It’s the end of the year, and though I write (far) less often, I still find myself in a reflective mood as the calendar turns over. This last year has been difficult for many people who believe themselves to be forward-thinking. Just when it seemed like we were finally beginning to talk about things that actually mattered–rights for the disadvantaged or oppressed, incremental attention to environmental issues, consideration of a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than big-dick military saber-rattling, some semblance of rational thought about the appropriate roles of religion versus science in dictating policy decisions–the whole world apparently lost its mind.
Like a lot of folks, I had many thoughts on the election of our current president; what it said about us as a country, what it said about our priorities, what it said to the world about who we are and what we want to be, and what it said to ourselves about ourselves. In retrospect, the reasons for his election seem fairly obvious:
- Too few people in this country vote. This may be because they don’t care about politics, or because they believe that government has a limited effect on their day-to-day existence, or because we don’t make it easy enough for them to get to the polls, or because they don’t feel informed enough to make a responsible decision, or for any number of superficial reasons, or for the very real reason that people of a certain political bent have made it increasingly difficult for people who don’t share their opinions to exercise their rights (especially if those opinions are accompanied by darker skin). But, regardless of reason, the fact remains that fewer than half of people old enough to vote do so. This gives extra weight to those people who are actually able to cast a ballot. This is amplified in our primary system, where even fewer people vote, leading candidates to go all-in with their appeals to the most passionate and extreme members of their party.
- We have fallen into the trap of conflating wealth and notoriety with capability. Because someone has shown up on our televisions or social media feeds, we credit them with intelligence or wisdom that they have not displayed. And, if someone has accumulated a large amount of money, we equate that with accumulation of knowledge or ability, whether they did anything to earn that financial standing or not. We think anyone with any amount of public recognition must have done something to deserve it, forgetting that it is just as easy (if not easier) to get famous acting like a jackass than through genuine accomplishment. And, by kowtowing to these people, we are only reinforcing the illusion that they somehow are deserving of this recognition, deference, or respect.
- Republicans are good at politics. This is difficult to admit for those of us on the left, but the truth is that Republicans are better at this game than we are. While we try to appeal to everyone about everything, Republicans have realized that you can’t please everyone on every issue. But, what they figured out is that you can appeal to a huge number of people, one issue at a time. That’s how they can win among hard-core Christian Evangelicals, financial conservatives, gun enthusiasts, anti-abortion advocates, racists, misogynists, and nihilists all at the same time, even if these issues don’t appear to overlap. Our current president has been called all these things, but the reality is that he is whatever he needs to be in the moment. So long as each of these groups hears what they want to hear about the issue they care most for, they are willing to overlook all the things they don’t like about the Republican platform. The Democratic party constantly edits its message, knowing that one false step will alienate a chunk of its base. They have to get everything right on every issue to hold off the protestations of their voters. Republicans just have to get one thing right at a time, depending on who they are trying to reach at that particular moment. And, they know that fear is strong. Democrats try to run on optimism, genuinely believing that things might just possibly get a little bit better. Republicans can win elections just by scaring people into believing that things might get worse. Our current president, for all his faults (and there are many), is very good at appealing to people’s sense of fear. He has demonized everyone, turned the whole world into something to be scared of, and without even offering any respite from that fear, has won support just by convincing people that there really is something to be scared of.
Now that he is in office, his lack of qualification for the job is becoming more difficult to ignore. He is uninformed, petty, narcissistic, childish, spiteful, and blatantly dishonest. And, though he appears to be increasingly unpopular, even among those who voted for him, he has done a tremendous amount of damage to our nation and its livelihood just by perpetuating a troubling political trend. More than anything else, his legacy will be a solidification of the dangerous belief that politics is all about winning.
Through most of this nation’s history, we have been represented in government by people who genuinely had an interest in making our country better. We could argue endlessly over their methods, or politics, or ulterior motives, or the repercussions of legislation they passed. But, there was a belief that every decision, regardless of political affiliation, was intended to do some good for the country as a whole. It is impossible to ignore the xenophobes, warmongers, oppressors, and profiteers who have represented both parties over the years. But, these traits were secondary, or at least seemed to be. Now, they represent the entire platform for many of those we have elected to make our decisions for us.
