Today in Terrible Columns
Bret Stephens' piece this week adds up to not much.
Bret Stephens’ column in the NYT asks the follows question in its title: Why Aren’t Democrats Walking Away With the Midterms?
My immediate reaction is: all probabilities indicate that the Democrats will win the House and fail to win the Senate. Indeed, the likelihood is a very good night for them in the House, but the Senate was always likely a bridge too far given the exigencies of how Senate elections go (i.e., only one third at a time, and this particular third is not favorable to Democrats, even in this environment). Any journalistic discussion of the two chambers that treats their electoral conditions as equivalent is pure laziness (at best). It is also true that the Democrats are looking good to gain governorships, which would also be part of the broader context of “the midterms.”
And, of course, it is impossible to know who is, or is not, “walking away” with anything until the votes are cast and counted. Really, all indications are the Democrats will be the overall winners on Tuesday, and I say that knowing that there is still a health probability that this will not be the case. If there is a 90% chance of rain, and it doesn’t rain, that does not mean that the prediction was wrong necessarily. Sure the model might be flawed, but a 10% chance of something happening is still a non-zero chance (and, indeed, not a crazy out-of-our-experience chance). There is only a 1 and 10 chance of rolling a “10” on a 10-sided die, yet it happens with regularity (you know, 10% of the time….). Sure a forecast model or a poling process can be flawed and produces incorrect results. Or it could be that the lower-probability outcome happened. There is a much higher probability of a strike than a hit on a given pitch in baseball, and yet hits happen all the time.
Stephens’ title-writer is not the main thing about this column that struck me, however, it was the overall non-argument that Stephens makes in the piece. The column has this solemn, thinking-man’s columnist vibe to it (that Stephens often deploys) but there is ultimately a criticism without substance that I find frustrating. It is weird piece in which he actually describes one of Trump’s policy suggests as “fascistic” (the idea of sending troop to the border), but somehow the villain of the piece are all those pesky liberals.
The night Donald Trump was elected was supposed to be, for most liberals and a few conservatives, the beginning of the end of the world. The economy would surely implode. The U.S. would probably blunder into a catastrophic war. The new American president would be blackmailed into conducting foreign policy as Putin’s poodle.
None of that has happened — not yet, at any rate.
Yes, there was a lot of hysteria when Trump won. Much of which was overwrought. I remember tweeting out the Mexican pesos’ free fall on news of his election and was concerned that his policies would create such levels of international uncertainty that global markets would react negatively. I was wrong about that, I will readily admit. Although, his long-term policies approaches to the prevailing global economic order still have the likelihood of long-term damage. His tariff policy alone will have serious consequences. The problem is that this damage is not immediately obvious. Indeed, others may reap the blame of the seeds he is currently sowing.
I, for one, never thought he was likely to start a war (at least no moreso than your average president), although his rhetoric and simplistic worldview worried me to some degree.
I would disagree to a substantial amount with Stephens vis-a-vis Putin. While it is true that the US government has engaged in a number of anti-Russian policies, we cannot dismiss the degree to which Trump’s behavior has created serious trouble with our allies (especially the EU, NATO, and the G7–which all overlap, of course) in ways that clearly benefit Putin’s goals. Further, the degree to which Trump’s very existence (and his approval of authoritarians the world over) helps Putin’s own domestic critique of democracy is clearly a huge benefit to Moscow.
The main bulk of the piece is pointing out that Trump is successfully exploiting the caravan to his political ends, and that the Democrats have been unsuccessful in countering him. I will agree with this assessment, although I am left at a loss as to what Stephens himself thinks the solution is.
several thousand people are pushing their way to the U.S. border with the idea that they will find a way to push their way through it. If they do, tens or even hundreds of thousands more will surely follow. It’s perfectly reasonable for fair-minded voters to wonder how the U.S. will vet and then absorb even a fraction of them (though I think we easily can), and what doing so will mean for our wider immigration system.
To which the Democratic response is — what, exactly?
If it’s “compassion,” it’s a non-answer. If it’s to abolish ICE, it’s a dereliction of responsibility for governance. If it’s to open the border, it is an honest form of political suicide. If it’s more trade and foreign aid for Central America, that’s a solution for the too-long term.
The truth is that there is no easy fix to the challenge of the caravan, which is why Trump was so clever to make the issue his own and Democrats have been so remiss in letting him have it. The secret of Trump’s politics is to mix fear and confidence — the threat of disaster and the promise of protection — like salt and sugar, simultaneously stimulating and satisfying an insatiable appetite. It’s how all demagogues work.
