Where to Now, Chris? Where to Now?
pity the American liberal, so far from God, so close to Donald Trump
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When I think of a certain kind of liberal Democrat, I think of the aftermath of the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Romney lost the 2012 presidential election fairly decisively - it was 26+1 states for Obama and 24 for Romney, but a 332 to 206 electoral college victory and a full 4% higher vote total for the the sitting president. There was a period in the race where Romney surged and many pundits panicked, but that’s true of almost all presidential elections and in the end a well-liked incumbent presiding over an improving economy was handily reelected. Looking back I’m not sure why so many saw the loss as particularly hard for the GOP - as I said, the economy had rebounded somewhat from the Great Recession, the Iraq war had (sort of) come to an end, and Obama maintained his public persona as a coolheaded optimist who brought people together. An incumbent is hard to unseat even with a worse record. But many at the time had begun to question whether the Republican party had a future, the 2010 midterms notwithstanding. In particular, the Emerging Democratic Majority myth was alive and well at this point, and the conventional wisdom was that a browning United States made Democratic domination inevitable. So the RNC commissioned a panel.
The resulting document, called the Growth and Opportunity Project but often referred to as the 2012 autopsy, was remarkably frank. Along with many specifics the 100-page document argued that the Republicans could not continue to be the party of white grievance, that it had to entice more voters of color and become more accepting of gay rights, then a still-salient electoral issue. In particular, the report insisted that comprehensive immigration reform was absolutely essential, or else the party would “continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” The core constituencies mentioned, as you’d expect, are rural, uneducated white people. Many, even among left-leaning commentators, remarked on the report’s unusual level of candor and willingness to challenge the party’s orthodoxies. This Thomas Edsall column is a strong contemporary analysis.
Trumpism was to follow, and so obviously the report was not embraced. (Although a substantial amount of evidence suggests that Trump did more than Romney to transcend those traditional GOP constituencies.) Even before that, though, the party writ large essentially rejected it, and it was seen as a symbol of RINOism within conservative media. National Review at the time referenced a common conservative perspective that the report asked Republicans to out-Democrat the Democrats. This was pretty ridiculous, if you read the report, but not an unexpected response.
Liberals and Democrats, of course, took the opportunity to gloat: the Republicans could not get real about their problems even when the party itself was asking them to. Here’s an Ed Kilgore piece that’s emblematic of the broad sense in Democratic circles that the Republicans had figured out the answer, or at least some answers, but were clearly too blinded by ideology to see what they had. Here’s a piece from during in the 2016 primaries that laughs at the GOP’s inability to change. Here’s a recent Huffington Post piece that continues the genre nine years later. But as with much of the political conversation this mockery mostly took place on social media, where I would regularly read liberals laughing at the inability of conservatism to adapt with the times. You could give the Republicans a literal handbook on how to win, the thinking went, and they still couldn’t do it, so beholden were they to bigotry and plutocracy. So we had widespread mockery of Republicans and their refusal to listen to their own document, all centered on the idea that the party had become incapable of introspection, self-criticism, and getting brutally real about their own electoral problems. The Republicans were asked whether they could continue to be the party of bitter racist yokels and hope to win elections. They responded angrily.
And then 2016 happened.
The 2016 election, that is, where one of the most unpopular figures in American politics was somehow treated as the inevitable and rightful candidate, where her rival in the primary and his followers were smeared as racists and sexists simply for opposing her, where the nominee presided over a campaign built on celebrity glitz and glamour while the country quietly throbbed with resentment towards elites, where she based her campaign in Brooklyn not just geographically but philosophically, where she barely campaigned in Michigan and Wisconsin, where she never missed an opportunity to look just like the clueless, wealthy insider she plainly was. The Democrats faced their own 2012, their own broad set of failures, and would seem to have had every reason to prepare their own report, to make their own adjustments. Some of us have spent the past five years begging liberals to confront their problems, most obviously the deep cultural revulsion vast swathes of the country hold towards them. We have asked them whether they can continue to be the party of the elite liberal arts college faculty lounge and hope to win elections. They have responded angrily.
What have we gotten instead of a real postmortem? An insistence that Russia stole the election, the attitude that the voters failed Hillary Clinton instead of the other way around, a remarkable tightening of the vice grip with which activists with bizarre niche politics hold the party’s messaging and values, and the utter nihilism of the widespread belief that the country’s simply too racist and thus no electoral losses are the party’s fault. That’s the tenor of the liberal position post-2016, that the country’s willingness to elect Donald Trump did not reflect any failures of Hillary Clinton or her party but rather that the electorate was full of unrepentant bigots who probably do not even deserve the wise and enlightened leadership of Democrats. Remarkable that the same people so recently laughed at the inability of their opponents to look critically at themselves.
