Do Liberals Have a Plan Other Than Whining About White People and the Senate?
progressive incrementalism declares hopelessness, keeps winning
I have observed, for a little while, something of a convergence in the left-liberal space. Though I doubt either would want to admit it, both DSA-style socialists and liberal Democrats are pushing towards each other. Sniping on Twitter and various debates about what is or is not in the realm of the possible has obscured the fact that in the past decade liberals have moved left and socialists have moved right and they have both arrived at an unsexy but essentially salutary social democratic space. Liberal Democrats seem to me to be far more comfortable with expansive (and expensive) social spending that looks pretty much like “welfare,” while self-described socialists have more or less accepted the superiority of markets for distributing goods and services and thus are left mostly to push for similar social spending programs too. (This strikes me as less a matter of conversion and more a function of young socialists who never knew that there was such a thing as a socialism beyond redistribution.)
Since I am a grumpy old man, I will not relent in saying that anything that calls itself socialism must, as the end of the day, point towards decommodification. That is, what separates actual socialism from various flavors of redistributive liberalism is that under socialism eventually you end up in a situation where human goods like housing or medicine are moved out of the market mechanism altogether, not simply paid for by the government. The government paying for houses for homeless people and medicine for uninsured people is good, but neither is socialism. Medicare for All is a great goal that I happen to think is also good politics, but it is not and has never been socialist. It’s just welfare state capitalism. Which is fine. It’s better than now so I’m for it. The socialist alternative is that money no longer determines the provisioning of medical care, whoever is paying it; that you don’t hear about this from the kids much these days shows the degree to which liberal assumptions have colonized socialist thought.
But the movement towards that sort of expansive state role, at least as a genuine political possibility worth discussing, is real and consequential even if M4A is not socialist and even if it remains a remote possibility for now. What’s notable is that the Medicare for All argument is not the kind of inherently dismissive debate where the liberals just say “you are economically illiterate” to the lefties over and over again, which used to happen constantly in the 1990s and 2000s era of left-of-center debate. It’s a conversation where even the more conservative parts of the discussion frequently recognize the inherent sense of the program, sometimes even its superiority. (They’ll often say it’s politically impossible, and only endorse it in an “if we were starting from scratch” sense, but even this is progress.) There’s all kinds of arguments about pay-fors and tax rates and modern monetary policy and whether a public option is just as good and THE OVERTON WINDOW or whatever, and those details do make all the difference. But it’s a fundamentally different space when a Josh Barro actually bothers to weigh in on the underlying politics and economics rather than calling somebody George McGovern or whatever.
Here’s a good recent example. Your old school liberal pundit and your old school socialist agitator could never have agreed on Biden’s child tax credit. Mickey Kaus would have called it welfare, and predictably does. A grouchy old Marxist would have called it pity charity capitalism, and predictably they do. (I don’t have a link to that one because my source is people getting mad at me on Facebook.) But while your average 22-year-old DSA member lives to dunk on Ezra Klein, and I’m guessing Ezra Klein doesn’t have much love for that DSA member, they have actually found peace in both liking a government program that gives money to families with children. You can work in some Francis Fukuyama angle here if you’d like, but I’m more interested in simply acknowledging that there was a time when a Jon Chait would attack the CTC as a total non-starter because we need Joe Sixpack in Pensacola to support our agenda or whatever. Now there’s debates about how to make it permanent. I have lived long enough to have experienced the death of big government as we know it and for the guy who helped bring about its murder to preside over it being reborn as the feds cut checks for a vast new portion of the American electorate. That’s tangible and important change that has consequences for the future.
And, somewhere, Matt Bruenig leans back, tents his fingers, and smiles.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that those same liberals have an existentially bleak view of both politics and procedure that essentially forecloses on the possibility of positive change through normal means, but they also have an addiction to appearing to be sober realists who quietly do the Lord’s work of positive-sum incrementalism. We’re left in this weird world where the children of Bob Kuttner and the progeny of Michael Kinsley preside as the intelligentsia of a Democratic party that has moved steadily in their direction for decades but who think the country writ large is built to resist progress. For reasons of both substance and style they can arrive only at one conclusion, that the United States is a broken state which is ruled by a permanently-declining yet forever-empowered white plurality that will retain its stranglehold forever thanks to the disproportionality of the electoral college and the Senate. But a problem of this depth can’t be fixed with the usual solutions of these liberals (Who are, somewhat confusingly, constitutional small-c conservatives at heart.) In other words, in 2021 liberal Democrats diagnose a problem that is so deep and damaging that their own preferred political tools can’t fix it. So they just kind of… lament.
