Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 21 August 2020


 I agree with Peggy Noonan that one of the chief problems with the American Democratic Party has to do with 'glitz'. Trump was a billionaire from birth.  Maybe we can live with that, because he was never "one of us". Nor does he claim to be! But Barack and Michelle have gotten rich - hideously and unforgivably so - on the back of officialdom and politicking. And you can see where 'karma-llah' Harris is headed! Long ago I wrote a critical piece on her economist father,  regarding Joan Robinsonwhich I will post here soon. Small world!

The Democrats Miss the Meaning

Their convention was marked by a sense of grievance, but voters need to know what they’ll do.


To be fair in critiquing certain public events you have to be like a judge in the Olympics and factor in degree of difficulty. No one had ever done a Zoom convention before, so no one knew how to do it. Should there be a host each night? Should it be an earnest actress? Does that make us look shallow? Do we want to look shallow?

What hadn’t been done before was done rather poorly, with high schlock content. You got the impression no one creative or daring was authorized to be either. It has been compared to a telethon, an infomercial, and fundraising week on public television. Marianne Williamson said it was “like binge watching a Marriott commercial.” Mostly it was the Democratic Party talking to itself and playing to its base.

Missing was any hint of priorities or plans, of the meaning of the party or its intentions. They made the case against Donald Trump, and a case for Joe Biden as an essentially decent person. But they didn’t say what they’ll do. And this year that is key.

I’m not sure they’re sufficiently aware of two things. One is the number of people who don’t like Mr. Trump and will vote for him anyway. They don’t have to be talked into thinking he’s a bad character, they’re already on board.

All summer I’ve been running into two kinds of people. One kind says, “That man is a living shame on our country and must be removed.” The other kind says very little. They don’t defend him. They say, “I can’t believe I may vote for him, but . . .” And always they explain it this way: “What the other guys are gonna do on taxes,” “What the other guys will do to my industry,” “What the Democrats will do to the economy.”

I’m getting the impression that for a lot of people, the ballot this fall won’t read “Trump vs. Biden” but “Trump vs. What the Other Guys Will Do.”

Do the Democrats understand how hunkered-down many people feel, psychologically and physically, after the past six months? If I asked this right now of a convention planner or participant I think they’d say, “Yes, people feel battered by systemic bias, inequality, and climate change.” And I’d say no, they’re afraid of foreclosures! They’re afraid of a second wave, no schools, more shutdowns, job losses and suddenly the supply lines break down this winter and there are food shortages.

When this is the context, what a great party plans to do couldn’t be more crucial.

To the speeches:

Barack Obama’s speech will stick in history; it won’t just slide away. No former president has ever publicly leveled anything like this criticism at a sitting successor: “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously, that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he has shown no interest in putting in the work.”

This is a former president calling the current one shallow and lazy. He also suggested he’s greedy and intellectually incapable. Unprecedented? Yes. Unjustified? No, alas. And I’m not seeing Trump supporters rise up in indignant defense. They know it’s true, too.

Kamala Harris achieved complete adequacy. I can’t remember anything she said without referring to notes, so she gets no quotes. She’s a natural performer of politics and good at acting out warmth and joy, but she did something that they’re all doing more and more, which involves a husky catch in the voice as if they’re so sincere, so moved by what they’re saying, that their throats constrict for a moment. Mr. Obama did it. Michelle Obama did it a lot. Panelists will soon do it on cable news. Please everyone, stop.

As for Mr. Biden, all his political life he’s tried to express himself in ways he thinks eloquent but that tend to be only long-winded. He chases a thought a long way, even when it’s a small one and not worth the hunt. All of this is part of his old-school way and is neither harmful nor helpful. But he had a strong, tight speech. He looked good, spoke crisply, maintained focus. The speech is going to do him some significant good. Though he didn’t make his plans and intentions clear.

Two small thoughts I’ll try not to chase too far:

First, Democratic Party professionals are funny about policy. They take it seriously but don’t think other people do. The past three decades they wound up thinking all politics is about glitz, emotion and compelling characters. Part of the reason they’re like this is they never thought Republicans were serious about policy, because if they were, they’d be Democrats. They find it hard to credit the importance of policy in the making of a party’s fortunes. They thought Republicans liked Reagan because he was handsome, and George H.W. Bush because he fought in the war. But their elections were policy victories. Charm and humor, stagecraft and showbiz matter, but they’re not everything. They’re not even half of everything.

Because boomer Democrats thought Republicans won on glitz, they got glitzy in return. It was the central Clintonian insight of 1992: We have to become actors, like the actors we seek to replace.

It only made politics worse and left Democrats unable to speak in public forums of the central point of politics: why you stand where you stand and what you intend to do.

(Fairness forces me to note that socialists love talking about policy, and so does Elizabeth Warren. And that Republican political operatives, as a class, are naturally hostile to the meaning of anything.)

Second, apart from the “We The People” gauziness, there was a nonstop hum of grievance at the convention. To show their ferocious sincerity in the struggle against America’s injustices, most of the speakers thought they had to beat the crap out of the country—over and over. Its sins: racism, sexism, bigotry, violence, xenophobia, being unwelcoming to immigrants. The charges, direct and indirect, never let up. Little love was expressed, little gratitude. Everyone was sort of overcoming being born here.

Even Mr. Obama, trying, in a spirit of fairness, to expand the circle of the aggrieved, spoke of “Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told: Go back where you come from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Skihs, made to feel suspect . . . black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters, beaten for trying to vote. . . . They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth.”

The cumulative effect of all this, especially for the young, would prompt an inevitable question: Why would anyone fight to save this place? Who needs it?

If I were 12 and watched, I’d wonder if I had a chance here. If I were 20, they’d have flooded me with unearned bitterness.

Injustice is real, history is bloody. But guys, do you ever think you’re overdoing it? Are you afraid that this is all you got? Is that why you don’t talk about policy?

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