When I think of this refusal to practice introspection, I think of MSNBC host Chris Hayes. I see two great impediments to the American liberal project, and Hayes embodies both: a fixation on Trump that nears the pathological, trapping liberalism perpetually in yesterday’s war, and a studious refusal to speak plainly and critically about the way that the Democratic party has become captured by donors and staffers whose politics are not just wildly out of step with the median American but with the median Democrat. Whether for ratings or to satisfy the contemporary lie that Trump is the worst president ever - you can read Hayes’s own writing from the Bush era to understand why it’s a lie - Hayes cannot quit Donald Trump, and thus like his party cannot settle on a remotely coherent political vision. He’s trapped.
I see Hayes as a synecdoche for a broader tendency - a set of left-liberal Democrats who are relentlessly focused on Trump and Trumpism, January 6th, and their (incorrect) belief that this is an unprecedented threat to the United States. Their politics is resolutely retrospective, seeing in Trump the epitome of all that is wrong with American politics, to the exclusion of the deeper rot which afflicts the Republican party, yes, but also our politics, our institutions, and our people. They tend to be approaching middle age, white, and dudes. They hold some moderate instincts regarding culture war issues but have learned to keep them to themselves, for fear of getting dunked on. They would like very much to not get dragged into any particularly complex conversations about immigration, racism, or trans rights, thank you, preferring to know always where the good guys stand and to stand there. They think you must vote Democrat - you must, must vote Democrat - but allow some vague sense that the party is an impediment to progress. And while they may not go so far as to forbid criticism of social justice politics, or distaste for the toxicity of contemporary progressive culture, they want you to know that the problem is Trump. Always Trump.
I used to read Hayes’s pieces for The Nation religiously. But I’ve been up and down his Twitter feed the past week, as well as checking out whatever clips I can of his show, and the difference is stark. He has a signature move, a particular two-step where he sort of acknowledges liberal and Democratic failings in an anxious and brow-furrowing way, then pivots immediately to explaining why the Republicans are so much worse. He will fretfully acknowledge something that’s less than ideal about liberalism, the Democrats, or the social justice politics that have come to dominate our discourse, almost always in terms of optics or messaging rather than substance. He will then immediately veer towards asking why we’re not focusing on the profligate corruption and insanity of the right.
Here’s the Hayes Technique in its most elementary form.
Someone makes a criticism of a liberal sacred cow, in this case a fair one, in my opinion. Hayes opens the door to that criticism, a crack.
He gestures broadly at the controversy, then points to whatever lunacy the Republicans are up to and suggests we should worry about that instead.
It’s tu quoque as a political strategy, and something like the macro problem in American politics: because conservatism is such a deranged death cult there’s precious little reason for liberalism to get any better. You can always point to the deeper pathology of the other side. This is why Democrats so often seem uninterested in doing better for the country. (Consider just the recent failures.) They know there’s no competitive pressure on them for the vast majority of their base, so they feel no particular urge to improve. Hayes is forever pulling this move in micro - yes, perhaps it’s bad that Cornell students have decided that serving ketchup in the dining hall is white supremacy, but have you considered that Republicans are the really crazy ones? No time for “this is bad” when it’s always time for “they’re worse.” It should go without saying that referring to the problems with the other side is never a solution for or defense of your own. It’s just avoidance.
What bothers me particularly is that, if you study his corpus a little while, you’ll notice how often this stuff exists in lieu of having an opinion on these topics. Hey Chris: do you agree that it’s racist to criticize the 1619 Project, as some in your broad coalition hold? If not, do you think the criticisms themselves have any merit? I get why Hayes, say, declines to discuss MSNBC peer Joy Ann Reid misrepresenting Ron DeSantis’s move to create a Florida state guard. But there’s this whole broad set of questions about how an extreme (not far left, just extreme) social and cultural politics has taken over progressive institutions with remarkable speed. I recognize that no one has put Ibram Kendi in charge of Democratic national political strategy. But the nonprofit and donor class has become attached to some very outlandish race and gender politics, as have the activists and staffers, as has liberal media. This has consequences, I think profoundly negative ones, given how antagonistic those people are to doing anything at all to appeal to big chunks of the electorate. But professional class liberals like Hayes appear terrified of angering that type of person. Hayes is, like me, an aging white guy, and like so many of those he has clearly decided that the risks of being called out are too great. Hence the constant avoidance.
