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Top-Down Letdown
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Top-Down Letdown

How elites failed us in 2021.

Dear Reader (and all the strange voices in my head),

I finally got COVID. I assume it was Omicron, but who knows? Whatever variant it was, it wasn’t fun. Since odds are good everybody everywhere is going to get it, I’ll spare you the detailed reporting from my sickbed. I feel much, much better now. I still get fatigued easily and even the slightest exertion makes me sweat like a messenger with bad news for Stalin. I also think I have a slight touch of COVID brain fog. I start working on a task—like adding up short columns of single-digit numbers or writing this sentence—feeling sharp as a Ginsu knife, but by the end I’m duller than something … something…very dull … Mike Pence’s breakfast, maybe? I wonder what’s on Amazon Prime?

I feel a bit like my old basset hound, Norman. He would enter the living room like Caesar returning from Gaul, looking to settle into his throne-chair for a nap. But after walking only half the distance, he’d decide that he’d better rest up before continuing the full eight-foot trek to his destination. So, he’d just grab a quick five-minute nap on the way to his official nap. (If there are any Hill Street Blues fans out there, many references to Vic Hitler, the narcoleptic comic, were made.)

Anyway, that’s why I didn’t file anything this week. I hate missing deadlines under any circumstances, but this was a particularly frustrating time to fall short. We did a big Christmas drive for gift subscriptions and so we have a bunch of new Dispatch members here, but not enough fresh content for them because of the Christmas holiday. It’s like convincing the big critic to come to your restaurant but the food delivery truck doesn’t turn up.

Still, I had a pretty good 2021 all things considered. It was certainly better than 2020, though that’s a bit like saying Dr. Pepper is better than Porta Potty toilet water. But enough about me.

Two days in January.

One of the remarkable things about 2021 is that in just the first week—heck, in just two back-to-back days—the storyline for the year was set.

On January 5, two Democratic candidates won the Georgia Senate special elections because Donald Trump told just enough Republican voters that they shouldn’t bother voting. This gave the Democrats nominal control of the Senate and Joe Biden the crazy idea that he could govern like he was FDR.

Now, I’ve covered all of this like Rudy Giuliani’s comb-over, so I don’t need to get into it again. But the point is that the scope and significance of that miscalculation took months to become apparent. That’s the thing about choosing the wrong path at a fork in the road—you usually have to walk a long way before you realize the error. Biden spent the spring and summer gamboling along thinking he could do no wrong. And for understandable reasons. The GOP didn’t meaningfully oppose Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, which helped convince him that such massive spending would be easy and would beget even more massive spending. Democrat-friendly media outlets kept telling him what he wanted to hear. Liberal intellectuals and activists convinced themselves that a new progressive era was dawning.  

Will Rogers once said that diplomacy was the art of “saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.” In 2021, reality spent the first six months telling Biden, “nice doggie.” Then came the rocks: in Afghanistan, in Joe Manchin, in COVID testing, in rising crime, in inflation and supply chain woes. The Biden administration and its defenders think that they’re just victims of events outside of their control, and to some extent that’s true. But it’s also true that they didn’t spend much time thinking about how events have a tendency to surprise you. And part of being president is thinking about what the downsides will look like and being ready for them.

Then there’s that other day. Roughly 24 hours after the Georgia runoff sent the Democrats down the wrong path, the outgoing president of the United States tried to steal the election. Actually, that’s the wrong way to put it. On January 6, Donald Trump’s monthslong effort to steal the election reached its cinematic conclusion at the Capitol. This isn’t speculation. We have more smoking guns than the Battle of Fort Sumter, from the Eastman memos to PowerPoint presentations to audio of the president haranguing election officials to “find” just the right number of votes. We also have outright confessions. Donald Trump says all the time he’d be president if Mike Pence had just followed through on the scheme. (I don’t think that’s true, but it does speak to Trump’s state of mind.) Peter Navarro has just written a whole book that is apparently one long confessional on how they tried to steal the election.

I plan to write more about January 6 elsewhere, and my views on the topic are both well-established and sufficiently dyspeptic as to rob this “news”letter of even the pretense of light-heartedness. So I’ll just make a stab at two points, or really one point with two prongs, sort of like a shrimp fork. What we are witnessing in American politics is best understood as elite failure, and 2021 is when it became undeniable.

There are a great many tribes among America’s elites and not all of them are failing us, but let’s focus on our political elites, specifically the two broad camps of left and right. The right’s failures are just staggering to behold in their entirety, and it would be pointless to try to catalog all of that here.

Imagine you could go back in time—not to make bets with your Grays Sports Almanac, but just to warn people about what’s to come. Go back to 2015 or even 2019, pick a prominent figure on the right, and describe to them the basic facts as we know them about the lead up to January 6 and the apologetics marshaled in its aftermath. The vast majority would either dismiss this tale as a ridiculous hypothetical—“Ha! Mike Pence decides who the president is? Come on, who would buy that garbage?” “Rudy Giuliani said what?”—or they would say that if such a thing were to happen, they would be leading the calls for impeachment and criminal prosecution. With the exception of Liz Cheney and a few others, they would all be wrong.

