I don’t know which way next week’s U.S. midterms will go, but the Democrats’ timidity is doing them no favors. It is a deficiency liberals manifest all around the world, and unless this is fixed authoritarians might come to dominate our era.
Could prospects ahead of the midterms have been better? I think so, and here’s why. Throughout history, political overreach has yielded bruising counter-reaction. And overreach is a fair way to describe what the Republicans did and are doing with abortion. (To be fair, it also describes what the progressives do on gender, race, policing, and immigration).
Until recently, few Republicans would have admitted that their goal was banning abortion. Yet they stacked the Supreme Court with uber-conservatives through dirty trickery and then egged on these jurist-activists as they moved, contrary to implied promises, to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Senate Republicans refused to even hear former President Barack Obama’s moderate Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, almost a year before the 2016 election because said they argued that election was too imminent. Then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rammed through the radically conservative replacement to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg just weeks before the 2020 election. The so-called McConnell Rule seemingly does not to apply to conservative picks.
That level of hypocrisy is radioactive and corrosive to a functioning society. It is of an intensity that will make people crazy. After such chicanery, you deserve whatever comes. But if the Republicans are not punished, severely, in the midterms — what they will have gotten is meek and pitiful acquiescence.
Republicans Are a Party Out of Step
Polls show a strong majority of Americans do not want abortion banned and did not want Roe v. Wade overturned. About 85 percent view abortion as acceptable under any or some circumstances and Pew finds a clear majority consider themselves “pro-choice.” Yet abortion will soon be banned in half the states, in some cases without exception. Some states are even toying with punishing their residents (and others) who dare perform the procedure outside the state.
Moreover, some Republican politicians are flirting with a federal abortion ban — which one would think is suicidal, considering how badly it clashes with public opinion. You might also think they’d pay a price for continuing to object to all but the mildest gun controls, or for trying to suppress voter turnout, or for scheming in broad daylight to overturn inconvenient election results in key states.
A Flawed Federal System
In blocking progress and enabling nonsense, the Senate is emerging as the central problem of the American political system. Here’s how that problem can be summed up.The Senate essentially runs the country. It is the only body that can remove the president. We have discovered that the Nixon-era focus on “impeachment” was naïve, since the procedure means nothing unless the Senate convicts. The Senate is the legislative forum that must ratify all important legislation and clear all major appointees, including Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices. And giving the Senate the final say on the Court in these days of total partisanship is tantamount to subordinating the judicial branch to the legislative.
Conservatism Baked In
Despite its position as essentially the sovereign, the Senate is spectacularly non-representative.
Consider this: most Americans would agree that America is a country — like Russia or China or France. Many would indeed consider it the “greatest” country, which sounds immature but is not indefensible. Few would say America is a collection of individual countries under some loose umbrella. Travelling the world as a foreign correspondent in recent decades, I have yet to meet an American who said he was a Coloradoan first.
And yet the Senate — not some auxiliary body but the central font of authority — takes federalism to the extreme. To say it does not give every citizen of the country an equal say would be a massive understatement. Because Wyoming has the same two senators as California, the population disparity between them means each voter in Wyoming has 68 times the impact of a California resident on running the country. Pick any two points on the map and you’ll find less other outrages, if less extreme. For example, a South Dakotan has 15 times the impact of a Pennsylvanian, my own home state. Someone in Louisiana has almost three times my impact.
Because of population dispersal patterns and demographics that have little to do with anything envisioned by the Founders — who governed 13 little colonies — the result is that small rural states can impose conservatism on the entire country. Safely “red” states that can control the Senate have between a quarter and a third of the population.
All over the world, such arrangements are very hard to alter once the rules are put in place; in other countries, when things get crazy enough the result is violent upheaval. It will take much time for Americans to peacefully reform their system, if it even can be done. But what can happen right now is for defenders of democracy and modernity to fight like hell. For that you need fighters. Instead, we have Democrats.
The Democrats Never Had a Platform
Ahead of next week’s midterms, the Democrats should have established a central messaging platform that gingerly sidesteps the culture wars that play into the hands of the Republicans. It could have been based on uncomplicated planks aligned with majority opinion and focused on the federal level, meaning the Senate, which is anyway the highlight of the upcoming vote:
- A federal law allowing abortion within limits that are acceptable to the vast American majority
- Renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons, which most Americans favor Reform of the state districting systems to defang the scourge of blatantly partisan gerrymandering
- A comprehensive, systemic rejection of the Republican effort to install state-level election officials who are primed to deploy inventions about irregularities to overturn elections that do not suit the party
They should also get serious about reforming the filibuster, which is a recipe for gridlock that no other country on the planet must deal with. And the overriding message should have been that supporting the Republicans is at this point an unpatriotic act.
It’s breathtaking to see how little of this was done. Unless this changes fast, the Republicans may take the House and even the Senate. This will bring gridlock and plunge America into a political risk level that will see it treated as an emerging market as opposed to a developed one.
Languorous Liberals Around the World
Americans who love the rational version of their country and may despair over this predicament might take some comfort in knowing that their cohort the world over are in similarly dire straits.
In one of history’s most fascinating realignments, the left, formerly the home of firebrands, has become the place of contented middle-class people. This was a consequence of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and the more recent digital disruption: enough people became mildly prosperous that it ceased to be that only feudal masters had an interest in preserving the “system.”
Economic liberalization (which hobbled unions) and globalization (which moved manufacturing out of the West) were essentially projects of this new empowered class. They became the people who attend good schools, who work for multinational companies, who gravitate to world cities where they learn to appreciate people who are unlike them — and they drift away from tradition. This group — not socialists — is now the so-called “left,” and globalization’s losers — the less-educated — are essentially the “right.” This reshuffle has occurred over the past 40 years or so.
The “left” has two disadvantages.
First, the educated and prosperous generally have fewer children. Even though kids may disdain their parents’ musical tastes, worldviews are largely hereditary — thus assisting the right.
Second, being generally more educated the left is, unhelpfully, far daintier, thus less inclined to dirty tricks. Their standards and ethics cannot abide it. But the global populist right — from Brazil to Israel to Brexit-addled Britain — has no such constraints. They’re using the free-speech principles of liberal democracy to dismantle it, even as we watch.
I’m not advising the Democrats to lie through their teeth ahead of the midterms. I am, however, saying that pulling your punches will not yield the knockout that you need. Clarity need not be simplicity; determination need not be fanaticism. People respond to these two things. So, to avoid further failure, try it just this time: be forceful and be clear.
(This article appeared originally in Newsweek)