Sometimes I get people asking me why I don’t write more criticism of Republicans and conservatives. I’ve made the basic point many times before: those with influence within the conservative movement are too craven or crazy for meaningful written engagement to be worth anything, and those who are interesting and honest have no influence within the conservative movement. You can engage with Ross Douthat, who’s sharp and fair but who the average conservative would call a RINO, or you can engage with a roster of interchangeable lunatics who lie and dissemble in defense of a cruel revanchist movement. I tend to train my fire on the broad left of center because, as much as I would sometimes like to wash my hands of the whole damn lot of them, they are the half of American politics that could actually reform, that could improve. I see no positive outcome from going through Breitbart posts and pointing out the lies. But Hayes, and other liberal Democrats who grumble and groan about left on liberal criticism, seem to think that if we just keep talking about how awful Josh Hawley and the Proud Boys are, somehow these problems will all sort themselves out.
They won’t. If you’re obsessed with defeating Trumpism, you should realize that you can only do that through securing a broad multicultural coalition, and you can’t do that when you’re alienating Hispanic voters or failing to challenge people in your political orbit when they insist that white children should be taught that they’re inherently and irreversibly racist. 70% of this country is white, Hispanic voters are not remotely as left-leaning as people assumed, immigrants are far from uniformly progressive, women were never actually a liberal stronghold, and you can’t win national elections by appealing only to the kinds of people who say “Black bodies” instead of “Black people.” This is the simple point David Shor has made for over a year, and for his trouble he gets a columnist in the Nation flat-out lying about him. Imagine a political tendency where popularism - literally, the idea that you should do things that appeal to voters - is immensely controversial. Liberalism is not healthy.
You will likely not believe me, but I admire Hayes. Always have. I don’t like the direction his show has gone, but I recognize that he’s under enormous professional pressure. I am in no position to say that he shouldn’t have taken an influential, relatively high-paying position in cable news. But it’s hard not to see how the incentives of that world push him into a certain kind of pro-Democratic, Trump-obsessive catastrophizing. I wish he could be a Times columnist and not the guy who throws it to Rachal Maddow’s haughty diatribes about how war with Russia should be a higher priority than feeding children. I sometimes page through his old writing to remind myself of how much more willing he once was to critique Democrats and other liberals. He was never a socialist, but he was a liberal who was always ready to push liberalism to be more than it was, to use it as a springboard for a broader understanding of a more just and equitable world.
But here we are. I can’t stress enough that the following video just is his show, now; he has on occasional interesting guests and some diversionary moments, but all roads lead to 1/6, lead to Trump. He is attached to the man like a remora.
Hayes clearly hates Trump. But Trump is just as clearly a force that has given his life meaning. It’s hard to look at Hayes’s public persona and not conclude that he begins and ends each day with thoughts of Trump. It reminds me of the obvious but essential insight that our hatreds can structure our lives, lend them purpose, make the hazy and unsatisfying feelings of adult life coalesce into something that feels real and vital. And in all of this Hayes epitomizes liberalism’s essential sickness, its absolute inability to think systemically, its desire to be the pained and righteous victim instead of the compromised leader, its deep attachment to whining and complaining that the system’s not fair, its allergy to power, its implacable dedication to being a sighing chorus that laments the world instead of changing it. He dreads a Trump win in 2024, and he so desperately wants Trump back. A tragic figure.
Donald Trump is 75 years old and unhealthy. Whether he wins back the presidency or not, he will die sooner than later, and will no longer be present to serve as the lodestar for contemporary liberalism and its antipolitics, its addiction to negation. And then where will American liberals go? I suspect their movement will crawl even deeper into a bitter and paranoid culture of zero-sum racial fatalism. That is not a plan; that is total surrender.
Back when he was a writer, Hayes quoted Harry Reid:
After the election, I conducted a kind of exit interview with retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid. I asked him what the Democratic Party stands for, and after speaking of his own upbringing in deep poverty in the rural town of Searchlight, Nevada, he said: “People have asked me the last year, ‘What message do you want to leave with people?’ And here’s the message: I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can. And I want those young men and women out there who are looking for a way out to realize, if Harry Reid can make it, anybody can. That’s what America is all about.”
This is, in some ways, a perfect summation of the Democratic Party’s message in the Obama era: In America, anyone can make it out, anyone can rise to the highest heights. Immigrant, native-born, black, white, disabled, gay, straight, male, or female—no matter your background, there’s a place at the top for you.
