The Dangers of Political Despair, or, Put On a Happy Face
by Neil H. Buchanan
In one of my Dorf on Law columns last week, I acknowledged the glaringly obvious reality that my mood in writing about the future of the US political system can reasonably described as despondent. I then added: "Even people as pessimistic as I am, however, never quite give up hope. I have never told anyone, for example, not to bother trying to save the American constitutional system. Indeed, I have said that I admire people who are unwilling to give up until the fight is finally lost."
It turns out that I am hardly the only person who is struggling with the sense of doom that hangs over American constitutional democracy. More than 150 academics have now signed a letter calling on Democrats in the Senate to suspend the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act. They write: "This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy. It is a moment of great peril and risk." They say that all is not yet lost: "Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act." And then the pessimism: "But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching."
That was a good letter. People who follow the US political scene cannot help but groan upon reading it, however, because there is still apparently zero chance that Joe Manchin and Kirsten Simema will do what is necessary.
Should despondency thus give way to despair? No, but the political imperatives are going to make the next few years truly odd, even if we find a way to thread the needle and move back toward political sanity. How can we alarm people enough to motivate them but not so much that they simply give up?
New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg offered this in her column today:
Given the bleak trajectory of American politics, I worry about progressives retreating into private life to preserve their sanity, a retreat that will only hasten democracy’s decay. In order to get people to throw themselves into the fight to save this broken country, we need leaders who can convince them that they haven’t already lost.
I will eventually turn my attention to the implications of Goldberg's point. Before I get there, however, it is worth remembering that the people and institutions who have the most direct contact with today's radicalized Republicans, and who thus ought to understand how much is at stake -- Democrats (for obvious reasons) and the non-Foxish press (for different but also obvious reasons) -- will continue to drop the ball.
Almost everyone is still acting as if politics is normal, certainly voters themselves. For example, high gas prices are apparently causing some people to say, "That makes me hate Biden, so now I support the other party" -- even though that other party is systematically negating people's future ability to hold it accountable at the ballot box, for gas prices or anything else. There is thus no longer any reason to hope that what are gently called low-information voters have some core commitments beyond their most recent personal experiences and grievances.
And yes, I am being judgmental here. All of the reasons that those of us who obsessively follow politics are not supposed to judge other people -- they are busy, they have their own lives to live, they lack the luxury or inclination to watch the news -- were arguably sensible when there were still guardrails. Not any more.
Even when Republicans figured out during the Obama years that they could count on voters to punish the president and his party for any bad news, no matter who was at fault, most observers still most likely assumed (without saying it out loud, and maybe without even consciously formulating the thought) that there was a limit, that increasingly shameless anti-democratic actions by Republicans would finally rouse "the people" at least enough to put a stop to it all. That assumption, it turns out, was wishful thinking.
In my most recent Verdict column, I revisited the question of whether something other than grass-roots revulsion to creeping fascism could stem the tide. I noted that there are some former Republican insiders who are increasingly vocal about opposing Trump's shock troops, which is good. The problem is that those people are still implicitly willing to suggest that Democrats might deserve to lose, with the victim-blaming implication being that Democrats need to nominate inoffensive centrists, in an effort to please skittish suburban voters -- which worked out great in Virginia a few weeks ago.
Only a few NeverTrumpers have said without equivocation that they will support any Democrat over any Republican, even though all of the supposedly moderate Republicans (Collins, Romney, and the few others) are completely on board with filibustering election reform bills, blocking debt ceiling increases, and all the rest that will pave the road to autocracy. By contrast, all of the supposedly wacko lefty Democrats are at most center-left. And again, that is on policy, not on protecting democracy itself. Worse, the automatic explanation for anything bad that happens even to center-right Democrats is that it is the fault of progressives.
Is there hope from the press -- which, again, is staffed with people who should not have any trouble understanding that the current moment is a non-ideological crisis that should call forth an unambiguous response? No, because even the supposedly liberal media types have shown that they are affirmatively eager to pretend that elections are still horse-races that can and should be analyzed by the old rules. Not coincidentally, they also reinforce the hippie-punching habits of the Democratic Party's establishment.
Election Night coverage of this year's off-term elections was especially egregious. Anderson Cooper, who enjoys a reputation for being anything but a flunky for Trump, decided to say this: "How much of this is a message just to the Democratic Party that it's too far left? That if you're The Squad, or if you're someone who's been calling for Defund Police, um, or socialism, or democratic socialism ... ," then you are the problem?
Similarly, Jake Tapper hatched this brilliant analysis: "Their voters feel looked down upon. And I'm not talking about Republican voters ... feeling like they're being looked down upon. I'm talking about moderate-to-conservative Democrats feeling that they're looked down upon by pundits, by progressives, by other people who say that if they express a feeling that maybe the schools should open, even if the teachers don't want them to, maybe teachers should listen to parents more often when it comes to what they're hearing. This is from Virginia. Maybe Joe Manchin has a point when he says $1.5 trillion or $1.75 trillion is a lot of money, let's take our time with it, let's not rush it ..."
