We have a wild year ahead — full of hope for progressives, and grave danger

Is a blue wave coming? Almost certainly. But will it bring epic political change, or another wasted opportunity?


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Paul Rosenberg
January 7, 2018 5:00PM (UTC)

Last week, I offered a look back at 2017, in which I wrote that it had "not been an ordinary year. Neither was 2016. And we’re not likely to have an ordinary year again in 2018, 2019 or 2020 either.”

Right on cue, on Jan. 3 the political world was blindsided by a blast of revelations from Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury," his account of a year spent in and around the Trump White House. Most, Wolff alleges that Steve Bannon using the word “treasonous” to describe Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with a Russian emissary. President Trump's responded that Bannon had “lost his mind” when he lost his White House job.

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Even if the administration is somehow able to put this all behind it, such an unexpected rupture is precisely the sort of jolt we should be expecting in years like this. (At the same time — far less noticed — it now appears that House Speaker Paul Ryan is fully backing House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes in his effort to investigate the Trump-Russia investigation being conducted by the FBI and the Department of Justice. That would seem to cement ties between Trump and the GOP establishment, all theatrics to the contrary notwithstanding.)

My framework for predicting another wild year was evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin's book "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History" (Salon review here), with its evidence that “America is in the midst of a period of escalating political instability, even, potentially, state breakdown.” Such periods have previously occurred, according to Turchin's model, in England in 1640, France in 1789 and the United States in 1861. During times like these, alliances like that between Trump and Bannon can often shatter unexpectedly, a microcosm of how whole societies are being torn apart — and even those doing the tearing are not exempt from the process.

That same weekend, Politico provided more support for this perspective. The magazine asked a dozen historians whether 2017 had been "the Craziest Year in U.S. Political History.” Only one of them said yes, but the alternatives most offered were consistent with Turchin's theoretical model. "Of course, it cannot match 1861," Robert Dallek said, before arguing that 2017 "has its own unmatched attributes." Two others named or specifically referenced 1861, one named 1860, another 1865, another “any year of the Civil War.” Also mentioned were 1919 (twice), 1920, 1968 (twice) and 1973-74.

Turchin's core model produces multi-generational cycles — with the Civil War coming at the peak of one cycle, and another peak coming around 2020 — but it's overlaid with a bi-generational, “fathers and sons” cycle of about 50 years that has previously peaked in 1920 and 1970, coinciding with all the non-Civil War dates just cited. So his perspective is solidly in line with Politico's roundup, which suggests that, as in the Civil War period, we are in for a series of similarly chaotic years. One can only hope they are not nearly as bloody.

What does that mean for 2018? Hang onto your hats, folks. The day before Wolff's book made news Trump's acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thomas Homan, set the tone by threatening to prosecute state and local politicians responsible for sanctuary state and city laws. "We’ve got to take these sanctuary cities on," Homan told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. "We’ve got to take them to court, and we’ve got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes.”

Of course this is totally bonkers, as Think Progress noted:

Homan might want to do some legal research. The Supreme Court has expressly said in multiple court cases that the federal government cannot commandeer state or local governments to enforce federal laws.

But bonkers is the new normal in the Trump administration, so expect to see a lot more of this in the year ahead. Amid all this insanity we can expect, it's especially helpful to have some way of making sense of what lies ahead. That's what Turchin's structural demographic theory (SDT for short) provides: a broad guideline to the fundamental forces that are driving events.

The value of this can't be stressed enough, especially when so many on the political left are still caught up in re-litigating the 2016 Democratic primaries, despite the observation of Lee Drutmann in the Voter Study Group report, “Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond: Tensions Between and Within the Two Parties”:

To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions.

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The larger point here is that Democrats have long suffered from focusing far too much attention on the top, meaning the quadrennial circus of the presidential election, and need to regain a broader outlook in order to succeed.