Does that sound anything like the message American liberalism wants to deliver now? Absolutely not. Today, American liberalism wants to tell you not that America can be a place of justice and equality where we all work together for the good of all, even as we acknowledge how badly we’ve failed that ideal. In 2021 liberalism wants to tell you that the whole damn American project is toxic and ugly, that every element of the country is an excuse to perpetuate racism, that those groups of people Hayes lists at the bottom are not in any sense in it together but that instead some fall higher on an hierarchy of suffering, with those who are perceived to have it too good in that hierarchy deserving no help from liberalism or government or the Democratic party - and, oh by the way, you can be dirt poor and powerless and still be privileged, so we don’t want you, especially if you’re part of the single largest chunk of the American electorate. Anyone who tows the line Harry Reid takes here is either a bigot or a sap, and politics is a zero-sum game where marginalized groups can only get ahead if others suffer, and Democrats fight to control a filthy, ugly, fallen country that will forever be defined by its sins. That’s the liberalism of 2021, a movement of unrelenting pessimism, obscure vocabulary, elitist tastes, and cultural and social extremism totally divorced from a vision of shared prosperity and a working class movement that comes together across difference for the good of all. In fact, I think I learned in my sociology class at Dartmouth that a working class movement would inherently center white pain! Better to remain divided into perpetually warring fiefdoms of grievance that can accomplish nothing. Purer that way. Now here’s Chris with part 479 of his January 6th series, to show us the country’s biggest problems.
My point here is pretty simple. After the 2012 election Republicans had an opportunity to rethink who they were, and they declined. Liberals howled in derision. Then, four years later, Democrats had the same opportunity, and themselves declined. And so many liberal Democrats like Chris Hayes live with the essential problem: conservatives did not want to change to address the failings outlined in the report because they believed their values were correct; liberals have not wanted to change post-2016 for the same reason. Both groups believe that they have a monopoly on truth, and now a new species of young Democrat stands increasingly antagonistic to any suggestion that they should bend, in any way, to suit the interests of the American electorate, and people like Hayes are afraid to cross them for fear of social and professional loss. Perhaps liberals should stop asking why conservatism never moderates, never deviates. They have lost the standing to ask that question.
Conservatives run roughshod over the country, and liberals are powerless to stop them, because liberalism has been colonized by a bizarre set of fringe cultural ideas about race and gender which they express in abstruse and alienating vocabulary at every turn. If anyone complains, liberals call them racist or sexist or transphobic, even when those complaining are saying that we can fight racism and sexism and transphobia more effectively by stressing shared humanity and the common good. Republicans tell the American people batshit conspiracy theories about communists teaching Yakub theory in kindergarten; Democrats fight back by making PowerPoint slides about why resegregating public schools is intersectional. We have reactionary insanity that expresses itself in plain, brute language and an opposition that insists that most voters don’t actually have any real problems, using a vocabulary that should never have escaped the conference rooms of whatever nonprofit hell it crawled out of. I cannot imagine a more obvious mismatch, the gleeful conspiracist bloodletting of the right against the sneering disdain and incomprehensible jargon of the left. I wonder who’ll win politically, an army of racist car dealership owners who have already taken over vast swaths of America’s state and local governments, keening for blood and soil? Or the guy in your anthropology seminar who insisted they were the voice of social justice while simultaneously making every conversation all about them?
Every day, the spirit of progress as inherently a matter of people of different races and creeds and religions recedes, in favor of the relentless insistence that we must always prioritize the needs of some over others, against all basic political sense and the heart of what the left once was. And, somewhere, Chris Hayes sighs and dreams of Trump.
I sometimes go back through his stuff at the Nation and I want to ask him why. Why become such a caricature of the thoughtless liberal urbanite? Why abandon such dedication to a left politics that exceeds what the Democratic party is capable of, which I always admired in him? Why fixate so relentlessly on a man you hate, to the point where your own political vision has become cramped and bitter? Why this slouch towards defeatism, towards lawyering minor points of procedure and decorum instead of the broad questions of justice and equality that used to mark your writing? Why the coziness with conspiracism over Russia, the serial overestimation of the power and influence of a few hundred crazy deadenders, the constant attempt to work the refs, as if fairness had anything to do with political power? Why this collapse from a liberalism that was conventional but critical and never in thrall to the Democratic party, this turn towards simplistic moral binarism and being too afraid to confront the screaming activist class that hopes to lead your ideology and your party off of a cliff?
I would like to ask why, but in the end I wouldn’t bother. He has forgotten why.