The Democratic National Convention was a Delusion of Unity
C’mon, man! Doesn’t it roll off the tongue and capture this particularly fragmented, brutal, grasping moment? There was something deadening and bleak about the “Uniting America”-themed 2020 Democratic National Convention, a tawdry and empty spectacle featuring impossibly obtuse celebrities chanting, “We the people,” and a bipartisan parade of milquetoast moderates lacquering a moral gloss over America’s monotonous soul death. The Democrats are America’s HR managers and their corny meliorism has become its own suffocating force. The extreme, bizarre cringe of the convention stems from a sort of mandatory vacuity that conceals the Blue Team’s two diametrically opposed political programs: This is a party that asks Blue Cross Blue Shield executives to coexist in a coalition with people whose medical claims are denied by Blue Cross Blue Shield. In this ritual of piousness, the Democrats say they stand for everyone yet inspire no one. It was three days of dim discourse and even dimmer vision, much of it boring propaganda — or as Marianne Williamson aptly tweeted, it was “like binge-watching a Mariott commercial.”
The Democrats, for their part, have spent the last four years centering Trump as a maximally influential figure, noting in tones of either concern or studied awe that this is not who we are and then pivoted to defining and describing the scope and scale of The Possible. In a presidential election that evokes shades of Bush-Kerry, perhaps rerunning the Hillary Clinton playbook of big-tent pablum will unseat a blustering putz who insists on faceplanting almost as a matter of instinct. It seems this cycle, though, will feature scant discussion of how this government is grotesquely detached from the basic needs of its civilians, even and especially during a sprawling and metastatic pandemic. COVID is middle-school gym class and America is the kid whose shorts fell down after lining up at the free-throw line, and everyone laughed at his outy belly button and little ding-dong. Instead, Democalypse 2020 projects to be a sterile, pointless argument over restoring dignity in the White House, or a grueling, grating contest of prodding the average voter to bitch about China or hooting chuds who refuse to wear a mask.
While Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias make a solid case of how and why a hypothetical Joe Biden presidency could usher an era of progressivism in a recent “The Weeds” podcast, he secured the Democratic nomination specifically because he’s a nostalgic narcotic of normalcy — a flawless Proustian reverie of a time when this country wasn’t such a degrading place to live in. In a tragicomic way, both he and Kamala Harris are ideal avatars for the current state of American liberalism: Feckless weenies offering a patina of progress. Biden is a stilted, stammering shell of his former self, unsure of what his values are, let alone of how to fight for them. Harris perfectly encapsulated #resistence impotence in a primary debate last October, when she goaded and agitated Elizabeth Warren to endorse the idea of suspending one @realDonaldTrump from Twitter while the Massachusetts Senator was discussing trust-busting big tech monopolies.
Oscar Wilde once quipped that the U.S. was the only nation to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization. In recent weeks, battalions of federal para-military officers were dispatched to kidnap and gas protestors, unleashed by a bottomly malicious dope flatly flouting democracy. In a cat-handed attempt to disenfranchise tens of millions of mail-in voters, Trump is also working to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service. Add an estimated 390 million circulating firearms, a breakneck financial system, four centuries of unresolved racial strife, and wealth inequality that rivals pre-Revolutionary France, and America looks less like an awful, vicious satire of itself and more like a tinderbox of stochastic neo-fascism. And our main bulwark against this undignified and uninterrupted normality is a doddering, sundowning mess with a rhetorical style of wandering into the wrong house, who pledges to join Nike and Bank of America in tweeting “Black Lives Matter” as he assumes the control levers of the Neoliberal Express.
