Thoughts on Our Present Discontents: Return of the Turtles?

In surveying the current political scene, let us take in the observations of a prominent political scientist:

The United States is witnessing a transformation of political styles. Traditional party politicians are being challenged not only on the substance of public policy but on their conduct of political activity. It is their behavior as political men as well as their position on issues that is under attack. Whatever their disagreements on specific policies, left and right-wing activists compete in excoriating the immorality of men in office. Everyone else has sold out, they say, and only we remain pure.

Sounds like a description of the Tea Party-to-Trump phenomenon of 2016, and the “Resistance-to-Bernie” phenomenon of this year, no? Actually the prominent political scientist who wrote those words was the late Aaron Wildavsky, way back in 1971. He was reacting then chiefly to the New Left takeover of the Democratic Party in 1968, then just beginning, though he thought the Goldwater insurgency in the Republican Party in 1964 bore some of the same hallmarks as the Democrats’ experience in 1968.

Lately I’ve been re-reading lot of Wildavsky’s old work for a project I’m working on at the moment (details to come), and it is amazing how well it holds up after 30 – 50 years, especially for its diagnosis of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party today. (I think it is fair to say that Wildavsky was a garden-variety centrist liberal Democrat most of his career, but started moving right in the 1970s. He died in 1995.)

In the late 1980s, for example, Wildavsky turned his attention to the question of why Democrats had lost five of the last six presidential elections, and came up with a general explanation that sounds like a good fit for today: the radical egalitarianism of Democratic presidential campaigns had become distinctly opposed to white males. In his 1989 essay called “The Turtle Theory,” Wildavsky worked off the old apocryphal fable of the whole universe existing in the back of a giant turtle that ends with the line, “It’s turtles all the way down.” The white male had become the turtles of American politics, onto whose backs Democrats now thought every burden and blame should be placed. Thus:

My theory is that the Democratic party has lost five out of the last six presidential elections by a large margin because it made the white working male into the turtle of American political life. . . The lesson is not that the Democratic party has to put up with candidates who lose, but that its candidates have to put up with a party that delegitimizes the nation’s second largest constituency: white working Christian males. . .

Turtles have hard shells but soft underbellies. A harsh way of putting our turtles’ response is to turn it upside down: It is not that these white men feel put upon, but that they wish to continue their past practice of putting down black folk (or minorities in general, or all women added to the lot). Seeing blacks and minorities and women so prominent in the Democratic party—this proposed explanation goes—white men have voted Republican in order to retain their past dominance. Nothing complicated about the election, in other words—only simple racism, sexism, and (for good measure) homophobia. The insecurity of masculinity in the face of feminine demands for equality, long a staple of egalitarian thought, merely receives a new form of expression as a generalized “ism”—race, gender, sex, age, and so on.

This last bit pretty much nails how the left views Trump’s election in 2016, relying as it did on mobilizing white working class voters in formerly Democratic strongholds in the upper midwest. The “deplorables.” Oh, how Wildavsky would have loved that spectacle.

Wildavsky goes on to reject the idea that “Republican is a code word for racism”—and suggests instead that the egalitarianism of Democrats had become so radical as to be unelectable for the foreseeable future. Bill Clinton got the message, you might say, and broke from this conspicuous radical egalitarianism, even if he secretly agreed with it, which is surely the case.

Two things Wildavsky added at the end of “The Turtle Theory” describe perfectly the Democratic Party’s nomination contest this year. First:

Representative Barney Frank, himself a liberal Democrat, has publicly asked his party to say things that are no longer fashionable among them—like that capitalism is better than other economic systems. I believe he will fail because many Democratic activists do not believe these things. . .

And this closing paragraph ought to sound very familiar just now—simply swap out “Bernie Sanders” for “Jesse Jackson”:

A concession Jesse Jackson won at the [1988] Democratic National Convention was a substantial reduction in the number of “superdelegates”—the governors, state legislators, and congressmen recently introduced into the convention process. Another concession reduced the proportion of votes a candidate required to qualify for delegates and did away with “winner-take-all” primaries. This rule change will encourage factionalism by making it worthwhile for candidates to stay in the race longer so as to amass a larger force of delegates. More factions and fewer coalitions, I am afraid, are in store. Thus the desire of party activists to adopt more egalitarian policies, or their inability to reject egalitarian mechanisms—take your pick—will give egalitarians a greater voice in conventions to come. Not every future Democratic presidential nominee need be strongly egalitarian, but no one obnoxious to egalitarians will get far. [Emphasis added.]

That last boldface clause explains why Bloomberg can’t possibly succeed, among other things. And I think the whole “turtles” hypothesis, still operative despite the nation’s demographic trends in the 30 years since Wildavsky wrote this, explains why Trump is going to win in November, no matter who the Democrats put up.

And now, on to Super Tuesday!

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