The Politics of Frustration

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at Prince William Fairground in Manassas, Virginia, Monday, September 14, 2015. 

Republican primary voters, we are told, are furious about the failure of their party’s elected leaders to deliver on their promises. Despite controlling Congress, those leaders have done nothing about illegal immigration and have failed to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, or prevent the agreement with Iran from going through. Fed up with career politicians and fearing dire changes in American society, the party’s rank and file have instead gravitated to candidates who have never held public office—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. At least, that has been the story in the early going of the presidential race.

On the left, there is an analogous impatience. Just as Republicans are frustrated with the Republican Congress, so progressives are frustrated with the Obama presidency. The standard measures of economic inequality show little progress. Median incomes remain stagnant. The nation and the world continue to hurtle toward a fateful reckoning with climate change.

To some extent, both the conservative and progressive frustrations have the same origin—limited power in a divided government. Neither side is able to get its way because neither party controls all the levers of power. But there is an additional parallel. Both conservatives and progressives say the parties’ agendas aren’t radical enough.

In the Republican campaign, candidates have been trying to outdo each other in radical appeals. Build a wall on the Mexican border—and the Canadian one too. Ban abortion—even in cases of rape and incest. Abolish the Department of Education. Abolish the Internal Revenue Service. Institute a flat tax—no, abolish income taxes altogether. Unilaterally abrogate the new agreement with Iran and show the Ayatollah we mean business. Send troops to Iraq again and to Syria as well.

The Republican primaries are a case study in a social psychological phenomenon known as “group polarization.” When people talk only with those who share their views, they tend to move toward the extremes. None of the candidates, except occasionally Ohio Governor John Kasich, dares talk like a moderate.

On the Democratic side, the candidates are unlikely to race to the left in a way that’s comparable to the Republican race to the right. But the idle talk about adopting single-payer health care and emulating a Scandinavian welfare state has a similar air of unreality about it. Without a total remaking of American society and politics, these ideas have no chance of being enacted outside of Vermont (which didn’t get anywhere with single-payer after initially approving it).

I get that Democrats need to inspire their base, but I have never found political delusions inspiring. The Republican candidates ought to provide motivation enough for Democrats to show up at the polls. In Europe, the conservative and social democratic parties may be close enough that voters see no meaningful difference between them. But in the United States, the gap between the Republicans and Democrats is cavernous.

It is also simply not true that the Obama presidency has failed to make good on the crucial issues of our time. The Affordable Care Act is the most significant program benefiting low-income working people to have been enacted in decades. Recent changes in taxes have been strikingly progressive. The rate on top incomes has risen from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, and capital gains taxes for high-income people have jumped from 15 percent to 23.8 percent (counting the extension of the Medicare tax to capital income that was part of the ACA).

Obama has also taken important steps on climate change, providing funds for research on radical innovation in energy, imposing regulations on carbon emissions from power plants, and laying the ground for progress in international negotiations.

The Democrats now face one political imperative above all others: holding the presidency so as to restore a liberal majority on the Supreme Court. To be sure, Democrats will have a chance to move the Court further if they also regain control of the Senate, but the presidency is the key. The next four years will likely bring at least one and possibly two retirements among the Court’s liberal justices, and if a Republican president replaces them, conservatives will be able to consolidate their majority and entrench far-right constitutional ideas.

If Democrats can prevent that from happening, there will come a time when they can again pass substantial liberal legislation. But it is not likely to be in the next four years because of the Republican hold on the House. Republican leaders have to control the frustration in their ranks to avoid being stuck with a reckless and unqualified presidential nominee. Democrats have to overcome the frustrations in their ranks to be able to get their voters to show up and to sustain support despite the Republicans’ likely continued power to block major legislative initiatives. It is tricky to be inspiring and realistic at the same time. We want our leaders to disregard the chains of political practicality, which they can do in exceptional circumstances like a national crisis. This is not that kind of moment. The challenge now for Democrats is to avoid getting ahead of themselves and to understand that they will be able to do a lot more in the future if they can focus on what they have to do now.

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