Every day brings fresh proof that we elected a president who is a pathological liar, a man so preoccupied with his fragile ego that his primary passion is exacting revenge on anyone he thinks ever slighted him.
While congressional Republicans lack Donald Trump’s dysfunctional personality, most are so fearful of offending his populist base that they choose to humor and kowtow to him rather than stand up — first and foremost — as patriotic Americans. Instead, they cower and equivocate.
For the rest of us, Trump’s political ineptitude helps to slow or even prevent some truly awful public policy outcomes, which is good, so long as Trump doesn’t bluster his way into, say, war with North Korea.
Still, viewed in sum, the political culture and public policy landscape are as bad, maybe worse, than at any moment in the considerable sample size of my baby boomer lifetime.
So, one would think, most everyone nauseated by what Trump is doing to our country would coalesce around a set of principles focused on middle-class opportunity, reasonable safety-net programs, progressive taxation, racial and gender equity, environmental and consumer protections and a foreign policy that reconnects us as an engaged global partner, making us safer in the process. In turn, those connected by such principles would be recruiting candidates and doing other grassroots work.
If you thought that, you’d apparently be wrong.
Two things seem to be happening instead — too much “political hobbyism” and too much Democratic infighting.
Let’s start with the hobbyism, as defined by Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, in a recent New York Times essay.
“Americans who live in relative comfort are emotionally invested in politics, especially after the election, but in a degraded form of politics that caters to the voyeurism of news junkies and the short attention spans of slacktivists,” he writes. “They are engaging in a phenomenon I call ‘political hobbyism.’ They desperately want to do something, but not something that is boring, demanding or slow.”
His point seems to be that plenty of us watch Rachel Maddow, want to share our “take” and watch some Trump surrogate “get destroyed” on air, but are less interested in the heavy lifting of grassroots politics.
Contends Hersh: “The problem is that hobbyism is replacing other forms of participation, like local organizing, supporting party organizations, neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, even voting in midterm elections.”
Such hobbyism connects to the second problem — many on the left are still too busy pointing fingers to unify under any big-tent vision. Better, I gather, to continue to endlessly litigate the apparently existential feud between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
To illustrate, consider the visceral reaction to a recent New York Times op-ed headlined “Back to the Center, Democrats,” co-authored by Mark Penn, a former adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Stein, a former president of the New York City Council.
“Central to the Democrats’ diminishment has been their loss of support among working-class voters, who feel abandoned by the party’s shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures, from trying to restore manufacturing jobs,” they write.
The writers argue that government programs will not attract those estranged voters: “In reality, these voters see themselves as penalized for maintaining the basic values of hard work, religion and family.” And they argue that Democrats “need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility.”
Their analysis drew a fierce backlash from those who define themselves as being on the true left. Charles Pierce, in Esquire, bristled in a point-by-point denunciation and noted that the piece carried an undertone of Bill Clinton versus Barack Obama, with Penn and Stein as repudiated Clinton-era centrists.
“Barack Obama’s presidency doesn’t figure into Penn’s calculations at all,” Pierce writes. “That can’t be an accident. … All of the issues that Penn advises the Democrats avoid also happen to be issues of significant importance to the most reliable Democratic voters of all: African Americans and other minorities, women, and all the combinations thereof.”
Fair point, but here is the thing I don’t get: Why do Democrats have so much trouble getting beyond this either-or approach to positioning?
A recent article in Mother Jones described the Democratic National Committee as “desperate” to get Sanders’ fundraising list, but reported that Sanders’ staffers and consultants scoffed at the request. A former Sanders staffer joked in an email the piece quoted, “Maybe the DNC should turn their list over to Bernie?”
The tension within left-leaning circles was also displayed in a New York Times Magazine essay by writer Nikil Saval asking, “Who wants to be a liberal anymore?” Liberals, he writes, are mocked by those who consider themselves to be part of the true left.
In his telling, “liberal” seems to refer to those who enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton. Those on the real political left, Saval asserts, hate liberals: “For the committed leftist, the ‘liberal’ is a weak-minded, market-friendly centrist, wonky and technocratic and condescending to the working class.”
Conservatives, of course, have long hated liberals. Now, according to Saval, so too do genuine leftists: “When it comes to diagnosing liberalism, both left and right focus on the same set of debilitating traits: arrogance, hypocrisy, pusillanimity. … In other words, the features they use to distinguish liberals aren’t policies so much as attitudes.”
For me, having lived in the political culture of left-leaning Madison for nearly four decades, this self-destructive tension between left-leaning factions is as baffling as it is counterproductive.
Yes, there is much to admire in the uncompromising spirit of an Elizabeth Warren to take on Wall Street and the unbridled influence of big money, to lead the fight for affordable tuition and a higher minimum wage.
At the same time, there are many left-leaning Madisonians — gosh, deride them as “liberals,” I guess — who you might call conscientious capitalists, people who often are among the most philanthropic in the city.
Many are genuinely invested in civil rights and other social issues and give freely of their time and money. And yes, many may be closer to the political center on the extent of wealth redistribution than the Sanders and Warren crowd.
So for that sin, they deserve to be sanctimoniously vilified? As a result, instead of unifying around a vision that should unite Democrats in recruiting candidates and focusing on 2018, the arguments drone on.
And that, inevitably, enables Trump and Republican allies to do more of what he would call “beautiful things” to the country we love.
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