The default liberal Democrat pundit stance is that all of our problems are caused by the confluence of white ressentiment and the power-sharing decisions of 18th-century leaders trying to bargain a country into existence. They might admit that Democrats are sometimes the problem, if career considerations permit. (Chris Hayes was once a frequent critic of American liberalism from within it, but I honestly cannot remember the last time he made an unqualified criticism of his own people, which I’m guessing is a ratings thing.) But the basic story is always that white people are racist and our dumb system means they rule. That’s everything you need to know about American politics, in this view. Efforts to assign other motives to Republican voters are untoward, and developments like the significant shift of Hispanic voters towards the GOP are ignored. Everything converges around the big story. There are so, so many books that arrive at this basic conclusion, that white identity politics plus the Senate and electoral college essentially break the country. It’s a monotonous narrative that may be true but which seems sort of existentially defeatist and results in a generation of pundits who see their role as theatrically sighing about how it’s all so unfair.
The thing about the white-people-just-don’t-want-to-give-up-their-privilege story is that it would seem to leave us with nowhere to go. The people who believe it think that this attachment to historical privilege is so profound among GOP-voting white people that they cannot possibly be convinced to change, and that trying to do so is folly or, somehow, a demonstration of privilege. This makes recent developments in our conception of demographics and politics a real challenge. What’s essential to understand about the psyche of your 2021 liberal pundit is that most of them were believers in the “permanent Democratic majority” argument until fairly recently. That bit of absurd fantasizing held that, because the country is becoming steadily less white and white suburbanites steadily more liberal, a more-or-less impregnable liberal coalition would emerge and Republicans would either have to become a centrist party or disappear as a national powerhouse. You would think that people would recognize their inherent bias towards seeing what they want to see, but then again we’re all guilty of this to some degree, Marxists more explicitly than others.
There were several problems with the Emerging Democratic Majority story. The first is that the actual demographic decline of white people was exaggerated. In some of the basic research, anyone of recent mixed heritage was presumed to fit into the category of Mixed Race and thus vote according to that identity, which is to say like a liberal, but more recent research shows that many people of recent mixed heritage identify as white and vote that way, which is to say more like a conservative. Another problem is that Hispanic men definitely, Hispanics in general maybe, and Black men maybe have trended significantly to the GOP for a few election cycles now. And whether those trends are real or not, that’s the deeper issue - these projections simply assumed that voters of color would break Democratic in large majorities in perpetuity. This straightforwardly stems, I think, from the assumption that people of color do not have individual agency. Donald Trump’s election was seen by some as an emphatic rejection of this whole theory of politics, and despite Biden’s victory the intensifying shift of voters of color to the GOP in 2020 underlined the overall problem. I’m glad many influential Dems have rejected this myth. I was young when the emerging Democratic majority theory became conventional wisdom but even I knew at the time it was terrible politics even aside from whether or not it was likely to prove true.
An interesting question is whether a diversifying United States is one where voter of color loyalty to the Democrats inevitably declines. Think about it: if it’s 1980 and the country is 78% white, the bunker mentality and feeling of being surrounded is that much more intense and might make voters of color feel more driven to band together within the Democratic coalition. As that numerical dominance declines to the current ~61% (again with caveats about counting mixed race people) so does the need to consolidate the non-white vote, and the other party looks increasingly viable as a choice. Some of the counties where we saw the biggest pro-Trump Hispanic swings were in rural Texas, primarily made up of devout Catholics - in other words, people who absent racial assumptions we would just presume to vote Republican. With a declining need for cross-POC solidarity, what would drive a Hispanic pro-life red-state ranch owner to vote Democrat? (No idea if this theory is true, though.)
In any event, it is no longer cool to believe in an emerging or permanent demographics-driven Democratic majority among savvy types. Which to me poses a really existential set of questions for liberal Dems. In the main I guess I’m just observing this combination of beliefs:
Revolutionary change is unachievable even if desirable, or maybe just out-and-out undesirable
Electoral rules and demographic conditions empower an uneducated white minority dramatically beyond their actual numbers in the electorate and reform of this situation is quite difficult for this very reason
These people are uniquely unpersuadable and those that attempt to convince them of the folly of their ways are naïfs who are wasting their time.
There are plenty of liberal Democrats who disagree with any one of these three planks, in part or in whole, but from my vantage point these are more or less mass opinions within that group. And it seems like a recipe for giving up or, at least, accepting a permanent unpleasant stasis that harkens to the worst nothing-is-possible instincts of modern progressives. We have to be incrementalists and work within the rules, but the rules have stacked the deck, and the people they stack it in favor of are a destructive death cult. Doesn’t sound too promising!
