The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

The Pillage Party and the Freakshow Party

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., October 15, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

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The Two Democratic Parties

Gather ’round, progressive friends, sit down here with the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, and let us speak the truth to one another, for at least a moment: Take a look, if you will, into President Biden’s eyes — those flat, terrified, watery, senescent eyes that could very well have been plucked from the skull of Robert Byrd or Strom Thurmond, those dull cow eyes that have been misapprehending the comings and goings of life on this earth since the Andrews Sisters were topping the charts with “Pennsylvania Polka,” those filmy orbs going blank as they fix absently upon the backend of everything from the first-class compartment on Amtrak — and tell me: Are you looking into the eyes of a man who gives even one half of a rat’s furry patootie about your pronouns?

No. Whatever he pretends, no.

There are two Democratic parties, and Joe Biden belongs to the older one: the Pillage Party. Thank God for small favors.

The Pillage Party goes all the way back to Andrew Jackson, and its platform has always been precisely the same: transfer as much money as possible to constituents from non-constituents. Old Hickory and Lyndon Johnson would tell you that was all about helping out the poor folks down on the farm and in the forgotten corners of America, but you and I know that is pure bullsh**. Democrats are perfectly happy to run with something you might think of as a more naturally Republican position if it puts money in the pockets of their partisans: Removing the cap on state and local tax deductions is a Democratic issue, not a Republican one, even though it means tax cuts for the rich, and especially for rich people with expensive houses in expensive neighborhoods. Silicon Valley and Wall Street may vote for Democrats for largely cultural reasons, but Elizabeth Warren’s nice progressive neighbors up in Cambridge are feeling the pinch of paying for all that progressivism out of their own progressive pockets. College-loan forgiveness is not exactly No. 1 on the agenda of desperately poor Americans in Democrat-run cities such as St. Louis or Cleveland, where the put-upon proletariat is worried about keeping the heat on this winter, not paying off the tab at Oberlin. Social Security, that epitome of the New Deal, transfers wealth from African Americans and Latinos to whites and, especially, from unmarried African Americans and Latinos to married whites — because Ward and June always get theirs.

Franklin Roosevelt very cannily ensured that his New Deal was heavy on middle-class and upper-middle-class benefits, funded through payroll taxes that would remove the stigma of the “relief attitude,” as he told Luther Gulick of the American Society for Public Administration. “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program,” Roosevelt said. “Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”

Understanding the character of the Pillage Party makes some aspects of our contemporary politics more comprehensible.

On the matter of the social-spending bill, the Biden administration and its congressional allies have followed a very old negotiating strategy: Demand the redonkulous and accept the merely ridiculous as a compromise, trimming a trillion or so off the top. But they will fight for those dollars and that spending, just as Barack Obama was willing to throw away much of the rest of his presidency in order to sign new health-care benefits into law. We should expect like-minded Democrats to be relatively energetic in the pursuit of middle-class benefits such as child-care subsidies and “free” college educations.

At the same time, the Biden administration has chosen to punt on certain progressive priorities, such as the court-packing scheme that has fueled so many left-wing daydreams. Left-wingers in Congress introduced a bill to expand the Supreme Court from nine to 13 members in order to provide the administration an opportunity to pack the court with politically reliable progressives, but the Biden administration handed the question over to one of those goofy presidential commissions, which will produce recommendations that will be hotly debated and fought over — two conservatives recently resigned from the commission in protest — but which will produce, in all likelihood, squat in terms of actual change. An administration that wanted to overturn the constitutional order in the pursuit of abortion or gun-control goals would not have handed this off to a blue-ribbon committee. We should not misread what that means: It isn’t that the Biden administration gives a fig about the constitutional order; it’s just that it doesn’t care nearly as much about the so-called social issues or gun control as it does about moving money from Smith (R) to Jones (D), and chose not to invest very much political capital in the proposal.

The main political function of the commission is giving conservatives another squirrel to chase, and one suspects that the Biden administration would much prefer to have a culture-war battle over the Supreme Court than to have conservatives instead bothering the president about his involvement in any of his son’s shady shenanigans or discovering what personal benefit he may have derived from them. If you are Joe Biden, you don’t want to see Hunter on the news — not if you could instead have Ted Cruz on there trying to explain originalism to Americans.

Joe Biden belongs to the Pillage Party. And he does not have to negotiate with Republicans nearly as carefully as he must deal with the other Democratic Party: the Freakshow Party. The Freakshow Party has been on the progressive scene for a long time, and if the Pillage Party is The Grapes of Wrath, the Freakshow Party is Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s the “Shout Your Abortion and Show Me Your Pronouns!” party. The three legs of that wobbly stool are the Jew-Hating Weirdo Left (Sharpton, Farrakhan, Omar, Occupy types, etc.), the Loopy White People Left (NPR, vegan bakeries, college towns — everywhere you see a Subaru covered in bumper stickers), and 2SLGTBQIA+ (which I really hope is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s email password). Its natural occupation is that of hall monitor.

