What I Got Right and What I Got Wrong
Since the 90s, I have been making predictions in my head and for anyone who cared to listen. In some ways I think I was pretty prescient; in others, I was way, way off.
Back in the 90s, I noticed some dynamics in the two major political parties in the United States. First of all, I noticed - as did just about everyone with a brain and a pulse - that the Democrats were drifting to the "center," moving further and further to the right every year, until they were almost indistinguishable from the Republicans. This was true throughout Clinton's presidency, and it was especially obvious during the run up to the election in 2000, when Bush and Gore were struggling to find anything to disagree about, and even the pundits were bored. Many people, like myself, saw Bush and Gore as indistinguishable, and some of us, myself included, wound up voting for Nader. Now it's obvious that we were wrong. Bush turned out to be way worse than we predicted, and perhaps Gore has turned out to be a little better, though that's debatable. (I think it's safe to say that Gore, too, would have gone to war in Iraq, since he vocally supported it from the sidelines; liberals like to say that he would have been "better" about the Iraq war, and they may be right, but I'm not sure what that means.)
At the time, I predicted that the Democrats would just continue moving further and further to the right. But I also saw something else going on among the Republicans. The Republicans, it seemed to me, represented vastly different constituencies with irreconcilable interests. On the one hand, there were the so-called Libertarians - the Ron Pauls, and those even further out, like Murray Rothbard and the rest of the Austrian school's "Anarcho-capitalists" (a repugnant oxymoron) - that is, people who were into making government as small as possible, or non-existent, and maximizing capitalist "freedom". Such people were anti-war, anti-military, pro-abortion rights, pro-drug legalization, believed in closing down the Federal Reserve, rescinding all restrictions on sodomy, prostitution, and pornography, etc., etc.. On the internet, some of these people were literally Satanists and Pagans. On the other hand, you had the social conservatives: Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians, mostly. But then there were the right-wing Catholics, the Orthodox Jews, even some traditional Muslims - all conservative, each in their own (quite different) way. Then there was the military wing, which demanded big government spending, and who were instrumental in maintaining enormous pork spending, keeping the useless and wasteful military bases running, after the end of the Cold War, in what amounted to an enormous, disguised jobs bill, supporting millions of working class families. These were (a bit uneasily) allied with the Neoconservatives, who had found obscure Straussian intellectual justifications for endless involvement in wars all over the world. And finally, most importantly, there's Wall Street, the real force and reason that keeps the entire movement going, which has motives that in truth didn't match up with any of the other factions. The minarchist libertarians, the religious right, and the military-neoconservative wing are all, each in their own way, moral crusades, but Wall Street has much more practical, unidealistic, anonymous, free-wheeling interests - and it's own massive lobbying infrastructure to try to convince the other factions of the Republicans that it was on their side (or that they were on its). As I saw it, the fissures were too massive, the big tent could not be maintained, and the Republicans were doomed to fragment into smaller parties that would soon be at each others' throats.
Furthermore, it seemed to me that cities were getting larger and larger, and rural populations smaller and smaller, and cities leaned to the Democratic side, so the Democrats would soon have unbeatable majorities in many regions of the country.
So here's what I predicted: the Republicans would represent a smaller and smaller portion of the American public, and they would be so fragmented with infighting, that they would splinter to irrelevance. Meanwhile, the Democrats would rush in to fill the vacuum that the Republicans left.
And I almost got it right, too. By the time of the 2016 election, I thought that my predictions, which I had been making for well over 10 years, were finally coming true. I thought that I was witnessing the splintering of the Republican party before my very eyes. It seemed that people - especially elite pundits - were leaving the Republican party in droves, like rats off a sinking ship. Some of them, like George Will, Brent Scowcroft, Max Boot, and Hank Paulson, jumped to the other side and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Others, like Paul Wolfowitz, were cast adrift and seemed like men without a country. As the Republican party seemed to be contracting, the Democratic party seemed to be expanding to include such people. I thought that Donald Trump represented what was left after the rich, educated power-brokers had left - he represented the rump of the party, the dregs. I expected him to be a laughing stock and a symbol of the collapse of Republicanism.
I thought we were heading for what amounted to a new one-party system, not unlike the one that existed in Japan for decades: a system in which one party is massively dominant, but several smaller parties exist. So there would be the One Big Party - call it the Democratic party, if you like: the party of Chelsea Clinton and Jeb Bush and Meghan McCain and Ronan Farrow - and then there would be all the tiny little other parties: the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the State's Rights Party, the Conservative Party, the Reform Party, the Serve America Movement, the Marijuana Legalization Party, the Patriot Party, the Communist Party, and so on. None of them would get voters in the double digits. Maybe there would be something calling itself a "Republican" party or "G.O.P." or whatever, but it would never get more than 25% or at best 30% of the vote, and it just wouldn't matter anymore. If they could put aside their differences and unite, all these small parties might just beat the Big Party, but they'd be too locked into their mutual petty grievances to manage it.
