An unspoken agenda is behind the ugliness in American politics.
Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?
Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.
Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.
To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.
The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference — both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.
As you might guess, I’m on the many-evils side of this debate. Oligarchy is a very real issue, and I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today’s Sanders supporters were in elementary school. But it’s important to understand how America’s oligarchs got so powerful.
For they didn’t get there just by buying influence (which is not to deny that there’s a lot of influence-buying out there). Crucially, the rise of the American hard right was the rise of a coalition, an alliance between an elite seeking low taxes and deregulation and a base of voters motivated by fears of social change and, above all, by hostility toward you-know-who.
Yes, there was a concerted, successful effort by billionaires to push America to the right. That’s not conspiracy theorizing; it’s just history, documented at length in Jane Mayer’s eye-opening new book “Dark Money.” But that effort wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as it has without the political aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, and the resulting flip of Southern white voters to the G.O.P.
Until recently you could argue that whatever the motivations of conservative voters, the oligarchs remained firmly in control. Racial dog whistles, demagogy on abortion and so on would be rolled out during election years, then put back into storage while the Republican Party focused on its real business of enabling shadow banking and cutting top tax rates.
But in this age of Trump, not so much. The 1 percent has no problems with immigration that brings in cheap labor; it doesn’t want a confrontation over Planned Parenthood; but the base isn’t taking guidance the way it used to.
In any case, however, the question for progressives is what all of this says about political strategy.
If the ugliness in American politics is all, or almost all, about the influence of big money, then working-class voters who support the right are victims of false consciousness. And it might — might — be possible for a candidate preaching economic populism to break through this false consciousness, thereby achieving a revolutionary restructuring of the political landscape, by making a sufficiently strong case that he’s on their side. Some activists go further and call on Democrats to stop talking about social issues other than income inequality, although Mr. Sanders hasn’t gone there.
On the other hand, if the divisions in American politics aren’t just about money, if they reflect deep-seated prejudices that progressives simply can’t appease, such visions of radical change are naïve. And I believe that they are.
That doesn’t say that movement toward progressive goals is impossible — America is becoming both more diverse and more tolerant over time. Look, for example, at how quickly opposition to gay marriage has gone from a reliable vote-getter for the right to a Republican liability.
But there’s still a lot of real prejudice out there, and probably enough so that political revolution from the left is off the table. Instead, it’s going to be a hard slog at best.
Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?