You’ll often hear Democrats plunge into meticulously hedged and carefully tranched doublespeak about bipartisanship and moderation, so it is unsurprising these played out as the core themes of the 2020 DNCC, where slavish devotion to compromise for its own sake can stand in as a metonym for virtue. The issue here isn’t so much syntactic as it is strategic. These intangible, ambient sentiments are almost exclusively pegged to appeal to a fictitious Philadelphia suburban family that almost certainly will vote for Trump. The thinking here goes, with a visceral enough electoral rebuke, chastened Republicans will magically snap out of their fascist fever dream and transform themselves into a normal center-right party that will agree to the gentlemanly rules of this once-polite binary and influence a Democratic president’s agenda from the margins. Biden touted this fantasy in 2012, and he reiterated it again last year, telling reporters, “With Donald Trump out of the White House … you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
Even casual observers of the perpetually breaking news cycle can comprehend that Trump is engaged in a lunatic assault on American democracy. Any ludicrous notion of a Republican post-election “epiphany” can only be interpreted as pure hubristic dipshittery, a fastened delusion, or a blank, militant incomprehension of this brutal apotheosis. In recent weeks, a prominent QAnon supporter and an alt-right conspiracy theorist who protested her ban from Twitter by chaining herself to the door of its headquarters (while wearing a yellow star and likening herself to a Holocaust victim) both won Republican congressional primaries.
The GOP has collapsed into entropic depravity. From the pebbled remains emerged a revolving doghouse of an administration that’s as petty and criminally doltish as it is latently vicious. Operating in the shadow of a capricious force, Republicans defend the idiotic gratuitousness of a purebred dunce who advocates for the injection of household disinfectants to treat COVID, who flutters ghost-pale eyelids and gleams like a caramel apple as he asserts to Chris Wallace that he can properly identify zoo animals on a cognitive test. They also stood idle during the Trump family’s ethically dubious counteroffensive on behalf of Goya, because of course they did.
The GOP’s vice-grip on white rural America may be strong enough to weather a willfully botched pandemic response that has yielded a hemorrhaging job market and a death total which stands at, as of this writing, roughly 61 9/11s. The MAGA base is a snake pit teeming with intellectually comatose, slavering imbeciles so divorced from reality, they might as well be functionally schizophrenic. Gallup reports Republicans express a morbid excitement for their Dear Leader these days, as Trump holds a 90% approval rating amongst them. His national favorability hovers around 42%. For context, in September 2008, when economic and public-health conditions in the U.S. were relatively peachy, George W. Bush’s popularity sat in the low-30s.
In a best-case-scenario for a Biden presidency, the Democrats will gain a two- or three-seat majority in the Senate come November. In 2009, Barack Obama’s landslide victory produced a supermajority in the upper chamber and the GOP did not feel compelled to moderate. In the aftermath of an election that the Republican standard-bearer has already deemed fraudulent, they have more of an incentive to act more dysfunctional and reactionary under Biden than they were with Obama. Republicans now overtly deal in racism instead of faintly euphemizing it, and their support only hastens.
Democrats harken back to this quaint idyll of compromise, and it remains blandly ubiquitous. These salad days of harmonious dealmaking were only made possible by ideologically incoherent parties, bisected by the vagaries of interest coalitions and broad regional identities. From Reconstruction to the Progressive Era, Democrats emerged as the party of the defeated south and northern ethnic enclaves while Republicans represented Yeoman farmers and the emerging middle class, with burgeoning industrial powers funding both. The Progressive movement emerged around a consensus regarding urgent reforms to quell violent labor unrest and alleviate untenable Gilded Age inequities. Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the Progressive Era as a Republican, handing it off to William Howard Taft, then Woodrow Wilson as a Democrat.
