Democratic Politicking, Old and New

By | 2018-11-04T18:40:07+00:00 November 5th, 2018|
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The energetic dispatch with which liberals throw -ism charges at conservatives and Republicans is no surprise, and the targets are right to invoke civic principles in response. But sometimes it’s better to raise the other side’s past as a worthy contrast to its degraded present. This isn’t how Democratic politicians have always talked.

They used to highlight the interests of laboring classes and proudly claim to stand for the “working man.” But the working man, we learned a few years ago, clings to his guns and his God a bit too much. He isn’t quite as enthusiastic about LGBT rights and global warming fears as party leaders would like.

(Not only that, but when unemployment is down and wages are up, it’s hard to talk about Donald Trump as a capitalist who hates the masses, as they did about Mitt Romney.)

In former times, too, classical liberals played up individual rights, particularly free speech, the potent tool of the New Left which brought down all kinds of conservative norms from the 1960s onward. But Democrats can’t invoke it any more, having learned that free speech too often means “hate speech.” At least that’s what progressives say, and they intimidate their liberal brethren on this issue all the time.

We remember when Obamacare was a rallying cry, as well, and we have heard a few cases of Democrats bringing up pre-existing conditions and so on. But those voices were drowned out by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation circus and now the caravan. Healthcare just doesn’t have the same panache with their new base that -ism events do.

Public education was another Democratic plank, a great class equalizer in American life. But it has dropped largely from the list of talking points, showing that liberal politicians no longer regard public schooling as a political wedge. Maybe they don’t believe they can champion public schools any longer, not when for so many years scores have flattened or dropped, in spite of all the funding, and the racial gap hasn’t closed.

Democrats used to speak for peace and international cooperation, too, casting Reagan and George W. Bush as cowboys and warmongers. But ISIS and ongoing threats of terrorism have cancelled that approach. Besides, peace talk doesn’t sound right in a person who is still furious and incredulous over the 2016 election outcome.

Even the immigration issue isn’t addressed by liberals as it was in the old days as a labor or foreign policy matter. No, it’s a tribal thing. A Trump supporter might claim that immigration hurts his paycheck, but a leftist only hears his complaint as xenophobic drivel.

Racism, sexism, homophobia . . . that’s all they have left. What else can Democrats campaign on today? The homeless? We heard a lot about them under Ronald Reagan, but when news stories today highlight the health hazards they have created in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, those wandering souls have lost their political allure.

And, yes, there’s global warming, too. But after years of panicky prophecy, audience fatigue has set in. Donald Trump’s decision to undo Barack Obama’s last-minute environmental regulations hasn’t produced any more enemies than he already had.

No, it’s identity first and foremost now. On the Left, even to say “all lives matter” counts as an insult. To hail the working man is to slight working women. To insist on due process in sexual allegations is to disbelieve women. To teach Western Civilization is to uphold white supremacy. To be a faithful Catholic is to deny gays their civil rights. To enforce the border is to sustain white nationalism.

This is today’s Democratic Party: the conversion of just about everything into group tensions—not labor groups but identity groups.

It’s the mark of a political outlook that has run out of ideas. When stories on the caravan have a commentator framing the controversy as white Americans freaking out over losing their hegemony, a full and thoughtful consideration of the affair can’t happen. The attribution of animus to white Americans doesn’t open up the discussion—it shuts it down. Liberal and left-wing identity rhetoric isn’t discerning and informed, as it pretends to be. It is lazy and anti-intellectual.

But when you don’t have anything else to say, when your programs and policies have produced such meager fruits, and when your prime antagonist, a Republican in the White House, simply won’t accept the white, male, Christian, American guilt you have thrown at him for so long, you have nowhere else to go. You only raise the volume on the racist accusation, grow more indignant and outraged, and present your hysteria as a sound moral response to evil, not a tiresome tantrum.

We’ll see how it works on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.