Politics & Policy

The Origins of Progressive Agony

Protesters gather in front of the doors of the Supreme Court as Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in, October 6, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
In the wake of Obama, the Democratic party was a shipwreck, to be saved only by Hillary and the Supreme Court . . .

What has transformed the Democratic party into an anguished progressive movement that incorporates the tactics of the street, embraces maenadism, reverts to Sixties carnival barking, and is radicalized by a new young socialist movement? Even party chairman Tom Perez concedes that there are “no moderate Democrats left,” and lately the rantings of Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez confirm that diagnosis.

 

Obama, the Fallen God

Paradoxically, Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 and 2012 and yet helped to erode the old Democratic party in the process. He ended up in opulent retirement while ceding state legislatures, governorships, the House, the Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court to conservative Republicans.

Obama had promised leftists — in his prior brief tenure in the Senate he had compiled the most partisan record of his 99 colleagues — that his social-justice methods and agendas would lead to a proverbial “permanent Democratic majority.” Do we remember the February 2009 Newsweek obsequious cover story “We Are All Socialists Now”?

Supposedly, changing demography, massive illegal immigration, and identity politics had preordained a permanent 51 percent “Other” whose minority statuses, as defined by gender and race, had now become a majority, given the destined demise of the white working classes. If Obama had not existed, someone like Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, or Kirsten Gillibrand was supposedly foreordained to be president anyway.

But while Obama sermonized about our predestined “arc of history” and how its moral curve bent this way and that, he managed to lose both his supermajority in the Senate and the House itself by 2011. By 2015, the Senate lost its Democratic majority.

Ruling by pen-and-phone executive order only took the country more leftward. And it came at the price of stagnating the economy, acerbating social, cultural, and racial differences, raising taxes, and recalibrating foreign policy.

Obama bequeathed to his successors neither a popular progressive record nor a robust economy nor a stellar foreign-policy success. If he did ensure massive minority voting registration and bloc voting, that served largely himself — and came at the cost of alienating independents and the working classes. In other words, Obama most certainly did pass on to his successors the downside of his polarizing sermonizing and divisiveness, but not the upside of record minority turnout and uniform voting.

Progressives once thought that Obama was their godhead and their assured pathway to permanent power. In those heady days of 2009, the American system of government was still deemed wonderful. Conservatives were bitter dead-enders, and the country was in the process of being fundamentally “transformed.” Basking in the rites and rituals of her role as first lady, Michelle Obama had finally learned, by her own admission, to be proud of her country.

But then with the loss of local, state, and federal legislative power, progressives grew understandably bitter. Never had so much been promised and so little delivered. And they began to recalibrate Obama the erstwhile savior as mostly a narcissist who had thrived while emasculating his followers.

That bitter disappointment was something akin to the shipwreck of Republican dreams of the late 1950s. Giddy after the elections of 1952 and 1956, Republicans had thought that a beloved Ike was their permanent salvation, when, in fact, Ike, but not necessarily his party, did well for a brief hiatus of two terms — after following 20 years of Democratic presidential rule and ushering in eight more.

 

The 2016 Election

The 2016 election understandably embittered and radicalized Democrats — as happens when a party wins the popular but loses the electoral-college vote. And given the propitious start of the 2016 campaign, the election year certainly was not supposed to end that way.

On Election Eve, the New York Times still preened that its various models and polls gave Donald Trump no real statistical chance of victory — or rather respectively a mere 15 percent, 8 percent, 2 percent, or less than 1 percent chance of winning the election. Such faux mathematical precision was invented to lend accuracy to suspect polls and biased models that were already eroding. The supposedly buffoonish Trump would not just humiliate but destroy the Republican party, as it split asunder — and as Never Trumpers joined liberals in blasting their comedic nominee.

A boastful lame-duck Obama was lecturing the nation on the eve of the anticipated Clinton landslide that there was zero chance of any party, much less any nation, warping the U.S. election. Pre-election, a smug Hillary Clinton pontificated that Trump had to grow up and accept the impending verdict of the voters that would shortly demolish his candidacy and humiliate his person. She would add insult to Trump’s injury by sweeping Georgia and Arizona and by a landslide that would reinvigorate the Obama dream.

Indeed, dozens of the careerists and progressive appointees at the Washington FBI, DOJ, CIA, and National Security Council took all sorts of risks to insure a Clinton blowout. They variously sought to warp the FISA court, subvert the Trump campaign, collude with Fusion GPS and its Russian sources, and weaponize the FBI to ensure the Clinton victory — on the premise that their unethical and often illegal behavior would soon be rewarded by the Clintons, who for decades had proven far less ethical than 2016’s miscreant minions.

Hillary’s defeat caused unimaginable shock. It almost immediately prompted a collective psychological meltdown. The tragedy was not just that an inept Clinton had squandered the gifts of a $1 billion war chest, the deep-state collusion of the Obama administration, and a completely captive and obsequious media. But she had lost to Trump, the reality-TV-show host, the controversial raconteur, the first serious presidential candidate with neither military nor political experience.

Worse still, Clinton had blown a huge lead by foolishly seeking an electoral mandate while Trump, the supposed dunce, outsmarted her analytics and young techies by battering down the blue wall and stealing her Democratic Midwest with a populist nationalist message, part JFK, part Ronald Reagan.

Nothing is more humiliating than to be already doling out White House patronage jobs on Election Day at noon, and by evening suffering a shipwrecked candidacy and the certainty of eight more years of progressive rule incinerated. No wonder progressives were recently reduced to frenzied maenads gnashing their teeth and breaking their fingernails on the closed doors of the Supreme Court.