And here’s where, I think, the DSA left-liberals have it over on the liberal pundits: they believe in change. Their story goes, more or less, that a multiracial coalition of working and middle class people can be built by recognizing their shared self-interest and uniting against the corporations and wealthy who have bent our system in their own favor and are using it to hoard wealth and opportunity. In theory, this is a perfectly sound idea, and one I can’t give up on myself. In practice, it seems impossible. Americans are raised to believe that they will be part of the 1% someday and vote as if they will be no matter how absurd that assumption is. The fruits of technological progress ensure that, while people struggle and lack meaning and constantly fear financial ruin, they also have video games and porn and hard seltzer and these things keep them too anesthetized to fight back. “Progressive” politics have, in the hands of elites and elite institutions, become obsessed with dividing the lower classes against each other, mostly by representing racial progress as zero sum. And so no grand lower-and-middle-class coalition is coming.
But, you know, it’s an idea. It’s a theory of change. To turn to an emblematic pundit, Matt Yglesias’s theory of change requires that DC somehow gains statehood. My presumption is that the Iron Law of Institutions will assert itself and Virginia and Maryland politicians will come together across party lines to fight this, meaning that it’s no less fanciful than the DSA vision, but I suppose it’s possible. And then in Yglesias’s world the other territories do binding referenda about whether they become states. As with DC, in practical terms this happening would require moderate Democrats to make precisely the kind of decisions that they have shown over and over again they absolutely will not make. But these additional states and their attendant Senators would make electoral reform in redistricting and voting rights possible. (DC already has electoral college votes. Guam has something like one fourth of the population of Wyoming so those places aren’t going to do much to change the presidential electoral math, even if they want to become states, and its unclear in some cases if they do.) And then the Democrats rule. I suppose this is a story that makes a certain degree of internal sense. But it’s not much of a rallying cry.
I can’t say that I can fairly summarize the big-picture politics of a diverse group of writers and thinkers, but I suspect Yglesias’s position represents a fairly standard vision of where they are, at least in the main. Noah Smith? Jamelle Bouie? Michelle Goldberg? Ezra Klein? Jane Coaston? Jon Chait? Osita Nwanevu? Kevin Drum? Adam Serwer? Annie Lowery? They all seem to fall down somewhere along the lines of “earn razor-thin majorities in the necessary legislative bodies and change the inherent Republican electoral advantage by adding states and ending the filibuster, do so under a Democratic executive who won’t veto things, hope that various courts don’t find a rationale to torpedo this process, then slowly unwind decades of gerrymandering and other dirty pool, somehow avoiding the inherent cyclicality of politics and the inevitability of conservative backlash.” And it requires that moderate Democrats play ball, when their individual electoral incentives typically point in the exact opposite direction. And all of this has to happen without a single Republican voter changing their mind, because thinking that any Republicans are remotely persuadable will get you mocked on bluecheck Twitter. If you’re some fresh out of college 21-year-old progressive person who would like the country to get better rather than worse, why on earth would you ever get onboard that train? “Give up, but be sure to blame the malapportionment of power and white people while you do so”? Truly, a slogan to move the very soul.
It sucks as a reader because it’s all such an argumentative cul de sac; everything ends up back as a rumination on how the system isn’t fair. I like Jamelle Bouie and his work, but the timing of his ascendancy means that almost everything he writes is some version of “here’s how white people are ruining everything today.” That’s boring, for one thing, but it also doesn’t do anything to advance the underlying moral and intellectual commitments of his political tradition, which is a project that could certainly use his perspective. People got mad at me for making fun of Adam Serwer for writing a Trump book, and that’s fair, but it stems from frustration with the fact that liberals are obsessively looking back at Trump rather than looking forward to the next development in liberalism - because they think Trump proves everything they’ve been complaining about for years. Someone asked me recently who I thought was the real deal, someone with talent and integrity, and I said Jane Coaston. And yet it’s hard to engage with her work because it’s always a thoughtful and well-considered walk to The One Liberal Opinion, even as she’s smart and honest enough to really engage with counterarguments along the way. I find it all very frustrating, yes because this all-encompassing complaint of liberals is self-exonerating and self-pitying but also because it leaves talented people running into the same brick wall over and over again instead of defining the future. Yes, our system is a conspiracy against your interests. It’s a conspiracy against the people who write for Jacobin, too, but they still find a way to talk about ideas and philosophy and morals and the future. Every liberal essay is about what’s the matter with Kansas, and I find it exhausting.
