Before he made it big with movies like “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick directed one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time: 1957’s “Paths of Glory.” This is a film that cannot be ruined by spoilers, but I will nonetheless warn readers that the next paragraph will reveal the major plot point.
During World War I, a French general feels personally humiliated when he loses a major battle, after his troops cannot leave the trenches under heavy fire. He is so incensed that he first tries (unsuccessfully) to turn his artillery on his own troops. After the battle, he insists that his soldiers be shot en masse for cowardice. A superior officer notices that this is a bad idea, but he nonetheless tries to appease his friend’s ego by putting three randomly chosen line soldiers on trial for treason and inevitable execution. Fewer men die for the “greater good” of setting an example, but the more humane solution is in some ways more monstrous for the utter insanity of the entire scheme. Kirk Douglas’s character, representing the doomed men in the court-martial, begins his summation aptly: “Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.”
If nothing else, I hope that this column might inspire some readers to watch “Paths of Glory.” That alone will have been worth it. Even so, I bring it up here because we have a new situation in which a supposedly superior solution involves throwing powerless people to the wolves, simply for other people’s benefit. I confess here that the stakes might not look as extreme as they did in Kubrick’s little-known classic, but I trust that the moral analogy will be clear.
Will the U.S. Constitutional System Survive after 2022 or 2024?
Here on Verdict three months ago, in “Dead Democracy Walking,” I argued that this country’s political system is already beyond the point of no return. Although we still can reasonably expect that there will be what look like normal elections in the future, Republicans nationwide have already changed the rules so shamelessly that they have guaranteed that they will soon retake and forever hold onto the House and Senate. And they have further guaranteed in any number of ways that their party’s presidential nominee will be declared the winner in 2024, no matter the people’s will.
Nothing that has happened in the time since that column was published has changed my assessment. The American constitutional system has not yet slumped into a lifeless heap on the floor, but it is only a matter of time. If anything, it has become even more obvious how badly broken the system is, with an orgy of extreme gerrymandering underway in the states—where Democrats are, understandably, refusing to unilaterally disarm in the states that they control, even though they would gladly give up their gerrymanders if Republicans would do the same.
Meanwhile, voter suppression continues apace, with Republicans continuing to disenfranchise young and minority voters, all the while putting in place apparatchiks who will turn vote counting and certification into fully partisan exercises. Senator Joe Manchin found exactly zero Republican senators willing to support his stripped-down voting rights bill, yet he continues to refuse to alter the filibuster to clear the way for a last-ditch effort to save free and fair elections in this country. And honestly, even that would almost certainly not have been enough to undo what Republicans have so energetically and effectively done, especially in the last ten months.
And what are national Democrats doing while all of this is happening? Only a month after Donald Trump’s shocking Electoral College win in 2016, in “The Democrats Now Have One, and Only One, Priority,” I argued that “they have to restore voting rights in every way possible. Everything else is just a distraction on the way to oblivion.” The party’s successes in 2018 and 2020 showed that being overwhelmingly more popular was still barely enough to retake power under the rules as they then existed, but 2021’s Republican gambits have taken even those possibilities off the table for the future.
Yet the White House and its allies act as if restoration of voting rights is merely one among many issues that people might want to work on. The Biden administration certainly has not roused itself to take voter suppression seriously.
To a certain degree, Democrats are faced with an impossible choice, bordering on a paradox. They have to pretend that we are not in fact a dead democracy walking, even though we are. Being honest about the stakes risks sounding alarmist, so Democrats have to pretend that these are merely normal elections. Treating them as normal, however, allows the press and the public to act as if we are not facing the ultimate catastrophe, which allows everyone to lapse back into bad habits and apathy.
Democrats must obviously keep fighting, if only to cover the possibility that my analysis is too pessimistic (or at least premature). If Democrats spend the next year saying, “Professor Buchanan is right that it’s almost certainly already too late, but vote for us anyway,” that is hardly a winning strategy. Voters must be energized, and nothing saps electoral energy as badly as sounding like a victim and a loser.
One might also argue that Democrats need to minimize their losses to position themselves for the future. What we have seen over and over again, however, is that Republicans will use any power they seize to lock down power permanently. There is a reason, after all, that presidential swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have competitive statewide elections even as their statehouses are gerrymandered into permanent Republican legislative majorities representing a minority of the voters. Give Mitch McConnell even a one-vote edge, and nothing good for Democrats will ever happen again in the U.S. Senate.
Again, however, Democrats are right to fight to the bitter end, even though they know or should know that the end is nigh. Certainly, they would not want President Biden to face veto-proof majorities in both houses during his final two years in office.
But Wait, Aren’t the Democrats Going to Lose Anyway?