And, even more dangerous than this is the explosion of tribalism in current politics. Substance no longer matters. The only determiner of value is affiliation. Everyone has picked a side, and believes that their side can do no wrong, while the other can do no right. This is how politics is played now, and again, Republicans are playing it better. Taxes? Abortion? Gun control? Health care? LGBTQ rights? Climate change? Income equality? Those are liberal ideas. That makes them bad. And, if you want to be on the Republican team, you’re against them, whether they have anything to do with you or not. That’s why someone buried in debt and struggling to pay his own bills is willing to go to war over the estate tax, and why someone living on the coast watching the oceans creep closer to his own front door can scream about the virtues of burning fossil fuels. It doesn’t matter whether something is good policy. It only matters whose policy it is. This gives people something to hold on to, even as they watch the world burn around them. It feels good to be on the winning team, even if that team is doing nothing at all to help most of those who support them.
And, this winning can take many forms. It’s not just about winning elections or passing legislation. Often, it is about nothing more than provoking a reaction. Telling a lie on television and getting away with it? That’s a win. Reviving our racist and sexist roots by “Making America Great Again?” That’s a big win. Privileged white people crying about how unfair the world is to silence the legitimately oppressed? A win. Fighting the media by dismissing inconvenient truths as “fake news?” That’s a win, too. This scoring method is skewing how politicians are judged. The passage of the recent tax plan by the president and the Republicans in Congress was called a win by virtually every news outlet, despite most of them also pointing out the many ways in which it would serve to reward the rich and punish everyone else. Even though only a few already wealthy people would actually benefit, anyone calling themselves a Republican got to crow about this victory. This winning matters so much that Republicans are willing to overlook any number of sins. Let’s not forget that we have a president elected solely on the basis of all the winning he promised to do, despite his history of multiple bankruptcies and admitted sexual assault.
Republicans have changed the game, and Democrats risk falling into the trap of going along with these new rules. During the election season, Democrats said, “When they go low, we go high.” This is a noble idea. I like the idea of avoiding petty insults and remaining focused on the ideals of beneficent governance. But, the truth is, this doesn’t win elections. And, without winning elections, our ideals don’t mean a thing. However, it would be foolish to follow the lead of the Republicans, as they may have over-played their hand. For years, Republicans have been playing a long game, winning local elections, redrawing districts in a way that tips the scales in their favor, loading judicial benches with judges sympathetic to their politics. But, they have now sold out to a very small portion of their base: those extremists who vote in primaries, and the wealthy donors who fund their campaigns. So, while the whole party celebrates each “win,” these are the only groups who actually get what they want. Extremists get judges who push back against abortion or same-sex marriage, and rich folks get tax breaks that turn their millions into billions. Everyone else just gets the Pyrrhic victory of laughing at Democrats not getting what they want, but then goes back to their lives, no better off than before. This is not a formula for lasting success. At some point, everyone else will need to see some benefit to believe that they are actually winning. It’s one thing to tell someone about all the jobs that will be created with a border wall, or a new oil pipeline, or lower corporate taxes. It’s another thing to try to maintain the illusion when those jobs fail to materialize.
To this point, Republicans have been able to scapegoat Democrats for all the misfortunes that Americans are facing. But, truth will win out in the end. It has to. Democrats are far from perfect, but they must continue to have higher standards for themselves. They must continue to rely on facts and science and morality and compassion to guide them. They must continue to go high while the Republicans go low, knowing that Republicans are digging themselves into a hole. Democrats must aim higher, move forward, and become the party that changes the game. Because, it can be changed. Republicans have already proven that. And, if it changed for the worse, we can change it for the better. Politics can continue to evolve. It does not have to be this way. We can make it into what we want it to be. We can try to actually make positive, progressive change.
So, let’s not be distracted by name-calling, or hung up on “wins” and “losses.” Those things are fleeting. We want lasting change. We need to play the long game. We need to continue to aim high and force the country to come up to that level. And, if the Democrats are not willing to be the party that institutes that change, we need to create a new party. We don’t need to play by the old rules. If they’re not working, let’s write new rules. If we truly have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we can make the government into whatever we want it to be. The fact that it was a Republican who originally made that demand shows just how much things can change.
Yes, things are bad right now. And, losing hurts. But, let these losses be lessons. Let them be reminders of the way that we want the world to be, and let them inspire us to continue to fight for something better.