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You can only have a deal-breaker if you're willing to walk away entirely
I was having a conversation on line the other day with a group of people and the subject came up: isn’t there anything that would be a true deal-breaker for your political affiliation? Something that would mean: no, under no circumstances could I support this candidate or party? The usual shibboleths were offered—things like overt racism or sexism, outright lawbreaking and corruption, rejection of election results—and the point of these examples was to imply that no sane, responsible person could support the Republican Party in its current form because these things ought to be deal-breakers for any such person.
I’m not interested in defending Trump’s GOP. But I don’t think this is a particularly useful model for how most people think about political affiliation.
To start with, most people aren’t motivated primarily by issues. On the contrary, their political affiliation is tribal, and they figure out where they ought to stand on a most issues by seeing where the rest of their tribe stands. Even people who are strongly motivated by one or more issues behave this way. That’s why many high-profile defectors from the GOP after Trump’s takeover—people like Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot and Bill Kristol—have so conspicuously assimilated to a host of liberal and even “woke” positions since their defection. Have they actually thought through all these issues and decided they were wrong before? I doubt it. Are they being completely cynical, saying things they know are false and don’t believe to curry favor? That could be to some degree, I doubt that’s most of what’s going on. Rather, they’re assimilating, learning to speak the language of their new tribe—which, if one reads their history backwards, one should retrospectively assume is much of what they were doing before their conversion as well. This is how most people actually are, and it’s instructive to learn that some professional opinion-slingers aren’t very different.
But even for people who are strongly motivated by certain issues, “deal-breaker” probably isn’t the best way to understand how they make the political choices they do.
Take racism, for example. Most liberals would probably claim that they wouldn’t support anyone they considered racist. But for most of American history, if you held to that standard you’d have had nobody to vote for. Indeed, some advocates of an antiracist politics would argue you generally still don’t. But for most of American history, the people most committed to fighting racism were also most firmly committed to participating in the electoral process, and to using their votes to push that process as much as possible in a favorable direction. Which is why, in the 1992 general election, the overwhelming majority of Black voters supported Bill Clinton, a man who flew back to Arkansas to personally oversee the execution of a mentally handicapped Black prisoner to demonstrate his tough-on-crime bonafides. They understood what he was doing; they just thought that the election was too important to treat Clinton's actions as a deal-breaker.
I’m not saying there were no consequences to that choice, or to the similar choice that feminists made to support President Clinton in his time of need. The 1990s were a pretty conservative decade, and it’s tempting in retrospect to ascribe some of that conservatism to the dominant Third Way style of liberalism of the time without asking how that style of liberalism came to be dominant in the first place. At the time, though, the choice for liberals was either Bill Clinton, with all his faults, or a fourth consecutive term for the GOP in the White House—or the wild card of Ross Perot. It was in the context of that choice that liberals had to decide just what they would or would not consider a deal-breaker.
For most liberals, it’s obvious that Donald Trump is of a different order—and they think that should be even clearer since observing his behavior in office and, especially, after losing the election. How could anyone not see January 6th as the ultimate deal-breaker? To answer that, I think it’s important to recognize the ways in which Trump was less a deal-breaker than a deal-maker—by which I mean, the ways in which he offered his voters a deal they couldn’t refuse.
The most obvious issue is abortion. The GOP has been an increasingly anti-abortion party since the Reagan years, but Trump, despite his total lack of prior interest in the subject, offered abortion opponents a genuinely new deal: an explicit promise to appoint judges and Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. If opposing abortion was your deal-breaker issue—as it is for a significant faction of GOP voters who simply will not support a candidate who backs abortion rights—that was surely a very hard deal to turn down. Which is why it wasn’t, why grass-roots abortion opponents and their fiercest leaders became some of Trump’s strongest and most loyal supporters, all the more so since he delivered on his promises to them.
Nor is that the only issue on which Trump was a deal-maker. I know intelligent, articulate, sophisticated Trump supporters who backed him in 2016 and back him still because they were strongly opposed to America’s post-Cold War foreign policy consensus and believed (and still believe) that Trump represented the best opportunity in over a generation to break with that consensus. That was a deal-maker for them, and they will ignore, minimize, or explain away anything else that might trouble them about Trump’s character or his conduct because that issue is so paramount for them—and because they rationally believed they would never get a similar opening from any more conventional politician.
Breaking those deals is not going to be easy. Nor is deal-breaking easy even for everyone who despises Trump. Let me give another example. A good friend of mine came to me the other day upset about the fact that AIPAC is supporting multiple GOP candidates who refuse to accept that Biden was elected president. He couldn’t understand how a group he supported and believed in—my friend is strongly pro-Israel—could back candidates who are undermining American democracy. I asked him why he found it hard to understand. AIPAC isn’t in the business of protecting American democracy; it’s a single-issue group devoted to preserving a strong bond between the United States and Israel. If they refused to back “Stop the Steal” candidates, they would poison their relationship with the GOP, and therefore be unable to execute their mandate when and if Republicans came back into power. My friend asked if that meant that they didn’t care about democracy in Israel either—and I just looked at him, shaking my head.
My friend’s problem is the same one that everyone else has in the ongoing Trump era. If Trump is a deal-breaker, then in breaking with him, what other deals are you going to have to break? Will he have to stop supporting AIPAC? Will he have to stop supporting candidates supported by AIPAC? If you’re the kind of progressive who already thinks Israel is an apartheid state that must be opposed, of course, these questions are easily answered. But that does not describe most Americans, and it certainly doesn’t describe my friend. It feels very strange to him that his support for Israel should be held hostage, in a sense, by Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the election. But that’s what’s happening.
