Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Monday Morning Quarter-Wrapping
A light week and a late wrap
This past weekend was parents’ weekend at our son’s college, so we spent a couple of days sitting in traffic in order to hear the college’s president bemoan the dire financial straits the school is in. I kid, of course—not about the traffic, which was pretty bad, but about the overall tenor of the weekend, which was delightful as always given that it involved seeing our son. And about the president’s comments, which were brief and substantive, actually suggested the place is in pretty good shape financially. The weekend (and the traffic on the way home) did leave me a bit drained, though, which is why this wrap is coming out Monday morning rather than last night.
Opportunity Knocks for the GOP
My column at The Week this past week was about how the GOP may have the near-term opportunity not only to bust the Democrats’ national majority, but to build a more substantial and durable majority of their own. It’s a response, in part, to David Shor, whose views and expertise I admire and appreciate, and who thinks the Democrats may be facing an electoral apocalypse but who I think might be underestimating the difficulty of avoiding it.
There are four parts to my argument:
First, Republicans have managed to cement a core coalition largely on the basis of identity issues. This allows them to be extremely flexible on meat-and-potatoes issues to win elections, as we saw in the Trump administration’s response to the economic consequences of the pandemic. In policy terms, in other words, the GOP is already running Shor’s playbook; the Democrats are playing catch-up.
Second, the Democrats have a harder time tacking to the center because there is less of a center to tack to. The distribution of voters is more bi-modal than it used to be in the 1990s or 2000s, and the Democratic coalition specifically is dominated by a liberal bloc that is larger and more cohesive than it was historically. You can see the consequences in the negotiations over the reconciliation bill: the moderate members feel increasingly isolated from the party mainstream, but the party has no majority without them.
Third, as is well known, the Democrats are handicapped by the rural bias of the Senate and by gerrymandered House and state legislature maps. The usual proposed solutions to these is to add states and enact electoral reform laws. The problem is that these proposals further enhance the impression that Democrats are radicals who are trying to change the rules rather than win fair and square, and thereby imperil the very moderates who they are depending on to pass these reforms.
Finally, the issue mix is shifting dramatically in the GOP’s direction:
If any single issue put Democrats over the top in 2020, it was COVID, where the Trump administration demonstrated bottomless incompetence and fecklessness. But today the challenge is to learn to live with an endemic virus with minimal loss of life or quality of life. I doubt this issue cuts the Democrats' way anymore, because it's no longer a Democratic success story. Meanwhile, many other major issues give a potential advantage to Republicans. Immigration, which Democrats thought would be a winning cause for Hispanic voters, turns out to be a cause that cuts the other way in heavily-Hispanic border communities. Ditto for crime and public safety, where Democrats are now at pains to emphasize their support for re-funding the police.
Worse, a number of traditionally Democratic issues are also at risk. Education, for example, has long been an area of Democratic dominance, but pandemic closures boosted support for private education, and current education battles focus on issues of equity and ideology that politically cut against Democrats with the constituencies they need most. And the economy, generally by far the most important electoral issue, has also changed in ways that may boost Republicans. Inflation is finally up and consumer spending has recovered to the pre-COVID trend line. With the Fed tapering its support, any Democratic moves to boost demand further are likely to be neutralized by the Fed's asset sales. If that's the case, then going forward supply-side issues may matter more for prosperity than the demand side, and Republicans could readily seize the initiative with an agenda of deregulation and infrastructure investment. Finally, the challenge of a rising China seems tailor-made to unite Republicans on foreign policy while posing real risks of dividing Democrats.
All of this is on top of the structural advantage that Republicans hold, but the tailwind that the GOP also makes it harder for Democrats to tackle that advantage, since adding states or federalizing election law, regardless of their abstract merit in terms of fairness, will be seized upon as evidence of Democratic radicalism, and thereby further imperil the moderate members whose votes they need to pass those reforms in the first place.