What’s Matt Yglesias’s vision of change, really? Three ghosts visit Kyrsten Sinema on the night of Christmas Eve? If modern liberals do have some coherent theory of progress it’s so particular and peculiar and exacting and depends on such an unlikely series of interlocking minor events that they’ll never rally a constituency behind it DSA tells people they can change the world. They may be wrong. But wouldn’t you rather go down in flames with them than chuckle along at the hopelessness of it all with the liberal wonks of the world? Savvy Democrats have spent their lives laughing as they tell the hippies that they can’t possibly win. But if your own theory says that you can only win yourself through an absurd contrivance of luck, timing, and the political will of those who have no reason to do what you want… are you really in any position to laugh?
But maybe things aren’t so bleak. I mean, look, if you glance back at the past few decades, have things been that bad for liberal Democrats? You’ve got to locate this in a context where we’ve endured the 9/11-enabled George W. Bush administration, easily the most destructive of this century, and the Trump disaster. And yes the institutions are as biased towards conservatives as the liberal pundits say. But on social issues the leftward march of the country has been relentless, with gay marriage going from a Karl Rove dream wedge issue in 2004 to being accepted by a clear majority of Republicans today. Obamacare has been stripped of some major elements, but it has endured challenge after challenge, in the courts and the legislature. Pre-existing conditions and Medicaid expansion and the exchanges survive, although the practical impact of the ACA depends a great deal on the state. Republicans have successfully cut taxes on the wealthy, and tax revenue for the United States is still dramatically behind that of major European competitors in comparison to the size of each economy, but lowering taxes remains the one true no-bullshit first priority of the GOP and many moderate Dems are tax-avoidant themselves, so what’s practically possible there is really constrained. Several huge stimuluses have been passed in my lifetime, driven by crisis and arguably too small in both cases but still done in defiance of libertarian economic philosophy. Monetary policy leadership has seemingly accepted many of the basic presumptions of liberal economic philosophy, such as keeping inflation fears in perspective. The assumption of a reactionary Supreme Court that would dash all progressive hopes has not come to pass. The post-9/11 surveillance state seems permanent, but the terrorism hysteria that powered conservative fearmongering has evaporated as a political issue. Right-wing economists are playing defense when it comes to defining the basic purpose of the state. And, again, we’re suddenly cutting checks for vastly more people than we recently were, and it didn’t prompt a national meltdown about big government. It seems to me that liberals are winning.
There’s a lot of other stuff you could talk about, such as liberal media infrastructure. For years and years liberals complained that they needed their own talk radio, their own Fox News. I don’t think they have a direct analog to either, but they have built a similar media apparatus, complete with professional ladders and career incentives and “home court” channels, publications, and sites. It’s not clear to me that this stuff has actually been good for liberalism per se in the broader sense, and I’m even less confident it’s good for the affiliated companies themselves. (MSNBC, in particular, is caught in a Nash equilibrium that leaves it perpetually bleeding out financially and I see no way they get out now.) In short-term electoral and fundraising terms though I suspect there are tangible benefits to larger-scale unambiguously liberal media. The question remains what the long-term plan is for progress beyond endlessly passing narrow majorities back and forth with a Republican party that has structural advantages and yet hasn’t proven able to make much hay of them recently.
I think, in the main, that partisan politics in 2021 is still fundamentally a reaction to the 2016 election - an overreaction. Lost in all of the considerations of the tectonic plates of American politics and demographics is the fact that Donald Trump beat a woman who has been, since the beginning of her career as a public figure, one of the very least popular political figures in the history of public polling. (There are obvious social and professional reasons why liberal pundits might downplay that fact.) And so we risk over-extrapolating from Hillary Clinton’s defeat; I have always felt that in 2016 any other major Democratic candidate beats Trump and that any other major Republican candidate beats Hillary. (Not Jeb.) I fundamentally believe that nominating her was one of the greatest political blunders in the history of presidential politics, but for basic cultural reasons the party can’t admit that to itself. Regardless, as I will keep insisting Trump has no heir that captures anything like his elementary appeal with his base, he acted like a more-or-less conventional plutocrat Republican when in office, and he’ll be dead of a stroke within the next 18 months. Liberal Democrats may not have much of a plan, but they have a deeper bench, recent success, and a country that seems to no longer be moved by the basic hatred of government epitomized by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. You could do a lot worse.
This evening I will post the first two chapters to my serialized novel, The Red, the Brown, the Green. Background on the project and signup instructions can be found here. Those who do not sign up separately will not receive the emails.