Let’s think about the broader, less immediate meaning of our political era.
This is how I read it and have read it for some time:
The Democratic Party is going hard left. There will be stops and starts but it’s the general trajectory and will be for the foreseeable future. Pew Research sees the party lurching to the left since 2009; Gallup says the percentage of Democrats calling themselves liberal has jumped 23 points since 2000. But you don’t need polls. More than 70 Democrats in the House, and a dozen in the Senate, have signed on to the Green New Deal, an extreme-to-the-point-of-absurdist plan that is yet serious: Its authors have staked out what they want in terms of environmental and economic policy, will try to win half or a quarter of it, and on victory will declare themselves to have been moderate all along. The next day they will continue to push for everything. The party’s presidential hopefuls propose to do away with private medical insurance and abolish ICE. Three years ago Hillary Clinton would have called this extreme; today it is her party’s emerging consensus.
The academy and our mass entertainment culture are entities of the left and will continue to push in that direction. Millennials, the biggest voting-age bloc in America, are to the left of the generations before them. Moderates are aging out. The progressives are young and will give their lives to politics: It’s all they’ve ever known. It is a mistake to dismiss their leaders as goofballs who’ll soon fall off the stage. They may or may not, but those who support and surround them are serious ideologues who mean to own the future.
None of this feels like a passing phase. It feels like the outline of a great political struggle that will be fought over the next 10 years or more.
Two thoughts, in the broadest possible strokes, on how we got here:
The American establishment had to come to look very, very bad. Two long unwon wars destroyed the GOP’s reputation for sobriety in foreign affairs, and the 2008 crash cratered its reputation for economic probity. Both disasters gave those inclined to turn from the status quo inspiration and arguments. Culturally, 2008 was especially resonant: The government bailed out its buddies and threw no one in jail, and the capitalists failed to defend the system that made them rich. They dummied up, hunkered down and waited for it to pass.
Americans have long sort of accepted a kind of deal regarding leadership by various elites and establishments. The agreement was that if the elites more or less play by the rules, protect the integrity of the system, and care about the people, they can have their mansions. But when you begin to perceive that the great and mighty are not necessarily on your side, when they show no particular sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens, all bets are off. The compact is broken: They no longer get to have their mansions. They no longer get to be “the rich.”
For most of the 20th century the poor in America didn’t hate the rich for their mansions; they wanted a mansion and thought they could get one if things turned their way. When you think the system’s rigged, your attitude changes.
On the right the same wars, the same crash, and a different aspect. In the great issue of the 2016 campaign it became unmistakably clear that the GOP elite did not care in the least how the working class experienced immigration. The party already worried too much about border security—that’s the lesson the elites took from Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, according to their famous autopsy. They appeared to look after their own needs, their own reputations: We’re not racist like people who worry about the border! They were, as I’ve written, the protected, who looked down on those with rougher lives. The unprotected noticed, and began to sunder their relationship with establishments and elites.
Donald Trump came of that sundering. He was the perfect insult thrown in the establishment’s face. You’re such losers we’re hiring a reality-TV star to take your place. He’ll be better than you.
Conservatives regularly attend symposia to discuss the future of conservatism. Republicans in Washington stumble around trying to figure what to stand for beyond capitalizing on whatever zany thing some socialist said today.
But isn’t their historical purpose clear? Their job—now and in the coming decade—is, in a supple, clever and concerted way, to save the free-market system from those who would dismantle it. It is to preserve and defend the capitalism that made America a great thing in the world and that, for all its flaws and inequities, created and spread stupendous wealth. The natural job of conservatives is to conserve, in this case that great system.
I’ll go whole hog here. We need a cleaned-up capitalism, not a weary, sighing, acceptance-of-man’s-fallen-nature capitalism. Republicans and conservatives need a more capacious sense of what is needed in America now, including what their own voters need. The party needs a tax-and-spending reality that takes into account an understandable and prevalent mood of great need. They need to be moderate, peaceable and tactful on social issues, but firm, too. This is where the left really is insane: As the earnest, dimwitted governor of Virginia thoughtfully pointed out, they do allow the full-term baby to be born, then make it comfortable as they debate whether it should be allowed to take its first breath or quietly expire on the table. A party that can’t stand up against that doesn’t deserve to exist.
All this must be done with a sense of how Americans on the ground are seeing things. What they see all around them cultural catastrophe—drugs, the decline of faith, the splintering of all norms by which they’d lived, schools that don’t teach and that leave their kids with a generalized anxiety. They want more help to deal with this. If you said, “We’re going to have a national program to help our boys become good men,” they would be for it, they would cheer. If you said, “We’re going to get serious and apply brains and money to what we all know is a mental-health crisis in America,” they wouldn’t care about the cost—and they’d be right not to care. They think as a people we’ve changed, our character has changed, and this dims our future. Make things better on the ground now and we’ll figure out the rest later.
These are not quaint nostalgists pining for the past, they are realists looking at ruin. They know some future crisis will test whether we can hold together as a nation. Whatever holds us together now must be undergirded, expanded.
Much will depend on how the Republican Party handles this epic era, because the Democrats are not only going left, they will do it badly. They will lurch, they will be spurred by anger and abstractions, they will be destructive. They really would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, because they feel no loyalty to it.
Republicans, save that goose. Change yourselves and save capitalism.
You are thinking, “My goodness, that’s what FDR said he was doing!”