In an abstract sense, yes, the Democrats have done a terrible job at responding to Trump’s caravan demagoguery insofar as it is nearly impossible to counter visceral, racialized fear with real policy solutions. The border issue remains complicated. Even explaining the reality of the caravan is a complicated thing (heck, I don’t think most people even know where they are, how long it will take them to reach the border, nor what the likely actual numbers will be at that time, let alone the number that will then actually cross into the US). And if explaining the reality of the problem is hard, explaining adequate policy solutions is several quanta harder.
Without providing any notion of how to combat Trump’s demagoguery over the caravan, he shifts to:
I have written previously that the real threat of the Trump presidency isn’t economic or political catastrophe. It’s moral and institutional corrosion — the debasement of our discourse and the fracturing of our civic bonds. Democrats should be walking away with the midterms. That they are not is because they have consistently underestimated the president’s political gifts, while missing the deeper threat his presidency represents.
By the way, I think this is the position that most critics of the president take. The underlying concern are things like his norm-breaking, his barely disguised white nationalism, his penchants for preferring dictators or democrats, and so forth. If we were just having arguments over economic and political issues, life would be far less stressful.
This also brings me back to “Democrats should be walking away with the midterms”–what does that mean? The Senate is almost out of reach for the Democrats for reasons noted above (when scenarios of taking the chamber include Dems winning in Texas and/or Mississippi then you are are talking about long-shot scenarios). Even in years in which conditions are favorable for Democrats in the House, most seats are not competitive, and Republicans have a built-in structural advantage in which the Democrats need to win the popular vote nationally by somewhere around 7%+ to win the chamber. We do not talk about these conditions enough in the national discussion. It is not sour grapes or some partisan position to continually point this out. If we were talking a football game here, the Reps would be starting each game against the Dems with a few points on the board before the game started.
There’s a lesson here worth heeding. Our economic GDP may be booming, but our moral GDP is in recession. The tragedy of Pittsburgh illustrates, among other things, that the president cannot unite us, even in our grief. Whatever happens on Tuesday, Democrats will only win in 2020 if they find a candidate who can.
Speaking as someone who writes as part of their profession (and as someone who wrote newspaper columns for state papers on a semi-regular basis for a while a few years ago) that is the conclusion by someone who needed to conclude a column. I am not even sure it makes full sense. Despite hundreds of words of criticism, I see no real solution offered. I recognize that an easy solution is not in the offing. But the problem is that his diagnosis misses the mark: while, yes, Dems can and should be criticized (as all parties should be), the main problems are a combination of structural conditions, the media environment, and Trump voters.
We are in a real national quandary here, and it is that a large number (but a numeric minority) of voters are willing to either embrace or ignore demagoguery. There is a clear market for fear out there that laps up the xenophobia and the nationalism. That group is in coalition with (and overlaps with) a large number of otherwise run-of-the-mill Republican voters who are in denial or simply don’t understand what Trump is doing. There are plenty of well-meaning people who just see the rallies and the tweets as noise. Those voters are the truly pivotal ones, but they are likely not amendable to Democratic persuasion because they will inevitably see a vote for a Democrat as a vote for higher taxes and abortion. (I would note, that is not irrational from a political point of view, nor does it mean that they are on board with the craziness of Trump’s xenophobic behavior, even if does mean that they are, in my opinion, playing with fire).
Columns like this one are of a genre that first blames Democrats for Trump, and is further a sub-genre of conservative never-Trumpers who want to hand wring rather than fully note that the problem is not just Trump, nor just the inability of the Democrats to respond to Trump, but that the problem is Republican voters combined with a flawed system that gives one party a consistently shortened field to play on. To pretend like the fight is fully even is to miss a major component of our currently political reality. I would be more sanguine that Democratic fine-tuning of their rhetoric would solve the problem if we have a truly fair and competitive electoral system. I would again refer readers to a piece I wrote a few weeks ago: Rural v. Urban Representation and the Quality of Democracy (and I didn’t even talk in that piece about gerrymandering nor systematic attempts in number of states to make voting more difficult).
To sum up:
- Could Democrats do better? Well, sure. “Better” is always possible. I am not entirely sure what “better” looks like, however. I do hope that whomever runs in 2020 does a good job of underscoring Trump’s failings (so, I agree with Stephens there). I still have no clue what the appropriate counter-attack is to lies and demagoguery is supposed to be save the truth (but the truth is not sexy, sadly).
- Put another way: if the thesis of your column is “Democrats need to do better on X” then come up with a suggestion for what that might look like.
- The rules are stacked in one party’s favor. We need to understand this better than we do.
- The “libs” aren’t responsible for Trump. Trump and his voters (and the system) are.
- I will say this: the media has to do a better job than falling into constant “bothersiderism”/sensationalism of the day. It plays into Trump’s hands–although I fear a more honest press will not ameliorate the situation as much as it will drive trumpistas more to right-wing pseudo news.