Anyone treating the ignorance, bigotry and delusion of 72 million Americans as revelatory hasn’t spent much time reading about American history, or even paying attention to cable news over the past four years. The poisons of racism and paranoia have stormed through the veins of politics since the nation’s inception, and despite occasional signs of detoxification, the body politic will never eradicate their influence. Richard Hofstadter, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, first analyzed the “paranoid style in American politics” in 1959, identifying it as not exclusively but predominantly a right-wing characteristic.
Hofstadter was reacting to the temporary but widespread popularity of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In the decades separating McCarthyism and the electoral deflation of Donald Trump, the United States has suffered under the intellectual dead weight of dangerous bromides regarding “welfare queens,” “the gay agenda,” “the war on Christmas,” “death panels,” the Clinton murders, birtherism, the “Deep State,” QAnon and a whole host of other ideas whose acceptance should land people in a state mental hospital.
The unique achievement and danger of Trump was that he was able to coalesce the cranks and kooks into one obstinate base. He wasn’t alone, but had the assistance of Fox News, which rivals any televangelist for the rate of nonsense-per-minute, and millions of people broadcasting on social media, who without the aid of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s wonderful creations, would have no other outlet but scrawling slogans next to “for a good time call” invitations in bathroom stalls.
Hofstadter estimated that the extreme paranoid right of comprised 15 to 20 percent of the electorate. Their growth is certainly alarming, but as the midterm elections of 2018 and the presidential election of 2020 demonstrate, they are not unbeatable.
Despite massive voter suppression schemes, including the purging of nearly 200,000 voters — most of them Black — from Georgia rolls in 2019, and the Trump-directed, Louis DeJoy-administered sabotage of mail-in voting, Democrats managed to flip five states (and a Nebraska congressional district) in the presidential election, and have once again won the moral victory of a substantial popular-vote triumph.
Democrats still hold a majority in the House, even with some seat losses, and have a chance to take control of the Senate with two January runoff elections in Georgia. Yet they are already acting like losers.
Writers in Slate, the Guardian, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, along with a flurry of commentators on television, are bemoaning the strength of Trump’s turnout and warning Democrats that the country is beyond the influence of the progressive wing of the party. There are certainly deep-seated sicknesses in American culture that favor the far right, but all of the immediate lamentations, even after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prevailed by a comfortable margin, resemble a football team apologizing because it only won the Super Bowl by three points.
Among mainstream liberals and even some progressives, there is an attitude of diffidence that constantly prepares them for defeat. The risk is that it becomes self-fulfilling. While progressives plan to lose, the right wing, even when it does lose, aggressively asserts itself as if it somehow held a political and moral mandate. As simple as this sounds, a lack of confidence and an unwillingness to fight contribute to the wounds of the American left.
The necessity of persistence and ambition is an old truth, but I recall Steve Earle, the protest singer-songwriter, expressing it well during his late 2002 tour — a run of shows that doubled as antiwar rallies, while the Bush administration plotted the unlawful invasion of Iraq. Rotating his own political music with versions of “Masters of War,” “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding,” and other songs of social consciousness, Earle told the audience, “I’m not worried about them as much as I am worried about us. They can only win when we all decide to go home.”
John Kasich, Lincoln Project Republicans, and even some moderate Democrats want progressives to go home, sit back with a good book, and allow President Biden to collaborate with a fantastical Republican caucus that is amenable to reasonable arguments, supportive of democracy and actually concerned about the lives of its constituents.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and other leading figures of the left faction of the party have argued over the past two weeks, the reality is that they have the momentum among Democrats, and should seize the moment to gain control of the party. Progressives who express disappointment with the overly conciliatory and corporate Democrats are correct in their condemnation, but too often miss what the far right has understood for decades: Political parties are malleable.
There is no law of physics requiring that the Democrats govern under the influence of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” In 2010, the Tea Party weirdos and evangelical loons began to dominate the Republican Party. Reasonable figures like Mitt Romney appear like aliens from a distant planet while encouraging the use of masks, marching with Black Lives Matter or articulating gently-phrased derision of Trump’s dictatorial aspirations.
The left could stage a similar takeover within the Democratic Party, especially considering that the American people are open to persuasion on issues of economic justice and social liberalism. Countering the disappointments in state and local races, voters in Nebraska passed a restriction on predatory lending, Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized the recreational use of marijuana, Colorado voters approved a paid family leave program, and even the eccentric civilization that anthropologists call “Florida” voted to increase the minimum wage to $15.
If the gruesome Trump nightmare proved anything, it is that the era of Democratic capitulation and surrender must meet a violent death. It’s deeply disturbing that tens of millions of Americans voted for a tyrannical buffoon not once, but twice. It is no less disturbing that in years recent enough for living people to describe, the majority of Americans supported the state-sponsored terrorism of Jim Crow, the societal assault against LGBT citizens and the nationwide subjugation of women. One can imagine the political paralysis that would have frozen the entire country had the leaders of the civil rights movement, gay rights movement and feminist movement continually clutched their chests and cried over the popularity and monstrosity of their opposition.
It is also important to remember that much of Trump’s support is anomalous, a ghastly outgrowth of his unique personality. A boilerplate Republican is unlikely to arouse cultist passion without Trump’s strange brew of celebrity, media savvy, juvenile rebellion against social mores and con-man instinct.
The American people, by slim margins, are more sympathetic to progressive positions on health care, education, women’s rights, criminal justice and the environment. It is our political system, with its antiquated methods of arbitration, regulations of democratic procedure and prioritization of empty acreage over human beings, that gives an advantage to the regressive forces of the right. Systems, like political parties, are also malleable. The Progressive movement of the early 20th century won many victories for equality and the advancement of democracy — most notably in the contemporary context, the direct election of U.S. senators.
More than 60 percent of the American public supports the abolition of the Electoral College. Democrats must make the popular election of the president a major priority on their agenda, even if that initially requires building enough support and amplification that Republican officials realize they will politically suffer for their resistance.
Many progressives are breaking out into cold sweats and reaching for anti-anxiety medication, because they fear that right-wing recapture of national power is right around the corner. The future of American politics is dependent upon Democratic navigation. If activists allow Biden and his advisers to take the helm without the application of organized pressure and influence, and permits them to adopt a “moderate” agenda, only softening the edges of the blunt instrument that is hammering down on the lives of poor people, the hopes of the working class and the life of the planet, then, yes, the far-right program that poses as worker-friendly will rise again out of the manure of racism and xenophobia.
If Democrats, facing the insistence of an activist base, demonstrate the power of New Deal liberalism to materially benefit the lives of ordinary people, they can begin to remake American politics.
Steve Earle gave his speech about the necessity of political commitment as an introduction to his song, “Christmas in Washington.”
“Come back Woody Guthrie,” Earle sang with a crack in his voice, “So, come back Emma Goldman / Rise up old Joe Hill / The barricades are goin’ up / They cannot break our will.”
No one with any political awareness is likely to confuse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with the heroes Earle invokes in his ballad, but a Democratic victory presents an opportunity for progressives and radicals to make demands, rather than simply settle for defending elementary rights against the abuses of an autocrat.
The title of the song Earle played to close the show, sending his audience out into the street with an injection of urgency, contains an eternal truth that’s critical to remember, and even recite, in an era of turbulence: “Time Has Come Today.”