Why did I think that? Because it seemed to me that a self-perpetuating vicious cycle had already begun. When a party loses power, it no longer pays for moneyed interests to invest in it, because there's less of a return on their investments. With less money, it becomes harder and harder to hire the people necessary to win victories. Which means they have less power, and so therefore less money, and so on.
I still think that, had Hillary Clinton won, something very much like that may have happened. Of course, she did win a majority of votes, by a margin of almost 3 million. The only thing that kept her out of office was our arcane Electoral College system, which should have been scrapped a century ago.
I should be clear here: I was not looking forward to the future that I saw coming. In my opinion, the Democratic party had swung so far to the right, that it represented the interests of capital and only capital - the union-backed labor constituency was utterly eviscerated and it was now the party of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and to a lesser extent, Hollywood (three constituencies that did massively support Barack Obama).
Now of course I knew that it was possible that the Republican Party would not splinter in such a literal way. But I also thought it was possible that the "Washington Consensus" of the leadership of the two major parties would become so similar that they would effectively become one party de facto, if not necessarily de jure. Even if, on paper, the two party system remained, effective dissent would have become neutralized. Indeed, perhaps by technically retaining the form of two separate parties, this single mega-party would assure its dominance all the more securely. Of course I was not alone in thinking this way. Call this the "Borg" model: the theory that there is an unstoppable force at the center of American politics (and maybe politics elsewhere) that gradually absorbed and assimilated all possible dissent - resistance is futile. It had become customary among certain
Anyway, if there was any hope of any kind of power standing up to that massive machine, I thought it could only come from something like the libertarian left - the Noam Chomskys and the David Graebers and the Jello Biafras of the world. I was slightly heartened by the fact that if you poll people on their positions on most issues, most people fall somewhere in that "lower-left" quadrant, like me, opposed to the entire Washington apparatus that was drifting to the "upper-right".
But in truth, being an inveterate pessimist, I did not expect much from this (my) motley crew. I thought the emerging Neoliberal consensus was unstoppable. Government would now be the province of skilled and trained technocrats working in the service of the ultra-rich to suppress the world's poor in creative ways and using therapeutic doublespeak: authoritarianism with a human face. We really had reached the end of history, all meaningful politics had collapsed, and the future was a boot stamping on a human face - forever.
* * *
But that's not what happened. History didn't end. It just went crazy. I'm still not sure what happened - I think we're all trying to figure it out. Here are a few things I got wrong:
First, obviously: Clinton lost. Not only did I underestimate the degree to which the Electoral College could slant an election, but I discounted the importance of other ways that the Right undermines democracy: voter suppression, gerrymandering, misinformation, preventing victims of the prison-industrial complex from being able to vote or to know that they are able to vote, etc., etc..
More than that: Trump won. I never thought he would get the nomination. I can't help looking back with a mix of shame and laughter when I reflect that I was absolutely sure that the candidate would be Marco Rubio.
I underestimated the racist, sexist, authoritarian, nativist, nationalist tendencies of the American public. Many of the proud segregationist generation are still alive. They were merely quiet about their convictions until now. And now that Trump is in office, they are getting louder. Worse, it appears that they have raised younger generations to believe in the same hateful ideologies, and some of them are even more extreme than their grandparents. We have not yet shaken off our shameful past; American culture remains that of a settler-colonial slaver imperium.
Also, I vastly underestimated the ability of the Republican party to stay together. After Donald Trump won, it was nauseating to see the parade of former "Never Trumpers" slink back to the Republican party, hat in hand. I still maintain that their interests do not match up in any way. There is no meaningful coalition there. By all rational rights, the Republican party should fragment, just as I predicted. But they need to suckle at the teat of power, and are willing to give up all principles and all dignity toward that pathetic end. There has indeed been a realignment of the Republican party, but I underestimated the ability of the underlings and goons to fall in line, lock-step, to Trump's incoherent ramblings and obvious con-artistry. There is apparently no limit. They will stoop to any and all degradation. It's fascinating, in a way. Trump is Caligula.