Consider this from one of Slate’s increasingly pornographic (and, apparently, fictitious) advice columns:

We do not allow our children to have their own computers to prevent the risk of them being radicalized by alt-right websites, so our kids share a laptop that we monitor and control access to. We found an excel spreadsheet in Jack’s folder that listed the names of all of his classmates, as well as dates and descriptions of their problematic behavior. Some of the descriptions I saw include “has a mom who is a cop,” “no pronouns in insta bio,” “laughed at a fat joke,” “lists problematic show as one of their favorites,” “mimicked a foreign accent,” and “used cis-normative language.”

Maybe that’s the work of some right-wing satirist sneaking one in on Slate. But, in any case, the spectacle of some progressive punk kid making a list of pronoun transgressions while getting ready to go all We Need to Talk about Kevin on his classmates — that’s a pretty good window into the soul of the Freakshow Party. You will never see so much intolerance in the service of “tolerance,” so much hatred in the service of “love,” so much ruthlessly enforced conformism in the service of “diversity.”

They are vicious and petty, but they do not actually matter all that much. What they are is useful. Have you ever used a fan or a loud air conditioner to help you sleep in a noisy environment? The constant, regular, low drone isn’t enough to keep you awake, but it is enough to drown out the noises that might keep you up: a dripping faucet, a hotel elevator located a little too close to your room, raccoons on the roof of the cabin, whatever. That’s what the Kulturkampf stuff really is: noise, just enough to keep us from being awakened by the things going bump in the night. This is not to say that culture doesn’t matter — it does. In fact, it certainly matters more than any other single factor. But the outrage-of-the-day stuff on Twitter and talk radio doesn’t really touch or move the culture all that much. It’s just churn, white political noise. Partisan-outrage media on the left and partisan-outrage media on the right traffic in the same commodity: disgust. Disgust is the easiest way to produce emotional engagement, slightly edging out fear. But the so-called culture warriors who spend their days advertising new reasons for their audiences to hate people they already hate are — at best — self-deluding. They aren’t fighting any kind of culture war — in that war, they are not the soldiers but profiteers.

In the context of Texas, I have often said that I worry about Houston more than I worry about Austin. That’s another way of saying that I worry more about the Pillage Party than the Freakshow Party. Freakshow politics is, by its nature, less serious. Its interests are less enduring, its attention span is shorter, and its adolescent motives wear out pretty quickly. That is why you see so many Freakshow partisans graduate to the Pillage Party once they have secured real power. Bill Clinton spent about 10 minutes in the 1960s counterculture before he figured out what real power looks like. Barack Obama could not have been more pleased to move on from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to Warren Buffett. Hillary Rodham did not grow up to join the Marxist vanguard — she joined the board of Walmart. The demands of wokeness change from day to day: One day, it’s engaging in Maoist self-criticism sessions and denouncing ourselves for our “privilege,” the next day, it’s pretending to believe that Bruce Jenner is a woman named Caitlyn. That sort of thing has been keeping conservatives hopping from one foot to the other since about 1968, but the Left was never really able to build a stable political movement on top of that: 1968 gave us Richard Nixon, the radicalism of the 1970s gave us Ronald Reagan, the 1990s gave us Newt Gingrich and the real beginnings of what would later become Tea Party Republicanism, and the turn of the century was dominated by George W. Bush and the foreign-policy agenda he never wanted to be the centerpiece of his presidency.

It wasn’t until Barack Obama that the American Left started to figure out how to make it work: While Donald Trump and other jibbering jackasses of that kidney were going nuts about Obama’s birth certificate and the Freakshow Party was pitching a circus tent in lower Manhattan, Obama was busy pillaging: creating expensive new health-care benefits that served to entrench his own personal power even as it decimated (more than decimated, in fact) his party in the states, working through “green energy” programs and the like to help ensure that Wall Street and Silicon Valley saw their financial interests aligned with the Democrats as much as their cultural interests are, etc. As a candidate, Obama fumed to his New York City moneymen buddies that he was fed up with the teachers’ unions and their cynical rent-seeking, which was a message very much tailored for an audience whose own children would never see the inside of a public school; once he had their money and their votes, he forgot all about that, because the teachers’ unions are, in fact, the textbook case of Pillage Party politics: You get a few million people relying on you for oversized salaries and generous benefits, and they volunteer as your foot soldiers.

Obama was, of course, Freakshow-adjacent, and he surely is a freak at heart, but he didn’t actually practice very much in the way of Freakshow politics: sharp words for the Cambridge, Mass., police, that sort of thing, most of it pretty low-cost for him, politically. But his opponents wanted to chase the Freakshow, and he was clever to let them, and to occasionally goad them. Meanwhile, it was pillage, pillage, pillage.

Biden may have learned a little something from that. He’s got trillions going out the door, and his colleagues’ “moderate” position is giving a trillion or two back in negotiations. The Right, meanwhile, is chasing its tail: Masks! Mandates! Iodine! Ivermectin!

