by Bruce Thornton
The dire risks of absurdity in politics.
Democratically elected people’s assemblies historically have been known for their mediocrity, and the U.S. has been no different. The great champion of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1835 observed, “I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government. It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs,” a condition that worsens the more democratic the government becomes.
But over the last decade, the ineptitude of our Congressmen has increased dramatically, to the point that today Congress looks like the green room for the Gong Show. The last midterm especially brought to Washington some representatives whose abject ignorance of even basic math is astonishing, and whose embrace of ideas hostile to the American Constitutional order are frightening. More troubling, some of them have become the de facto leaders of the Democrat progressives, the mangy tail that today is wagging the already scrofulous dog. The possibilities for entertainment are many, but so are the dangers to our Republic.
The rising star of this dubious cohort is the toothy, goofy Representative from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her Mr. Ed grin and exophthalmic stare are ubiquitous on the internet and cable news. AOC–– she has already earned an honorific acronym––has become the face of the millennial fad of socialism that was given legs by Bernie Sander’s insurgent presidential candidacy in 2016. For Dems obsessed with regaining power and smiting the hated Donald Trump, however, AOC, though too young to run for president, has better optics and publicity than yet another old white guy who has spent his years in the Senate comfortable with the establishment status quo.
AOC, on the other hand, represents the “future” of the Democrats, still advertised as “the emerging Democratic majority,” as a 2002 book of that name called it, comprising women, minorities, and the college-educated. This new coalition was supposed to do what Thomas Jefferson did to the Federalists in 1800–– “sink federalism into an abyss from which there will be no resurrection for it,” as he accurately predicted. The election of Barack Obama seemingly confirmed the Dems’ optimism, and his carefully groomed successor, Hillary Clinton, promised to continue Obama’s “fundamental transformation of America.”
Donald Trump, of course, stood athwart this “arc of history” yelling “Hell, no!” As the progressives tell the tale, Trump was carried aloft by the racist resentment of white working-class “bitter clingers” and “deplorables.” Colluding with the Rooskies to steal votes, and enabled by the undemocratic remnants of “white supremacism” like the Electoral College, Trump pulled off a coup and deprived the Democrats of their end-of-history consummation.
In reality, the Dems’ wounds were self-inflicted. Instead of heeding the counsel of Bill and moving to the center and reaching out to the forgotten men and women of the working class, Hillary endorsed the new New Left. She didn’t even campaign in the states that pushed Trump over the Electoral College finish line. And then the Democrats drew all the wrong lessons from their shellacking.
The high profile of AOC is the premier example of this lapse in political judgment and blind hubris. Sure, she’s young and “hip,” as the bougie techno-dorks define that term. She’s got a lot of idealistic pep, an emotion prized by those who think enthusiasm and idealism are more important than coherent ideas, philosophical integrity, moral probity, and practical wisdom. And most important for the diversicrat left, she’s a “Latina,” one of those “people of color” who usually on closer inspection turn out to be indistinguishable from a white person of similar education and socio-economic privilege. Not many farmworkers or maids grow up, as AOC did, with a nickname like “Sandy.” She’s what Thomas Sowell calls a “mascot” for white progressives for whom “diversity” is only skin-deep.
What’s more astonishing is that many in her party are climbing on board this preposterous program, mostly the prospective or proclaimed 2020 primary candidates who want to draft off of AOC’s celebrity. But that crew is mediocre and politically inept in its own right. Elizabeth Warren is probably mortally wounded by her appropriation of Cherokee identity for careerist advantage, not to mention her trite, parlor pink anti-capitalism and schoolmarmish demeanor. Corey Booker, another POC “mascot” like AOC, beclowned himself at the Kavanagh inquisition with his bizarre “I am Spartacus” mangled metaphor, and his desperate pivoting from his earlier more moderate record. Kamala Harris, yet another POC “mascot,” got her break by being San Francisco mayor Willie Brown’s squeeze, and the beneficiary of $400,000 in city money he threw her way. She followed that up with a spotty, often incoherent tenure as California’s Attorney General. And don’t forget her support for “Medicare for All” and her desire to “eliminate all that,” meaning private health insurance.
In short, the sort of candidates that portend a wipeout of 1972 or 1980 proportions. But what’s the alternative for Democrats? Their frenzied hatred of Trump and hysterical tantrums have isolated and marginalized any possible blue centrist who could revive a Clintonian “Third Way” and challenge Trump on terms that appeal to voters outside the base. So too have the Salemite #MeToo hysterics, whose imperative “to believe” ancient charges of sexual assault, and willingness to suspend Constitutional safeguards for the accused, have alienated millions of voters. And now they are eating their own, like Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a POC accused of two sexual assaults from long ago. So too with the identity-politics Montagnards currently conducting a Thermidor against fellow Democrats like Virginia Governor Ralph Northam for 30-year-old racial offenses.
As for the old white guard, People of Pallor like Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden will have a tough time going up against female POCs. Imagine the primary debates and the eggshells both will have to tread in order to avoid any “microaggressions” or “mansplaining” or “white privilege” airs or inadvertent verbal gaffes detectable only by the commissars of racialist code-talking. It’s also likely we’ll hear more accusations of sexual impropriety like the ones about Sanders’ randy staffers on his 2016 campaign. And “groping” Joe Biden has a video track record of unseemly massaging of women.
You can forget Starbucks plutocrat Howard Schultz, who compounds the crime of being white and male with the worse crime of being richer than his affluent rivals. It takes a millionaire to really hate a billionaire. And he’s already created a lot of bad blood by saying he’ll run as an independent, which the left sees as a typical flabby liberal cop-out. As Pelosi’s refusal to negotiate over couch-change for a border barrier shows, the progressives are going to want hair and blood on the walls, not engage in give-and-take.
What promises to be a political Gong Show, then, will be even more entertaining than the current collection of talentless exhibitionists. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious stakes at risk in 2020. I remember the Nineties, when I had fun mocking in print the goofy postmodern “higher nonsense” coming out of the academy. My concern was to defend higher education’s traditional mission of training minds in the skills of critical thought and the great traditions of Western civilization. I saw a long-term decline if such trends continued, but I didn’t realize the consequences could be so immediate and bloody.
It took the carnage of 9/11 to show the dire effects of hilarious intellectual hijinks. The fashionable self-loathing of postmodern multiculturalism had eroded our capacity to understand clearly the motives of the terrorists and their illiberal, anti-humanist, intolerant religious motives. Postcolonial darling Edward Said may have been a prep-schooled phony and an intellectual fop little known beyond the conventions and seminars of mediocre academics, but his works had poisoned the disciplines like history and Middle Eastern Studies that should have been explaining clearly the nature and motives of the West’s oldest enemy. Instead they were apologists for murderers who despised our freedoms and respect for human rights.
In politics as in academe, absurdity, while amusing, can still be dangerous. A progressive victory in 2020 will mark a revival of the destructive forces unleashed during Obama’s two terms. Trump has slowed the assault for now, but we can’t let the buffoonery of the Democrats lull us into complacency. The stakes of failure are too high.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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