Everyone feels like a loser. That’s my reaction to an excellent Washington Post column by Greg Sargent about what contemporary liberalism is about, and why liberals are a long way from feeling victorious despite recent political wins and certain kinds of cultural dominance.
Sargent is correct that Democrats are unlikely to pass large portions of their legislative agenda. And the parts they have enacted and stand a good chance of passing soon might not feel all that satisfying. I can easily imagine liberals echoing former President Barack Obama’s familiar refrain that government actions to address urgent national problems shouldn’t be thought of as Democratic or Republican ideas, just as common sense.
Imperatives like fighting the coronavirus pandemic, supplying emergency relief for those who have been economically hit hard by it, improving roads and bridges and the electric grid, attempting to prevent climate change — those can be thought of as ideologically neutral reactions to ideologically neutral problems, even if Republicans have abdicated their responsibility for dealing with them. Protecting the right to vote and stopping partisans from overturning election results? That’s just ground-floor democracy protection. It’s only the immediate Democratic agenda because so many Republicans, including the most recent Republican president, have abandoned support for democracy.
In other words, mainstream liberals right now feel as though they have an uphill battle just to restore basic competent democratic government before they get anywhere close to their real ambitions. And that is nothing new; it’s where they were in 1993 and 2009, previous years when they took control of the White House and Congress, for periods that turned out to last only two years apiece.
And yet, conservatives not only feel as though they’re losing badly on policy and could lose even more badly soon, but they’ve never had more than a moment or two when they believed they were winning. Since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, they’ve been routed on many social issues. They’ve failed to roll back many Great Society programs enacted in the 1960s, let alone repeal the New Deal. They correctly realize that the public still expects government, and especially the federal government, to intervene in the economy and solve market problems.
I’m fairly sure that it’s good news that both ideological camps think they’re losing.
I’m not saying that stalemates are good. Or that the particular American mix of conservative, liberal and other outcomes are in any way ideal. Nor am I arguing for some kind of triumph of the mushy middle. Stalema-te isn’t compromise; we often get policy wins from one side and then different wins from the other side rather than centrist resolutions of deep disagreements.
However, the authors of the US Constitution set up a republic that makes it hard for majorities to get what they want easily. And that would be true even without the extra obstacles, such as the Senate filibuster, that have been added since the Constitution was written. Which is, for many reasons, a good thing. At any rate, it’s certainly not the case that any particular ideology commands a serious majority, given that most voters are not ideological. Partisan majorities in recent decades have been slim, fleeting or both. (Even the last presidential landslide, in 1984, wasn’t enough to give Republicans unified government, and neither party has managed to maintain more than four years of congressional and White House control since 1968.)
What all this means is that US politics — and I think democratic politics more generally — is inherently frustrating. You can lose even if you work as hard as you can. You can wind up in the minority even though millions of people agree with you. Even if you win, many of the things you want won’t happen. It’s possible that the thing you want the most won’t happen. At best, some of the winners’ top priorities will be enacted, but only incrementally and sometimes only until the next election.
Yet for all its frustrations and limitations, political action still can produce successes. And political action can also be a source of what the Framers called “public happiness” — a form of satisfaction and enjoyment experienced through collective participation in public affairs and politics. One reason to have a democracy is to make it possible for everyone to experience public happiness, which until the modern world was always reserved for (at best) the privileged few.
In other words, it’s good if people get involved in politics and aim big, trying to win all sorts of big victories — even though they will inevitably be frustrated, and even though it’s likely that a system that didn’t frustrate them wouldn’t be a good one at all.