The New Deal and the Civil Rights Act marked two 20th-century crisis points that were addressed with two distinct types of compromise: intra-party and inter-party. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats swarmed the federal government on the back of Herbert Hoover’s failure to handle the Great Depression. Party bosses in the South were hostile to both racial equality and organized labor, so while the New Deal was an inter-party negotiation, it was never zero-sum because the Democrats held overwhelming control of two branches. The Civil Rights movement marked a decade-long coordinated effort to defy authority to seek racial justice, and while it overwhelmed the population, southern Democrats almost exclusively wielded the filibuster to block legislation. Inter-party compromise smothered southern intransigence, as northern liberal Democrats and northern liberal Republicans found common cause through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
This is the first period of ideologically coherent parties in American history. The first inkling of this modern sorting began in 1964 when the Solid South broke for Barry Goldwater. Dixiecrats continued their mass exodus during Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and this shift finally filtered down to Congress during the Republican Revolution of 1994. The closest either party had to an ideological backbone prior to Civil Rights was a labor-backed New Deal coalition that remained mostly intact through the 1970s. The Reagan Revolution ushered in a paradigm of declining union power, and the Democrats abandoned their economic raison d’etat, instead hyperfocusing on a vague commitment to cultural liberalism. The Republicans, meanwhile, coalesced into a terminal freak show of big-business cronies, demented televangelists, and imperialist bomb-humpers lording over an increasingly deranged base of herrenvolk populists and QAnon cranks.
In this dynamic, meaningful, cross-party compromise is impossible, and the first person to fully understand this was a dark, monstrous madman named Mitch motherfucking McConnell. As expressed in The Federalist Papers: №10, the Constitution was specifically designed to function without rigid factions.
The Republicans were routed in 2008 as a repudiation of George W. Bush’s mismanagement of a horrifying war in Iraq, a blimp wreck of an economy, and the destruction of a major American city. Conventional political wisdom at the time suggested the out-of-power party can absorb public goodwill by reaching across the aisle. McConnell realized there are zero rational reasons to give Obama a win on anything in an era of polarization because voters will associate any success with the Democrats, and will blame a floundering president for failing to revitalize a flagging economy. He figured that a party that is unified, disciplined, and singularly opposed to its stated enemy can leverage the veto points baked into the legislative system to prevent anything from passing and, thus, soil the reputation of the party in power. His stated priority was making Obama a one-term president. When a global financial meltdown liquated the U.S. economy and required clear and commensurate assistance from the federal government, Republicans swaggered through the post-Recession epoch with voluntary austerities and institutional cynicisms, all while stigmatizing their obstructionist schemes as rank political perfidy.
This strategy is brutish and head-smackingly unsophisticated, but it is astoundingly effective at deflecting attention and blame for things that are the Republicans’ fault. Against all odds, McConnell was proven right. He would always have an advantage over people determined to prove things work because it’s much easier to simply make things not work if the only outcome you care about is electoral. To the average voter, the day-to-day mechanisms of governance recede into the wallpaper. Thanks, Obama swelled beyond a sardonic meme and morphed into a rallying cry for a nascent Tea Party movement that would resuscitate a presumably dead GOP back into national relevance. In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Democrats were wiped out by the nation’s most mentally ill jetski dealers.
Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institute senior fellow, writes in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:
“Today’s Republican Party…is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government. The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of the government’s role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties. This asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for ‘balance,’ constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.”
This stupendously bad-faith adversary has only grown more perverse and proudly signals every day that it is not interested in cooperation, so the Democrats took the kludgy, insufficient, better-than-nothing half-measures that formerly resulted from dealing with these pathological saboteurs and began negotiating with themselves. As Republicans careen wild-eyed and seething from one catastrophe to another, Democrats trail behind with feigned probity and polite concerns — which don’t quite rise to the level of being a counterargument — while strategically gaming the outcomes within the denser stretches of appropriations bills. When they go low, we go high, libs often say, even if it results in perpetual drubbings. I’d argue principled defeat is about as useful as a presidential endorsement from Hillary Clinton or the New York Times.
