Friday, February 3, 2017

After the Protests

It is edifying to see so many protests against the Administration's targeting of refugees and immigrants. But there is a danger - to which progressives are particularly prone - to settle for protests in preference to actual political engagement and mobilization. (Would the country even be in this position if progressives' presumptive constituencies had taken voting more seriously?) For better or for worse, what matters most is not how many people protest or how loud they are, but how effective they are as an opposition party in elections. That requires real interest and commitment on the part of actual voters. It also requires some some serious rethinking by those who need to win their votes.

Members of my generation can well remember a time when political parties were broad coalitions of interest groups clustered around a national consensus on national purpose which was both wide and deep. Parties competed for a few months every two or four years, then settled down to cooperate in governing in the interim. It was that interim that was the "ordinary time" of American political life. Now all that has changed. Our parties  are narrowly based ideological groupings in perpetual competition and engaged in non-stop campaigning. Elections are the new "ordinary time." There is no real interim anymore. And increasingly there is little actual governing - and even less cooperation in governing. This has completely altered the function of an opposition party from what it was 50 or even 25 years ago.

Back then it would have been scandalous to suggest, for example, that the Democrats should automatically oppose President Trump's Supreme Court nominee for no other reason than that he is the Republican President's pick. But that was before the Republicans did precisely that to President Obama's Supreme Court nominee in 2016 - in effect stealing the nomination from the President whose constitutional duty it was to fill it. In such a perversely hyper-partisan politics, what alternative do the Democrats have but to oppose?

But, however satisfying such opposition may be, expressive protest remains always at most marginally effective.  An opposition party (in this case the Democrats) must rally real voters with an actual alternative vision that is compelling enough to overcome the narcissistic self-absorption that prefers expressive protest over actual politics.

Nor will just any old political vision suffice. An effective opposition must offer a real alternative that speaks to the suffering and striving of more than just a few favored special interest groups. That means a vision for America that speaks, among others, to collapsing rural communities, to "blue collar" Rust Belt factory workers whose manufacturing jobs have disappeared or soon will, to "middle class" families whose wages seem stagnant and whose mobility seems downward rather than upward, and, yes, to refugees and immigrants derided and despised by 21st-century Know-Nothingism.

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