by Ali Minai
April 2018: ‘Tis the Season of Giddiness in Democratlandia. Republicans are saddled with a widely despised President and riven by internal dissension. The Republican leadership in Congress is lurching from fiasco to fiasco – interrupted briefly by one great “success” on tax cuts. The zombie candidates of the Tea Party are still stalking establishment Republicans across the land. And, somewhere in his formidable fastness, the Great Dragon Mueller is winding up for the fiery breath that will consume the world of Trumpism like a paper lantern. And a Blue Wave – nay, a Tsunami – is headed towards the Republicans in Congress, looking to engulf them in November.
Time passes, and it is October. Anguish is all around. After snatching children from their parents and imprisoning them in cages, after giving a wet kiss to Kim Jong Un and worse to Putin, after having his former campaign manager convicted of crimes and his fixer plead guilty, after a virtual torrent of lies, after reports of a still devastated Puerto Rico and newly devastated Carolinas and Florida – after all this and more, Trump is more popular than ever in his presidency, Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, and the Blue Wave is beginning to look more like an eddy. To be sure, Trump is still spectacularly unpopular compared to past presidents, with disapproval numbers at 50% of higher, but he seems to be rising. Rising! The very word is like a knell of doom. As Trump himself might say, “What the hell is going on?”
First of all, probably an over-reaction. A large part of US electoral outcomes can be ascribed to structural factors, such as the fact that 26 of the 50 states have conservative majority populations. Yes, these 26 states may add up to only 47% of the US population, but they elect 54% of the US Senate, and that cannot change. The number of reliably liberal states is much smaller – only 16 – and, though they account for 42% of the population, they only elect 32% of the Senate. The remaining 8 states – comprising 11% of the population – swing with the season, but supply 16% of the Senate. Thus, Democrats start off with a huge disadvantage in the Senate even in the best of times. Demographic forces will gradually change this situation, but slowly. Meanwhile, Democrats, as the liberal party, will always be facing the bitter choice of either accepting conservative senators in their own ranks or remaining a permanent minority in the Senate. Four decades of asymmetric political warfare has also left Republicans in control of most state houses, which they have used to gerrymander districts and pass laws to disenfranchise Democratic voters. That too is hard to change because these factors are custom-designed to perpetuate Republican majorities. But all is not lost for Democrats here.
Gerrymandering is, by its nature, a risky bet for the Republicans: Trying to create a majority of districts from a minority of voters means that those districts are barely Republican, while the minority of Democratic districts into which the majority of voters are packed are strongly Democratic. Even a small Democratic wave can easily flip many of the gerrymandered districts, which is exactly what polls suggest will happen on November 6. Thus, it still appears very likely that the Democrats will win more than the 23 extra seats they need to capture the House of Representatives, though perhaps less dramatically than looked possible a few weeks ago. The Senate, however, is another matter. Of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year, 24 are held by Democrats, and nine of these are in states that Trump won. Three of the nine – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin – are not really Republican states; they just went for Trump because Democratic voters were lulled into complacency in 2016. Florida is a Republican-leaning state, but Sen. Bill Nelson seems to be doing reasonably well. The remaining five – West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri – are all in play. The Democrats are quite likely to lose two of these – probably North Dakota and Missouri – and possibly more. They could also pick up seats in Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee. If they can win all three and lose only one on the other side, Democrats could flip the Senate. A month ago, that looked possible, but that has changed. The most likely outcome according to fivethirtyeight.com is a 52-48 Republican Senate.
It cannot be disputed that, in the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency, things went better than expected for those who oppose him – not least because Trump turned out to be his own worst enemy. But this should not have lulled anyone into believing that the strengths which got him into the White House in 2016 had diminished. The fatal mistake that Democrats made in 2016 was to count on a fundamental sense of decency in the American electorate. Once the Access Hollywood tape came out, it was assumed that all decent people everywhere would recoil in horror and vote against Trump. That turned out to be half correct: most people did recoil in horror – but then a good fraction of them went right ahead and voted for Trump. Their horror was compartmentalized into a compartment that was of vanishing importance compared to the monstrous urges Trump fed in their psyches: Xenophobia; racial and cultural animus; historical grievances; and – in some cases – economic anxiety. Those urges and Trump’s unique ability to satisfy them are both still there, and very much on display as he deploys them like a weapon of political mass destruction in his current barnstorming.
So what are the Democrats to do? Is all hope lost? Are we as a country stuck with a radical and ruthless Republican Party for the foreseeable future?
