This was a week that featured an epic level of badness and stupidity in America, but those on the leftward half of the political arena – accepting for the moment that the venerable terms “left” and “right” have not been rendered hilarious by historical circumstance – found a silver lining. On closer inspection, however, I’m beginning to suspect it’s a tinfoil hat. We have been told once again, for the 443rd time, that sooner or later all the leathery, old, white Republicans will wither away and Democrats will inherit the earth. Sounds good in theory, but I have two questions: What Democrats? And what earth?
There was another insane GOP candidates’ debate, on a night when I was called away to watch the new “Star Wars” movie – which, whatever its flaws, had fewer problems with continuity and clarity. This debate was purportedly about foreign policy, which in Republican-land is a nebulous realm synonymous with one of those horror movies where the killer is inside the house. In all seriousness, when did right-wingers get so damn scared about everything? It would be funny if it weren’t also gruesome and grotesque: Republicans are supposed to be the testosterone party of rugged American individualism, as seen in Chevy Silverado commercials, and what I saw on that stage was not John Wayne facing down two dozen Comanche warriors but a bunch of lardass dudes with boiled-lobster complexions and quivering jowls, terrified of the invisible Muslim mice under the bed.
All these debates are unhinged from reality by definition, but this one was special. If Abbott and Costello had dropped acid in the ‘70s and made a film with Bertolucci or Fassbinder – well, it would have been more fun than this. Chris Christie shouted into the camera that he would stand across from King Hussein and vow undying friendship in a way our current president simply cannot. Which is a little bit true, since the longtime ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan departed for other shores in 1999. (Of course I am tempted to crack a joke about the fiery climes where he and Christie will meet one day, but His Late Majesty does not deserve that.)
Carly Fiorina continues to make great strides for women, smashing the glass ceiling of mendacity, then Supergluing it back together and smashing it again. Already famous for the gory Planned Parenthood video she apparently saw while on a vision-quest (since it exists not in this world), Fiorina now insists that a general who retired five years before Obama was elected – wait, hang on, a general who retired before Obama was elected to the Senate -- was actually fired for giving the president unwelcome news. “No I wasn’t,” said Gen. Jack Keane, the person in question. “You were, General, you were,” said Morgan le Fay – sorry, Fiorina – weaving ancient, smoky magic with her lithe fingers and flashing eyes. “Enter my castle and I will unbind your tongue.”
At least that’s how I heard it – that part admittedly does not show up in the transcript. I'm not sure what Donald Trump said in the debate, because I honestly can’t listen to that guy anymore. But Vladimir Putin has stopped ignoring Trump’s cards and flowers! Cue the violins, because the 21st century’s greatest rom-com is nearing the meet-cute: Trump once called Putin his “stable mate,” and don’t even pretend that’s not hot. I’m sensing a friendly, sweaty wrassle in the hay, where eyes meet and passions can no longer be contained. This week the Russian president described the GOP frontrunner as “a bright and talented person without any doubt,” not to mention “an outstanding and talented personality.” (Translation issues? Or does Putin always sound like a Miss Universe judge?)
Were it possible for Trump to blush crimson through the layers of weaponized money applied to his outermost hide, he would have. Asked by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC about Putin’s propensity for eliminating dissidents and invading other countries, Trump responded, “At least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country. Furthermore, Joe, if loving him is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” OK, so that sentence is also absent from the transcript. Just ask Carly – that’s how she heard it! Anyway, I insist on taking some credit here, because I either predicted this glorious bromance or caused it to happen, I’m not sure which.
I won’t try to be amusing about the steady drumbeat of cable-news fear-mongering over a perceived terrorist threat that lies somewhere between insignificant and imaginary, but of course that wasn’t limited to this week alone. During that godawful CNN debate, Hugh Hewitt asked Ben Carson whether he had the stones “to kill innocent children by not the scores but the hundreds and the thousands,” in the name of our endless jihad against jihad. Because that’s what presidents do, evidently. Some lady in the Virginia boondocks had a dozen Christian kittens over her kid’s middle-school assignment to transcribe the shahada, or Muslim declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy. (Yeah, the teacher could have picked a different text, but we’re still talking Morons Gone Wild here.) Apparently there have been at least 38 hate crimes against Muslims or mosques in the United States since the Paris attacks, triple the normal rate.
That brings us back, however reluctantly, to the Democrats, who have hidden away their last pre-Iowa presidential debate on the Saturday night of “Star Wars” weekend. No, I’m not claiming that was part of some brilliant Clintonista master plan – the same one some Republicans discern behind the Trump campaign – but it’s kind of working out that way. In theory, this could or should have been a big week for Bernie Sanders, who received his biggest single endorsement of the campaign from the Communications Workers of America, an activist union with more than 700,000 members. But Sanders only made the front page this week by way of a kerfuffle over a data breach and some proprietary files his workers apparently lifted from the Clinton campaign. So while everybody else was screaming in abject terror, Bernie was depicted as the bush-league socialist version of Richard Nixon.
As for Hillary Clinton, her strategy of rope-a-doping her way into the White House by saying and doing as little as possible, while the Republicans set themselves on fire, vow to divert the entire federal budget to the Spanish Inquisition and conjure demons out of Lord Voldemort’s playbook – that’s looking better all the time. In fairness, Clinton has not aided or abetted the rising tide of anti-Muslim vitriol in any way; her messaging on that issue has been consistent and admirable. But Sanders finally raised an urgent point in this week’s big Guardian interview, suggesting that the Obama administration’s reckless “regime change” policies in Libya and Syria, which Clinton personally directed as secretary of state, helped create the current state of chaos and instability whose disastrous ripple effects now extend around the world.
