Politics & Policy

Let’s Have a Little Humility about the Future

(Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Predicting the course of American politics with any certainty is a fool’s errand.

Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong makes an admirable attempt to think about the future: What blithe assumptions of today will look absurd in retrospect? What minor artists will come to seem major, and vice-versa? What will endure for another century or more, and what will dissolve into oblivion?

Consider politics. Klosterman speculates that maybe freedom and the Constitution will turn out to be not such great ideas as they appear at the time he is writing. He approvingly quotes a professor, Jay D. Wexler of Boston University, who says federalism in education policy is a bad idea because it leads to “states that water down science education to placate creationists,” the Constitution is flawed because “it invalidates campaign finance laws that are designed to make our political system fair,” and Congress is hard to take seriously as an institution when “one house holds the entire country hostage.”

Just to stress the obvious: Klosterman, an ardent and somewhat conspiracy-minded leftist, is writing during the Obama administration. (But What if We’re Wrong was published in June 2016.) He greatly admires Barack Obama, which is why he devotes a few pages to musing about whether dictatorship might be a better way forward.

This time, he approvingly quotes amateur historian Dan Carlin, host of the popular podcast Hardcore History, who notes that “one-man rule—some kind of dictatorship or empire or whatever” today makes us think of Hitler and Stalin, who weren’t so nice. But! “In the ancient world, they often had bad examples of democracy.” So “had we had, in the 1930s or 1940s, some dictatorship that was run by a real benevolent, benign person who did a really good job and things were great . . . we might have a different view of all that.” Points to Carlin and Klosterman for clarifying where they’re heading with this remark, made by the former and evidently approved by the latter: “It almost feels like I’m arguing, ‘Democracy is imperfect, so let’s experiment with a little light fascism.’”

I quote these sentiments not to point out that Klosterman, Carlin, and Wexler were spectacularly wrong, or even to point out that they were spectacularly wrong on their own terms. (You can bet all three today worry that the Constitution gives the president too much power, believe that “a little light fascism” would be a bad thing for America, and fervently wish for Democrats to retake Congress and obstruct President Trump’s agenda in every possible way.)

No, the reason I quote Klosterman et al. is to emphasize that even highly intelligent people making a sincere effort to predict the future risk looking absolutely ludicrous within a couple of years. Now that it’s 2018 and we’re all so much wiser than we were three years ago, what lessons might we heed going forward? Here’s one: President Trump is not forever.

Today, when every awards show, football game, pop album, horror story, and passing cloud is viewed through a Trump filter, it seems almost inconceivable that there can exist a United States in which Trump is irrelevant. But it will happen. Though recent events may have undermined the view that all politics is local, the apothegm that a week is a long time in politics remains as true as ever.

The week of January 1, 2018, Trump’s predominant place in our cultural and political landscape is much like that of the Beatles on April 4, 1964, when they simultaneously held the top five positions on the pop charts. But George H.W. Bush enjoyed an approval rating of 89 percent 20 months before he lost his reelection bid with 38 percent of the vote. After the 2004 elections, Republicans held a commanding 55 Senate seats and 232 House seats. Two years later, Democrats picked up six Senate seats and 31 House seats to retake both chambers.

Trump’s Republican party may well lose control of Congress in a similar wave election ten months hence. But two years from now it could be a completely different story. Trump could step down, or be removed from office, or be unable to run for a second term. No matter what happens, the minute he exits the Oval Office we’ll all rush on to something else. Maybe we’ll be at war with New Zealand. Maybe California will secede. Maybe it won’t secede, but stopping President Kamala Harris will be the most urgent priority of the majority of the American people.

Any political prediction that dares to look ahead more than a few months has to reckon with the political issues of the future, and we just don’t know what those will be. Ask James Carville how he feels about the book he published on May 5, 2009, in the fourth month of the Obama administration. It was called 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.


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