You might think that Republicans could make that strategy work, too. For years, the Left offered much the same analysis of the GOP that I offer of Democrats: that the social conservatives were basically running interference for the tax-cutters and business-deregulators. And there may have been something to that, once. But while we still have two Democratic parties, there’s only the one Republican Party still standing: the Putz Party.

The GOP — Gaggle of Putzes.

Which Brings Us To . . .

There has been some interesting back-and-forth — and some positively tedious back-and-forth! — about the proposal from various anti-Trump/anti-Trumpism conservatives to set up a new political party so that Reaganite ideas might have a political home. I don’t think very much of the idea of a new party, because I do not think that there are enough anti-Trump conservatives to make much difference as an electoral matter, even as spoilers, though some of my more psephologically inclined colleagues believe otherwise.

But, if you’ll allow me, I think I can clarify the terms of the debate: On one side, we have people who think that the most important thing for the long-term good of the country is to keep Democrats from holding power for the next ten or 20 years, and, on the other side, we have people who believe that the most important thing for the long-term good of the country is to keep Trumpists from holding power for the next ten or 20 years. I think there are good-faith arguments for both positions, and I have even seen one or two of those increasingly rare specimens.

What conservatives are likely to end up with, in any case, is a worst-of-both-worlds outcome: Trumpists do not have the necessary attention span to hold power nationally on anything but a sporadic basis, and they lack the kind of positive policy agenda that would help them to organize themselves into a genuine political movement instead of the personality cult that they are today. At the same time, the economic incentives of right-wing media more or less ensure that Trumpism will remain enough of a force within the Republican Party for long enough to cripple it for a generation. Donald Trump was for many years a generous donor to Democratic campaigns, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Chuck Schumer, but his deformation of the GOP will be his lasting gift to the Democrats.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Republicans have a very good midterm election. But there is a difference between having power and deserving power — and an even vaster gap between having power and knowing what to do with it. Still, there may be some electoral victory, but I do not think that that will change the fact that the GOP is now simply too damaged and disreputable to provide a useful channel for the conservative electoral project. There are a few good men left in the Republican Party, but they mostly are there out of mere sloth. And, if there’s an argument for a new party, that’s really it: Conservative ideas and policies need some electoral instrument, and the Republican Party is no longer that.

In a sense, conservatives are still struggling with the question of 2016: Who deserves to lose more?

You may as well ask whether it’s better to have testicular cancer on the left side or on the right side. Cancer is cancer.

Words About Words

Pronouns matter. A reader shares this from a news report: “A driver has died after striking two deer in the road, which caused them to veer and roll into an oncoming vehicle.” What the sentence says is that the deer swerved into the path of an oncoming vehicle; what it means is that the driver swerved into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

A New York Times headline reads, badly: “It Wasn’t Just My Life on That Stage. So Was My Purpose.” There are a couple of ways to write that to avoid the awkwardness: “My Life Was on That Stage — So Was My Purpose,” or, “It Wasn’t Just My Life on That Stage — It Was My Purpose.” You want the parallel construction rather than the train wreck. One of the things that I noticed when teaching writing is that inexperienced writers often forget what they have just written once they move on to a new sentence. For that reason, they don’t do certain things that would improve their prose, such as varying the length and structure of sentences within a paragraph or building toward a conclusion. There isn’t anything grammatically wrong with either of those sentences, in the same way that there isn’t anything wrong with either Irish Spring Deodorant Soap or a blueberry pie. The trouble comes from trying to combine them.

A couple of readers write to share that they have gone through life thinking the opening line of that Fugazi song is not “ahistorical” but “hey, sorta cool.”

Rampant Prescriptivism

What about people who use “try and” when they mean “try to”? Should we send them all to go live in a colony somewhere?

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with “try and.” This is a matter of writing what you mean: “The most likely outcome is that we will try and fail to pass the bill,” or, “We will try and hope for the best.” These do not mean the same thing as: “We will try to fail to pass the bill,” or “We will try to hope for the best.”

The best way to avoid trouble is to think about what the words you are writing actually mean, not what it is that you are trying to say. If you do that, you will try and write what you mean.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

Inflation causes higher Social Security spending, and higher Social Security spending causes inflation. Welcome to the vicious circle. More in the New York Post, which is, as far as I know, the only newspaper to have an entire Public Enemy song dedicated to denouncing it.

The Marquis de Sade wrote about La philosophie dans le boudoir — “politics in the bedroom.” In our time, it’s straight to the toilet. More from National Review, which is, as some of you apparently need to be reminded, a fortnightly magazine, which means that it comes out every two weeks.

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It’s the sort of thing that gets you called an “elitist” by people who think this is a put-down even though they are fully aware that you work at a magazine founded by a guy who installed a harpsichord on his yacht.

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Recommended

Last week I mentioned, but hardly did justice to, Mark Leonard’s new book, The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict. From trade to immigration to social media, the book covers a lot of ground, but covers it very intelligently.

In Closing

Part of me hopes that my friend Kathryn Lopez will write a novel. Her observations about “medical waste” are the sort of thing that a modern American Dickens might make something of.

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