EssaysFeaturePurple Wednesday

A Year Later, Democrats Roar Back

Post-election analysis, and inaugurating Purple Wednesday

A year ago, I woke up dazed and confused about what had just happened in the 2016 presidential election.

It wasn’t just Donald Trump’s unexpected win over Hillary Clinton, but the year of political rancor and division that had set me adrift. I have friends and colleagues, mostly those who — quite properly — viewed Clinton’s defeat as a bitter reflection of their own encounters with sexism, and who still haven’t recovered from the shock of that night. I have other friends, mostly those who supported Sanders in the primary season, who haven’t moved beyond their anger about that defeat. Although I too supported Sanders in the primary season, and think of myself as a card-carrying member of the left, I continue to be puzzled at many of these friends’ intolerance for compromise within the Democratic party. It is as if they have sheared away from the realities of political history in the United States, a country that has never, even in its moments of most significant reform, embraced governance from the left.

As last night’s Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia rolled in, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That light is coming, not from a revolution, but from the people who woke up last November, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work. It’s coming from the women of Greenwich, Connecticut, newcomers to politics who ran for town council in unprecedented numbers. It’s coming from Maine voters, who were determined to bring 80,000 more of their neighbors into Medicare, bypassing Governor Paul LePage’s multiple vetoes with a referendum to expand the Affordable Care Act in their state.

It’s coming from Danica Roem, the first openly transgender candidate to be elected to a state legislature, who beat her bigoted incumbent by over nine points with a campaign emphasizing civic issues that went well beyond bathrooms. It is coming from the people of Northern Virginia, who defied predictions and a miserably cold, rainy day to give Democrat Ralph Northam a resounding victory over Ed Gillespie, a Republican whose appeals to racism came right out of the Trump playbook. And it came from a private message on Facebook, written by a historian who works at a Southern liberal arts college. Her son, the grandchild of a prominent Democratic operative from the 1970s, had just managed his first campaign, flipping a Virginia House of Delegates seat from red to blue. “Last year this time he was at the Javits Center,” she wrote; “Gives us hope.”

It remains to be seen how the GOP, which seems to be hanging together by a thread at this point, will respond. Neil Stevens of Red State characterized last night’s results in Virginia as “a bloodletting of the Republican party of a kind unseen in a generation” (November 7, 2017.) At National Review Online, Tony Geraghty admits that “Right now, the Republican party’s brand in Virginia is dirt. Throw in the failure to make New Jersey even remotely competitive, and tonight is about as bad as it can get for the GOP – a sense of déjà vu from the results across the country [in]  2006 and 2008.” (November 7 2017.)  Breitbart, on the other hand, has chosen to more or less ignore the blue tide and celebrate “MAGA Day.”  As of this morning, except  for Tony’ Lee’s live blog analysis blaming Ed Gillespie’s loss on his failure to embrace Breitbart, the Trump wing of the party seems to be temporarily speechless.

Happy as I am about last night’s results, I would like more speech, and I want to be thoughtful about what we have just witnessed.  Jubilance on the left and anxiety on the right may be masking the fact voters are signaling, not the ascendance of the Sanders wing within the Democratic party, or the failure of conservative ideas, but a firm correction back to the center. Making policy from an ideological stance is properly aspirational and, as history has shown, leads to profound social transformations. However, to paraphrase former presidential candidate Howard Dean, the most effective governance tends to come from that center.

Here’s an uncomfortable memory from November 2016: part of why many of us on the left were shocked by the victory of Trumpism last year was that we weren’t paying attention to the weakness of the political center, or anything outside what Eli Pariser has called our “filter bubbles” (2012.) Pariser is primarily referring to algorithms that promote online content we like and demote what we don’t, but our increasing inability to tolerate differences of opinion and friendly conflict online can shape our real life networks too. Last November, many of us realized that while we knew how to argue to the death, we didn’t know how to listen, how to sit with those disagreements, how to compromise, or how to integrate new knowledge into our political world views. Many of us didn’t even seem to have the social skills required to eat Thanksgiving dinner with a Clinton, Sanders or Trump voter.

We at Public Seminar are interested in taking this on as a project in the run-up to 2018. We don’t see ourselves as a bunch of liberal college professors who managed to “flunk Trump 101,” as Frank Bruni put it last week (New York Times, October 28 2017.) Actually, some of us are socialists and Marxists — but never mind. We are scholars, and because of that, we are more inclined to see this penchant for talking past one another as a social and historical question, and a problem of democracy itself. When democracy flounders, it implicates everyone: because we are intellectuals, we choose to address the moment not just by marching, speaking and writing, but also by reading, listening and sharing what we have learned. So this year, in the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, we at Public Seminar are making a commitment to you, our readers. You can come to this space, every Wednesday, to read essays that analyze the news of the week, work chosen from across the political spectrum. And unlike The New York Times, we aren’t going to tell you whether the writers are from left, right or center — you figure it what ideas you like and don’t like.

Read. Listen. Pay attention. Think.

Eventually, we hope to expand this as yet unnamed project to a podcast, and other forms of public discussion. Right now, because the color purple has come to signify political compromise and in-betweenness, and because Wednesday is the traditional “hump” day of the work week, we’re calling this part of Public Seminar Purple Wednesday.

So without further ado:

In the wake of a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5 2017, we are reading about guns.

  • In “Why Gun Control Loses,” Ramesh Ponnaru notes that Second Amendment supporters are motivated voters, and stay on task better than gun control advocates: “There are many more intense, relatively single-minded supporters of gun rights than opponents of it,” he writes in the National Review Online (October 30, 2017; reprinted November 6.)
  • At the New Yorker, Adam Gopnick asks us to question the most commonly held positions about gun control and the Second Amendment (November 6, 2017.)
  • In the wake of the news that the Air Force’s failure to report  felony convictions that would have prohibited the Sutherland Springs gunman from purchasing the weapons he used, Robert Burns of the Associated Press reports that the Pentagon has known about these reporting lapses for two decades (November 7, 2017.) In Stars and Stripes, where I found this reprinted, reporter Alex Horton reported over a year ago on the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, a gun control group in the military community that is supported by high-ranking Pentagon officials. Its purpose is to use their social influence in gun-owning communities to restrict weapons ownership to citizens not demonstrably prone to violence (Stars and Stripes, June 15, 2016.)

Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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