February 1, 2017
By Neil Cosgrove
“Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.” Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country (1998)
Within the first two weeks following the November 8th election, as the popular vote plurality for the Democratic presidential candidate steadily increased, Jennifer Senior of the New York Times published an article highlighting an obscure book by philosopher Richard Rorty, written nearly 20 years earlier. Rorty had then predicted that a “non-suburban electorate” would eventually, after concluding that their government didn’t care about falling wages and exported jobs, begin “looking around for a strongman to vote for.”
Following Senior’s article, Amazon struggled to keep up with demand for Rorty’s book and a long line formed to borrow the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library’s one circulating copy.
Rorty’s main insight is that the Democratic party in particular, and the American left in general, has failed to fully commit, either emotionally or while executing the practical business of governing, to a national “self-identity” based on inclusion, fairness, and equality—social, economic and political equality. Nearly a quarter of a century after the Clintons won the White House touting a formulaic shift to some vaguely apprehended “political center,” as recommended by the Democratic Leadership Council (bitterly characterized by Jesse Jackson as “Democrats for the Leisure Class”), party leaders are still arguing over the American self-identity they wish to embrace. Should they take the great leap into a governing vision of equality and inclusion, one that would encompass rather than alienate all those rural and small-town citizens who keep voting for Republicans, time after time? Or keep on offering mild rebuttals to the Republicans’ virulent image of a nation of grasping individuals?
The Democrats most significant recent electoral triumph, in 2008, was propelled in part by Obama’s ability to articulate a vision of “hope” and “change,” a self-imagining vision of inclusion that he himself, as an African-American, embodied. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, Obama’s upbringing, different from that of most African-Americans, allowed him to actually trust the white electorate, thus inducing a mutual acceptance that was both unique and historically astounding. But governing is hard, Republican opposition was unified and relentless, and too many Democrats lacked any clear sense of either an American or a partisan identity they could forcefully defend. The 2014 Democratic candidate for the Senate in Kentucky was representative, being unwilling to admit she even voted for Obama in the previous election. She lost badly, just as the Democratic congressman in one western Pennsylvania rural, small town district lost in 2010, after refusing to vote for the Affordable Care Act that same year.
The Democrats are long on policy solutions, while the Republicans have little to offer in that department. But Republicans do have the courage of their reactionary convictions. The Party’s leaders have a simple yet effective formula: engage apprehensive voters by conjuring up their resentments about the present and their fears about the future, then promise a return to a past that was “better,” at least in memory, for those voters. The electorate is offered a moral vision that is supposedly eternal and absolute, and unreflectively applicable to problems related to sexual behavior, crime, foreign affairs, social status, and cultural difference. Republicans appeal to Americans’ desire for individual autonomy, even if that autonomy is challenged every day by economic structures that render people powerless, and even if the illusion of autonomy plays right into the hands of a corporate elite which possesses enormous power.
Difficult as it is to accept, it doesn’t matter that what the Republicans are selling isn’t a particularly effective product, or doesn’t align with the day-to-day realities of most people’s lives. Because Republicans aren’t really selling the product, namely the policies they say they will implement, but a self-identity that appeals to those Americans who have not been offered an equally coherent and appealing identity by the Democrats. It’s not the steak, as that old advertising truism states; it’s the sizzle. As we saw in the 2016 election, a significant minority of American voters decided that it didn’t matter if Donald Trump couldn’t get his facts straight from one moment to the next. They warmed to the image he was projecting, through his own persona, of themselves—as straight-talking, independent, clear-thinking, wised-up individuals fully capable of “taking back their country.”
Back in 1994, when the Democrats under Bill Clinton lost the entire Congress to the Republicans for the first time since early in the Eisenhower administration, the party should have begun realizing that they had to return to the message that had worked well for them since 1932—that they were the party that stood up for the poor, for workers, for a future of equality, inclusion, and social justice. Instead, it has taken the loss of the 2016 presidential race, when the party put up a competent technocrat against a charismatic branding expert and lost, to bring many of its leaders to the realization that the party’s frequent electoral defeats, on the regional, state and national levels, went beyond “messaging” and entailed its very identity. An identity, which at present, is neither coherent nor inspiring.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center Board.