Any serious analysis of the situation must concede that, so far, Democrats have failed to find a magic formula to counter Trump. His historic unpopularity cannot mask the fact he still has far more support than he should in any rational world. And there’s the rub: The world is not rational, and Trump has learned to exploit its irrationality better than any recent politician. This is both a new phenomenon and one as old as civilization itself. For most of history, humanity has been ruled by Donald Trumps – only far worse. Disregard for decency, mass exploitation, shameless corruption, denial of reality, and, of course, wanton cruelty have been the staple of chieftains, warlords, kings, and emperors for as long as we know, and in infinitely more extreme form than we see today. Compared to past tyrants – and even present ones – Trump is positively a cuddly kitten. But he surprises us because we thought that, at least in the lands of stable democracy, we had eradicated the ancient disease of mindless tribalism and replaced it with an ethos rooted in fact and Reason. Trump’s great contribution to history is to burst the bubble of this fallacy, showing that the virus of barbarianism is latent in the body politic of even the most sophisticated democratic societies.
It has become common in some progressive circles to compare Trump and other authoritarian populists around the world to the fascists of the 1930s. In the United States, at least, this comparison is still far-fetched: Trump – mainly due to incompetence – is more noise than action. But, as David Frum, Bob Woodward, Madeleine Albright, and others have pointed out, this ineffectiveness should not lull anyone into a sense of complacency. Two years of Trump have already demonstrated that the institutions undergirding American democracy are far weaker than had generally been assumed. For liberals invested in the stability of institutions, this has been a rude shock, and explains much of their current disorientation. If facts don’t matter any more; if Reason cannot be the basis of argument; if science can be dismissed with a wave of the hand; if human suffering is of no consequence – what is a good liberal to do?
Over the course of the last two years, two distinct answers to this question have emerged among Democrats. One – promoted by establishment figures like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama – advocates countering Trump’s uncouth challenge doggedly with a dignified rebuttal based on facts. The other – which has found its most recent avatar in the ferocious Michael Avenatti – would prefer to meet Republican fire with progressive nuclear bombs. Which of these is the right strategy? This is important for 2018, but critical for 2020: A Trump re-election would truly be the end of a recognizable America.
The recent events surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court provide some lessons. The original impulse of the Senate Democrats was to challenge the brute-force tactics of the Republicans through vigorous protest within the framework of the Senate process. However, once word leaked out about the accusations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a very different dynamic took over. Grassroots activists turned up the heat on pseudo-moderate Republicans like Susan Collins and Jeff Flake. There were altercations in elevators and ambushes in the hallways of the Capitol. All the energy of the MeToo movement was brought to bear on the Senators. And it failed. Kavanaugh was confirmed. The jury is still out on whether the whole episode energized Republicans or Democrats, but that is a momentary thing. Kavanaugh will likely be on the court for decades helping to change the very fabric of the country. How could this happen? The Democrats made excellent logical arguments for their case: All allegations should be investigated; All relevant people should be interviewed; the FBI must be given sufficient latitude and time to do a thorough investigation. Trump and the Republicans summarily rejected these arguments without giving any justification – and the public did nothing. There were no major demonstrations in the streets, no acts of mass civil disobedience, and, in fact, an uptick in the popularity of Republicans. For the thousandth time in the last forty years, it became clear that Fact and Reason have no real political power in America today.
There are good reasons for this situation. Over the last four decades, the Right has developed a vast propaganda machine through ideological think tanks, talk radio, and – since 1996 – Fox News. It has trained its voters to be more reliable and more committed. And when it has acquired power, it has deployed the machinery of government with ruthless efficiency to consolidate that power – public good be damned. In contrast, Democrats have consistently pushed a message of public service, fairness, accountability, and inclusion. Many, like Avenatti, would like this to change; they want to see a ruthless, ferocious Democratic Party that is willing to impose its will when it is in power. But that would be a mistake – mainly because, in the end, Democratic voters will reject it. If the Democratic Party becomes simply a Left-wing mirror image of the know-nothing, fact-free, ideological, authoritarian Right, it will lose the very thing that makes it attractive to the majority of Americans.
The future of the Democratic Party lies in diversity and innovation – both uniquely liberal values, both dependent fundamentally on openness to new attitudes and new ideas. Constructive anger – such as that which is driving the MeToo movement today – is a powerful force, but it must remain constructive, inclusive, and compassionate. It should lead to positive action that changes the world for the better, not to destructive nihilism or ideological radicalism. This capacity for positive and continuous change is exactly what distinguishes the liberal ethos from the rigidity and uniformity of conservatism. But it is also a real challenge. The history of humanity is the history of shibboleths; people need gods to worship and dogmas to believe in, whereas the core ideal of liberalism is to reject this attitude. The biggest reason why the Right wins so often, why Fox News works, why Trump can triumph – if only transiently – is that conservatism has a more accurate baseline model of human nature than liberalism. Perhaps this is reason for despair – but it may also be an opportunity.
