#TheResistance reexamined

Just over a year ago I posted my first “postgame” thoughts about “The Resistance,” knowing that they were probably a preliminary draft, only.

A year later, I might say that my early assessment of The Resistance itself still seems generally correct—an unimaginative flooding of resources into essentially stale and conservative forms of protest and electoral campaigning—but the context into which that fit looks even worse.

It’s difficult to say how much “The Resistance” really accomplished at all. I suppose it’s nice in some way that millions expressed their disapproval of an abusive, corrupt, cruel authoritarian government; okay, we didn’t just go along quietly, we made vocal protest at least for a while. Maybe we deterred some greater abuses of power. I suppose I can believe that, although it seems at least as likely that we just delayed them.

As I look around, it just doesn’t seem like we actually rescued America from abusive, corrupt, cruel authoritarian government. Sure it’s nice that we (just barely) evicted from office an authoritarian head of state who made considerable attempts to keep hold of power by hook and by crook. But the context in which that happened always was bigger and worse than Trump.

America essentially normalized Trump. Institutions essentially carried right on, from journalism to business to political parties. Yes, voters punished Trump’s party, but as I have realized, voters did not really punish Trump’s party more than they punish other presidents’ parties in the modern era. The organizations which thought they had accomplished breakthroughs in electoral organizing and campaigning, 2017-20, were probably just floating on a very ordinary tide of anti-president voting, whether or not they will ever understand that. One significance of this hypernormalization is that by 2016 American culture was already so far gone that even something like the Trump presidency wouldn’t really trigger big corrective reforms.

To the contrary, the larger project of abusive, corrupt, cruel authoritarian government continues even now. Maybe this doesn’t look quite the same in every part of the country as it does in Ohio, but the active carving away of our rights and safety is continuing here and plenty of other states. (The number of states where that’s the case is very likely to grow, too, with a tsunami vote for Republicans very likely in November.) Plus the corrupt hijacked US Supreme Court has sway everywhere, and if people in very blue states still feel like they’re mostly safe, I think that they should not count on that.

Even now—even after we dislodged the abusive, corrupt, cruel authoritarian head of state—abusive, corrupt, cruel authoritarian government continues making advances, and looks very likely to pick up the pace.

Other than the investigators, liberalism’s leadership seems to lack any real grip on what’s happening, and really I think the investigators are also just using familiar tools and practices. At most, one might credit them with some innovation in investigating a former presidency to this extent; that’s something which really has not been dared before, even though it probably should have been a number of times. Fair enough. But I just do not see how this process can turn all American politics upside-down. Among other things, I can’t forget that impeachment hearings actually shifted public opinion substantially from opposing impeachment to supporting it—and then a year later, Americans gave Trump more votes than in 2016, and transferred seats from the House Democrats who carried out impeachment to Republicans who adamantly opposed it. Investigations, hearings, and the legal system don’t seem like they can catch up to Trump, and really don’t seem like they can catch up to the larger corrosive forces. I don’t even think that legislation could really do so, even if it were going to happen although as of this week most people have given up on remaining hopes that it can.

Meanwhile, again, outside of the investigators, I mostly see increasingly bare fumbling and foolery. To the extent that The Resistance era elevated any new leadership at all, it doesn’t seem much good.

As with Save Lakewood Hospital, I can see among my own errors far too much faith in the people with titles or experience or just the confidence or dumb luck to position themselves at the fore, and in the stories they told. It’s more difficult in this case for me to identify credible instances where I believe that better choices might have prevailed.

I certainly want to believe that something like this could have been a step toward actually making a lasting, positive difference.

But, was that really a practical possibility? I wrote a year ago about the obstacles to any real new leadership emerging. I’m honestly not sure who would have done a lot better, or how they might have gained more influence. In 2019 Elizabeth Warren seemed like she had as good a grasp on the situation as any of the contenders, which is the main reason I did so much to get her nominated for president, although that bid obviously failed and since then she seems to have diminished a bit, to be honest (or maybe she hasn’t changed but the situation just looks that much more dire to me than it did then).

In theory, the people in positions of leadership might have done things a lot differently, but how many of them is it credible to imagine all making much different choices? Up to a point it’s possible to imagine some other Democrat in place of Obama in 2009 making some dramatically different moves, and (having much more leverage than Biden does right now) maybe having real influence. But in the post-2016 scrum, who had such an opportunity? Trump retains substantial influence over the Republican Party, after losing, but even though Hillary Clinton actually got the most votes in 2016, I have difficult imagining her attempting or having much success at leading a reinvention of America’s democratic coalition.

Perhaps we might have at least gotten some more insightful people atop the activist groups which sprung up, like Indivisible or Swing Left, or the local Progressive Caucus or Ohio’s Fair Districts Coalition, but we uh didn’t and I’m not sure what would have led to better outcomes other than dumb luck. I’m not sure that there’s a particular reason why e.g. redistricting reformers really got it right in Michigan and not as much in many other places.

Voters Not Politicians and Stacy Abrams’s projects seem, at this point, like two of the most effective exceptions to a flailing and failing liberal America—and I’m uncertain of how much either is exceptional or replicable.

Gerrymandering is not America’s entire problem—and I agree more and more with Ezra Klein’s remark some years ago that it is in real ways a symptom of our problems—and while Voters Not Politicians successfully evicted politicians from the redistricting process and enacted fair maps, its maps are actually being sued from all directions. (The durability of the alliance between Republicans who want to pack as many Democrats as possible into deep vote-sink districts, and Black Democrats who demand the same thing in the name of majority-minority districts, is some real autocracy-will-win-because-liberalism-doesn’t-want-to stuff. FML.)

If November brings the kind of election that looks likely and Abrams’s bid for governor does even nearly as well under an unpopular Democratic president as she did under an unpopular Republican president, by all means put her in charge because that will confirm that she’s much more effective than just about anyone else we got. Likewise if e.g. Ben Wikler can defeat an incumbent Republican senator this year in a state which only narrowly voted for Democrats when voters were punishing Republicans for being in the White House. Or heaven knows if a Democratic campaign wins basically any statewide race in Ohio, this year.

As it is, well, I’m quoting myself but I feel like this point is really really underappreciated: We did it. We fought back against an authoritarian government, we stood up and said no, we set aside differences, formed a big enough coalition to overcome (just barely!) the goalpost moving by those in power, and (just barely!) got them out of power.

But the surrounding context was so bad, and our quickie resistance effort failed so entirely to address that context, that all we seem to have achieved is slow American democracy’s decaying orbit a little, very briefly.

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