Perhaps the most decisive factor in Trump's rise is the prevalence of conspiracy theories. At least 50% of Americans believe in conspiracy theories. Perhaps it has always been this way - we speak of the "Paranoid Style in American Politics" as Richard Hofstadter put it. But when I was a child, there were effectively 5 TV channels (yes, I'm that old). This near-monopoly in the mainstream media ended with growth of cable and the internet, and websites have multiplied in the thousands and millions to cater to every reality-tunnel. Rather than mainstream media fact-checking these conspiracy theories, the reverse has happened: as a result of the media's desperate search for ratings, conspiracy theories went mainstream - not only on Glenn Beck's show and the History Channel, but even on the "big three" networks.
Trump's greatest strength was that he convinced the conspiracy theorists that he was their voice - not an easy trick for that untrusting crowd. But before this stuff completely disappears down the memory hole, it's important to remember that Trumpism was an unfortunate outgrowth of Clintonism. First of all, obviously, they were they friends - Bill Clinton had a locker at Trump's golf club as late as 2016, Trump gave and raised a significant amount of money for the Clintons as he switched from Democrat to Republican to Reform to Independent and back again multiple times, and of course they went to each others' family functions, including Trump's wedding. Bill Clinton called up Trump and discussed a possible run for the presidency just before Trump officially announced his candidacy (Clinton later went on Stephen Colbert's show and admitted that he called Trump, but denied that he encouraged him to run for president... then again, he denied this in terms that left wiggle room for interpretation. Even Colbert seemed skeptical. I guess it depends on what your definition of is is). And Hillary Clinton's campaign decided to "elevate" Donald Trump as a "Pied Piper" candidate, in hopes that this strategy would weaken a "real" candidate like Jeb Bush, and maybe lead to Trump running under a third party and spitting Republican voters.
But more importantly than all of that, it was the "Birther" movement that made Trump a powerful political figure. This cockamamie conspiracy theory, which claimed that Obama was not born in the United States (when everyone knew that Ted Cruz wasn't born in the United States, but I digress) was nothing but a fringe movement on a few websites. And then along came the Clintons' close friend and former employee Sidney Blumenthal, who began spreading it around, according to Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist James Asher, then the McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief and now an editor at the AP. Suddenly, the Birthers became a massive bloc of the electorate: according to a Daily Kos poll, 58% of Republicans either thought that Obama wasn't born in the U.S., or weren't sure. Of course generally people were eventually swayed by the slow drip of evidence that Obama was indeed American, and no one in the Clinton campaign would have anything to do with the Birther movement when it was no longer politically advantageous (they probably never believed the conspiracy theory anyway, not that that matters, and nowadays even Blumenthal completely disavows it). But Trump distinguished himself by sticking with the Birthers to the very end, no matter how much evidence had debunked their nonsense. He was signalling to the conspiracy theorists of the world - I will be loyal to you forever, not just when it's convenient. It's quite likely that he was using the movement just as cynically as Blumenthal and one other (fired, unnamed) Clinton staffer had, but it's just possible that Trump is stupid enough to actually believe this dreck. In any case, during Trump's ascendancy, all conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork. Trump appeared on Alex Jones's show, whose InfoWars website at it's peak had around 1.4 million page views per day; for comparison, around the same time, even after a 20% increase, the PBS NewsHour still only had around 1.24 million viewers.
I was aware of the conspiracy theories, and in fact I had made it a fun hobby to collect all of the bizarre conspiracy theories out there. I knew that there were conservatives on youtube who believed or professed to believe that Hillary Clinton literally ate babies, and had developed a degenerative neurological disorder called Kuru from her excessive consumption of baby brains. But somehow I didn't take this seriously. I didn't think it was important. I didn't think these cranks mattered. And because I didn't think they mattered, I completely mispredicted the trajectory of American politics.
There is a tendency not to speak of conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists, and not to take them seriously, as though they represented a fringe minority. It's understandable why this is - conspiracy skeptics fear that if they "platform" a conspiracy, even to debunk it, this will only spread the false ideas further. Moreover, and more importantly, conspiracy theorists like to see themselves as a persecuted minority. But it's just not true. Conspiracy theorists are the majority. They like to see themselves as a tiny group that knows the truth, while they brand everyone else as "sheeple," who are unquestioning and willing to be lead. The reverse is true. Conspiracy theorists are the true "sheeple" - there's nothing more easy to manipulate than a person who is convinced that his political enemies are pure evil.
And the trend of conspiracy theorizing is only spreading. Since 2016, liberals, especially centrist liberals, have become conspiracy theorists now, too - blaming Trump's win on Russian interference. I can't blame them for this. They were as wrong as I was about the political trends in America. The difference is that they are not willing to admit they were wrong, or even that they can be wrong. For them, if the world does not work the way they thought it did, then there must be some malign force distorting reality away from the purity of their vision.