One of the most important insights to emerge from the scientific study of adaptation and learning is the trade-off between exploitation and exploration. For an active agent to succeed in a complex environment, it must learn what actions or strategies are useful in various situations. It is often possible to discover fairly good strategies with reasonable payoff quite easily. Indeed, evolution has configured many of these into animals in the form of innate behaviors and instincts. An agent equipped with these strategies can just keep using them without further learning, and get the payoff from these actions. This is the policy of exploitation, and accounts for most behaviors in animals and humans. It is easy, cheap, and reliable if the environment does not change much, but it is also very expensive because of its fragility and its opportunity cost. The fragility comes from the fact that no complex environment is ever perfectly stable, and as it changes, the agents within it must adapt their strategies or perish. This is why evolution continually reconfigures instincts to keep up with a changing world. But more importantly, the obvious or innate strategies are often not the best ones even in a fixed environment. They are fast and good enough, but better ones are possible. However, these better strategies can only be discovered by trying out risky new actions rather than remaining stuck with the safe, tried-and-tested ones. This is exploration. Humans – unlike almost all other animals – are especially skilled at such exploration. Indeed, one could argue that this is their essential characteristic, their primary advantage – a capacity to go beyond instinct, explore new strategies, and make them part of the behavioral repertoire. To succeed, an intelligent agent must find a good balance between exploitation and exploration, and so must societies. In the environment of human affairs, conservatism is the exploitative principle and liberalism the exploratory one. This is trivially obvious at one level: Conservatives prefer to stick with what already works whereas progressives want to try out new things. But the dichotomy holds also at a deeper, more profound level. Conservatism, and more broadly, any traditional top-down form of societal organization, seeks to exploit the well-known, primal instincts of the human psyche: Fear, greed, pride, group solidarity, etc. It sees human nature as it is, and pushes its buttons to accomplish its goal of stability. Liberalism – or more generally, the progressive mindset – looks more to human nature as it can be. It assumes the existence of latent capabilities, fresh attitudes, new ideas – seeking to discover and deploy these in the service of progress. It is this ethos of change that makes liberalism more attractive to the young, the powerless, and the marginalized. It promises a better world to those who are not satisfied with the world as it is. But it is always an uphill battle. Most of human history is a triumph of conservative exploitation, though it would be a mistake to think of the liberal impulse as just a new, post-Enlightenment thing. All the great thinkers, explorers, reformers, innovators, artists, poets, and discoverers – from Pythagoras to Galileo, Zoroaster to Nietzsche, Omar Khayyam to Shelley, Albiruni to Darwin – were the liberal minds of their age: Exploring ideas, bringing the new into being, and changing the world in the process. But it is also true that, with a few transient exceptions, liberal values have not been the norm in the area of governance. For almost all of history, humans have been ruled within a conservative framework that privileges tradition and order rather than change. While the liberal mind is as old as humanity itself, liberal democratic government is a young and fragile thing. Will it – can it – survive?
Some are already predicting its demise. Recently, The Atlantic has been running an entire series on the question: Is Democracy Dying? The question has become especially urgent in an age when global social media has supercharged the ability of humanity’s primal instincts to reach critical mass and blow up the world of Reason. In the lead article, the editor, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes the legal scholar, Jeffrey Rosen as saying: “The goal in America today … is to resurrect the primacy of reason over passion—what we are watching now is the struggle between logos and pathos. The central question in our democratic age is this: Is it possible to slow down the direct expression of popular passion? The answer to this question is not obvious.” Yascha Mounk has recently compiled sobering figures showing that the bedrock principles of democracy are losing their grip among the young, and suggests that they can only be saved by liberals reconnecting with the problems of real people. On the other side, there are voices such as Daniel Treisman arguing that the rumors of democracy’s death are greatly exaggerated. Whatever the case may be, it cannot be denied that liberal democracy is currently facing a crisis all over the world.
