Post-Election Thoughts Nov. 2018

The Economist examined the question of whether or not America is “ungovernable” nearly nine years ago. At the time they concluded no, and blamed Barack Obama. By four years ago, their tut-tutting confidence had slipped a bit. I have documented that slide before.

Another cycle of presidential and midterm elections has now passed. I don’t know what The Economist may have to say at the moment; I don’t read the site regularly now that it’s tightly paywalled.

I, however, am left with a stronger than ever sense that America is ungovernable, at any rate in the sense of a capacity to organize at large scale and lead a substantive program of reform.

What is the point of any of the shouting, struggling, attempted organizing and counter-organizing, etc., etc.? I realize that things take time, but what has been the point of anything during the past 20 years in American politics?

In the 1990s, I can perceive the entrenchment of a neoliberal program, in broad terms. I may not approve of it, but I can at least identify a possible program of reform which (starting some time earlier) was still viable across multiple elections.

Since then…?

Even allowing for my bias, I think that subsequent disdain for the Bush administration may support a sense that it and that era’s Republican Party did not even offer much of a program for reform, per se, simply a grasping for power and money.

The Democrats who succeeded to power really did try, at least, to pursue reforms. Tried to protect society from the reckless predation of the financial industry; tried to steer the world away from disastrous climate change; tried, most notably, to improve a terribly wasteful and ineffective health care system.

They faced, of course, an opposition which was from the outset (and before long entirely openly) committed to sabotage as its number one priority. The sabotage campaign has been entirely sustainable, and quite effective. It has so swallowed the Republican Party that even since their return to the driver’s seat two years ago, it has remained their salient offering, resulting in a parody of governance even more debased than the Bush era. This seems not to be making them politically unviable in a large-scale way.

Yet the reality may be even more maddening than that.

Consider that after campaigning for years to “repeal Obamacare,” Republicans finally found themselves stuck with the facts that 1) they dared not actually repeal the popular parts, 2) they could not come up with any internal compromise which wasn’t substantially worse than what already existed. The awful attempts which they nonetheless tried passing into law, anyway, were a substantial part of an electoral battering this week.

Republicans’ attempts to fulfill the pledges of repeal, on which they campaigned with so much success, have now begun to deliver power back to the Democrats who lost power in part by passing the law to begin with.

So, what has been the point of the past eight years, again…?

But wait it gets better.

As voters sweep Democrats back into power (in many places), their most effective message seems to be a negative one. The party has emphasized “healthcare,” and “check on corruption,” but these are issues more than policies, and both fundamentally reactive in context. Much like in 2006, “not being the party of Trump” now seems to be Democrats’ most attractive policy offering. An equally popular program for anything remains elusive.

This is particularly dispiriting as someone on the progressive left. More than two years after Bernie Sanders ignited such hope that unabashedly progressive policies could inspire a popular “political revolution,” any notion of genuine revolution is exposed as fantasy. The whole concept that voters will rally behind a bold agenda to make society better seems sadly naive, now; voters won’t even reliably rally behind bold ideas that they claim to support, even when presented with them on an a la carte basis.

Meanwhile, I would offer a cautionary note for centrist-conservatives who might be tempted to celebrate the relative staying power of a like-minded political establishment in the face of attempted progressive uprising. Even if “govern and change little to nothing” custodianship appeals to you, I’m unconvinced that this is ultimately much more viable than more dramatic reforms.

Democrats have, after all, largely been offering “govern and change little” custodianship for quite a while. Nationally, this has nonetheless twice proved vulnerable to a rapid backlash and years of ongoing sabotage, within just two years of each recent instance when Democrats had enough power to spare us from shutdown dramas and other crises engineered by a bad-faith opposition for a while.

Once upon a time, I suppose politics was different, and custodianship was more viable. But one shamelessly bad-faith party in a two-party system seems at this point to be an ongoing feature of American politics, and so long as that remains the case, I’m not sure how custodianship can win much more than fleeting, two-year spells of power.

Now here’s the kicker: if a party can only hope for two years out of eight or more in which to pass legislation (and confirm judges), what incentive is there for cautious moderation?

Democrats may still be wary of running on Medicare for All, for example, but it’s obviously not the case that their caution while in power 2009-10 protected them from political retribution. If that’s the case—that a wipeout is likely to follow consolidation of power no matter what—doesn’t this actually create an incentive toward radicalism? Why not pass big transformative legislation, and as much of it as possible, then hope that some of it will survive? Maybe politicians aren’t quite there, yet, but aren’t enough of them bound to catch on eventually if this dynamic persists?

Finally, perhaps a centrist-conservative still believes that custodianship has not had a fair shot, yet. Personally I do not believe that more caution would have preserved Democrats’ House majority in 2010. The so-called “Tea Party” backlash against the Obama administration was underway by early 2009; the well-funded outrage machine which drove Democratic losses in 2010 used the Affordable Care Act, certainly, but was not a product of it.

But even if doing even less than the painstakingly cautious reforms of the Obama administration might be politically viable, in theory, for more than two years, I’m still left with the conclusion that America is ungovernable in any sense that I can consider meaningful.

Custodianship will not fix our society’s ills. Custodianship will not prevent disastrous climate change.

Custodianship will not resolve major issues that seem to defy any lasting resolution, and I’m not honestly certain that anything will. What’s a fair rate of taxation? When is abortion okay? Who has a right to healthcare, on what basis? Independent of whether any majority consensus exists on questions like these, that majority seems entirely incapable of imposing itself on a politics in which they are contested with apocalyptic intensity, anyway, year after year after year.

What is the point of this? How can a nation be truly governable under these conditions?

The problem seems to be a Gordian Knot, and while it’s an intrinsic part of the metaphor that the Gordian Knot can be defeated, it isn’t defeated by peaceful change within the system…

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