Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Corey Robin and Ross Douthat don't agree on much, but they agree that Donald Trump might be the new Jimmy Carter. Douthat writes:
Though personally the two men are ever so slightly different, they seem to occupy a similar space in the arc of political history — both outsiders who seized control of a divided, exhausted, yet still powerful political party, both men who tried to push their coalitions into a new ideological formation, both presidents who commanded legislative majorities but accomplished next to nothing with them.

The term that seems to fit them both is “disjunctive,” from the categorizations of the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek. As Carter straddled the old New Deal-Great Society liberalism and the age of Reaganism and neoliberalism to come, so Trump’s presidency is at once the seeming last gasp for the Reagan coalition and a possible doorway into a future where socialism and right-wing populism contend for mastery instead.
In early 2017, Robin, citing Skowronek, made the case for Trump as a "disjunctive" president presiding over a dying age of Reaganism. Now Douthat takes it a step further: If Trump is the new Carter, who could be the new Reagan, presiding over the beginning of the next political era? His answer: It might be Bernie Sanders.
... if you’re eagerly looking for the repetition or the rhyme, the 2020 primary campaign supplies an obvious figure: The Reagan to Trump’s Carter, the left-wing answer to the first movement-conservative president, can be only Bernard Sanders.

If you doubt me, consider the parallels. Like Reagan following his attempt to primary Gerald Ford in 1976, Sanders is coming off a near-miss insurgent campaign against an embodiment of the party establishment, who then went to an excruciatingly narrow general election defeat.

Like Reagan, Sanders is widely judged too old to be elected president; he is older than the Gipper, but just as Reagan’s age in 1980, 69, roughly matched American life expectancy at the time, so does Sanders’s age of 77 match life expectancy today.

Like Reagan, Sanders is widely considered too extreme to be nominated, and certainly too extreme to win: Some Democrats fear that his nomination would give oxygen to a third-party centrist (with Howard Schultz ready for that role) as Reagan’s prompted John Anderson to run as a liberal Republican; some Republicans hope that a Sanders-led ticket would help the unpopular incumbent sneak to re-election.
The more Douthat goes on in this vein, the more he seems to make sense.

But I don't buy it. It's not because I don't believe Sanders (or another progressive) can win in 2020. It's because I don't believe we're actually at a disjunctive moment. I think we should be -- it's been obvious for years that Reaganism doesn't deliver for ordinary people. But the power of big money and the propaganda notions that money has rammed into the national consciousness prevent a new order from gaining purchase.

Americans want higher pay, more affordable healthcare, more affordable college and child care. Americans want higher taxes on the rich. Americans don't want a repeat of the Great Recession, during which the wealthy suffered little, and after which the wealthy got all the pie.

But the party that's unashamedly committed to making the rich richer still commands the passionate loyalty of more than 40% of the population -- enough to win elections when the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and vote suppression are factored in. The GOP maintains this loyalty not because the 40%+ are pro-plutocrat but because well-financed propaganda carries the message that the other party favors crime, perversion, infanticide, white genocide, individual disarmament, and the economic policies of Venezuela. (It was Greece a few years ago, and it was the "surrender monkey" foreign policy of France a few years before that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the propaganda focused more on foreign policy than on economics.)

We can never get to the end of the Reaganite cycle because the scaremongering that keeps the plutocrats' preferred party in power, or at least in enough power to block anything truly transformative, is still widespread on the right, and also quite common in centrist discourse. We might elect Sanders or another progressive as president; Democrats, including progressives, might hold the House and even regain the Senate. But the plutocracy will fight to the last breath. Republicans will use every means at their disposal to block progressive policies. The old order is on life support, but a new order is smothered at birth every time.

Maybe it'll be different this time. Maybe we'll fight harder. But I'm not optimistic about big change, even if a big-change presidential candidate -- Sanders, Warren, whoever -- wins.

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