I don’t want to minimize the consequences of the choices people are making. I am really worried about the health of American democracy! But I don’t think the framing of “January 6th should have been a deal-breaker” helps anyone understand why democracy is indeed under threat, nor do I think it does anything to forestall the danger. If you want to build an anti-January 6th coalition, then you need to make deals to build that coalition, not shout ever louder that anyone decent should consider it a deal-breaker.
Who Will Come Out On Top in Post-COVID Education?
One of the more depressing reads of this past week was this piece in The Atlantic about just how bad the educational deficits due to COVID school closures (and school disruptions short of outright closures) have proven to be. Short version: they have proven to be really bad! The districts that closed for the shortest time lost the equivalent of 2 to 3 months of schooling, and the ones that closed for the longest time lost the equivalent of over a year. There’s a lot of variability within those averages based on socioeconomic status, grade level, disability, and also just baseline personality. I know families with siblings where one kid did pretty well during the remote learning era, because they were already disposed to learn on their own and had the organizational skills to do it, while the other kid fell apart completely. But given how bad the average results are, that variability only means that a large number of students suffered even more extreme deficits.
Those deficits are a phenomenon we’ll be dealing with as a society for decades. I hope, as the article suggests, that it becomes a top priority for state and local officials to address them with real resources—which means that I hope other priorities get downgraded by comparison, because that’s what it means to be a top priority. I’m worried, though, that just the opposite will happen—that what we’ll face in educational terms is the equivalent of what in economic terms we faced after the financial crisis, where we have a slow grinding recovery because we’re unwilling to upset anyone’s apple cart to help things get better faster, and in consequence a whole generation simply loses ground.
So I’ve got a suggestion for changing the framing that might help change that dynamic. Educational loss due to COVID is not by any means a uniquely American issue—schools were closed all over the world, and some of the worst educational losses are being felt in the developing world and middle-income countries. But just as the severity of closures varied between school districts in America, within the universe of developed countries there was a lot of variability in terms of how severe school closures were. In Europe, for example, Sweden, France and Spain worked hard to keep schools open, and kept them open longer than Poland or Germany did. Japan largely kept schools open during most of the pandemic, albeit with a variety of modifications, while China’s zero-COVID policy has prompted new school closures this year in cities like Shanghai that have been placed under lockdown.
I would expect these differences in approach to pandemic-era schooling, as well as differences in how countries allocate resources to address pandemic-generated deficits, to show up in international comparisons—and soon. I’ll be very interested to see what the numbers look like. How will American high school students stack up against their European and Northeast Asian peers over the next few years? And how will American universities fare in international comparisons—particularly when they’ve been battered not only by COVID but by the loss of international students (which began during the pre-COVID Trump years) and by the ongoing cultural challenges to various forms of assessment, challenges which COVID accelerated?
If the answers turn out to show America falling behind, I would expect a political reaction. The most important economic asset any country has is the education level of its citizenry. So if you want to scare American policymakers into spending real money, changing real policies, and threatening real entrenched interests, I suspect the way to do it is not by talking about equity but by talking about international competitiveness.
Two pieces On Here this week:
First, a piece on John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, and whether he’s all that. Fetterman is an atypical candidate stylistically, but he’s also atypical in being beloved by self-identified progressives even though he’s taken some moderate positions and has declined to self-identify as a progressive champion. Pennsylvania is the Democrats’ best opportunity to flip a Senate seat despite the national headwinds and the way Pennsylvania has been trending red over time, so if Fetterman does win a lot of folks will be talking about him as the party’s future.
Second, a piece on framing language in terms of “harm” and how much . . . harm that kind of framing can do to the very causes the people involved are aiming to promote.
The World Elsewhere
Nothing from me elsewhere this week—there’s stuff coming down the pike, but nothing I can link to at this time. But there are two pieces by other people I read this week that I think are very worth engaging with.
First, by my editor at Modern Age, Daniel McCarthy, a piece for that magazine about the wellsprings of conservatism. McCarthy identifies four of these: public religion, “country” patriotism, a philosophy of balance, and plain old anti-leftism—a reaction to the left’s excesses and failures. McCarthy goes through all of these, and then notes how cultural and institutional changes have weakened the first three, but in consequence supercharged the last. There’s plenty in the piece to prompt argument, but that’s part of why I’m recommending it; it does a better job than most of laying out a worldview clearly so that it can be argued with. I think he’s right about one thing for certain: a big part of the challenge on the right is how to preserve anything philosophically substantive from the various tributaries of conservatism when the river is being flooded by a tide of pure reaction.
Second, by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a subtle and perceptive piece taking issue with Catholic integralism from the perspective of someone (like himself) who does want to see a more Catholic-informed polity, and who looks back fondly on the mid-20th-century settlement in America and Europe that briefly seemed to offer the prospect of such on terms that were fully reconciled with democracy and a certain kind of liberalism. Douthat has written in this area before, but he extends his thinking in a number of ways in this essay and in a subsequent rebuttal to an integralist response, by Edmund Walstein, that First Things published alongside. I’m not a Catholic nor a Christian of any kind, but this isn’t really a sectarian argument but a deeply informed historical and philosophical one about the relationship of religion to politics that anyone who cares about that relationship would do well to engage in—particularly those without strong religious commitments of their own, who may imagine that these questions all devolve into a simple debate between whether church and state will be kept “separate” or not. There are far more shades of gray than such a black and white division contemplates, and Douthat provides an exemplary guide to some of those shades.