It’s just so sad. If ever there was a time for a sharp left turn in American politics, this is it. Corporate power has eclipsed the abusive level that moved Theodore Roosevelt to take on the barons more than a century ago. The distribution of wealth and income is more egregiously disparate than it was in the Gilded Age. The labor movement is on the rocks and the arrogance of the wealthy is such that they claim a righteousness to their robbery. Sometimes, having created the need for charities, they buy respectability by throwing a few philanthropic bones to them. Sometimes they don’t bother. In the wealthiest country ever, the middle class keeps shrinking, its members bloating the numbers of the poor.
Yet, politically, we keep drifting to starboard, impelled by the currents of money, celebrity, ignorance, fear and hatred.
The money comes from Charles and David Koch and their kind. The celebrity may give us a matchup of another Clinton and yet another Bush. The ignorance is a stubborn insistence on denying science and rewriting history. The fear is of change, and the hatred has governed Southern politics, and intermittently, much of the rest of the country’s, for centuries.
These, at least, are the proximate causes, as the lawyers say — the direct and knowable causes, without which an effect does not occur. Something much deeper is at work here, though, something of a systemic and enduring nature that belies the American myth. We tend to think of ourselves as having been born, as a nation, in a spirit of rebellion, and reared on individualism, independence and a suspicion of authority. We behave, however, like obsequious serfs. When the Kochs want to buy another state legislature, they find that it is for sale. When people need to go to the polls and overthrow oligarchic tyranny, they stay home and watch The Voice. Even as the people in tiny, backward South Dakota vote to raise their minimum wage, they elect Mike Rounds to the Senate, whose party opposes the very idea of a minimum wage. In sum, they do what rich people tell them to do, assuming that those people, because they are rich, know what they’re talking about. They do, of course, but only when it comes to making themselves richer yet. It’s maddening. Maddening and sad.
All this is to say that in a republican form of government like ours, we get pretty much exactly what we deserve. What we did to ourselves this week will resonate for some time, perhaps long enough and strongly enough to initiate a pendular movement back to the political left. It’s going to take something strong.
The U.S. Senate is in Republican hands. The sky has not fallen. The republic is imperiled, but perhaps it has a pulse. Nothing of a really significant nature will change soon because of Tuesday’s election results. Republicans have been using control of the House, combined with the filibuster in the Senate, to block major movement. Now President Obama will govern by veto, and the gridlock will continue. The Republicans, having blocked the will of the majority for six years, will now complain that the president is thwarting the will of the majority. A lot of good people have lost their jobs on Capitol Hill, and a lot of mean people are lined up to take those jobs. The Republicans will chair all the committees, and that means they will convene all the hearings and name all the witnesses. So it all gets harder for Democrats, but it is never impossible.
What the votes do mean is that the 2016 elections have become even more critically important for Democrats, and for the future of the country, than it seemed. If a Republican is elected president, and appoints the next two or three members of the Supreme Court, all three branches of government will combine to lunge rightward, and perhaps, then, the voters will have had enough.
Already, every Democrat needs to look at what went wrong, and to contemplate what it will take to undo this heavy damage. Waiting for the country to turn demographically darker, meantime taking the Latino vote for granted, won’t do it. A good place to start the navel-gazing would be the key issue of the campaign, which was President Obama. He’s not very popular just now, so practically all the Democrats behaved as though they’d never heard of him. In Kentucky, Alison Grimes wouldn’t even say whether she had voted for him. Every Democrat in the country needed to say this: I’m a Democrat. Of course I voted for him, as did a substantial majority of the American people, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Let’s examine the record, shall we? Job growth, economic recovery, security and international respect. Yes, I said respect.
Speaking of respect, it’s what you lose when you run away from your own identity. People won’t vote for you after that happens. Even losing is a lot less painful if you do it with integrity.
Sometimes, though, it takes courage to do the right thing, even when it’s the smart thing. Sometimes it takes telling people what they need to know instead of what you think they want to hear. Doing that is what is called leadership.
And that — leadership — is what the country needs in a desperate way. Outside Obama, whose leadership style is subtle and often mistaken for its opposite, the Democrats have lacked much leadership in recent years.
The next leader will need to talk about more than women’s issues. Ask Mark Udall. She (or he) will need to speak in plain, bold language about the real causes of people’s unrest – about how the country has moved to the right for 40 years and practically everything has deteriorated, and about how we can stop the slide. It is not by allowing Republicans, who have controlled the agenda for most of that time, to represent themselves as the party of change.
It’s about money: who has it and why, and what they’re doing with it to poison the political well. It’s about rigging the system, and how to re-rig it. Read a rough sketch of this history here.