Everyone remembers, as clear as day, how after the Democrats lost their House majority in the blowout 2010 midterm election, the punditocracy rallied as one to remind the country how crucial it was to heed, even in their hour of darkness, the urgent demands of Democratic interest groups and activists.
Hah, just kidding! The fall-back setting on all pundit tricorders is “Dems in disarray,” and so the Tea Party takeover of Congress was cited always and everywhere as Exhibit A in the case for the terminal out-of-touchness of daffy liberals. So it’s revealing, to put it mildly, to behold the initial run of sober conservative commentary on the rather robust drubbing the Trumpified GOP suffered last Tuesday night. The Democratic gain of at least 36 seats (with a chance for as many as 42) swung from the Republican column is by any measure an impressive showing—all the more so given the rigidly gerrymandered districts held by GOP lawmakers and a humming jobs economy. This latter condition is by conventional political reasoning the chief determinant of elections, particularly in lower-turnout midterms, where the reduced contingent of voters turning out are all the more apt to do so in their own economic self-interest.
Nevertheless, by common elite acclamation, 2018 Democratic strategy—which focused intently on health care provision and other issues of bedrock socioeconomic equity—was a doleful failure. Why, the observers lament, had the Democrats muffed such promising pickups as Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, or (perhaps) the open Florida governorship? Why had Republican Rick Scott (again, perhaps) knocked off incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in the sunshine state, and why didn’t the long-ballyhooed “Blue Wave” assume the shock-and-awe proportions that so many were anticipating? The Dems! The disarray! It’s all just like the pundits warned it would be!
Cue the right-wing chiders stashed away in the intellectual convalescent home known as James Bennet’s New York Times opinion section. Even before the balloting began on Tuesday, David Brooks came bearing the glum message that the Democrats, besotted on wifty multi-culti dogma, had no compelling answer to the “blood-and-soil” nationalism that animates the mythic Trump base:
After 30 years of multiculturalism, the bonds of racial solidarity trump the bonds of national solidarity. Democrats have a very strong story to tell about what we owe the victims of racism and oppression. They do not have a strong story to tell about what we owe to other Americans, how we define our national borders and what binds us as Americans.
You’d never guess from such prophetic pronouncements that Democrats had enthusiastically collaborated in the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants throughout the Obama years—or that, to their not inconsiderable shame, they’d rallied to a slew of brutal and disastrous imperial exercises in national morale-building and border-promoting over the past forty years. No, the trick in such diagnoses is always to isolate the motivating structure of liberal politics in an amorphous mindset imputed to a faithless cohort of cultural radicals who somehow have converted the entire Democratic political establishment into their customized ideological marionettes. Then you deliver a heavy sigh and declare, more in sorrow than in anger, that the straw version of liberal-left politics that prevails in your elite-educated reverie is, astonishingly, not connecting with the Plain People of Real America. Neat, huh? (Oh, and a quick correction to Yale Professor Brooks’s distinctly foreshortened compass of historical argument: Multiculturalism was actually invented more than a century ago—albeit then under the nomenclature of cultural pluralism—by white dude Horace M. Kallen. But thanks for playing!)
The story involved the pronounced and immediate shared desire not to be bankrupted for life by the misfortune of ill health.
Actually, in highlighting the issue of equitable health care provision (not a recent strength of Democratic policymaking, to be sure), the Democrats had indeed told “a strong story . . . about what we owe to other Americans . . . and what binds us as Americans.” That story involved the pronounced and immediate shared desire not to be bankrupted for life by the misfortune of ill health—or to put things a tad more tribally, a bone-deep resentment of a corrupt medical-political establishment that soullessly profiteers off human misery.
Likewise, when one bypasses the traditional pundit sport of asking why district X or statehouse Y didn’t flip from red to blue and looks instead at the array of ballot measures approved by voters on Tuesday, a left-populist agenda is pretty much hiding in plain sight. Measures to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid passed with ease, and ill-disguised oil-company giveaways in Colorado and California were soundly defeated. Serious and substantive expansions of voting rights won approval in Michigan and Florida, and the only measure curbing individual gun ownership on any ballot in the nation handily passed in Washington. Massachusetts upheld its transgender anti-discrimination law—showcasing the sort of casual mass indifference to culture-war browbeating that’s tailormade to give fits to the pundit class. The only left-leaning setbacks of note in the roster of voter referenda were: California’s statewide rent-control measure, which was predictably spent into oblivion by Golden State real estate interests, and the defeat of Washington’s ambitious carbon-tax plan—which still managed to net a respectable 45 percent backing. Back in 2004, pundits all across the continental United States swooned at the genius of Karl Rove in engineering a series of swing-state voter initiatives to ban gay marriage in order to boost turnout for George W. Bush’s re-election bid. By pointed contrast, scarcely anyone outside the jurisdictions hosting them is likely to encounter sustained media coverage of the 2018 left-populist initiatives.
And needless to say, since none of this self-organized socioeconomic reform can be made at a casual glance to register as a rebuke to the aging, white, and fathomlessly entitled “Trump base,” it leaves the Brooksian muse cold. This general condition is so widespread in our elite circles of opinion-making as to be virtually epidemic. Indeed, a recent study has shown that the political professionals clustered around Congress consistently assume that American voters harbor far more conservative views on most issues than they actually do. The reason, it turns out, is that under conditions of open vote-auctioning plutocracy, it’s a common category error to mistake the sensibilities of donors for those of, you know, voters. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham explains, congressional staffers who get the bulk of their policy intel from business-affiliated lobbying groups are prone to accept their policy writ as a faithful reflection of the general will. What’s more, corporate donations of any provenance have a curiously powerful effect on forging policy consensus: the study’s authors found that “45 percent of senior legislative staffers report having changed their opinion about legislation after a group gave their Member a campaign contribution.”