There are many interconnected reasons why America is drifting toward Jim Crow techno-feudalism, but chief among them is the Democratic Party’s long-term inability or institutional unwillingness to treat the Republican Party as a gangrenous force that must be defeated, instead of negotiated with. The average blue team normie is tangled up in lanyard notions of having a strategy to Reach Across The Aisle and conjuring wonkish policies to administer something vaguely resembling the status quo. It’s all irrelevant pundit-brain gibberish that fails to grasp the incentives of the parties in power and the special interests that fund them. Congress hasn’t regulated Wall Street or Amazon because there haven’t been enough tedious plans to do so — it’s because lobbyists control the legislative process.
The insistence on drab unity, cynical tokenism, bureaucratic overhang, extra red tape, and means-testing speaks to something much worse than the garish shortcomings of bloodless technocracy. It suggests a decadent and fundamental misunderstanding of what politics is for. Obama included Big Pharma and health insurance as stakeholders in the Affordable Care Act because of his principled dedication to crafting A Deal Everyone Could Live With instead of one that would help the maximum number of people. It was almost slaughtered for both political and ideological reasons, despite it forcing millions of Americans into a marketplace of government-subsidized boondoggles.
Power stems from an aggressive, strong, clear platform that inspires and mobilizes. Republicans understand this, and they’re striking at something fundamental about American liberalism. Democrats operate in their own distinct habitat with this reflexive Enlightenment pattern of thinking: A values-neutral view of governance that elevates and exalts process over outcomes. It is the barest filigree of guiding principles that presupposes that a fair set of rules will divine ideal outcomes from a cacophony of competing and even mutually exclusive interests. This is both a highly flawed and highly exploitable philosophy.
The Republicans are bilious adversaries dealing in transactional realpolitik power-brokering. McConnell refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for 293 days based on an obscurantist reading of the “Biden Rule” that he was making up as he went along; the Senate majority leader unsurprisingly flipped on that purported justification last year, saying he’d fill a hypothetical vacant seat during a re-election year for Trump. Republicans fetishized balanced budgets under Obama — former House Speaker Paul Ryan even dazzled with talismanic debt charts — then were as fiscally responsible as crackheads under Trump, passing a $1.5 trillion deficit-inducing tax cut for the ultra-wealthy, which mostly resulted in stock buybacks.
Taken one shabby scam or crude grift at a time, Republicans are just another band of hypocritical bastards rotating in and out of public office who spew the same dumb talking points over and over again. But when you filter their scummy grim aspirations from their professional-grade smarm, it is axiomatic that their M.O. is nothing more than gaining and wielding power. The uninspiring, mundane reality is that there is no stirring vision of conservative national greatness or even ends-justify-the-means rationales for their decades-long project to entrench their disproportionate minority rule. They mostly want abortions banned and immigrants catapulted into Mexico and to be the errand boys of an errant plutocracy that masks its dull, atavistic greed with enough media static and ideological fuzz to pass it off as a coherent worldview.
In this sense, Donald Trump’s brazen disregard for nuance and subtext is useful. His driveling horseshit is an unwittingly frank exposure of what lies beneath conservative fusillades of corny dross and barely subtle dog-whistles. Republicans have no core, and their horse-trading is all part of the disheartening Citizens United age of politics. But they will do anything to win at all costs, no matter how shameless or debased — almost out of sheer ulcerating venality and grandiose spite.
Our Constitution produces a static system addled with norms, fixed positions, and predictable guidelines under normal circumstances. If opposing, ideologically distinct parties control different branches of government — as was the case with the Obama administration — federal politics marshals into a malignant parade of high-stakes procedural confrontation, pointless artificial cliffs, budgeting-by-extortion, feckless filibusters, pompous inertia, and obstructionist absolutism. If one faction controls all three branches, the checks and balances short-circuit, and any sort of meaningful executive oversight slow-rolls into an implacable death march.
The abject submissiveness and singular nihilism of elected Republicans dissolved all the buffers that were supposed to prevent a manifestly corrupt oaf from getting away with JV avarice and cheesy grift without any kind of reckoning. Perhaps this was most poignant after Trump’s overt shady deal-smithing with Ukraine and its consequential sham impeachment. The Mad King lurches in lockstep with the disgusting minions who control the other levers of government, so Republican Senators determined it was in their best interest to absolve the president and do nothing about the warping effects of all this compounding unaccountability.
