The Silent Majority
Top Stories of the Year: #4
Today continues my countdown of the top stories of 2019 and my coverage of them.
I just realized that I mentioned in yesterday's newsletter the trend toward political didacticism in highbrow art, but I forgot to mention the conservatives' answer to this: keeping Sean Spicer on "Dancing with the Stars" about eight weeks longer than he should have been. (I'm only partly joking about this. If you can show me another prominent conservative cultural contribution in the Trump era, I'd like to see it.) I wrote about Spicer's ill-advised adventure in dancing for The Bulwark but since the moment passed so quickly—he was finally voted off a few days laters—I never shared it with my subscribers, so check it out here.
More to the point for the purposes of this countdown, in yesterday's overview I ran down a list of factions within the left—the socialists, the greens, the "woke" race-obsessives—but I deliberately left out two other traditional factions: the "moderates" and the old-fashioned "liberals." It's easy to dismiss these as relics of the past, totally out of place in today's left, and they are certainly a good deal less vocal and get a lot less press than the other factions.
But the way the Democratic primaries are playing out makes you wonder. That's #4 in my countdown of the big stories of 2019. The "woke" elite culture I described in yesterday's edition is encountering increasing resistance from a center-left "silent majority" that is only beginning to find its voice.
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I warned before the midterm election in 2018 that "this is a contest over who can confuse the resounding of its own echo chamber with the voice of the people—while the sobering reality is that voters pretty much hate both parties and their leadership." I also speculated that this could set the tone for the 2020 election. Unfortunately, I was not wrong.
Early in the year, as Democrats who won in the 2018 midterm election took office, the party's new stars became CREEPs: an unintended "Committee to Re-Elect the President," a "group of radicals who are rapidly becoming the public face of the Democratic party."
For example, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar got into trouble for repeated anti-Semitic statements. Yet congressional Democrats couldn't bring themselves to denounce her and instead ended up passing a wishy-washy resolution that also warned against "Islamophobia."
So Democrats went from rebuking Ilhan Omar to treating her as if she was the victim.
Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley explained, "We need to denounce all forms of hate. There is no hierarchy of hurt." Yet a hierarchy is exactly what Democrats are erecting.... "Intersectionality" is the idea that different kinds of victimhood intersect, so that the person with the most intersections is the biggest victim of all, the person at the top of the hierarchy of hurt—and they get a free pass for hatred toward those who are lower down in the hierarchy. In this case, "progressive" Democrats are making clear that Jews are at the bottom of the hierarchy, treated as just another category of privileged white people.
Give them a few years, and American Democrats will catch up to Britain's Labour party, which is being torn apart by anti-Semitism.
Keep this last part in mind because it's a prediction that panned out. All of this plays into Donald Trump's hands:
President Trump has already telegraphed the ground on which he would like to fight the 2020 election: denouncing the Democrats as socialists and pointing to Venezuela as the nightmare at the end of their road. So naturally the Committee to Re-Elect the President is accommodating him on this, too.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave the Trump campaign a twofer: both defending an anti-Semite and defending the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, all in one tweet.
That reference to Twitter indicates part of the problem: the distorting effect of social media. That has turned out to be a prominent issue in the Democratic primaries, where a series of candidates has chased after the far-left "progressive" vote in an attempt to win the "Twitter Primary," only to discover that Twitter is not representative of actual Democratic Party voters.
A recent article dissects the failure of the "extremely online" campaign run by Kamala Harris.
Much of her poor showing is attributable to a misreading of the Democratic electorate, which she and many of her fellow presidential aspirants have confused for the unreasonable and unrepresentative sample of left-wing activists who populate online forums....