In a moment of deep pessimism, my Verdict colleague Michael Dorf commented on the Democrats’ losses in the recent Virginia off-year elections by tweeting: “My ‘optimistic’ take on the election results: If current trends continue, Republicans will win back Congress in ’22 & prez in ’24 w/o needing to lie about and override the vote. We will have awful policy, including voter suppression, but some semblance of democracy could survive.”
I respectfully disagree. It will not matter whether Republicans need to lie, override the vote, or anything else. Once back in power—whether or not Donald Trump is around to occupy the Oval Office when the time comes—this is a party that has been learning the lessons of 2020. They long ago decided that they did not want to change their views to appeal to more voters, leaving themselves with an increasingly unpopular platform that requires desperate measures on their part to make sure that they remain in power, no matter what voters want.
Even so, Professor Dorf is right that it will look better for Republicans if they can seem to be winning by being more popular than Democrats. Genuinely concerned commentators like late-night host Seth Meyers gamely say that “[i]f Democrats don’t give voters a reason to keep electing Democrats,” voters will turn to Republicans in disgust. And up to a point, that is true.
The problem is that the press is so desperately committed to acting as if everything is normal that they pile on in ridiculous ways, naively repeating every Republican talking point. On the policy side, the relatively mild uptick in inflation in the last few months is called a “spike,” or “historic,” and reporters badger the Biden administration about how they are going to solve a problem that no president has the power to solve. On the purely political side, the coverage of the Virginia and New Jersey elections—even on CNN and MSNBC—completely misrepresented what was happening, with one talking head after another calling disappointing-but-mixed results a “bloodbath,” “Armageddon,” and similarly insane exaggerations.
And that narrative sticks to Democrats. When Democrats lose next year, there will inevitably be an outpouring of insider commentary explaining the results as the inevitable consequence of … take your pick … bad candidates, bad messaging, bad slogans, bad breath. And even if the pandemic has abated by then, accompanied by an uptick in the economy, the storylines will talk about how Democrats blew it by taking too long to do X or Y.
All of this guarantees that people will not even admit it when we lose our democracy. They will say that the Democrats failed and that the voters rejected them, so Republicans are legitimately back in power. That is not to say that the voters might not have put Republicans back in power in 2022 or 2024 anyway. Midterm routs happen, even in relatively less-rigged elections. The problem is that emphasizing transitory issues will make it even easier for people to say that the Democrats brought it on themselves. No matter how true that might be, what matters is that they will never have the chance to win again.
NeverTrumpers to the Rescue?
Some politicians and commentators, however, do seem to have noticed that we are facing an extinction event for American constitutional democracy. In a perfect world, true conservative patriots would say something like this: “I normally would not support Democrats, and I generally have fun gaining partisan advantage by blaming them for things that are beyond their control; but right now, they are the only non-authoritarian game in town. No matter what else one might think, Democrats have to win in 2022 and 2024 and then set up a truly honest and trustworthy electoral system, so that we can all get back to sniping at each other about tax policy or containing Iran.”
And indeed, some lifelong Republicans have obviously had moments of clarity that have changed their attitudes about politics. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, for example, now emphatically argues that her former party is beyond redemption. For example, one of her recent columns was headlined: “Dissident Republicans must leave the GOP unless they want to enable it.” Other longtime conservatives are joining with liberals in sounding the alarm.
Beyond the punditocracy, some Republican politicians have been making the right noises as well. About a month ago, The New York Times’s op-ed page featured a column co-authored by Miles Taylor, a famously dissident former Trump administration official, and former New Jersey Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman. They argued: “Rational Republicans are losing the party civil war. And the only near-term way to battle pro-Trump extremists is for all of us to team up on key races and overarching political goals with our longtime political opponents: the Democrats.”
After reading that column, I made a note of a possible title for my next Verdict column: “Some Conservatives Say That Democracy Matters More Than Party or Ideology, But Do They Honestly Mean It?” My skepticism was driven by the repeated reference in the Taylor/Whitman article to their commitment to supporting so-called centrist or moderate Democrats.
The problem is not merely that those words—centrist and moderate—have no real content other than “significantly to the right of whatever Democrats favor, no matter how far to the right Democrats are willing to move in order to gain compromise.” That is undoubtedly a problem, one that causes even smart commentators from outside the U.S. to sing the praises of moderates for the sake of moderation (I’m sorry: to “humanise and demystify their parties for opposition voters”), even going so far as to buy into the absurd conventional wisdom that Maine Senator Susan Collins deserves to be called a moderate. After years of being a Laffer Curve-believing, Trump-excusing, abortion rights sellout, somehow Collins still coasts on her unearned reputation for being a centrist.
The Taylor/Whitman problem, however, is actually worse than merely lauding something that has no coherent meaning. They correctly diagnose the problem: the country is threatened by a radical, anti-rule of law party. Their solution should be to favor anyone else. But do they?