The three driving factors of political instability (in Turchin's model) are popular immiseration, elite overproduction and state fiscal distress, all of which are related to economic inequality, though in different ways. When societies are flourishing, everyone's fortunes tend to rise together, but as population growth exceeds the need for labor, living standards stagnate and then decline for most people — "mass immiseration" — while elites reap larger shares of national income as a result, and a small portion of the general population manages to join their ranks.

Within a generation or so, elites begin suffering a similar fate, however — too many of them chasing too few goods, both material goods and positions of power. That's "elite overproduction." Elites grow increasingly selfish and competitive as this process unfolds, and thus more resistant to paying taxes, leading to "state fiscal distress." It has nothing to do with “out of control entitlement spending,” since this cycle has been going on for thousands of years.

One result of elite overproduction is large numbers of people who want to join the elite but fail to do so, and the emergence of "counter-elites," who may qualify as elites in terms of wealth and possibly power, but who stand opposed to the existing political order for one reason or another. For instance, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent the counter-elite, though in different ways. Sanders was the most ideologically motivated presidential contender in at least a generation, as well as the most progressive. Trump campaigned as the least ideological, couching his appeal in personal and theatrical terms.

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Lumping Trump and Sanders together has been convenient for Hillary Clinton's defenders and Democratic Party insiders generally. But it does not serve the Democratic base or the broader progressive community, which supports the issues identified with both Sanders and Clinton, and does not see them in conflict nearly as much as pundits and party insiders do. This is a year when the both/and view of progressive politics holds the key to Democrats' potential success — and with it, the best hope of keeping America and the world intact. The media doesn't get this, of course — including the “Fox News of the left,” MSNBC, which now seems to be running a full-employment program for Bush-era conservatives. We can expect to see more of that in 2018, which means more and more progressives will get more of their political news and commentary from social media and other online sources.

For sanity's sake, we could divide the political circumstances of 2018 into four categories. First is electoral politics, where there are strong signs of a blue wave and past patterns to sort through. The main questions there revolve around what shape that wave will take and what its bottom line impact will be. Second is the GOP's legislative agenda, which seems problematic at best, particularly given Trump's low approval rating, the damage done in his first year and the need for at least some Democratic cooperation. Third is foreign policy, where Trump could very well blow up the world, being every bit as hot-headed as Kim Jong-un. Fourth is the Trump-Russia investigation, where the GOP could very well blow up the federal justice system — the FBI, the Department of Justice, the courts, you name it — to protect the president.

The greatest dangers lie where we have the least guidance from the past to go on. Pundits never tire of using Watergate as a reference point, when talking about presidential scandals and possible impeachment. But Watergate came at a very different time in terms of the underlying historical cycles that Turchin's analysis employs. Most importantly, the pro-social norms of elite cooperation were still substantially intact. As a result, Nixon could rally close supporters around him for only a limited period of time. But the 1970s were only a peak of secondary political instability — what Turchin calls the “fathers and sons cycle”—which reflects mass discontent but not elite fragmentation.

Today, there is no indication that the norms of "elite cooperation" still function at all. As already noted, foreign policy and the Trump-Russia investigations likely defy any attempts to use past patterns as a reliable guide. Things are clearer when we turn the field of policy — if only because the GOP is so clearly trapped in a quagmire of its own making. On the House side, Paul Ryan still dreams of “entitlement reform,” meaning slashing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the very programs Trump promised to protect during the 2016 campaign. Theres's not much chance such legislation will go anywhere in the Senate, where Republicans now hold a minimal 51-seat majority.

As for Trump himself, his recent comments about an infrastructure bill being the "easy one" seem to sum up his overall “thinking, ”and his profound ineptitude and misjudgment about how Congress actually works. His hopes of getting a bipartisan deal ignore the fact that his so-called proposal — a public-private partnership with the government “spending at least $200 billion on infrastructure projects over the next decade, with the hopes of spurring an additional $800 billion in state and local funding” -- represents a radical departure from all past bipartisan infrastructure bills.