Harris's campaign stumbled out of the gate during a town hall hosted by CNN's Jake Tapper. When the host observed Harris had co-sponsored Bernie Sanders's single-payer healthcare bill, which would prohibit almost all employer-sponsored private health insurance, Harris glibly affirmed her desire to all but nationalize the industry. "Let's eliminate all of that," she concluded with a smile. "Let's move on." It's hard to see how a politician could disregard the polls that show most of those with private health insurance, including Democrats, are satisfied with both the care and cost associated with those plans. That is, unless that politician had mistaken activists on Twitter for the Democratic Party writ large....
Warren's precipitous decline in the polls...accelerated as she devoted her campaign to bizarre crusades with no relevance beyond social media. Warren dedicated her time to attacking Jacob Wohl, an alleged fraudster with almost no profile outside the internet. She insisted on villainizing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for monetizing his platform through advertising. She pledged to end "traffic violence," which the rational and judicious prefer to call "car accidents." And she dedicated herself to defending Taylor Swift's honor in the effort to popularize her crusade against private equity markets. But while Warren was being inaugurated the "president of Twitter clapbacks" by bloggers, her support among actual Democratic voters declined.
In pushing back at bipartisan threats about regulating the Internet, I described this effect.
The basic problem of social media is not so much how it is run as how we react to it. We have failed to adjust our reactions to account for the massive new influx of information made possible with this new technology. Consider the way major consumer brands tend to get panicked by "social justice" campaigns on Twitter. They are used to an era when 10,000 people writing in to complain would indicate a major groundswell of discontent and a public relations disaster. But 10,000 people dragging your brand on Twitter is just another Tuesday, and they will all have moved on to something else within 48 hours....
Unfortunately, this sort of thing has oversized influence because a lot of people in the national media spend their days living on Twitter. A good article in the New York Times covers one aspect of how this distorts their coverage of politics: they think far-left "Progressive" activist are a much larger portion of the population—and of the Democratic Party's base—than they are in real life.
"The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse, and less educated group of Democrats who typically don't post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project. This latter group has the numbers to decide the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of a relatively moderate establishment favorite, as it has often done in the past."...
"Progressive activists" are a small minority of maybe 8% of the population. But they are vocal and influential, particularly on social media, and make themselves seem far more dominant than they are.
One of the thing we have begun to learn about social media is its tendency to put people into "filter bubbles" where algorithms feed them nothing but ideas they agree with, making them think their views are the universal norm and people who disagree with them are freak aberrations. But this is also a bubble in another sense: a deceptive impression that one's own viewpoint is experiencing an unstoppable groundswell of support among the general population, while you are actually losing the support of the American people.
This is one of the reasons why, as his "progressive" rivals rise and fall in the polls and then disappear from the race, Joe Biden remains pretty steadily at the top of the polls, despite—or because of—his indifference to Twitter.
The other problem with being dependent on the support of "woke" Twitter is that you will never be woke enough. It's an immutable law, a corollary of the Theory of Wokeness Relativity. This particular combination of ideology and medium—"social justice" and social media—is an engine of constant internecine conflict. We saw this early in the year with the collapse of the Women's March protest movement, as its various tribes ended up at war with each other.
Racial politics doesn't, and can't, lead to peace and civic harmony and genuine understanding. Philosophically, the racial and gender politics of the left is a return to the naked tribalism of group identity, in which your status is determined by the "intersection" of your identification within various victim groups. But do you know what happens when we return to tribalism? The tribes fight.
Seen in this light, the meltdown of the Women's March isn't really a diversion from the feminist agenda. It's a preview of the future that leftist tribalism is offering everyone—even the left itself: blacks and Muslims venting their resentment at Jews, transgender activists fighting with radical feminists, and pretty much everybody hating white women.
We've seen it more recently as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has gotten his day in the sun as the new "progressive" alternative to Joe Biden—only to find that he, too, can never be woke enough. Here's a recent overview by Tim Miller in The Bulwark.
Last week a problematic photo of Pete Buttigieg "surfaced? on Twitter dot com....
An earmuff-clad Pete Buttigieg stood in the cold outside a South Bend restaurant asking people to donate money to those in need. And he did so with—dun dunh DUNNNHHHH... THE SALVATION ARMY....
