowly bankrupted into permanent dependency by endless, secret foreign wars while tiny cadres of the ultra-rich squabble over control of the economy. Electoral politics is angrily contested over a narrow but contentious range of lifestyle issues, and drives away all but the most committed culture warriors on either side. Nothing is done about the warming climate, the poisoning of the air, water and soil, the elimination of biodiversity or the mass extinction of other species. Lost in our 14-hour workdays and our consumer bubbles of pretend affluence, we don’t really pay attention, although we’re sad about the pandas and the polar bears and we hope somebody will do something about it eventually. In due course the political stalemate between Republicans and Democrats stops mattering, stops existing and is gone with the wind.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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