One could go a lot further than that. Clinton’s tone and rhetoric have been measured during this campaign, but as Salon’s Bill Curry wrote recently, she remains an unregenerate foreign-policy hawk who shows every sign of yearning to double down on failed military overreach. Whatever you think she may have said, Clinton has absolutely not ruled out sending American troops by the thousands to fight a ground war against the Islamic State. She has called out Republican candidates for their “bluster and bigotry” and rejected talk of a “war on Islam,” which is all to the good. But the policy proposals discernible below her calm and resolute-sounding language over the last month are virtually indistinguishable from those of the non-Trump GOP contenders: More war, more surveillance, less First Amendment. “You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘Freedom of speech,’” she told a Brookings Institution audience on Dec. 6. I know! As if that’s in the Constitution or something!
But Hillary Clinton is a symptom of a party that has lost its ideological moorings and more recently been eaten away from below by political termites. She is not the disease itself, and the Hillary vs. Bernie cage match, with its frequently unappetizing gender politics, is not the main event. This week’s report from the Center for American Progress, with its claim that the nation’s shifting demographics overwhelmingly favor the Democrats in 2016 and beyond, was hardly breaking news (least of all to Republican donors and strategists). One of the authors of that study, Ruy Teixeira, co-wrote the biblical text on this topic, "The Emerging Democratic Majority" -- published in 2002. At least he doesn't give up easily. But this time around, the report contains or conceals a grievous epistemological error: It assumes a bipolar universe of Democrats and Republicans, the traditional realm of traditional politics. And in this year of Trump and Sanders and generalized political madness, that universe is imploding around us.
Sure, the numbers don’t lie. We just don't understand what they’re telling us. America’s white majority is slowly ebbing away, and the exurban working-class whites who have latterly become the Republican base are declining far more rapidly than that. The GOP has enthusiastically painted itself into a demographic corner, not merely declining to broaden its reach but actively driving away African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT people and pro-choice women. Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections; the sole exception was George W. Bush’s narrow re-election in 2004, when he was hilariously perceived as having won a war.
You can bet that Hillary Clinton’s people have crunched this data in thousands of computer simulations. No doubt there are imaginable scenarios where things go badly enough over the next 11 months that she loses to whichever of the lizard-eating freaks is left standing on the other side. That would require an improbable amount of evil mojo, honestly. But we can't get seduced into thinking about 2016 too much. One of the Democratic Party’s biggest problems is its near-exclusive focus on presidential elections, largely because those are the only elections it can win.
It is not true that there are no differences between Republicans and Democrats, as this campaign has made abundantly clear. You could say that the Democratic Party has a reasonably clear sensibility, or maybe an ethos; it vaguely stands for the values of people on the coasts and in big cities. But as it was remade by Bill Clinton and stuffed with Wall Street dollars and infused with the neoliberal consensus, the Democratic Party possesses no actual ideology and no actual base, in class or economic terms. It has morphed into a quadrennial symbolic crusade to find a new messiah, a “transformational figure,” ha ha, who can redeem the nation’s failings through sheer force of personality.
Hillary Clinton’s symbolic persona is grittier than Obama’s, to be sure. Her appeal is about her pragmatism, her experience, her hard-ass “git ‘er done” political smarts. OK, fine. But President Clinton 2.0, faced with large Republican majorities in Congress and deeply entrenched Republican power at the state and local levels in every region of the country that isn’t the Northeast or the West Coast, is pretty far from being the glorious demographic dawn imagined in the CAP report. It’s probably true that she can get more legislation passed in that context than Obama could. I don’t know how much of it you’re going to like.
But again, the admittedly exciting twists and turns of this particular election campaign are not the point. The demographic changes envisioned in that CAP report will take many decades to play out, and if you want to insist that the Democratic glass is half-full, you can see the Sanders 2016 campaign as the beginning of a badly needed internal process of reform or revolution. But all confident predictions of an endless future of Democratic hegemony involve a failure to observe the most obvious facts in American politics: Party identification is dropping to all-time lows, and outside the unique demographic leverage of a presidential election, voting is doing likewise.
I have harped on the unmitigated disaster of the 2014 midterms numerous times already. (For the Koch brothers and their oligarchic allies, of course, it was a brilliant strategic breakthrough and a glorious victory.) That election’s 36.6 percent nationwide turnout, the lowest since World War II, might be the most important and most ominous political fact of this century so far. It’s the elephant in the room, ready to sit on the Democrats’ golden demographic sunrise and crush it to death under many tons of apathetic elephant ass.
Yes, the Republicans and their supporters engineered that victory. They paralyzed the legislative process throughout Obama’s presidency, found all sorts of ingenious methods to restrict and depress the Democratic vote, and galvanized their own supporters with deranged, apocalyptic and often openly racist rhetoric. Some of those Republicans, surveying the state of their party as it reaps the whirlwind a year later, are beginning to feel less happy about that. I know it’s fun to watch them squirm and all, but it’s not inherently logical to assume that a poisonous political atmosphere will kill off one party but not the other.
The Democratic Armageddon of 2014 revealed a party with no fight, no strategy, no ideas and no soul. Its elected officials and Washington apparatchiks whined and wailed, blamed their own voters for accurately perceiving that they were clueless and defeated, and then capitulated and crawled away. That party still hopes to be rescued by the demographic advantage it has been promised for 25 years and counting. But it has done nothing to earn or deserve that advantage, has no idea what to do with it and, absent major change, will be sure to squander it if it ever gets here.