In just the last few weeks, Buttigieg—a mild-mannered Midwesterner who has been tucking in his shirt since grade school—has sparked blinding, irrational hatred from the online left. It's a strange new disrespect from the identity politics set, given that Buttigieg is mounting a historic candidacy as the first credible gay presidential candidate in American history.
My favorite example is the complaint that Buttigieg is not "gay enough."
But there is something legitimate behind the revulsion for Pete Buttigieg. It's a real conflict within the left, just not the one they think it is.
The Democratic Party has what one analyst calls an upstairs/downstairs coalition.
Increasingly, the Democratic Party features what social scientists call an hourglass structure, with a smattering of elites at the top and a vast working class on the bottom. It is those on the top who drive policy, and their interests don't always coincide with the party's longtime base. Lee Drutman, senior fellow on political reform at New America, puts it more bluntly: "Democrats have an upstairs/downstairs coalition with an affluent class that does quite well. And they are in a coalition with a poorer set of voters who don't seem to get ahead but who are trapped in that coalition, since if they are poor African-Americans or poor Latinos they view the Republicans as a racist party."
As the upper end of the party gets more and more liberal, it risks moving away from what the base really wants. Surveys show that less-educated Democrats tend to harbor a host of more conservative views—more skepticism of government regulation, for example, more concern about illegal immigration, less interest in the environment and gay rights, and even less interest in a robust social-welfare state....
"For people on the left, the fact that black and Hispanic voters aren't with them on everything is a huge source of embarrassment," said one social scientist, who asked to not be named in order to wade freely into the fraught territory of race and class in America.
It should also be noted that the "progressive" darlings and social media stars, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were elected primarily with support from the upstairs part of the coalition, primarily representing white gentrifiers rather than poor minorities in their districts.
This applies especially to the racial politics that has become dominant among the upstairs portion of the Democratic coalition—but not so much among everybody else: "The country is not divided by racial conflict, but by conflict over racial ideology. This is a crucial difference—and it is also grounds for optimism."
The emerging pattern of the primaries is that minority voters have become "the conservative base of the Democratic Party."
A recent poll giving the breakdown of Democratic preferences by race showed that Elizabeth Warren is slightly leading Biden among whites, at 28% to 27%. But 49% of black voters are breaking for Biden, with Warren at only 13% (and Bernie Sanders at an insignificant 5%). Biden is four times as popular among black Democrats as the next candidate down....
In response to this recent poll, Rob George of the New York Daily News provided the best one-line summary: "Black people are the conservative base of the Democratic Party."
But it's not just that racial minorities are less interested in racial politics than their white would-be saviors. There is also evidence of a growing undercurrent of resistance to the woke left. In the very same edition, I linked to a long article about the misgivings of a devout old-fashioned "liberal" at the incursion of far-left racial and culture-war politics into his child's education. Here's his description of a year-end presentation at his son's school.
[T]he fifth graders presented dioramas on all the hard issues of the moment—sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights, gun violence. Our son made a plastic-bag factory whose smokestack spouted endangered animals. Compared with previous years, the writing was minimal and the students, when questioned, had little to say. They hadn't been encouraged to research their topics, make intellectual discoveries, answer potential counterarguments. The dioramas consisted of cardboard, clay, and slogans....
"Isn't school for learning math and science and reading," he asked us one day, "not for teachers to tell us what to think about society?" He was responding as kids do when adults keep telling them what to think.
Another indication of this is the popularity of Quillette, an online magazine whose articles are mostly written by disillusioned former academic leftists. The Chronicle of Higher Education describes it as "The Academy's New Favorite Hate-Read," but I suggested it might be more of an envy-read: "The prospect of being free to state unapproved truths has got to be pretty intoxicating to those living behind academia's Iron Curtain."
As to what this means for American politics, remember what I said earlier about the dangers of going the way of Britain's Labour Party? I said that before last week's British general election was even contemplated, but the results sure bear out the warnings.
