In his crystalline column about the California recall and, by extension, the center-right populist movement in general, American Greatness Managing Editor Ben Boychuk singled out what must be done, namely “the tedious work of politics”:
That means laboring and building at the local level—beginning in our own neighborhoods. That means not only attending school board and city planning meetings but also running for those seemingly low-level posts because that’s how real candidates for higher office are made . . . [I]t is an argument for seeing the state as it is and changing course accordingly . . . Nobody was ever coming to save us. We can only save ourselves.
Boychuk’s sage advice is borne out by a recent, perhaps unexpected, case study.
In 2003, the Left faced an existential threat.
The American people were angry, wounded, scarred, and scared. They supported war in Afghanistan and, later, the war in Iraq; and the overarching “Global War on Terrorism.” They also supported the president and the party that devised, legislated, enacted, and institutionally implemented the measures that spawned today’s national security surveillance state.
Riding the post-September 11th popularity of President George W. Bush, in the 2002 midterm elections and bucking historical trends, the Republicans gained eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate, gaining control of the upper chamber. Since the Civil War, it was only the fourth time a president’s party had gained House seats in a midterm election. At the time, many in the GOP and among the conservative pundit class talked of a “permanent majority” for the GOP.
Across the aisle, many centrist Democrats (who, as a political class, were not yet an endangered species) and otherwise liberal Democrats supported many measures, such as the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and even the war in Afghanistan and, though less so, the one in Iraq. Like many in the GOP, for these Democrats such votes may well have been less a matter of personal conscience than political survival—however short-lived. For the Left, given its tradition of pacifism, internationalism, and concern for civil liberties, the presumably generational Global War on Terror appeared likely to relegate progressives to history’s dustbin.
Given today’s state of political affairs, it is difficult to recall the concrete reality of this existential threat to the Left. Yet, aided by President Bush and the GOP/conservative establishment’s overreach in initiating the Iraq War, progressives—despite the times and the reports of their impending demise—followed Boychuk’s advice and engaged in the tedious work of politics all the way from the streets to the Oval Office.
As the Iraq War’s reconstruction phase proved a lethal debacle, the Left, assisted by the media, focused like a laser on American service personnel and Iraqi civilian casualties; and upon the fact that weapons of mass destruction—the reason for the war—were not found. The Left then differentiated between the “good war”—Afghanistan—and the “wrong war,” Iraq.
Using street protests, such as the “Iraq Summer,” and every grassroots and Astroturf weapon in their arsenal, the Left commenced its purge of moderate and liberal Democrats who supported the Iraq War and, later, the other measures undergirding the national security state. And the Left’s messaging was also connecting with voters outside their party’s primaries.
In tandem with a sluggish economy and the self-inflicted problem of GOP political scandals, by the second of Bush’s midterms in 2006, the outcome was decidedly different: the Democrats won 31 House seats and five Senate seats, gaining control of both chambers of the legislative branch of government.
And the Left’s purge of ostensibly moderate and/or liberal Democrats culminated in 2008 with the derailing of their party’s presumptive nominee, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), by a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Hussein Obama. The crucial distinction between them? Clinton voted for the Iraq authorization of force resolution. Obama opposed it and wanted to end “forever wars.”
Game, set, match.
As for the 2008 general election, President Bush had failed in both war (Iraq) and peace (the 2008 recession). The contest between Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama initially was close, but events tilted the field in the latter’s favor and he won a solid majority of the popular and electoral votes; and the Democrats increased their control of the House and Senate—securing a filibuster-proof majority. With the election of Obama and, subsequently, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the vast majority of the American electorate believed the Bush-era “Global War on Terrorism” had effectively ended.
And so had the existential electoral threat to the progressive Left. By doing the tedious work of politics, within half a decade, the Left had captured their party; a congressional majority; and the presidency. But like the terrorist enemy, the Left thinks generationally; thus, those who decades ago began their “long march through the institutions” knew they had more work to do. There was a new “institution” to infiltrate: the national security surveillance state.
One would think the Left with its historic support of civil liberties would be bent upon dismantling the national security surveillance state. But, again foreshadowing Boychuk’s advice to see “the state as it is and changing course accordingly,” the Left jettisoned its concern for civil liberties. This was not so much a recognition of the political disadvantages in dismantling it as it was an embracing of the political advantages in keeping it. The result was a purge of the national security bureaucracy that, ultimately, led to the woke weaponization of the police and surveillance powers of the state against a sitting president, Donald Trump, and his supporters.
Once such power seemed a pipe dream for a movement on life support in the initial rush of events following September 11, 2001. But the tedious work of politics invariably bears fruit, especially if one’s opponents are hubristic, lazy, and hence prone to self-inflicted wounds. Now, two decades after the commencement of the “Global War on Terror,” an American president and his administration perversely consider the greatest threat to America to be, not their terrorist partner the Taliban, but Trump and his deplorables.
Patriotic populists, there is much tedious work to be done.