Transcript & Attribution
It’s pretty clear how things are going to happen. In January, whatever the outcome in the 2018 election, Democrats are going to begin to vie in earnest to become the party’s nominee for President. There’ll be a gaggle of normal politicians on the left and in the middle, and a handful of billionaires.
The politicians will emphasize either their character or their policies — or maybe both. The progressives will emphasize their policies. The less than progressive, their character. “Character” in our age means courage; the stuff military sorts have. Progressive policies of our time are the ideas that Bernie Sanders made sexy — single-payer health care, free college — plus the anti-Trump issue du jour — abolish ICE, or whatever.
The billionaires are going to play a different game. They, unlike the politicians, have actually done something successful. Or so they will insist. They’ve either run a successful business, or both a successful business and served successfully as a mayor, or at least they’ve successfully become super famous with millions following their latest whatever. This is a kind of character as well — the character of being an outsider. It is the feature that Donald Trump traded on most effectively as he demonstrated at every moment just how much he was not like them.
Then in the summer of 2020, one of these many will become the Democratic nominee. A fierce campaign of anti-Trumpism will then dominate the nation’s attention (and the airwaves in the battleground states). It’s hard to believe that the Democrat will lose, yet of course, that’s been known to happen. But assuming the Democrat does actually win, then in January 2021, he or she will be sworn into office to lead the nation. No doubt, his or her character will be strong. The charge to heal a divided nation will be crystal clear.
Yet does anyone actually believe that this President, whoever he or she may be, will actually be able to do anything? Can anyone look at the United States government today and believe that the problem is just the leader at the top? That simply getting a new President, and even a new Congress, is going to break the gridlock, and get us a government that can actually work?
No doubt, experts can win elections. That’s Marketing 101. But the real question for America today is just this: can anyone actually govern?
Can we govern?
The idea that maybe we cannot govern has been churning about in American politics for many years. Barack Obama made it a central argument in his 2007-2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton. In 2008, he told a Philadelphia audience:
“If we’re not willing to take up that fight [the fight to “change the way Washington works”], then real change — change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans — will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”
Yet when Obama did become President, he did not “take up that fight.” Obama did not propose even a single change to change the way Washington works— with the result, as he predicted, that “real change” is still “getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo” (and what “change” there actually was is gleefully reversed by a President obsessed with erasing Obama’s legacy).
The status quo still wins in America. A “veto-ocracy,” or “vetocracy” as Francis Fukuyama puts it, blocks every real change to the status quo if that change makes the winners of the status quo win less. America has lost the capacity to steer itself sensibly. It is, in a word, and in the fears of so many, essentially ungovernable.
Now the sources of our ungovernability are many. Some we can fix. Some we cannot. In some obvious ways, we’ve allowed the institutions of our government to become vulnerable to extremists or to special interests. All of those flaws we could fix tomorrow.
But in some critical ways, we’ve become disablingly more polarized and partisan. And very few of those we could do much about, at least in the short term.
But enormous good would come from fixing the parts that we could fix. If we could neutralize the power of the cronies and the extremists, and craft a representative democracy that actually represented America, then we could build a government that actually seems like it served the people — because it did. And it is only that seeming — and that reality — that would ever effectively answer the rising populist fury in America and across the globe.
So how can we get there? What steps can we take? What is the plan to achieve something different from the hopelessness that all but seems certain?
So that’s what this short series of podcasts is about: what could we do now that would be different? And how could that difference matter?
I’m not so much interested in who we should elect, at least for now. I’m interested in what we should be fighting for: what is the change that we should be demanding? And how would candidates show us a commitment to that change?
Now among the Democrats, there are two answers to this question.
For the party bosses, or “corporate Democrats,” as the critics refer to them, the answer is that we should be fighting for the Democratic candidate most likely to be elected in 2020, and for the candidates in Congress most likely to give the Democrats the most they can in Congress in 2021.
But for the progressives, or the democratic socialists, as their critics refer to them and as they refer to themselves, the answer is that we should be fighting for the Democrats willing to stand for something bold and true. The progressives are not interested in Democrats as a party. The progressives are interested in candidates who will give America a radical change in the direction of democratic government.
I think both answers are wrong. Not because I’m not a Democrat — I am — and not because I’m not a progressive — I certainly am — but because I believe that both the corporate Democrats and the Democratic Socialists are missing something critical about what kind of moment this moment in American history is.
This is not an ordinary moment. This is an extraordinary moment. This is not a time to divide, it is a time to unite. It is not a moment for normal politics. It is a moment for something much more fundamental and critical. We have to find a way not to enable one party to crush the other. We have to find a way to change the way party politics in America happens.
That way is the focus of the five episodes that follow. So stay tuned for words destined to make every politician and political activist angry if they heard them. But that’s to be expected, if we’re “taking up that fight,” as Obama told us to do, to change the way Washington works. It’s not real change unless they squeal. And I promise we can make them squeal.
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