Politics & Policy

Progressives without Power

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., October 24, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
Hard times for the Sanctimonious White Lady Party

A very nice liberal broadcaster asked me earlier this week whether I am worried about the future of the Republican party.

Funny question.

There are 25 states in which the state legislatures and governorships are controlled by Republicans, and two states with executive/legislative divides in which there are Republican legislative majorities large enough to override a veto from the Democratic governor. Sixty-eight of the country’s 98 partisan state legislative chambers are Republican-run. There are only four states with Democratic governors and legislatures; it is true that these include one of our most populous states (California), but the majority of Americans live in states in which there are Republican trifectas or veto-proof legislative majorities. Two-thirds of the nation’s governors are Republicans; more than two-thirds of our state legislative houses are under Republican control. Republicans control both houses of Congress and have just won the presidency.

Democrats control the dean of students’ office at Oberlin.

And Democrats have responded to their recent electoral defeat with riots, arson, and Alex Jones–level conspiracy theories. Progressives have just raised $5 million to press for a recount in several states. Clinton sycophant Paul Krugman, sounding exactly like every well-mannered conspiracy nut you’ve ever known, says the election “probably wasn’t hacked,” but “conspiracies do happen” and “now that it’s out there” — (who put it out there?) — “an independent investigation is called for.”

Maybe it isn’t the Republican party whose future needs worrying about.

In one sense, what is happening in American politics is a convergence of partisan styles.

Beginning with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, and thanks in no small part to the efforts of many men associated with this magazine, the Republican party spent half a century as a highly ideological enterprise. But highly ideological political parties are not the norm in the English-speaking world, especially not in the United States, and the conservative fusion of American libertarianism, social traditionalism, and national-security assertiveness probably is not stable enough to cohere, having now long outlived the Cold War, in which it was forged. Trump’s lack of conservative principle is unwelcome, but it points to an ideological looseness that is arguably more normal, a return to the model of party as loose coalition of interest groups.

As in the Republican party, the Democrats have a restive base that is more radical than its leadership, more aggressive, and in search of signs of tribal affiliation.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are becoming more ideological, or at least more openly and self-consciously ideological, as the party’s progressivism becomes more and more a catechism. This has the effect of making the Democratic party less democratic. American progressives have a long and genuine commitment to mass democracy, having supported not only various expansions of the franchise but also many instruments of direct democracy such as the ballot initiative, but they also have a long and genuine commitment to frustrating democracy when it gets in the way of the progressive agenda, which is why they have spent the better part of a century working to politicize the courts, the bureaucracies, and the non-governmental institutions they control in order to ensure they get their way even when they lose at the ballot box. Democrats did not pay much attention when they started suffering losses at the state level, because they were working against federalism and toward a unitary national government controlled from Washington. And they did not fight as hard as they might to recover from their losses in Congress while Barack Obama sat in the White House, obstructing Republican legislative initiatives and attempting to govern through executive fiat — an innovation that the Democrats surely are about to regret in the direst way.

For the moment, the stylistic convergence — the Republicans becoming a little more like the selfish-coalition Democratic party, and the Democrats becoming a little more like the ideological Republican party — works to the Republicans’ advantage, though there is no reason to believe that always will be the case. The GOP had a very good run of it as a highly ideological enterprise.

The longer-term problem for the Democrats is that they are finding out that they have to play by their own rules, which are the rules of identity politics. This is a larger problem for the Democratic party than is generally appreciated. The Democratic party is an odd apparatus in which most of the power is held by sanctimonious little old liberal white ladies with graduate degrees and very high incomes — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Randi Weingarten — while the manpower, the vote-power, and the money-power (often in the form of union dues) comes from a disproportionately young and non-white base made up of people who, if they are doing well, might earn one-tenth of the half-million dollars a year Weingarten was paid as the boss of the teachers’ union. They are more likely to be cutting the grass in front of Elizabeth Warren’s multi-million-dollar mansion than moving into one of their own. They roll their eyes at Hillary Rodham Clinton’s risible “abuela” act, having actual abuelas of their own.

#related#As in the Republican party, the Democrats have a restive base that is more radical than its leadership, more aggressive, and in search of signs of tribal affiliation. The Democratic base is not made up of little old liberal white ladies with seven-, eight-, and nine-figure bank balances, but the party’s leadership is. It is worth noting that in a year in which the Republican candidate painted Mexican immigrants with a rather broad and ugly brush, Mrs. Clinton got a smaller share of the Hispanic vote than Barack Obama did in 2012. She got a significantly smaller share of the black vote, too. Interestingly, Mrs. Clinton’s drop in the black vote came exclusively from black men. Many black Americans had very high hopes that an Obama administration would mean significant changes in their lives and in the state of their communities, but that has not come to pass. There is nothing about Mrs. Clinton that inspired similar hopes. “She’s not right, and we all know it,” the comedian Dave Chappelle said.

It is far from obvious that Senator Cherokee Cheekbones or anyone standing alongside Debbie Wasserman Schultz will feel more “right” to Democratic voters who have almost nothing in common with them. A coalition in which elderly rich white faculty-lounge liberals have all the power and enjoy all the perks while the work and money come from younger and browner people is not going to be very stable.

Especially when it has been stripped of the one thing that has held that coalition together so far: power.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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