President Obama, for all of his many failings, was good at one thing: he regularly refused to get caught up in the politics of the moment. Whether it was the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the multiple mass shootings that happened under his watch, or the continually deteriorating events in Syria, he always resisted the immediate calls for him to do something. This remained true at the end of his presidency, when liberals were demanding that he do something about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, and were ultimately furious when he demurred. This was a key element of his leadership style, as he said in a 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:
“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”
So now we’re six months into the Trump administration. Gone is the Democratic party leader who urged caution as the Breaking News chyrons urged the opposite. Gone is the veneer of a Democratic Party that is grounded in reality – the “big kids in the room” who care about policy outcomes and rely on charts, graphs, and experts to advance a vision of a technocratic utopia. Instead, what we are left with is a party succumbs to the politics of the moment at every twist in the news cycle. Instead we are left with a party that refuses to accept a shred of responsibility for the outcome of the last election, placing blame solely on a foreign government. Instead we are left with a party that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that they need to make wholesale changes, has steadfastly refused to do so. We are left with a party suffering from mass delusions.
The big story of the last six months has been Russian “meddling” in our election. From all appearances, this meddling amounted to a propaganda campaign, using information that was stolen from the DNC. There’s no indication that vote tallies were changed or that the propaganda campaign had any discernible affect on the outcome of the election. Still, with each piece of breaking news related to this story, the hysteria is palpable. It’s now the norm for all of us to hear the reaction to breaking news before we bother to understand what the news actually is, coloring how we perceive that news. Everyone is convinced that there is something huge underneath all of it, but no one can tell you exactly what that thing is. It’s exactly the “hype-fest” that President Obama referred to – we are being driven by an urgent need to respond to crises before we even know what those crises are.
So how are Democrats responding to this new landscape? Well, exactly as you’d expect:
So after all of the failures of 2016, the Democrats – our supposed left-wing party – have settled on a new party platform: Cold War 2.0. And it’s not as if this doesn’t have any short term political value – it clearly does. By painting the current president as illegitimate, they help ensure that he can’t accomplish much in the short term. And there’s good news on that front: This president and congress are deeply unpopular, as are literally every policy that they’ve proposed. Their poll numbers are dropping and the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018 has become very real.
In the long term, however, Democrats clearly have a messaging problem. We already have a party that plays the “America First” card to great success. We already have a party that wraps itself in the flag and accuses the other side of being in league with the enemy. We already have a party that is, by and large, interested in renewing Cold War-level hostilities with the Russians (See McCain, John). And the thing about Republicans is that they’re good at that shit. It works for them. When Democrats do it – think Dukakis riding a tank or John Kerry “reporting for duty” in 2004 – it looks stupid. And for a party that struggled in 2016 to tell the American people why the fuck anyone should vote for them, you’d think that they’d be interested in finding ways to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Instead, they’ve chosen to embrace the language of the national security state. Instead, they’ve chosen a pernicious form of flag-waving nationalism as a sort of placeholder for any actual policy that could effect positive change in the lives of Americans. Instead, they’ve decided to double down on their 2016 message of “you’re doing just fine, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it” with the important caveat that a vote against them is a vote for Vladimir Putin.
By embracing the language of the national security state, Democrats are making a choice. And where do you think that takes us? Which direction do you think the consequences of this choice will fall? Has there been a single instance in our short history where the language of treason and sedition have been used to advance an agenda of positive social change? Has there been a single instance where these politics have not been eventually been used to punch left? By putting faith in our military and security apparatus, Democrats are sending a clear message: they don’t have a vision. They don’t care about your future. They spent the entirety of the 2016 campaign studiously avoiding taking positions on anything, and they’re hoping to continue that strategy for the next three and a half years because it worked so well for them. When you’ve convinced yourself that your past failures are all the fault of a foreign entity, why change things up? What could possibly go wrong?
The last six months have made it crystal clear that very little has changed in the Democratic Party since 2003, when they voted en masses to invade Iraq. They are still a party that is defined by a distinct lack of courage in everything they do. They are still slaves to the hysteria of the moment, terrified to look weak on defense or earn the ire of the military-industrial complex. And here’s the problem with that: Conflicts between nation-states don’t always happen because countries actually, you know, want them to. Often times, major conflicts happen because actors on both sides back themselves into positions that they can’t back down from, and an unforeseen crisis brings both parties to the brink of open conflict. With the American and Russian military increasingly engaged in close proximity in a widening proxy war, the odds of one of those unforeseen crises rises every day.
So my question is this: If push comes to shove, who’s going to put on the brakes when the calls come for our leaders to do something? Who will be working for peace when the overwhelming consensus coalesces behind war? Who will be able to see past the hysteria of the moment?
I really hope we don’t have to find out any time soon.