[I]n Pennsylvania, … a bevy of pro-Trump candidates are vying to replace the departing Republican senator, Pat Toomey. The only prominent moderate in the primary, Craig Snyder, recently bowed out, and if no one takes his place, it will increase the urgency for Republican voters to stand behind a Democrat, such as Representative Conor Lamb, a centrist who is running for the seat.”
And what will they do if Lamb is not the Democrats’ choice? They do not say, but the implication is rather clear that they would not bother supporting someone less to their liking. If that is what they mean, then they are frankly full of it. They call on Democrats “to throw their lot in with a center-right candidate,” which is exactly what many progressives do all the time—for example in 2020, by getting behind Joe Biden’s uninspiring primary campaign.
The question is: What will happen if, say, the Pennsylvania Senate race next year is between a genuine progressive Democrat and a Trumpist Republican? Will Taylor, Whitman, and their crowd say: “Well, we warned Democrats not to do this. That’s on them!” Or will they say: “We normally would not support someone who is the second coming of Elizabeth Warren, but better that than the second coming of Ted Cruz”? At the very least, they leave that rather important question unanswered (indeed, unasked).
One of the few conservatives who has been most straightforward about supporting all Democrats in future elections is Post columnist Max Boot. Accordingly, in a column earlier this week, Boot warned: “I am terrified that Democrats will lose in 2022 and 2024—and that as a result we could lose our democracy.”
He truly seemed to get it. I do not even begrudge his claim that Democrats might lose on the issues, as he argued (wrongly, but backed up by a famous economist) that inflation is Biden’s fault. That is annoying, but it is not a big deal in this context. And I certainly agree with him that Covid’s continued existence—caused mostly by Republicans having politicized vaccines and masks—could perversely harm Democrats in the next election.
Where I seethed with anger, however, was when Boot lazily repeated the emerging conventional wisdom that Democrats are too “woke” for normal people to support. Leave aside that so-called wokeness is yet another term that has no meaning other than “more liberal than I like, so I’ll assume that it’s driving Democrats’ low poll numbers, because all voters agree with me.” That is, as I said, lazy; but it is not outrageous.
What is outrageous is this:
Biden needs a “Sister Souljah moment”: He needs to attack the far-left activists who want to defund the police, boycott Israel and divide Americans by race. He could start by criticizing what liberal columnist Jonathan Chait describes as the “kooky, harmful, and outright racist ideas” peddled by “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo. Biden should champion liberalism, not leftism.
For those readers who forgot or are too young to remember, Boot is describing a shameful moment in Bill Clinton’s first campaign for President, when he famously picked a fight with a Black woman whom he could use as a stand-in for Those People. Sister Souljah was a relatively minor pop-culture figure, but she was a convenient sacrifice to the gods of so-called moderation. Clinton, who also made a very big deal about presiding as governor of Arkansas over the execution of a Black man with extreme brain damage, wanted to prove that he was not a real Democrat. He was a New Democrat, and therefore “safe.’
I do not know Robin DiAngelo. I do know Jonathan Chait’s work well enough to doubt that DiAngelo is kooky, harmful, or racist. At least, I am not willing to take Chait’s word for it. The point, however, is that in Boot’s strategic vision, it simply does not matter what DiAngelo thinks.
This is, after all, a less deadly (at least in the short term) version of Kubrick’s plot in “Paths of Glory.” The “problem” is supposedly all those wild-eyed progressives who are dragging down the good name of salt-of-the-earth, moderate Democrats. We cannot shoot them all, because we need to be able to count on them to hold their noses and vote for the corporatist sure-winner candidates (like Clinton insider Terry McAuliffe in Virginia—oops, never mind). But Democratic insiders can certainly have some fun while making an example of a few of them.
Does it matter that what motivates anti-racist people is, not to be too obvious about it, being against racism? Apparently not. It has become inconvenient for self-styled moderate Democrats to continue to say out loud that they are in favor of anti-racism, because they are being told that “the suburbs” will be lost unless they kick some powerless people in the teeth for saying politically inconvenient things. Hippie-punching is easier than standing up to bullies.
What is most depressing about this is that the strategy might, in a completely amoral sense, end up working. After all, the generals in the French army were not entirely wrong to worry that mass refusals to follow orders blindly could undermine discipline and perhaps even lose the war. Insider Democrats and supposedly moderate commentators, by being perpetually unwilling to stand for principle, might indeed lose everything unless they find some patsies to throw to the mob.
All of that might be true. What we know with absolute certainty is that the Democratic establishment will not fight for the party’s progressives. Those loyal Democrats exist purely to fall in line behind people with whom they disagree, whenever they are ordered to do so. If this is what is necessary, then I must agree with Kirk Douglas’s character: There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.