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Had Trump pushed this plan out first, a year ago, he might well have rolled all the red-state Democrats he needed. After the health care debacle and the deeply unpopular tax-cut "victory," it seems like a pipe dream. Reportedly it was not even mentioned at Trump's meeting with GOP congressional leaders late last week.

This brings us back to the electoral realm, one area where chaos doesn't completely cloud the future. There's a near-certain prospect of a massive blue wave this November — though just what will come of it is much less clear. First, there's the House, which Cook Political Report's Amy Walter wrote about in mid-November, following the Democrats' remarkable sweep in the Virginia elections and the release of two generic-ballot polls showing Democrats leading by 13 points (Quinnipiac) and 15 points (Marist). Walter cited multiple past midterm waves with similar figures involved, and Cook is a bellwether, so this expectation has been in place for some time.

It's much more of a stretch for Democrats to retake the Senate, but it no longer seems impossible following Doug Jones' victory in Alabama last month. As Salon's Matthew Rozsa has cited, experts like Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight now see a Democratic Senate as a distinct if remote possibility.

At the state level, all evidence "currently points to the possibility of a wave election that will favor the Democrats,” Alan Greenblatt wrote at Governing.com“But the GOP has become so dominant at the state level that the party can stand to suffer a large number of losses and still retain control in a majority of legislative chambers and governors’ mansions.”

In short, Democrats stand to make major gains in the midterms. But how much difference will it make? A lot depends on how much attention the party pays to the emerging millennial voters who supported Bernie Sanders, without losing focus on the diversity issues that drove Clinton's demographic support among older voters. Perhaps the clearest picture of what millennials will mean for Democrats in the future — possibly as soon as this year's midterms — came from YouGov's William Jordan, in an analytical post following the off-year elections in November.

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Jordan began by discussing the extremely high levels of support among young voters for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, then broadened his analysis to the recent general election in Britain (where the Labour Party made unexpected gains) before honing in on the national picture in the U.S. It's an image of dramatic change: While presidential approval levels were relatively flat by age for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Barack Obama's approval levels decline with every older age group, from 57 percent among people 18 to 29 to 41 percent among those 65 or older. Trump's splits are even more dramatic, in reverse fashion — from a low of 28 percent among the youngest group to a high of 52 percent in the 65-plus demographic.

Electorally, Trump got a tremendous boost because voter turnout rises with age. Older voters are generally overrepresented, exactly the opposite underlying reality of that asserted by the phony "voter fraud" narrative. The good news for progressives here is twofold. First, millennials are broadly more progressive than older people: “Millennials don’t just self-identify as liberal more than their elders, they take more consistently “liberal” positions, and fewer conservative positions, on a range of policy questions,” Jordan wrote. Second, voting rates steadily increase with age, following an initial drop-off among younger adults. Jordan illustrates the situation with a graph based on 2014 California turnout.

It’s not obvious that the Millennial Reckoning will come in 2018, or even 2020,” Jordan summed up. “That said, based on data from past elections, it’s when a cohort starts to nudge up against their fourth or fifth presidential election cycle that they start seeing real improvements in turnout rates – and that’s about where Millennials are now.” This is a fundamental, inescapable fact of American politics, and Democrats would be foolish not to seize on it, both with a broad range of fresh progressive ideas and an array of fresh faces.

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One obvious area for change is electing more women. Only about 20 percent of elected officials in America are female, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. This proportion is remarkably consistent: Women are 19.6 percent of House representatives, 21 percent of U.S. senators, 22.7 percent of state senators, 26 percent of state house members, 23.7 percent of state executives and 21 percent of mayors in cities of more than 30,000 residents.

That's likely to change in 2018, but by how much? A nudge or a leap? There have been leaps in the past — most notably, from 6 percent of women in Congress in 1991 to 10 percent in 1993. That was the legendary “Year of the Woman” that followed the Senate's shameful treatment of Anita Hill. But statewide increases were comparatively more modest, and have not changed much in the intervening 25 years. But clearly it needs to. 