The usual Pelosi-approved tactics are terrifyingly insufficient when they’re deployed in response to run-of-the-mill Beltway gridlock; they are ghoulish in the most contemporary of ways in light of a cascading sequence of unimaginable and preventable suffering. America is in dire need of a society-altering public works program to lift itself out of this fatalist loggerhead. Such a massive investment is impossible within the narrow apertures of piecemeal reform and dealmaking with scheming, pernicious reprobates. If Biden wins and the Democrats eke out a narrow Senate majority, they will need to abolish the filibuster, expand the electorate, and govern in a norm-defyingly partisan fashion. Otherwise, they’ll preside over the fallout of a historic clusterfuck that’s exposed every fault line in our fractured, brittle country: surging homelessness, mass unemployment, skyrocketing inequality, and militarized police rampaging with unchecked racial violence.
Undoubtedly, electing Bernie Sanders was the moonshot strategy to force our country to undertake some tragically belated changes, as he sought a novel approach of mobilizing a mass labor movement through the presidency. Its success wasn’t guaranteed, but it’s the only method at public disposal that might accomplish any broad progressive vision. The only existing alternatives include shaming Trump for mocking a disabled reporter, some lukewarm sloganeering, and a bipartisan push to torch Social Security. At least Bernie’s failures held the most potential to revitalize labor and spark widespread disenchantment with our decaying political and economic institutions.
During the primary, there was a legitimate argument to be made that, given the constraints of the Congress/K Street sausage maker, the legislative achievements of a Sanders and a Warren administration would’ve looked fairly similar. (Although Matt Yglesias has documented Bernie’s legislative effectiveness despite his “ideological purity.”)
Their differences, however, lie in their conceptions of power and their theories of change. Warren is a regulator at heart; she is of the West Wing ilk of Democrat who still believes members of Congress might forego their donors and instincts of self-perpetuation to join a kumbaya because they read a scathing New York Times op-ed. Bernie understood that a party can only enact meaningful change if it secures supermajority control over all three branches of government across multiple elections via a clear mandate. This can only happen through an unprecedented level of voter engagement confronting our sclerotic political structures, inspired by a bold agenda centering class consciousness and social justice.
This latest primary has proven to me that in many critical areas, liberals can be as big of hapless rubes as conservatives. Amiable plodders lost in a swirling MSNBC-NYT-WaPo-DNC hivemind where preemptive surrender has become cancerously entangled with “pragmatism.” There’s a rich shibboleth of learned helplessness informing the Democrat’s long list of semantic self-deceptions. Four years into the Pussy Grabber Administration and blue voters still fret about overwrought abstractions like “electability.” The idea of Joe Biden eclipses his squalid realities.
With a disproportionately Republican Senate, every other gargoyle vying for the Democratic nomination would’ve also seen their administrations reduced to a disgusting dance macabre across a dying landscape of mini-malls. Instead of Medicare-for-All, for example, a Buttigieg or Klobuchar presidency would’ve produced a mediocre, half-hearted, esoteric, deeply alienating public option that would’ve faced tough political sledding through a Congress bought and owned by the health insurance industry. Even if passed, it would’ve faced a familiar vicious Republican backlash that would subsequently dismantle and undermine it, as they did with Obamacare. Private insurance, like a badger, is a beast that fights best on its back, rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws. It does the ripping and the tearing when its ability to dictate and exploit the market is under existential threat. This is true of every festering special interest.