The crisis is only likely to grow as the world becomes more troubled by demographic pressures, economic inequality, social unrest and – above all – climate change. The conundrum is this: People have real and growing problems, and technocratic liberalism has assured them that these problems can be solved by rational policies. But the problems keep growing because – in a real sense – most of them have no quick solution. Yes, technology has solved many problems, but has also created new ones – unemployment, social isolation, mental health crises, greater economic inequality. Medicine has alleviated much suffering, but new forms keep emerging in a globalizing world. War and crime are everywhere. Famine is still a real threat in the 21st century. Great cities and whole countries are running out of water. The promise of rational, technical solutions to all these problems is simply not tenable. This too can be explained rationally, but as they say, if you’re explaining you’re losing. And as the stress grows, it is almost certain that people everywhere will fall back on instincts and innate behaviors, resulting in resurgent tribalism. Yes – as Mounk says – liberal democracy must solve real problems, but what it needs much more is a story, a vision that can connect with the more constructive instincts of humanity – “the better angels of our nature.” Conservatism has a ready-made narrative that is almost bred in the bone. An alternative liberal narrative is still lacking. Liberalism still relies too much on technocratic arguments – “mere” facts! But facts don’t move hearts or minds – stories do. In this time of crisis lies the opportunity to create such a story for American liberalism.
The young in America are distinctly more liberal than their elders. Immigrants, who had ranged across the liberal-conservative spectrum, have increasingly been pushed in the liberal direction by Trumpian policies – and by their children! Democrats have won majorities in five of the last six presidential elections, though Republicans took the presidency in two of those cases thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College. There is, in fact, an increasing moderate-to-liberal majority in the US. The old notion that America was a “center-right country” is demonstrably no longer true. For liberals and Democrats to seize this moment offered courtesy of Donald Trump is the opportunity of a lifetime – and perhaps the last one before darkness descends. By design or accident, the Democrats are doing several things right: More women candidates; more young candidates; less inhibition about proclaiming liberal ideals; fearless expression of inconvenient truths. But all these things have to come together into a vision. That process is still very incomplete. Barack Obama, for all his decency, intelligence, and charisma, could not produce that vision because he was too careful, too calculating and self-conscious. Perhaps young new leaders like Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez will do the job. Or perhaps it will be more seasoned leaders like Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom. But time is running short.
For the last two decades, America has been governed mostly by a conservative minority through the machinations of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and constitutional quirks such as the Electoral College and equal Senate representation. Sooner or later – and evidence suggests very soon – the majority will no longer be passive. The convulsion that follows can lead in many directions, most of them unpleasant – ranging from authoritarian right-wing suppression to rampant left-wing populism. Some are even beginning to speak sotto voce about a new American “civil war.” But somewhere in this forest of hazard is a narrow path for liberal idealism to capture the country’s heart and bind it again to the ideals of democracy. Trump and Trumpism have opened up decent people across America – and across the world – to putting aside their differences and uniting in the cause of a better future. The opportunity for a transformational liberal movement is at hand – but it is a tide that must be taken at the flood or lost for the foreseeable future.
But what of the moment at hand? What are we going to see in a few days, and over the next two years as a possible new Liberal Narrative struggles to be born?
In the brave new world of cell phones, call screening, and cord-cutting Millennials, polls are of limited value. Organizations such as fivethirtyeight.com make valiant efforts to combine information from many polls to make predictions, but even though their predictions are reasonably good, they are far from infallible. Recent polls have shown a great deal of contradictory data – some with Trump’s approval rising and Republicans surging on various seats, others showing Trump stuck in the 30s and Democrats with clear leads in states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Montana. Early voting and anecdotal evidence both suggest that this will be a very high turnout election, which is much likelier to help Democrats, since Republicans turn out in high numbers anyway. Another excellent sign for the Democrats is that women favor them by huge margins – perhaps as high as 25%, which is astounding. Though men favor Republicans by a small amount, the women’s vote is both larger and more reliable. The most interesting aspect of this is to see how many nominally Republican women vote Democratic this time. And, though anything is possible, the Democrats look set to win back the House and probably not lose much in the Senate.
If this happens, one can make at least one unfortunate prediction: Donald Trump will surely find a hundred ways to harass the House Democrats using the machinery of the government he controls. Running against the Democratic House will be his ticket to renomination and possible re-election. At the same time, Democrats are likely to ramp up investigations of Trump very quickly. Look for everything to end up in court, and for the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh appointments to start paying off for Trump. On the other hand, if the Democrats fail to capture the House of Representatives on November 6, it will indicate that the United States is already on the slippery slope to a very grim future. Given all this, it is hard to predict which party will be angrier for the 2020 vote. One thing, though, is certain: 2019 and 2020 will be the vilest years of politicking in recent memory – but possibly also years where people turn more eagerly towards a better alternative if one is offered. The Season of Savagery – and Hope – is upon us.