Philip Roth’s terror of the unforeseen

A celebrity novice politician takes the Washington establishment by storm, riding the dark strain of the American heart to an upset bid for the White House.

Philip Roth died this week. In 2004, he wrote a “what-if” alternative history imagining American aviation hero turned Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh runs for president in 1940 and unseats Franklin Roosevelt on an isolationist “American First” platform. Roth published The Plot Against America as a curious peak into an unfathomable parallel universe. But in the age of Donald Trump, Roth’s imagined political catastrophe has suddenly become eerily prescient.

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Charles Lindbergh, September 11, 1941 (Des Moines, Iowa)

Roth tells the tale of Lindbergh’s political rise from his own childhood perspective. (Be warned: This post is shot through with spoilers ahead.) Lindbergh captured the animal spirits of the Republican Party, winning its nomination for the presidency. Lindbergh is an open anti-Semite—an imminent threat to American Jews like Roth and his family.

Roth’s father, Herman, is a staunch believer in goodness and justice in America, refusing to believe that Lindbergh could come close to the White House. He counts on the guardrails of American democracy to protect Jews. “There was Roosevelt, there was the U.S. Constitution, there was the Bill of Rights, and there were the papers, America’s free press.” Ultimately, all of these guardrails would give way to Lindbergh’s ascent.

Lindbergh’s campaign was at first dismissed by the establishment as a “publicity gimmick,” as he flew himself in a solo plane from rally to rally across the country. Lindbergh was at once both a plainspoken common man with a flat, “decidedly un-Rooseveltian” affect, and a superhuman living legend. He played on nostalgia, reminding Americans of his heroic flight across the Atlantic, “and it was 1927 all over again.”

His message was simple: FDR and other elites were duping the American people into war. Lindbergh would keep America out of World War II. “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war.”

Roosevelt, for his part, campaigned on a sense of inevitability—as too busy with the serious business of governing to be bothered by Lindbergh’s “carnival antics.” When told that Lindbergh had won the GOP nomination, Roosevelt remarked, “By the time this is over, the young man will be sorry not only that he entered politics but that he ever learned to fly.”

In the run-up to the election, polls showed Roosevelt running comfortably ahead. The polls were wrong. Republican party leaders left Lindbergh’s campaign for dead, frustrated by the novice candidate’s insulated campaign.

Lindbergh shocked the world by winning in a landslide. Republicans seized control of Congress, too. Pundits latched on to a series of comforting rationalizations to explain Lindbergh’s blowout win: The country had rejected FDR’s bid for a third term. Lindbergh’s aeronautic feats were what the country needed to venture into the future. Anything to explain away the appeal of Lindbergh’s openly fascist campaign.

Before even being inaugurated, president-elect Lindbergh met with Axis leaders to negotiate peace with the United States. The American public overwhelmingly supported Lindbergh’s efforts to keep U.S. troops out of the war. They praised Lindbergh’s deal-making skills, and the apparent respect he commanded from Hitler.

Within weeks of the election, brash public anti-Semitism begins seeping out of the American woodwork. Bigots emboldened by political fortune saw fit to flex their newfound muscle in American life.

Upon taking office, Lindbergh launches a new Office of American Absorption to “Americanize” Jewish city kids by enlisting them to work on farms in the Midwest as a sort of summer camp. Yet while America’s Jews lived in horror of the new administration, much of the rest of the country celebrated peace and prosperity. The stock market boomed, and world war remained someone else’s problem. Eventually, a numbness and sense of normalcy set in across most of the country.

But Lindbergh’s insidious rise changed the fabric of the country. He invited the Nazi Germany foreign minister to visit the United States, leading former president Franklin Roosevelt to emerge from the sidelines and speak out. Lindbergh’s Nazi-friendly stance created the social space for American Nazism to go mainstream. The true terror of the Lindbergh presidency was what it brought out in regular Americans. America became a meaner, more violent place.

Eventually, Lindbergh’s administration is engulfed in a shocking scandal of foreign influence. Chaos swirls, a political resistance emerges, conspiracy theories gain currency on both sides, accusations of fake news about “so-called Jewish riots” fly.