Reimagining governance as a series of clever nudges and customer services and subtle tax credits is a great way to lose elections and a strikingly ineffective way to govern in the best of times and in the most stable of circumstances. The sheer, abject ineptitude of the federal government during this pandemic has been deeply bizarre to observe — insufficient, ignominious, chaotic, grudging, and multiply overwhelmed in its response to vulnerable people and small businesses, but queasily servile to Fortune 500 companies and huffy, vinegary billionaires. Metaphors and analogies fail daily. The winnowing horror of a raving carnival barker most people wouldn’t even trust to babysit their teenage daughter, who’d rather opt into a holocaust than do the requisite work of confronting a multi-front crisis. Lurching over lecterns, buzzing with resentment, peddling obvious hokum through sheer force of primal will. Posing for gauche photo-ops against a backdrop of tear gas, holding up a Bible like an auction paddle. A sitting president who struggles to grasp the gravity of this all-devouring moment, let alone a glass of water.
The options, come November, will be the inadequacy of woke finance capitalism or the active homicidal insanity of Donald Trump. “This is a painful choice, one that shows how debased the country has become,” Nathan Robinson writes. “But it is not a difficult choice.” This election is the Chancellorsville of an endless cold civil war between boomers who think the ’60s went too far and boomers who think the ’60s went far enough. By dint of this lame ennui, voting for Biden is the dreadful no-brainer. But my growing apprehension of his presidency lies in its resemblance of the Obama years, only accelerated: Four years of proposed half-measure inadequacies to fix an obviously broken society, only to be ousted by the 2024 Republican nominee, which at this rate, projects to be the Hamburgler in an SS uniform. Though it seems as if Biden campaign and the Democrats are prematurely doing the Hillary “mid-debate shimmy,” even as the GOP is registering voters faster than the Democrats and Trump’s campaign out-fundraised Biden in July, is knocking a million doors a week, and has twice as much staff as Biden.
One thing I’ve learned as an American is to never underestimate the level of sadism, stupidity, and sociopathy that exists within the bloodthirsty Mr. Hyde iteration of conservatism. Trump relates to a solid one-third of the population because he’s the Diceman doing David Duke, drifting into freewheeling rants about anxious and amorphous grievances and an impossible Pharaonic wall project, rattling off scary tales about rape-happy Mexicans along the way. The Orange One’s noggin is a denuded mush of malignant narcissism and paranoid fantasies; MAGA simps wanly ape his scatterbrained hyperaggression because they, like their leader, have the general demeanor of someone who was dumped at prom and never got over it. Two decades of steepening precarity and endless war and gummed-up political dysfunction created the conditions for Trump’s uniquely cynical and credulous worldview to morph into a quasi-mandate that has torpedoed America into a global laughing stock.
I don’t trust nor expect Biden to follow through on many of his “progressive” promises, but I hope my on-the-fly prognostications are wrong. The main project for the left is to help elect this fizzling klutz (and down-ballot progressives!) and build independent sources of political power like the DSA, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, labor unions, and media organizations that can influence a jabbering dupe who’s more transactional than ideological. More crucially, if America continues to stumble through a post-COVID, post-George-Floyd apocalypse, the failures of Biden will highlight the failures of liberal centrism and capitalism more broadly. The recurring psychosis of a re-elected and emboldened Trump will instantly metabolize into the ongoing monomaniacal focus on him as this singular, gnostic archon of evil.
Every American is arrested in a state of doublethink, living in and envisioning two Americas superimposed on one another — the one it is and the one it was supposed to be. It seems, in this brief moment, as if no one knows what to do or what happens next, which is frightening, but also exhilarating. Notions of utopia hum across the public sphere. Millions of Americans are waking into the disillusion with the neoliberal framework, questioning its efficacy in solving the more urgent and vexing issues of our time. We still have free will to the degree that, even if we can’t fully comprehend our surroundings, we still have the responsibility to ourselves and each other to pull this nation away from a lurking neo-fascist suckhole and into a more egalitarian future. And even if we can’t, a life spent in the pursuit of this virtue will be a more rewarding and meaningful life than one that acknowledges this reality and accommodates itself to it.
With all this said, get in losers — we’re ridin’ with Biden.