A recent summary indicates that 46 women are running for the Senate this year (including 12 incumbents), 383 for House seats (72 incumbents), 79 for governor (only four incumbents), and 81 for other statewide offices (with 32 incumbents). The full list by state is here. State legislative totals are not given, but should also break with past patterns. By sheer numbers running, the potential for change is huge. But the unanswerable question is how many of these women will stand for real change, and how many fit the more conventional Susan Collins/Dianne Feinstein mode.

Democrats are always advised to run as moderates in virtually every electoral context, advice that hampers their ability to cultivate strong support over time, even if they win office during a wave election. The milquetoast policies they end up supporting neither protect them from conservative attacks nor attract base voters disappointed with their lackluster performance. That's what happened in 2010, for example. Moderate House members elected on Barack Obama's big win in 2008 were reluctant to support ambitious infrastructure spending, for example, and were virtually wiped out in the Tea Party midterms that followed.

But there are other reasons running as a "pragmatic centrist" may be a mistake, as political scientist Sean McElwee has argued: 

The tactics Democrats have been advised to pursue to attract Obama to Trump voters, such as criticizing “sanctuary cities," ceding ground on immigration enforcement, and rejecting "multiculturalism," won’t play well with young people. Millennial independents are more racially liberal than non-millennial independents. ...

The diversity of the millennial generation can be see in the young candidates running for office across the country. The down-ballot races in 2018 will build the next generation of political talent. Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator and executive director at Future Now Fund, argues that Democrats have often missed opportunities down-ballot. "For the first time, people see the potential in state races, but the seeds that are planted take time to sprout," he told me. "The focus has to be maintained in 2018, and in accountability after candidates are first elected."

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Mainstream media, of course, steadfastly refuses to deal with any of this evidence. NBC News kicked off the year with an idiotic story entitled, “Millennials don’t like Trump. Here’s how they say he could win them over.” The first “typical” millennial they featured was a black woman, Monica Robinson, who formerly identified as a “good” Republican. “Robinson doesn't think the president's intentions are bad, but his 'delivery' puts her off,” NBC reported. What more needs to be said? Iraq's WMDs at 11.

More recently, McElwee focused attention on the 91 House districts the DCCC has identified as primary targets, working with Northwestern University political scientist Chris Skovron. They calculated average support for policies in all 91 districts, and then for the last 11 districts on the Democratic list, “which are far more Trump-friendly than the other districts.” Their findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom that Democrats always need to run like low-calorie Republicans:

Our results suggest that the punditry has erred greatly in encouraging moderation. ... In the average DCCC target district, fifty-nine percent of the public support allowing a woman choose whether she wants to have an abortion and 57 percent support a path to citizenship. More than half of individuals in the average district either strongly or somewhat agree that white people have advantages because of their skin and 73 percent support a higher minimum wage. Less than half of the public in the average district believe that the government should prohibit spending on abortion (the so-called Hyde Amendment).

In addition, these districts are favorable towards climate policy, with 64 percent support for a renewable energy mandate and 68 percent support for the Environmental Protection Agency regulating carbon in the average district. Far from running away from gun control, Democrats can safely support an assault weapons ban, which has support among 61 percent of individuals in the average district. Democrats can abandon “tough on crime” rhetoric, because 63 percent support for ending mandatory minimums. Even examining only the most contentious districts, a progressive Democrat would be on the right side of all ten issues modeled.