Roth’s counterfactual history has a tidy conclusion that folds the country back into its previously interrupted political order. By the close of The Plot Against America, the dark age of Lindbergh turns out to have only been a two-year interregnum in American history before the country returned to its senses.

Will our own political moment pass so cleanly? Many Americans that are rightly distraught over Trump hope for a deus ex machina from Robert Mueller or the 2020 election. Yet the political tectonics and simmering resentments that unleashed Trump will not soon fade; the most we can hope for is dormancy.

Plus, the retrospective of history has its own way of deluding us into faith that a comfortably reassuring logic and order prevails. “Turned the wrong way round,” Roth wrote, “the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

Jimmy Carter & the America we long for

In the aftermath of Watergate, Vietnam, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, routine economic shocks, and the upheavals and violence of the late 1960s onward, the United States desperately needed a reset in 1976. The man Americans turned to that year was Jimmy Carter.

Regardless of Carter’s ultimate performance in office, his presidential campaign is a useful touchstone for what resonated with Americans as a viable path forward after years of chaos and government by vengeance.

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In The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein keys in on one speech Carter delivered in Watts, California, in June 1976 at the dedication of a new wing of Martin Luther King Hospital.

Carter began by discussing King’s legacy, and what King meant to him as a southerner. He then appealed to the unachieved promise of America, before launching into a clear and direct vision he sees for America:

The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her. 

For all our progress, we still live in a land held back by oppression and injustice.

The few who are rich and powerful still make the decisions, and the many who are poor and weak must suffer the consequences. If those in power make mistakes, it is not they or their families who lose their jobs or go on welfare or lack medical care or go to jail.

We still have poverty in the midst of plenty.

We still have far to go. We must give our government back to our people. The road will not be easy.

But we still have the dream, Martin Luther King’s dream and your dream and my dream. The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her.

I see an America poised not only at the brink of a new century, but at the dawn of a new era of honest, compassionate, responsive government.

I see an American government that has turned away from scandals and corruption and official cynicism and finally become as decent as our people.

I see an America with a tax system that does not steal from the poor and give to the rich. 

I see an America with a job for every man and woman who can work, and a decent standard of living for those who cannot.

I see an America in which my child and your child and every child receives an education second to none in the world.

I see an American government that does not spy on its citizens or harass its citizens, but respects your dignity and your privacy and your right to be let alone. 

I see an American foreign policy that is firm and consistent and generous, and that once again is a beacon for the hopes of the world.

I see an American President who does not govern by vetoes and negativism, but with vigor and vision and affirmative leadership, a President who is not isolated from our people, but feels their pain and shares their dreams and takes his strength from them.

I see an America in which Martin Luther King’s dream is our national dream.

I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, its head high, a diverse and vital nation, moving into its third century with confidence and competence and compassion, an America that lives up to the majesty of its Constitution and the simple decency of its people.

This is the America that I see, and that I am committed to as I run for President. 

Carter argued that America deserves a government that lives up to the best of the country’s promise and character. He envisioned a new administration that roots out corruption and unwinds a system rigged for the rich. He vowed to pursue the dreams of employment for all and high-quality education for every child. He promised to be a positive force for American society and government—one in touch with the pain, dreams, and strength of the American people.

It’s a utopian vision, as all progressive visions must be. Progressives wish to improve society to achieve the promise of America. Implicit in that wish is faith that those ideals and values can be achieved by flawed, mortal human beings. The inherent hope and optimism in that faith must be reflected in the vision and speeches of progressive leaders.

Former Obama White House aide David Axelrod has a theory that presidential incumbents are consistently replaced by their polar opposites. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have,” Axelrod wrote. “They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.” The “grandfatherly” Dwight Eisenhower was replaced by the young, vibrant John F. Kennedy. The cool-headed, cerebral Barack Obama replaced the trust-your-gut, down-home George W. Bush. Obama in turn was replaced by the antagonistic, emotion-driven Donald Trump.

In the dark, chaotic days of the Trump administration, voters may again seek an opposite come 2020. After a presidency defined by cynicism, bellicosity, trenching division, and resentment, Americans may look for the opposite: a politics of hope, love, and optimism. A spin on the forward-looking politics offered by past progressives like Carter and Obama.