Certainly, some of that oral diarrhea is the result of being on live TV for hours with nothing much to say. But this is a pattern, and the idea that Democrats lost the governor's race in Virginia because there are a bunch of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in that state who feel looked down upon and who like Joe Manchin's obstructionism is worse than bizarre. When center-right Democrats lose, it is always somehow progressives' fault, even though progressive policy ideas are extremely popular. When center-right Democrats win, however, it is never because progressives swallowed hard and backed someone with whom they have little in common. Success presumptively happens in spite of them, not because of them.
Yesterday, I happened upon a video clip from a non-pundit on CNN (identified as that network's White House reporter) with the headline: "Where do Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner go from here?" She decided to talk about "the achievements" of those two characters, explaining that "in fairness, there have been several, Ivanka Trump worked on the child tax credit, Jared Kushner has had success in the Middle East ..." She said that. Out loud. On TV. Most amazingly, she said that on January 16, ten days after the insurrection, as a way of observing that those "achievements" were hard to talk up "when the image the country ... the world has of the end of this Administration is something really horrific."
This was not on "Entertainment Tonight." It was political reporting on the network that Republicans say is run by a cabal of communists. Yet only ten days after a violent insurrection, we were back to "in fairness" being turned into the most generous grading curve ever invented.
There are, of course, countless examples of this kind of groupthink-y mindlessness from supposedly tough no-nonsense reporters and commentators. My theory is that some of these people are genuinely dim, that some are not stupid but are only minimally informed, but most importantly that all of them have no idea how to do their jobs in a world where all of their assumptions have been upended. It is not only the dodge that "we need to be tough on both sides." They honestly have no clue how to operate in a completely changed world, so either in a panic or out of laziness, they deny reality.
I readily admit that I am cribbing extensively here from NYU's Jay Rosen. Rosen, easily the most trenchant critic of the American news media, argued shortly before Election Day 2020 that "a minority party with unpopular positions has to attack the reality-based press and try to misrepresent itself through that press to voters." He identified the types of things that I have described here as the media's "refuge-seeking behavior," as opposed to truth-seeking behavior.
Even so, my point today goes beyond tearing my hair out over the ubiquitous examples of what Rosen so helpfully identified. A year after Rosen wrote his analysis, the press continues to default to refuge-seeking behavior, ignoring his final point: "My advice: There isn’t any refuge anyway, so you might as well shoot for truth." Exactly so, but reporters and pundits continue to seek refuge, learning exactly zero lessons from their continued failures to come to grips with reality.
The additional point that I am offering here is that this all might be perversely a good thing. Goldberg's argument, after all, is that convincing "people to throw themselves into the fight to save this broken country [requires] leaders who can convince them that they haven’t already lost." Maybe it is better for potential voters to listen to stubborn people lacking in self-awareness, because perhaps only those leaders can say with a straight face that things are normal enough for Democrats to turn the tide. Being just reassuring enough to keep people non-despondent could maximize whatever chances remain to sustain a successful last stand for democracy.
Take, for example, Joe Scarborough's decision to follow up his spot-on observations about everything that is wrong about the Rittenhouse verdict by saying that Democrats simply need to do a better job of organizing. He is delusional in a lot of ways, especially his claim that Republicans not named Trump did better than expected in 2020 because their party "knocked on doors."
I am not imaging for a moment that Scarborough is saying what he says because he has thought it through in this way. He is simply saying what he is used to saying, and even when his panelists push back, he is absolutely certain that Democrats are losing because they deserve to lose. Again, however, it does not matter why he and other high-profile people are saying it, only that they say it in a way that gives people a reason not to curl up in a ball and weep for their country.
As I have argued (most recently in last week's Verdict column), the downside of this situation is that it all but guarantees that the pundit-politico-establishment complex will not admit -- and might not even notice -- when Democracy ends. Like Tapper, they will all find reasons to blame Democrats for having lost their majorities in Congress. That voter suppression and gerrymandering have been cranked up to 11 will not be the story. That Republicans have made every problem worse (especially Covid) and are exploiting voters' resulting anger against Democrats will not be the story. "Republicans rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction back into power over hapless Democrats in disarray" will be the story. And every sham election from then on will involve the same stale storyline.
Maybe, then, the only way to have even the ghost of a chance of saving our constitutional system is not only to put on a brave face and accentuate the positive but to accept in advance that doing all of that will inevitably legitimize the illegitimate things that Republicans are doing. "If Democrats never had a chance because the Republicans had rigged the results, then why did Democrats try so hard?" Well, maybe because that was the only choice.
Further, it might even be good -- although maybe good is the wrong word -- that people will not be told that the country has become a one-party autocracy. After all, what would happen if they knew? Is ignorance truly bliss? I am not on board with any of this, and I will still be living in my world of doom and gloom. Even so, I can see that there is something to these arguments. For most people, it might in fact be better to stop thinking about the worst and hope for the best.
And with that, I wish all Dorf on Law readers a relaxing, compassionate Thanksgiving.