One needn’t even play hypothetical time travel games. If a Democratic president did exactly what Trump did, every single one of these apologists and minimizers would instantly recognize the scope of this villainy.

Which brings me to the left’s failure. There’s a great deal of high-minded talk about the threat to democracy posed by Trump, and I agree with some of it. But a great deal of it is less high-minded than it seems. The current, specific threat posed to democracy by the Trumpists is entirely about the corruption of the vote counting process, but Democrats are obsessed with “reforming” vote casting, and they are exploiting concerns about vote counting as a way to smuggle their agenda. I put “reforming” in scare quotes not because every proposed reform is unwarranted (though many are), but because these proposals are primarily partisan. Most are the same dog’s breakfast Democrats have wanted for years. They still talk incessantly about “voter suppression”—including in last year’s election—as if an election with the highest turnout in a century was a story of voter suppression. You know what voter suppression, voter fraud, and lesbian vampires all have in common? They all played the same role in the 2020 presidential election, with equal effect. I’ll know Democrats are serious about “saving democracy” when they acknowledge that it has never been easier to vote in American history, and that the most pressing legislative priority for lovers of democracy isn’t making pandemic voting policies permanent but updating the Electoral Count Act.

The second impeachment of Donald Trump was a perfect illustration of elite failure on the left. Led by Nancy Pelosi, Democrats took a fundamental assault on our constitutional order and the democratic process and turned into theater for partisan advantage. If Pelosi were interested in protecting the institution of Congress, she would have launched impeachment proceedings by the afternoon of January 7 while bending over backward to get Republicans involved in the process from the outset, when the truth of the thing was still morally and politically undeniable.

But elite failure isn’t just about January 6, or Joe Biden’s narcissistic need to be a more historic president than the times or the electorate called for. It’s everywhere. It colors how elites have responded to the pandemic and everything else this year. Liberal elites assumed every good faith argument from the right about how to respond to the pandemic was bad faith partisanship or “anti-science” death-cultery. Conservative elites assumed that every good faith argument from the left was a Trojan horse for some medicalized authoritarianism.

More broadly, they’ve lost the imaginative capacity to appreciate how their individual or tribal behavior influences the behavior of others. Think of it this way. We still nominally understand that things like greed, envy, and selfishness are bad. But in our therapeutically narcissistic culture, we tend to understand such concepts as individual follies and foibles, bad for your “mental health” or, for some, your soul. But we never talk about the effects of such behaviors on the souls of others. When elites behave selfishly, they signal to other elites—never mind everyone else—that such behavior is not just normal, but a key ingredient of the success that made them elites in the first place. The same goes for all the vices. It’s game theory. If you’re in a room where everyone is a greedy glutton hoarding all the food they can grab, gluttony becomes a matter of rational self-interest. Get yours as quickly as possible or you get nothing.

When Team A defies norms, they aren’t just doing something bad on the merits; they are giving permission to Team B to do the same thing. When Team B defies norms in response, they are not just making norm defiance bipartisan; they are telling Team A they were right in the first place. Moreover, Team A now believes that Team B’s denunciations were never sincere and that Team B is just a bunch of hypocrites. Pretty soon the only arguments are about who’s the bigger hypocrite. Democrats are right to condemn Trump’s threat to democracy, but it’s all too easy for Republicans to ignore such condemnations when they come from supporters of Stacey Abrams, who still clings to the lie that her bid for governor was stolen. Norms mean nothing if they are binding only for your enemies.

I really don’t want to end on such a dyspeptic note—in part because that’s no fun but more because I’m actually pretty bullish on America’s prospects these days. I think this is the last gasp of the pandemic and the various moral panics it’s generated. I think there’s a bipartisan grassroots demand for normalcy working its overdue magic on our politics. And while the market demand for asininity and hysteria is still too strong, it’s looking increasingly like a niche product peddled by elites who respond to the loudest among us. But I suspect the normal and decent are figuring that out. Here’s hoping 2022 proves me right.

Canine update: It’s been so long and so much has happened since the last one I don’t know where to begin. We took Zoë and Pippa up to Grandma’s for Christmas, but despite a lot of effort, I couldn’t get a picture of my girls in Fafoon’s or Paddington’s presence. They retreated to their private chambers when the mongrel beasts were around. It’s probably for the best given that they would not deal well with Fafoon’s wrath. The drive up wasn’t bad and given our trip to Washington state last month, the five hours in the car were like doing 30 days in county jail for a hardened con who’d previously done 20 years in the federal pen. We can do that kind of time standing on our head (or floofy tails). We had to leave Gracie at home unsupervised, so I’m a little worried to see how many cat toys she bought on Amazon while I was gone. All the animals did heroic work keeping me company while I was out with COVID. And the Fair Jessica had to take over Treat Video Duty one morning, but she has a considerable fan base for her cinematic style.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.