Even as Bernie Sanders, the most radically progressive candidate for the Democratic primary, secured early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and the face of the moderate Democratic establishment faded toward the back, an ugly spirit of defeatism has crept into the political zeitgeist around the progressive platform.
This past week Ezra Klein wrote of what he termed “the politics of epiphany,” where he argued, “Presidential campaigns are defined by a central question — how will you get all this done? — to which there is, in truth, no good answer.” He argued that while Joe Biden may seem naive for suggesting many Republicans would have a change of heart after Trump leaves office, every Democratic contender’s agenda would require a similar miracle, and absent more difficult structural changes, the inspirational power of even a Sanders presidency will fade to despair in the inevitable face of legislative roadblocks.
Paul Krugman made a similar point in The New York Times on January 31, asking, “Does it matter who the Democrats choose?” and answering, “In terms of actual policy, probably not very much,” as anyone who wins the presidency will find themselves constrained by the same set of political realities.
Journalist Dylan Matthews echoed this sentiment on Twitter:
Absolutely no one wants to hear this but the legislative accomplishments of hypothetical Presidents Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be identical.
This was in response to James Pethokoukis tweeting about how unlikely JP Morgan rates the chance of major changes like Medicare For All or a wealth tax.
The undercurrent of this new tragic realism is an argument that the Democrats should think smaller, dream smaller. These critics contend that big change is impossible under the current system, so we must temper our hopes in order to not have them dashed upon the rocks of cold, hard and unyielding “reality.” It’s gradualism by way of fatalism.
It may not be the romantic approach. It might not be exciting or inspiring. Yet this brand of cynicism holds a seductive power. It’s hard to argue with the smug certitude of an appeal to immutable “reality” itself. After all, isn’t the left of the aisle the “reality-based community?” Let the other side put its faith in faith itself and spout “alternative facts,” rewrite history and deny science. We believe in what is.
But when an anonymous Republican staffer during the presidency of George W. Bush first derided the administration’s critics as the “reality-based community,” his point was that those who studied reality as it was would forever be stuck reacting to the actions of those who were willing to act to change it.
The Republicans have been willing to act against the way things are for far longer than the era of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.
While liberals saw Roe v. Wade as a victory for abortion rights and thus a defeat for its opponents, conservatives saw opportunity. A strategic alliance between the political and religious right created a powerful and reliable voting bloc that could be counted on to win elections for whatever causes the Republican Party favored. Those who studied the reality of it referred to this as a “permanent wedge issue,” but “permanent” shows the weakness of describing things in terms of how they are and disregarding how they might be.
The Republican Party has never accepted the notion that Roe v. Wade is “settled law.” They’ve spent decades running candidates on the promise to fight against it, and even in the absence of miraculous overnight success, have successfully packed the federal bench and state legislatures with those hostile to reproductive freedoms.
Similarly, Democrats have marveled at the willingness of their opposition to run on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act in every single election since it was enacted. While the Republicans have not succeeded in repeal, they have gained enough power to seriously hamstring it while the Democrats have been unable to strengthen it or shore up its shortcomings. The conventional wisdom that social programs ratchet the country leftward has not constrained those who would wrench the works back toward the right.
Where Democratic strategists have too often seen the country as a set of mostly static blue states and red states with only a handful of battlefield states worth contesting, the Republican contender in 2016 eked out a narrow electoral victory through concentrated pressure in a handful of states that the Democratic National Committee had not seen as in need of defense.
The most extreme elements of the GOP have fought at every opportunity to shift the range of acceptable discourse rightward on their favorite issues, from fiscal policy to white nationalism. They have gained ground out of a refusal to acknowledge anything as a political impossibility, and now we have a presidency where each week brings another thing that seemed unthinkable.
It is in the face of a reality reworked religiously by Republicans that Democrats find themselves advised to accept that things are what they are.
When did the more progressive party cede the ability to dream a different future to the conservative one?
The Republican right wing has acted on the knowledge that hope and change are more than empyrean philosophical concepts but part of a process by which transformation (in their case, violent and regressive transformation) happens. That is a reality liberals and progressives used to acknowledge.
Once upon a time, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert each evoked the words of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'” It was President Kennedy who said we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard, in the belief that the organization and struggle toward the goal would pay dividends greater than the achievement of the goal itself.
Is there any greater symbol that impossible is just another sort of possible than traveling to the moon? It was impossible for tens of thousands of years of human existence. It wasn’t possible on the day that Kennedy declared we would get there within the decade. Kennedy didn’t live to see the day when it happened, but it became possible through the concerted will and the actions of the scientists, engineers and astronauts who worked until it was.
Outside of politics we still use “the moonshot” as a metaphor for a program of innovation with the power to change everything. Why not inside politics?
It might be that we’ve lost sight of the nature of hope, beyond its use in platitudes.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he reworked a passage from a sermon by Pastor Jeremiah Wright, introducing the phrase that would become the title of one of his books: “the audacity of hope.”
The uplifting optimism of the Obama campaign giving way to the pragmatic incrementalism of the Obama presidency might be a stark real-world manifestation of what Ezra Klein was talking about when he described the dangers of epiphany politics. It opened the Democratic Party up to swipes like Sarah Palin’s “‘How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out?”
But perhaps in order to better grasp this concept, we should look past Obama’s usage of audacity and hope, to its original source. Pastor Wright’s sermon used a different formulation. Wright spoke of the audacity to hope, of hope as a verb, an action, not a thing one has that can be crushed under the weight of opposition, but a thing one does, day in and day out.
Change, too, is a verb.
This is something Democrats can embrace in order to see real progress: They must envision hope and change as actions, choices, commitments for the long haul. By reminding voters the victories of the past were not contingent on miracles, and that their gains are not set in stone, they can do more than cushion the hard blows of political reality. They can fire up their base for the fight for better health care or immigration reform, election after election.
Democrats can choose to dream big so long as they also choose to fight big, and they must do both in the face of a Republican Party that is prepared to keep dreaming of its regressive, dystopian future. The mainstream Democratic Party must cease its failing strategy of eschewing real change in favor of whatever small improvements can be made to the world that the Republicans build each day.