Back in the 1980s Cleveland Browns fans were firm believers in the Three Rivers Curse. The archrival Pittsburgh Steelers began playing in Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1970s, which coincided with their becoming one of the elite franchises in the NFL. Since most years they were very good, they always beat the Browns in their annual home game. After fifteen years or so it took on a life of its own.
In the mid-80s the players who led the Steelers began to retire, and the Browns began to put together lots of promising young talent. One such player was an outspoken wide receiver named Webster Slaughter, and when a reporter asked about the dreaded curse he replied: “I’ve never lost there.” And what do you know, Webster, Bernie and company went into Pittsburgh and won.
That quote came to mind while reading analysis of this year’s Democratic primary. Many of us on the left who came of age in Ronald Reagan’s America have a sort of ongoing case of political PTSD from then. We’re like beaten dogs (or Dawgs) who have an inculcated sense of resignation because we grew up at the dawn of an era of conservative ideological ascendance. For most of our adult lives “liberal” was an insult, Democratic presidents governed from the center-right (NAFTA, welfare “reform,” repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, etc.) and Washington was wired for Republican control.
We’ve come to believe that the only changes progressives can realistically expect will be achieved through technocratic incrementalism - and we’ve been supplied with lots of evidence to support that thesis. The era of big government is over, right? That’s not an immutable law of nature though; it’s culture. It may look unchangeable, but that’s also how an era of liberal ascendance may have looked to a conservative - during a time when, say, a Republican president derisively rejected out of hand calls to weaken Social Security.
To the right’s great credit, they fought and won a war of ideas. There was an inflection point in the late 60s. The nation’s ideological arc began to bend towards conservatism, and by 1980 it had triumphed. Yes the GOP lost elections along the way, but the right succeeded in changing the governing philosophy of the nation. New Deal-style liberalism was effectively banished from national discourse. With that as a formative culture it’s (I hope) understandable why many in the older cohort have a timid approach to policy, and why we may instinctively be content with whatever scraps fall from the table.
If that culture hasn’t fundamentally changed, then the prudent choice for Democrats would be a candidate who pledges to work within that culture. One who promises to change it only invites electoral disaster.
I’m sure there are as many opinions on the state of our political culture as there are observers, but here’s my take: 2006 represented another ideological inflection point - this time a slow turn back towards liberalism. It takes a long time for that change to be felt, though, and political establishments are usually the last to know. So when voters handed control of both houses of Congress back to the Democrats, party leaders treated their new mandate like a museum piece that had to be locked away lest a careless move shatter it into a million pieces. Most notably, Harry Reid looked out at an electorate that had soured on the Iraq war and basically said, oh what the heck let’s keep it going.
But two years later that same electorate put a black man who opposed the war in the White House, which by itself (no matter what else you think of him) was a profound shock to the political system. Then came the mass protests over Scott Walker’s union-busting agenda1 and the emphatic repudiation of John Kasich’s. Large-scale resistance to worker-hostile legislation was alive and well, it turned out. On the national level they were followed by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, each a high profile and systemic critique.
In other words there is a skepticism towards received wisdom, and an openness toward radical intervention, that could hardly have been imagined ten years ago. People aren’t asking wonks to construct highly detailed and narrowly tailored solutions to structural problems, they are demanding fundamental change.
If you’ve spent the last few decades internalizing the message that such a thing is impossible, then it will seem, well, impossible. There are very logical reasons why we have voluntarily limited our imaginations and clipped our aspirations, but doing so may have made us slow - too slow - to check if the ground has shifted beneath our feet.
Into this walks the new generation. I have an eighteen year old who will vote for the first time this year, and he is wildly enthusiastic for Sanders, as are all his friends. In one sense it’s entirely typical. Age fifty seems to be the break point; Clinton is way ahead over that, Sanders way ahead under. But voting preference aside, it’s just been interesting to observe their forming sensibilities.
On the one hand they are filled with youthful idealism/naiveté, and I want to say to them: good for you, shoot for the stars - but also understand that there are forces in play you may not even be aware of. (Prior to the Iowa caucuses my son was astonished that Clinton was even close to Sanders because no one he knew planned to vote for her.)
I want to set his expectations because I know how easy it can be to get disappointed and discouraged. I want him to understand it’s a marathon and not a sprint, that it’s important to be engaged even when that’s not the most exciting thing to do, and that sometimes he’ll have to settle for half a loaf - or no loaf at all.
Having said that though, maybe I’m a bit hidebound - and captured by a framing process that is already dated. I expect things to be a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been. It should just extend indefinitely into the future, right? And while every four years there’s always a darling who makes the base say “this time is different,” and that hasn’t been true yet, that doesn’t mean it never will be. Things are the way they are until they’re not.
Looking not just at my preferences but at the environment generally, it seems like there’s an openness to the kind of changes that liberals have dared not dream of for a very long time. We’ll never know if they can happen if we don’t push for them. Meanwhile there’s this whole generation coming behind us that’s basically saying, “we’ve never lost there.”
And you know what? They haven’t.
1. Yes, Scott Walker got his legislation passed and won his recall to boot. But his presidential campaign is already dead, Kasich’s is as well though he hasn’t figured it out, and neither man has any national prospects of note. Don’t think for a minute that the sight of a guy with a bullhorn and a COPS FOR LABOR sweater angrily denouncing Walker from the Wisconsin statehouse, or pictures like this (Cf.), haven’t made the other GOP candidates reflect on what kind of winning coalition would be possible with those kinds of policies.
Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick - Uncle John
(This was supposed to be Saturday’s BONUS post but the weekend got away from me.)