From the 1930’s through the 1970’s, the American Left completely controlled the political agenda. They pushed through Civil Right, the creation of the welfare state, the parameters of economic policy and foreign policy. The Left defined the terms and the parameters of the political debate. Then, Reagan won in 1980 and the Left suddenly looked like an old fighter, long past his prime. They could not control the agenda and they had no one in leadership that did not look ridiculous. It really did seem like they were a spent force.
That was the main reason Bush the Elder was able to win in 1988. The Democrats put up Mike Dukakis, who may have been the most ridiculous presidential candidate in American history. In the 12 years the Republicans held the White House, the Left tried to rebuild itself to be relevant in the post-Cold War era, but ultimately the only thing they learned from the Reagan years was that they needed a better media strategy. The lesson they learned from the 1980’s was the Reagan was really good using television to win over voters.
That was the funny part of the Clinton years. He won in 1992, mostly because Bush could not think of a reason why anyone should vote for him. Clinton played the Boomer card and they hired Hollywood professionals to run their marketing efforts. In fact, that was pretty much what the new and improved Left was in the 1990’s, a better media strategy. It was not just the highly stylized ads, but the way they choreographed their events and how they spun the media. The idea of a spin room was an invention of team Clinton.
The Left seemed to revive itself in the Bush years, first over the results of the election in Florida and then over the wars. For the first time in a generation or more, the Left had a cause and it had energy. It was not enough win them the election in 2004, but they did get the House in 2006 and they put Obama in the White House. Then it was a repeat of the Clinton years, in that the Left had nothing to offer, which resulted in their annihilation in the 2010 election. The Obama presidency was not all that different from the Bush presidency.
Another way of thinking about the forty years of American politics is that the post-war Left ran out of gas in the 1970’s and was knocked out by the Conservative Movement in the 1980’s. Like an old fighter, they staggered on for a while, but their time was over. Then the Right lost their punch in the disastrous Bush years, much like how the Left destroyed itself in the 1970’s. That makes the Obama years an interregnum, a period between the death of the old political dynamic and the next phase, which is what’s shaping up now.
The fact that Trump won the nomination is proof that the conservative movement is a spent force. Add in the fact that swamp creatures like McCain and Kristol were part of the dirty tricks effort and Conservative Inc’s impotence is even more clear. On that score, the Left is looking even more useless. They had the FBI, DOJ and foreign intelligence agencies working for them and they were not able to beat Trump. They have not even been able to muster a decent resistance to what Trump is doing as President.
This is a bit of a meandering post, but what got me thinking about all of this is this story about a Democrat candidate in West Virginia. The Left is hoping this guy has the secret answer for how to win elections in the Trump era. They are working from the theory that it was Trump’s earthy style that won him the election, rather than his position on trade and immigration. Instead of coming up with a plausible set of alternatives to what Trump is doing, they are hoping a better marketing strategy will magically solve their problems.
The coordinated PR campaign about the children at the border is another example of the establishment making lots of noise, but offering no substance. They get everyone’s attention about the alleged crisis at the border, but then they have absolutely nothing to offer as a remedy. It’s as if the establishment is a cargo cult, where they think if they stand around on TV flapping their arms the right way, the world will magically return to the way it was before 2016. Both sides remain paralyzed by the lack of a reason to exist.
Maybe that is the way to think about the last forty years of politics. The neo-liberal order, the grand project of our ruling class since the waning days of the Cold War, was a creation that never had a purpose. Once the new world order was in place, inertia carried it along, but for no real reason. Once resistance built up against it, the champions could not come up with a answer for why it should continue, other than to chant “our democracy and values.” It’s why they have no answers for the challenge of national populism.