Many of us not naturally inclined to support a Democratic president have developed a rooting interest in Joe Biden’s political success. This is not mainly due to Biden’s skills or vision; it’s because he is fighting a rear-guard action to save political rationality.
The president is working from a theory that his party’s midterm survival and long-term appeal will be based on delivering tangible benefits for the middle class. This has led to spending proposals for things such as Medicare, infrastructure, family leave, child credits and prekindergarten programs.
It’s possible that Biden’s calculation is wrong. His outreach to the White working class in 2020 did not gain him much ground among White, working-class voters. And I’ve seen little evidence that his current agenda — easily characterized as fiscal overreach — will appeal to suburban voters in strategic House districts.
Still, Biden treats voters as fundamentally rational beings, who calculate what is best for their families and communities. His strategy carries the assumption of sanity.
It could have been otherwise — if Republican warnings about Biden’s intentions had been remotely true. Biden could have tried to pack the Supreme Court, eliminate the Senate filibuster or sided with more radical elements of his party on police reform (in the direction of defunding).
Biden might have employed dynamite to solve a jigsaw puzzle — blowing up American politics and hoping the political pieces would come down in their proper places. Instead, it is Republicans who have taken that approach.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is not implementing an electoral plan. He reiterates the demands and charges that come to his caucus in fevered dreams. His aspiration to the speakership is sad and small — who actually auditions to be in a hostage video?
For most Republican politicians, the fear of primary opponents now outranks the fear of venomous snakes and gender-neutral bathrooms. There is no other explanation for current campaign approaches.
By what sane strategy would Republicans defend those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 and snub the police officers who stood in their way? By what theory would some demand public release of the name of the officer who defended House members and the House floor, so that he or she could be targeted for harassment or violence? According to what stratagem would many Republicans fight basic health measures to defeat a deadly virus, thrusting the country back into crisis through their own defiant ignorance?
As the old saying goes, there may be some madness to this madness. The master, Donald Trump, did not carefully organize his troops for battle. He lit them on fire and hoped they would run into enemy lines. The collateral damage to our society, norms and institutions means nothing to him. The traumatized police officers, the harassed election officials, the true believers dying of covid-19, the lives thrown down conspiratorial rabbit holes, the young people confirmed in disfiguring bigotry mean less than nothing to him.
Yet somehow — through the dark alchemy of tribalism and resentment — this has cohered into something bigger. Disputing even the most obvious idiocy is difficult because each is embedded in a larger, aggregate lie that makes it unassailable. The “big lie” of pervasive election fraud, deceit about vaccine risks, conspiracy thinking about the “deep state” and mythmaking about the Jan. 6 attack — all these seem to be mutually reinforcing elements of a grand duplicity, a totalized deception that no single arrow of refutation can penetrate.
American politics has become a contest between those who accept (or are intimidated into accepting) the grand deception, and those on the left, center and right who do not. In the political struggle ahead, how confident are we that the truth will prevail?
Traditionally, Americans have trusted in Providence to ensure the eventual victory of democratic truth. This has roots in a Puritan sense of religious calling, secularized into a republican mission to promote liberty. It is a belief that was fed by America’s highly unlikely victory in the Revolution, its near-death experience in the Civil War and its arrival on the global stage as an idealistic superpower. Consciously and unconsciously, American exceptionalism has encouraged a belief that the United States is exempt from democratic decay.
There is an argument behind such patriotic mysticism — not so much that America is chosen by God, but that God favors human freedom, and America serves that God-favored cause. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a wonderful riff: “We are going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. ... We shall overcome because [Thomas] Carlyle is right, ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, ‘Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’ “
But do we actually believe it? And who will convince us?