This is the year that popularized the phrase, "Get woke, go broke," to warn corporations and entertainment franchises against catering to the sensibilities of the "extremely online" left rather than to a general market or audience. That's the phrase Quillette's Toby Young invokes to explain Labour's downfall.
The Conservatives' resounding victory in yesterday's British General Election won't come as a surprise to anyone who spent time canvassing in the "Red Wall." That's the name given to a thick wedge of seats in the Midlands and North of England, some of which have been held by the Labour Party for over 75 years. Seats like Penistone and Stockbridge in Sheffield, once the home of the British steel industry, and Bishop Auckland in County Durham, a former coal town. Both turned blue [Conservative] in this election, as did a large number of seats in Labour's post-industrial heartland....
"Most people I know who used to be staunch Labour are now saying no way Jeremy Corbyn," said Steve Hurt, an engineer. "It's not our party any more. Same label, different bottle."...
[T]here's a widespread feeling among voters who value flag, faith, and family that Corbyn isn't one of them. Before he became Labour leader in 2015, he was an energetic protestor against nearly every armed conflict Britain has been involved in since Suez, including the Falklands War. He's also called for the abandonment of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, the withdrawal of the UK from NATO and the dismantling of our security services—not to mention declining to sing the National Anthem at a Battle of Britain service in 2015. From the point of view of many working class voters, for whom love of country is still a deeply felt emotion, Corbyn seems to side with the country's enemies more often than he does with Britain.
Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership election was followed by a surge in party membership—from 193,754 at the end of 2014 to 388,103 by the end of 2015. But the activists he appeals to are predominantly middle class. According to internal Party data leaked to the Guardian, a disproportionate number of them are "high status city dwellers" who own their own homes....
So long as parties like Labour pander to their middle-class, identitarian activists and ignore the interests of the genuinely disadvantaged, they'll continue to rack up loss after loss. Get woke, go broke.
I don't want to romanticize too much the "moderate Democrats" who are the US alternative to the woke left. Or perhaps I should say, the moderate Democrat, because Joe Biden is the only one among the major presidential candidates.
As I described him, he is the "man in the middle," whose "position is always defined by a middle ground between radical alternatives, and it is the radicals who set the terms. The farther out to the left they move, the more he has to move in order to follow them. Hence the dodging and weaving as Biden tries to figure out what a 'moderate' Democrat looks like in 2019, so he can become that."
But this is probably a lot better than the other alternatives. In my article about the Democratic CREEPs, I warned about what can happen to the Overton Window, the range of acceptable political opinions.
The problem is that we tend to think of the Overton Window as moving backward and forward from the traditional left to the traditional right. But it can also go off in crazy directions, and that's what is happening now. On the right, the Overton Window has been moved to accommodate an intolerant, big-government nationalism. On the left, it is moving to embrace socialism again—but a more intolerant, anti-Semitic, and in its own way a more nationalistic socialism than we've seen in a while.
That's what is dangerous about the Democratic party's CREEPs. It's not just that they are bungling their party's electoral interests. It's that they are responding to the illiberal distortion of the other major political party by plunging their party deeper into its own illiberal dysfunction.
The Republican Party's dysfunction, and the conservatives' ideological turn against freedom as an ideal, will be the subject of the next two installments in our countdown of the top stories of 2019.
You will notice that some of the articles I refer to above also appeared in The Bulwark, where I have become a regular contributor, particularly for pieces that focus more on electoral politics—and while The Bulwark is a redoubt for stubborn NeverTrumpers, they have also carried many of my criticisms of the far left.
But everything I write appears first in The Tracinski Letter, and it is the base of support that I rely on to be able to broadcast some of these ideas to a wider audience—and I have definitely been getting attention for my pieces there. I can do it only with your subscriptions and support. Also consider sharing The Tracinski Letter with someone you think would value it by buying a gift subscription.—RWT