It gets worse. In a brand of Stockholm Syndrome eminently suited to the Trumpian Gilded Age, congressional staffers no longer seem able, or even inclined, to differentiate astroturfed policy appeals from the vox populi sort.
Perhaps the most alarming finding in the survey, however, was that “staffers are more likely to interpret correspondence from businesses as being more representative of their constituents’ preferences than correspondence from ordinary constituents.” The survey asked aides to imagine receiving letters about a policy issue from either “employees of a large company” in their districts or “constituents” and to consider how much those letters represented public opinion in their districts. Sixty-two percent of staffers said they’d view the employees’ letters as representative of public opinion, versus only 34 percent who said the same of letters from ordinary citizens.
In other words, with the bulk of meaningful oversight to our political economy outsourced to corporate donors and lobbyists, it’s small wonder that a corporate media hack like David Brooks dotes obsessively on the putative cultural attitudes and anemically nationalist worldviews he hallucinates as rampant disorders on the left. For establishment pundits, as for on-the-make congressional staffers, it’s the only game in town.
Congressional staffers “are more likely to interpret correspondence from businesses as being more representative of their constituents’ preferences than correspondence from ordinary constituents.”
Nor should it be a shock that Brooks’s Tweedle-Dum colleague in logorrheic lib-scolding, Bret Stephens, should deliver a postmortem on the midterms steeped in lazy caricature and militant ignorance. Sagely advising that “we might consider listening to [the American people] a bit more,” Stephens proceeds in short order to do just the opposite. The anti-Trump resistance simply didn’t “convert” votes into seats, Stephens argues—a stunningly obtuse assessment of the GOP’s single largest loss of House seats since the 1974 post-Watergate midterms. “It didn’t convert when it nominated left-leaning candidates in right-leaning states like Florida and Georgia”—a teachable moment that looks a whole lot less didactic now that the Trumpian GOP has yet to “convert” those posts either. (What’s more to the point, of course, is that these left candidates were the first in ages to come close to taking statewide office in the South—precisely because they refused to run as me-too centrist tax-cutters, difference-trimmers and austerians.)
But Bret Stephens is just warming up the old sententious-know-it-all engines. Why, look at the failed Beto O’Rourke bid to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas, he wails in pundit disbelief; here the out-of-touch resistance “poured its money into where its heart was—a lithesome Texas hopeful with scant chance of victory—rather than where the dollars were most needed.” Hah, good one, Bret! Except, you know, that Democrats did flip two congressional districts in the Lone Star state, and may well have a third in the works, thanks in no small part to a Beto-energized electorate—and that the state’s notoriously reactionary state board of education, for decades a preserve of militant evangelical pedagogic revisionism, is now majority Democratic as well. (As for those other Southern staging grounds of quixotic left midterm crusading, Florida also flipped a pair of districts, and Georgia managed one—namely, the seat formerly held by Newt Gingrich that African American gun control activist Lucy McBath won. This is the same seat the savvy centrist DCCC wasted $30 million trying to nail down for Jon Ossoff, the managerial white guy it anointed for the seat in the special election of 2017 who then lost to Republican Karen Handel. McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was fatally shot in Florida in an argument over music volume, now replaces Handel.)
But columnizing for the New York Times means never having to say you’re knowledgeable. No, you just check your rock-ribbed conservative gut, and declare its needs and the country’s identical. “Above all,” Stephens airily declaims, the resistance “didn’t convert the unconverted”—i.e., the grievance-driven white working class alleged to form the backbone of Trumpism. This is the paydirt moment in Stephens’s tantrum-masquerading-as-argument, and he tries to drive it home with an ad hominem glee that’s downright Trumpian: “What does the average voter think about the people who pompously style themselves ‘the Resistance’?” he pretends to wonder aloud, and then coughs forth this impressionistic hairball:
I don’t just mean the antifa thugs and restaurant hecklers and the Farrakhan Fan Club wing of the women’s movement, though that’s a part of it.
I mean the rest of the Trump despisers, the people who detest not only the man but also contemn his voters (and constantly let them know it); the ones who heard the words “basket of deplorables” and said to themselves: Bingo. They measure their moral worth not through an effort at understanding but by the intensity of their disdain. They are — so they think — always right, yet often surprised by events.
He means, in other words, “I can make up whatever harum-scarum portrait of the anti-Trump resistance I want, and ascribe to it the most loathsome brands of elitist hauteur, because that’s what the New York Times pays me six figures to do.” Here again, however, drab political reality supervenes: after Trump eked out an improbable run of victories in 2016 in the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania by a scant collective 107,000-vote margin, this fabled zone of downwardly mobile Trump-worshiping sons and daughters of toil went almost entirely blue in House representation (the sole exception, alas, being white supremacist ringworm Steve King, a setback I took especially hard as someone who suffered through an Iowa upbringing). And Democrats swept the region’s gubernatorial races, apart from Mike DeWine’s capture of the Ohio governorship; for anyone concerned with the actual ideological composition of our politics, as opposed to the pundit rendition of it as paint-by-numbers culture warfare, Scott Walker’s defeat in Wisconsin is, at a minimum, ten times the bellwether that Beto O’Rourke’s loss was in Texas.
So not for the first time we’re driven to ask: Just what the fuck are David Brooks and Bret Stephens talking about? And as is the case with the addled, industry-captured staffers on Capitol Hill, the answer is depressingly obvious. The respectable right-wing pundit caste is describing the only conceivable discursive world in which they can be taken seriously. Here’s hoping that, a few elections cycles hence, it can be dispatched to the same national memory hole where Scott Walker now resides.