If you want to know why our politics has reached its current unusual (though by no means unprecedented) state of bitterness and hysteria, take a long look at an often neglected factor in our electoral campaigns: laziness.
In 2016, I gave a talk to some conservative activists in California in which I presented a portfolio of concerns about the state of the Republican Party, in particular its presidential nominee. (Retrospective judgment: I was dire, but not dire enough.) Donald Trump, I explained, was not the only problem on the scene: Republicans had abandoned the high ground on spending and fiscal responsibility; state party organizations in effectively single-party GOP states such as Texas had in many cases grown complacent and in other cases had become positively corrupt; and the party had come to be dominated by its “entertainment wing,” meaning Fox News and talk radio and a few social-media entrepreneurs. The problem wasn’t Donald Trump or Sean Hannity but the fact that Donald Trump and Sean Hannity were so obviously made for one another.
As you might imagine, the conservative activists weren’t having it and quickly grew restive. One older gentleman, red-faced with rage and zinfandel, demanded: “What I want to know is: What are you doing to make sure Republican candidates get elected in November?”
I thought about it for a second and gave him what he didn’t want—an honest answer.
The consequent furor was about what you would expect.
Our politics is upside-down in several different ways, but one of the most important of them is that politicians and activists seem to have forgotten how to ask for votes and how to engage in old-fashioned democratic persuasion. Instead of saying, “What can I do to earn your support?” our contemporary politicians insist that we are morally obligated to support them no matter what. After hearing the stories about Herschel Walker, purportedly a pro-life Republican, paying for an abortion for one of his many extramarital attachments, Dana Loesch gave the definitive Republican answer of 2022: “I don’t care if Hershel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles—I want control of the Senate.”
Never mind that such a figure as Dana Loesch will never have control of the Senate: She will be at most an instrument of someone else’s control. Nobody on the right seems able to stop and ask: “Why? Why do we want a party whose leading lights are such figures as Donald Trump and Herschel Walker to control the Senate? Why would we want such figures as Lindsey Graham or Josh Hawley to control anything?”
Maybe there is a case for that. But I spend a lot of time around politicians, especially Republican politicians, taking copious notes on their emissions, and I have not heard a case for Republicans worth repeating in years—only a case against Democrats.
Democrats, for their part, are in essentially the same rhetorical position.
Political demonization may reflect a kind of moral failing, but it reflects much more clearly an intellectual failing—and a political failing, too. Every time a Republican muckety-muck tries to produce an actual agenda, it either sinks like a lead Titanic (Kevin McCarthy) or it ends up being the political equivalent of urinating on an electric fence (Rick Scott). Mitch McConnell, shrewd carnivore that he is, has tried to dissuade Republicans from producing any kind of legislative to-do list at all, and his argument for that—Why give the Democrats something to run against?—gives away the game: McConnell knows that Republicans are, at this curious political moment, entirely incapable of producing a positive agenda that is anything other than a net loss for them politically. If Republicans talk about fiscal rectitude, Americans will laugh at them; if Republicans talk about foreign policy, they’ll end up in a bellum omnium contra omnes with all those check-writing military contractors in Virginia and the Kremlin stooges in Ohio going berserk on one another. Abortion? Give Blake Masters a time machine and he can have a heated argument with himself while messing up only a few months on the space-time continuum.
The argument ends up being ridiculous for Republicans: Vote for Donald Trump so that he can snog with Kim Jong-un because Joe Biden is a … socialist? Communist? Fascist? Stalinist? Whatever. Trump was buddies with pretty much every extant Stalinist wielding real political power today, while Biden spends his days mumbling into his tapioca about the glories of the WPA. (Never mind that Trump’s once and future Svengali, Steve Bannon, describes himself as a Leninist.) Michael Bloomberg has some daffy policy ideas—he had the same daffy ideas when he held office as a Republican—but a political rhetoric that insists that such a man is a Marxist is almost too silly even to respond to. David French is a “leftist”—sure, buddy, sure.
You can turn that on its head and get similar results: I don’t know what it is that has gotten up the nose of Tucker Carlson, but if that were really what a hardcore neo-Nazi is like, prison gangs would be about as dangerous as your aunt’s bridge club. As on the right, the left’s rhetorical incontinence makes it functionally impossible to draw important political distinctions: No, Marco Rubio isn’t a white supremacist; yes, Trump tried to execute a coup d’état after losing the election. That one of those things is true—while the other is only useful to certain progressive columnists and entertainers—really matters.
Republicans can’t accommodate a politics of reality because doing so would mean asking Herschel Walker to explain to the people of Georgia what he would actually try to do in a Senate in which he might very well be a member of the minority party and would be at best a member of a party with a slight majority that cannot simply legislate by fiat as though Democrats did not exist. In the real world, a Republican who wants to get something done in the Senate has to figure out how to work with Alex Padilla or Tammy Duckworth if not Chuck Schumer or Patrick Leahy. And Herschel Walker will be bringing out a new translation of Beowulf before he explains how he’s going to do that. So, instead, we get, “Stop the communists!” as though that were an answer, or an agenda, or really even the beginning of an answer or an agenda.
Of course, the politics of demonization provide a double benefit for Republicans: It allows them to demand power without really explaining what they mean to do with it—and, at least as important, it gives them an excuse not to account for the many ways in which they already have wasted and abused the power with which they have been entrusted.
At some point, that gambit will play itself out—if only because, in spite of the best efforts of our politicians, the sky is not falling, and the inconsiderate world keeps refusing to end.