 

Trump

In the past, the usual progressive attack on traditionalists and conservatives had been met with a sort of tsk-tsk appeasement, a Marquess of Queensberry forbearance from men and women who had learned their polite political manners at the country club.

The Bush, McCain, and Romney approach was to be above the fray and expect Americans to condemn progressive excess, when in fact the attitude of exasperated conservative voters was always something more like, “If they won’t do their job and fight back, then why in the hell should we support them?”

Then came Trump, who considered politics as a sort of televised WWE wrestling mat, and who enjoyed the political fray as much as he had when he once climbed into a real Wrestlemania ring with Vince McMahon.

He said bluntly and often crudely what most had thought silently and soberly. Trump had a looney idea that millions of the deplorable middle and working classes had no innate advantages accruing from “white privilege” (whatever that still means) — and were tired of being told they did by those who really had clout and connections. Trump, crazily, said that globalization made more voters poorer than richer, and that making things in the U.S. still mattered. And the more the punditocracy wrote him off, the more it galvanized voters who despised talking heads.

Had progressives just lost to Rubio or even Cruz, it would have been almost tolerable. And had they lost while still winning Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, they could have endured it. But to lose to an orange and combed-over Trump with a mile-long tie, who outfoxed their own Silicon Valley experts by demolishing their blue wall, only added terrible insult to staggering injury.

 

The System

Progressives soon woke up to the reality that without power they were unable to stop Trump, and so they embraced any desperate means necessary to trap the ogre. The effort proved as frenzied as it was impotent: boycotting the inauguration, suing over state voting machines, using the courts to stymie Trump appointments and executive orders, appealing to the emoluments clause and the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, and winking and nodding at the assassination chic of celebrities and politicos such as Johnny Depp, Peter Fonda, Kathy Griffith, Madonna, Robert de Niro, Snoop Dogg, and a host of others. The many methods to subvert Trump’s presidency or fantasize about his gory death were as varied as the number of faux-accusers who would come out of the woodwork to smear Brett Kavanaugh. And the result was eerily the same: the more the impotent frenzy, the more it discredited its source

Blacks Lives Matter, Antifa, and #MeToo were all in a sense weaponized to do what elections had not. Finally, in exasperation, Democrats have begun demonizing the Electoral College itself, which has gone from the legal basis of Obama’s treasured “blue wall” to a relic of old, white male Founders who supposedly favored rural hicks over the better people of the cities. Progressives now damn the idea of a nine-person Supreme Court and mysteriously praise the discredited, hare-brained scheme of FDR to pack the court with progressive toady judges.

They bitterly lament the unfairness that a Wyoming or Montana might have as many senators per state as California or New York, though they had no such complaint in 2009 when they had a Senate supermajority — a margin they won in part because a tiny progressive state such as Rhode Island had the same number of senators as odious conservative Texas.

How could it be that a picture-perfect system that had empowered Barack Obama now gave the country Donald Trump? How unfair of the deplorable Founders to have bequeathed that ball and chain to the better people of 2016!

If the system does not deliver the correct results to progressives every time, then change the damned system to ensure that it does!

 

The Supreme Court

In 2008, all the stars above — terror over the September 14 stock meltdown, unhappiness over the Iraq War, the kick-me McCain campaign, the Obama heritage candidacy, and stay-home conservatives turned off by the traditional Republicans — aligned to give Democrats control of the Congress and presidency.

Progressive astrologists predicted a series of Obamas for the next half-century. But in truth, the country was never really progressive. Until Obama, no Democrat without a Southern accent had won the popular vote since John Kennedy in 1960. And by 2010, the pushback became a near rout, within a few years, leaving the Left with its last vestige of power: a divided Supreme Court, which since the Roosevelt era had always salvaged the progressive dreams that had been wrecked in the executive and legislative branches.

Trump, however, not only got elected but in matters of court appointments he also proved to be an originalist and constructionist in a way that recent Republican presidents had never quite envisioned. He outsourced his Supreme Court nominations to the no-nonsense Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. Progressives went regressive in their furor and demonized Trump’s picks to such a degree that there was little chance that a Georgetown cocktail circuit would ever manage to turn a Gorsuch or Kavanaugh into a Souter or Stevens.

Fear grew over a future that would be even worse than the bad present. Should Trump be reelected, he might have one or two more deleterious picks yet — and perhaps even female Supreme Court justices more conservative than their male counterparts (and whom it might prove difficult to smear with supposed questionable teenage behavior four decades prior).

Trump’s criteria for selections seemed to be youth, strict constructionism, and intellectual brilliance — along the lines of a cohort of young Scalias. In short, the Court could no longer save for progressives what the presidency and Congress had lost them — an unfortunate downturn brought about once again by none other than the odious Donald J. Trump.

The catastrophic yet suicidal loss in the 2016 election and the disappointment over the Obama presidency radicalized Democrats. A combative Trump himself certainly enraged them, on a variety of political, social, and cultural levels.

When Democrats lost, they realized that they still lived in a Republic and not a volatile Athenian democracy — and found this also hard to take.

More exasperating still was the loss of the Supreme Court, the last bastion of elite brilliance and superior morality that might yet save America from the prejudices and ignorance of the irredeemables, deplorables, clingers, and crazies.

Add it all up, and it was enough to drive any liberal to binge progressive drinking.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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