None of that means that the Democrats are doomed, because the GOP that actually exists is in a poor position to maximize their own advantages. That Republican party is beholden to an erratic narcissist who wants to make the next election entirely about himself, and escalate the party’s identity appeals from “we represent the real America, so if we lose America loses” to “we represent the real America, so we cannot legitimately lose.” That’s a substantial drag on the GOP’s own performance with voters who simply want to vote for a party interested in their own concerns. It’s also a catastrophic development for democracy. But no matter how many erstwhile conservatives make the case for a popular front strategy of rallying behind Biden as the only alternative to disaster, those kinds of coalitions—which we’re seeing more and more of around the world, as my colleague, Damon Linker, points out in an insightful piece of his own this week—are inherently fragile and uncertain, and can also increase the salience of the populist message.
It’s precisely that fear that animates Shor’s warnings. I wish I were confident that his prescriptions were enough.
My only Substack post this past week was a Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day-themed piece musing about whether there is a way to honor and commemorate the encounter that made our society possible:
I have no objection to dispensing with Columbus Day, and I certainly have no objection to a day formally recognizing and celebrating the peoples who lived on Turtle Island before any Europeans arrived, and who live here still.
But the latter is not really a replacement for Columbus Day, and that does leave something of a hole, a hole where our own origin story should be, an origin that begins in the terrible encounter of 1492. Precisely because Columbus was an Italian working for Spain who left no real legacy of his own, he was a kind of empty vessel into which we could pour the myth we preferred to write, a myth of the New World. That’s what Columbus represented for the European settlers, before he filled the role of Italian-American and Catholic hero, and why there are places all over America named for him: because he proved that Alexander was wrong and there were new worlds to conquer, and that you could start over again from scratch.
You can’t, of course. North America wasn’t a blank canvas and the European settlers were not free artists of themselves. But we are still here, we descendants of settlers and of the immigrants that the settlers descendants invited (or grudgingly accepted) to follow, just as they, the indigenous peoples of this continent, are still here. My hoping that they grow more numerous, reclaim more of their culture, and become ever-greater contributors to human history on this continent does not mean that I hope for American history to be erased. If the Columbus myth is one we want to jettison, what do we want to replace it with? What’s the story we want to tell about why we are here, about what the “we” might be that abides?
From there the piece moves to a discussion of how Mexico constructed its own identity, based on a very different history, not so much to suggest that as a model (the differences in our respective histories make that impossible even if it were desirable) but to illustrate what I think we Americans are missing and why it matters.
The World Elsewhere
Zeynep Tufecki has an excellent opinion piece at The New York Times about who the unvaccinated really are. The overwhelming message of the piece is that the majority of the unvaccinated aren’t enthusiastic members of some bizarre anti-empirical death cult. Rather, they’re overwhelmingly people who are disconnected from the health care system. They don’t have insurance, don’t have a primary physician, and they have a natural distrust of a system that has been largely absent from their lives, or even behaved in a predatory fashion. They are understandably resistant to hectoring from the representatives of that same authority.
None of that excuses those in the media who have gleefully stoked that distrust. Nor does it imply that the solution to our lagging vaccination rate is overhauling the American healthcare system—that may be fully justified, but it’s an enormous political lift, and we can’t wait on it when we need to boost vaccination rates immediately. Tufecki suggests a host of pragmatic solutions—from employer mandates, which can yield compliance without a loss of face, to providing accommodations in vaccine clinics for people who are afraid of needles (which she notes both Canada and Britain have done)—that should be our collective focus if we actually care about beating the pandemic as opposed to fighting the endless and unwinnable culture war.
As they say, read the whole thing.
On Wednesday of this week, I head to Texas for the Austin Film Festival. I don’t have a film there (or a script in the competition), but I am in the process of gearing up to direct my first feature film, and I’m hoping to meet some folks down there who might be helpful in that effort. I’ve debated whether to use this space to talk about that side of my life; it’s not what I’ve done to date, and I’m not sure how well doing so would mesh with the opinionating that I have been using it for. So I’d be interested in hearing your opinions, in the comments or by email, on whether I should talk more about that whole saga here.