A funny thing happened to the American political parties: Republicans, who have done nothing but win since 2010 and whose current leader speaks of nothing but “winning,” have become the party of losers.
And not in a good way.
I was a Republican for about ten minutes in the 1980s, back when the GOP was the party of winners. On this point, everyone agreed: The Democrats insisted that the Republicans were the party of the wealthy, the elite, those who had “won life’s lottery,” the party of management over labor, the party of the establishment over the marginalized. We Republicans didn’t disagree, exactly: We thought we were the party of Alex P. Keaton. We were the party not only of the well-off and comfortable but also of those who aspired to be well-off and comfortable — especially those who were most confident we could and would achieve this. We enjoyed watching Nancy Reagan in her Oscar de la Renta gowns shooing Jimmy Carter and his sad little cardigans out of the White House.
The Seventies had been a decade that was about scarcity: We were running out of everything from oil to clean air to room for the world’s growing population, or so we were told. In the Eighties, we set about changing that attitude: America might have a great many problems, but we were not going to be poor. Having failed to learn the lesson of Archie Bunker, Oliver Stone had his Gordon Gekko declare, “Greed is good.” We were supposed to be appalled, but, instead, we said: “Well, that’s a little over-the-top, but the man has a point.”
And, oh, how we rolled our eyes at life’s “victims.” Not real victims, of course: We were the ones who refused to forget what was going on in the Soviet gulags and Chinese laogai and Communist-bloc “psychiatric hospitals” and Cuban prisons. In fact, we spent a great deal more time thinking and talking about those victims than many people remember.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past eight years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one — a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early Eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.“
There were millions upon millions of real victims of violence, oppression, and cruelty in the 20th century. But “victims” of the purportedly cruel and indifferent American society that was all around us producing unprecedented, even undreamt-of prosperity and peace? “Get a job, hippie.” We said it and we meant it.
It’s still good advice.
The Democrats were, by their own telling, the party of life’s losers. (As long as those losers were troubled for the right reasons — the wickedness of the United States and capitalism.) The Democrats were the people who believed we needed a federal program for every scraped knee across the fruited plain: Gas-station owners in Muleshoe, Texas, couldn’t be entrusted to put in wheelchair ramps or handrails in their bathrooms — give us the Americans with Disabilities Act! Give us government subsidies for food, shelter, health care, bus fares, and telephones, and if every kid in America has a taxpayer-funded lunch at school, it is time to demand breakfast, too! Every purported victim of capitalism, from the homeless in Chicago (who exist only during Republican presidencies) to the spotted owl, needed a hug, “hug” here meaning a hundred-billion-dollar social program.
Today’s Democrats talk about the Republican-leaning parts of the United States as though they were particularly unsympathetic Third World countries, populated by people who not only lost life’s lottery but deserved it. And Republicans disagree only with their conclusion, not with the facts of the case.
What in hell happened?
The Democrats are still very, very interested in Muleshoe’s toilets, to be sure: Having solved the issue of handrails, they have moved on to the pressing business of which toilet men in dresses ought to use, one more thing to make a federal case of, one more thing to tell you which side of History you are on. (“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience . . . ”) Democrats still blast the GOP as the party of the rich, at least when there is a tax-policy debate under way. But something has changed, because they also blast Republicans as the party of the poor, of ignorant interior rustics who — all together now! — “vote against their own interests.”
The Democratic party has become positively snooty. The go-to criticism of Republicans today isn’t that they are comfortable elites, but that they aren’t. Today’s Democrats endlessly lament the poverty and the backwardness of the so-called red states (as though Mississippi’s vote in the last few presidential elections made irrelevant its century-plus of effective one-party Democratic rule) and complain that the taxes of the high-flyers in Manhattan and Silicon Valley are used to subsidize these losers. Republican-leaning states, they complain, have high poverty rates and poor educational outcomes, are beset by diseases ranging from diabetes to chlamydia (both of which are markers of poverty), and fail to adequately train their children for the 21st-century economy. They eat poorly, they smoke, they’re addicted to drugs — and they are weighing down (literally weighing down! Democrats loved those pictures of fat old people in scooters at Tea Party rallies) the rest of the country.
So goes the indictment.
The bitterness with which this criticism is offered is remarkable. I have written from time to time about the relative economic situations in Texas and California, and have been genuinely shocked by how often I hear from Californians saying, in short: “The only people who are leaving California are those who cannot afford to live here. Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Who would have thought we’d hear Democrats complaining about teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth rates?
Republicans, conversely, have embraced loserdom. Alex P. Keaton, with his Wall Street Journal subscription and his William F. Buckley Jr. daydreams and his Ivy League ambitions (spoiler alert: He ends up not going to Princeton after all), would be looked at askance in Donald Trump’s Republican party. In 2017, conservatives rail against “elites” and Big Business leaders and corporate executives — the very people a lot of young conservatives wanted to become back in 1984. Victimhood? They speak of practically nothing but victimization: of small towns and small-town people sneered at as “flyover country” tornado bait by coastal elites; of farmers and family businesses that find it difficult to compete in a global marketplace; of workers and former workers in moribund industries; of put-upon Christians and put-upon whites and doubly put-upon white men and trebly put-upon white Christian men. They complain that their jobs are being “stolen” by scheming Orientals and sweaty immigrants happy for the opportunity to live on one tortilla a day. They believe that practically everybody who is successful in any field other than talk radio or right-wing cable news has somehow gotten one over on the rest of us. The great capitalists of our time — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — are for them figures of contempt and derision. Even the American soldier — the most dangerous thing going about on two feet — is for them a victim, duped into fighting someone else’s wars for someone else’s agenda, a puppet of (take your pick) “neocons,” the “Deep State,” the Israel lobby, Wall Street.
The Democrats have become what the Republicans once were: the party of the respectable upper-middle class — and of many of those who aspire to it.
I think we all know how Alex P. Keaton would feel about carried-interest tax treatment of private-equity investments. Donald Trump sees the question . . . differently.
The Democrats have become what the Republicans once were: the party of the respectable upper-middle class — and of many of those who aspire to it. (The poor are for patronage and vote-farming.) They are, as the bourgeoisie always are, obsessed with social convention and etiquette (If a young white woman in college wears hoop earrings, is it “cultural appropriation”? How ashamed should I be for having watched Speedy Gonzales cartoons as a kid — and enjoyed them?). The Republicans have gone seeking tribunes of the plebs. (Weird thing: Our tribunes of the plebs have an awful lot of private jets parked in Palm Beach.) Up is down, left is right, confusion reigns.
In neither party’s case does this recent evolution constitute an improvement: It would be one thing if the Democrats had embraced their inner aristocrats with a decent and forthright spirit of public service rather than their current nastiness and stupidity, or if the newly class-conscious Republicans were proceeding as people who are (as Someone once put it) “poor in spirit,” putting generosity of spirit rather than seething resentment at the center of their new concern for those at the margins of modern life. But that is not the case. The Democrats have become ordinary snobs of a particularly embarrassing variety, and the Republicans have become incontinent rage monkeys, looking for someone — anyone — to blame. They are much more interested in afflicting the comfortable than in comforting the afflicted. But there is another approach to life’s losers, a better one, if only they could remember.
There is snow on the ground in Washington today.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier . . . . But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.