But the big challenge is not winning the House this year, which now appears more likely than not. It lies in the more difficult races in the Senate, and in state legislative races across the country. In these arenas, Sanders-style economic populism can be especially powerful. Just after the disastrous 2014 midterms, I suggested a six-point economic program that anticipated much of the Sanders campaign. While the economy was doing well in conventional macroeconomic terms, that wasn't translating into people's everyday lives, I argued, and there were concrete fixes available which are just as valid today

  1. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This could be a big winner for red-state Democrats that would also benefit the party's core constituencies in blue states and big cities. As I pointed out during the 2016 campaign, “if the minimum wage had continued to increase with average productivity growth since 1968, it would have reached $21.72 per hour in 2012,” roughly three times the $7.25 it is today. More than doubling it would seem to be extreme, but would still leave the bottom much lower, relatively speaking, than it was in 1968.
  2. Cracking down on wage theft. This is closely connected to raising the minimum wage, since the No. 1 form of wage theft is failure to pay the minimum wage. In 2017, American workers lost almost $50 billion due to wage theft, more than three times the cost of all robberies, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts put together. It hurts workers most directly, of course. But it also hurts honest business owners and taxpayers, too. In recent years, there's been a growing movement to crack down on wage theft, but it's been almost entirely focused at the local level. Obama instituted a rule preventing contracts with companies that engage in wage theft, but the GOP Congress repealed it, and Trump happily signed the repeal. Existing protections in cities and counties like Los Angeles do nothing for most rural and suburban communities, where archetypal “Trump voters” and Trump-to-Obama voters live. This is an ideal policy for red-state candidates to run hard on.
  3. Raising overtime pay. Overtime pay is the middle-class equivalent of the minimum wage as a key component of income protection. Both were first established by the1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. As I explained here in 2014: "There’s a wage level below which everyone qualifies for mandatory time-and-a-half overtime, even if they’re on a salary, and that level has only been raised once since 1975, with the result that only 11 percent of salaried Americans are covered today, compared to over 65 percent of them in 1975. If you make less than $23,660 a year as a salaried worker, you qualify for mandatory overtime — if not, you’re out of luck.” Obama eventually raised the threshold to about $47,476 annually, but that's less than the level set in 1975, adjusted for inflation — and it covers a smaller percentage of the workforce. Still, it was too much for Republicans to let stand. State attorney generals sued to block it, and when a lower court judge agreed in late August last year, the Trump Administration refused to appeal, planning to substitute a more modest hike in the threshold.
  4. Paid sick leave. In 2015, President Obama called for paid parental and sick leave in his State of the Union address, after which the Nation Journal ran a story, “How Paid Sick Leave Emerged as a Democratic Strong Suit: It didn't happen in Washington,” highlighting the fact that it's been a struggle bubbling up from the city and state level for more than a decade now. Since then, a California law has gone into effect providing three days of paid sick leave annually, including for part-time employees. The time is ripe for Democrats to embrace this nationally as a key element in their economic platform. Every other advanced industrial nation has this policy already. 
  5. Paid vacation. Maybe this sounds utopian as universal principle rather than a special benefit, but it's not. It's as common outside the U.S. as paid sick leave, and every Democrat should pledge to see it become a reality here as well.
  6. Reversing de-unionization, and restoring the norm of full-time, long-term employment. This is a broader idea, not tied to specific legislative action. Conservatives have demonized unions ever since the 19th century, and the decline of union power is directly correlated with the decline of middle-class income. To reverse the latter, we have to restore union power. It's just that simple. And to restore union power, we have to start advocating for it. There is no other way.

Those six points constitute a robust economic agenda that every Democrat should be proud to run on — red state, blue state, purple state, it makes no difference. Urban, suburban or rural, it makes sense for all of us. Its specificity contrasts sharply with Trump's vague promises, while its details are directly the opposite of those in Paul Ryan's economic vision. And it's even better for women and people of color minorities than it is for the archetypal Trump voters that the media can't stop writing about.

This is going to be a crazy year. You don't need me to tell you that. But having a clear and concrete economic agenda that can bridge cultural divides gives us something we can unite around. It can provide a measure of clarity and consistency in the midst of confusion. We absolutely need much more than this for a fully-formed political agenda. But first we have to win, and this is a powerful foundation for doing just that.


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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