It's easy to mock and fear, and it's a kind of national pastime. Hatred and resentment take no mental work. They are the default option for us tribal humans. As Shakespeare put it, "The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance." It takes much more energy, both intellectual and emotional, to empathize with your political enemies, to understand them as human beings, to recognize politics not as the battle between good and evil, but as a struggle between differing rational economic interests. It is far easier to assume the worst of one's political rivals than it is to carefully examine evidence scientifically. And it requires an unwavering commitment to justice to demand that, even for one's enemies, one should presume innocence until they are proven guilty.
* * *
But above all, what I completely missed and did not see coming in any way was the rise of socialism. If you had told me, in 1999, that Bernie Sanders - whom I was aware of, and loved - would, in 20 years, be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, I would have said you were crazy. I would have told you that you were an absurd idealist, that that could never happen in a thousand years. To me, Bernie was just a kooky, avuncular, amiable curiosity and nothing more. When I heard he was running, I assumed he was nothing but a protest candidate. Even when I decided to go door to door for him in the run-up to the New York primary, I never really believed that it would make much of a difference.
I thought - and said, to anyone listening, including the socialists I knew - that the American public would never accept anything with the label "socialist" or "communist" or "anarchist" attached to it. I thought the left would have to, so to speak, "rebrand" itself as something else, if it had any hope at all. Nor would a change of labels be enough. I thought it would have to transform much of its substance, as well as its public relations.
But - how wrong I was. Kshama Sawant and Bernie and AOC and Rashida Tlaib and Julia Salazar and Julie Gonzales and so on and so on won not despite calling themselves socialists, but because they called themselves socialists. Many of the people I knew, then and now, who call themselves socialists, would disagree - they would say that Bernie, for instance, isn't a real socialist. Maybe not. But he's a real power. Perhaps he represents a mere specter of socialism, all shine and no substance, a boogie man. But this specter of socialism is recognized by all of its enemies to be a real force and a real danger. Moreover, Sanders, AOC and the rest have managed to turn this specter of socialism into a huge, money-making machine - by far, more powerful in an economic sense than any of the other Democratic hopefuls.
I made the classic mistake of predictors - assuming present trends will continue forever. I thought the Dems would continue to drift to the right, as thoughtlessly as a cloud. Instead, between 2016 and 2020, the whole field shifted to the left. Most of the candidates have, to one degree or another, absorbed at least some part of Bernie's agenda. It is the centrists, like John Delaney and John Hickenlooper, who have shriveled to irrelevance. Even Joe Biden has been forced to run significantly to the left of Obama, when his entire history in public office indicates that in his heart of hearts his policy positions are far to Obama's right. We are witnessing a sea-change, one that, in my pessimism, hit me completely blindsided.
In some ways, I should have seen this coming. Just because the Democrats abandoned their base in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and most of the beginning of the 21st century, does not mean this base ceased to exist. When the Democratic party shifted to the right, it left a lot of people behind. It was ludicrous for me to think that just because these people had no ideological representation, that this meant that they no longer had real material interests, and that the economic force of those interests did not imply power - a power suppressed, yet explosive.
Nowadays, it no longer seems as though the Republican Party is fragmenting. If anything, it seems like the Democratic Party is. Bernie Sanders seems poised to win primary victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, possibly even Nevada, and several of the states on Super Tuesday - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Vermont - are states whose primaries he won last time around. Even in California, Bernie is polling at number 1, leading by 6 points - and with its whopping 494 delegates, a victory in California could be decisive. We're looking at what could be a sweep. All commentators have to acknowledge that Sanders is really the undisputed front-runner. If, at this point, the nomination is taken away from him by the party leadership - and I think it will be (you'll pry my pessimism from my cold, dead hands!) - probably giving the nomination to someone like Biden, who is in many ways a worse candidate than Hillary Clinton - this will cause a division in the party that could prove irreparable. Perhaps it is the Democratic big tent, not the Republican, that cannot hold. We'll see. Certainly if the Democratic Party has any future, we're going to have to work hard to keep it together.
* * *
So how wrong was I? I'm not sure. Maybe the Republican Party really is falling apart, after all. Maybe this is how it falls apart. Maybe the Democratic Party is still shifting to the right. Maybe this is how it shifts to the right. Maybe I was right that we are heading for one-party rule. Maybe this is how we'll get there. But I just don't know anymore. Whereas I was earlier relaxed in a complacent despair, I no longer trust myself to be able to determine any long-term trends. But that doesn't mean I'll stop trying.
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