Carter’s speech was titled “The Power of Love.” And in 1976, Perlstein writes, “people yearned to believe.” They may yearn again come 2020. Donald Trump has offered a fundamentally negative vision—of American carnage and a crippled America.

Progressives must be prepared to counter this vision by explaining the hope they see for America. They must paint a vision for American voters — one that doesn’t react to Trumpism, but that transcends it entirely. The power of anger can only be vanquished by the power of love.

The promise of a jobs guarantee

Last week, Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill that would conduct jobs guarantee experiments in fifteen cities. The idea of a federal jobs guarantee has gained traction on the left, intended as a government jobs program to scoop up any workers unwillingly left behind by the private sector to completely eliminate involuntary unemployment.

Here’s how Booker’s jobs guarantee bill would work, per Vox:

“The Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act, announced by Booker on Friday, would establish a three-year pilot program in which the Department of Labor would select up to 15 local areas (defined in the bill as any political subdivision of a state, like a city or a county, or a group of cities and counties) and offer that area funding so that every adult living there is guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour (or the prevailing wage for the job in question, whichever’s higher) and offering paid family/sick leave and health benefits.”

The promise of a jobs guarantee is extremely compelling. Polling has found public support for the idea, showing 52 percent of Americans support the idea of the government guaranteeing jobs for everyone, and only 29 percent opposed.

It’s also an idea with a long history. Progressives from Martin Luther King through Sen. Hubert Humphrey championed a federal jobs guarantee. After the a federal employment guarantee was excised from the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, advocacy around making the government the employer of last resort has largely been confined to a small group of academics and activists.

Until now. The jobs guarantee, in close tandem with single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income, has become a major policy contribution from the left. As prominent Democrats eye presidential runs in 2020, they’ve competed to win over the activists by co-opting their policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and now Sen. Booker, have both embraced the jobs guarantee idea.

The allure of a jobs guarantee is easy to see—the promise of ending mass unemployment and economic recession is incredibly enticing. But how would it hold up in practice? The idea is to have public employment act like an accordion in response to the “rest” of the economy: public work would expand at times when unemployment would otherwise by high, and contract when it would be low. But how would that work in practice? Would kinds of actual jobs are fungible enough to fit that model?

Booker’s bill is based on work by scholars Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton, who recently wrote up a jobs guarantee proposal at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They propose creating a “a National Investment Employment Corps to achieve permanent full employment in the U.S. economy through large-scale, direct hiring by the federal government.”

Paul, Darity, and Hamilton conceive of the NIEC as a “public option for employment”—a government-provided safety net that can both employ people left behind by the private sector, and keep the private sector accountable to provide good wages and benefits. They point to the positive spillover effects of a jobs guarantee as one of its major benefits: the standards for pay and benefits set by the public jobs program would pressure private employers to keep up. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton propose that public jobs pay annual wages of $24,600 per year, or $11.83 per hour, with a full benefits package (health insurance, retirement pans, paid family and sick leave, and four weeks of vacation time per calendar year). (On wages at least, Booker would go further, offering public jobs at $15 per hour or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher.)

The precise jobs that a jobs guarantee would provide remain somewhat mysterious. Booker’s bill relies on local community governments and agencies to identify jobs needed on the ground. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton would have the federal government “identify areas of needed investment in the U.S. economy, including goods (examples: infrastructure, energy efficiency retrofitting) and services (examples: elder care, child care, job training, education, and health services).”

They also mention several other areas that would be a good fit for a federal jobs program, including: “the repair, maintenance, and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure, housing stock, and public buildings; energy efficiency upgrades to public and private buildings; assistance with ecological restoration and services to reduce the country’s carbon footprint; engagement in community development projects; provision of high-quality preschool and afterschool services; provision of teachers’ aids; provision of high-quality elder care and companionship; rejuvenation of the nation’s defunded postal service; support for the arts; and other activities that shall support the public good.”

Some of these jobs seem to be a better fit for the accordion-like design of the jobs guarantee than others. Public infrastructure repair and construction are classic stimulus work that can be provided by government as an employer of last resort. But child care and elder care are much more permanent jobs that we wouldn’t want people fleeing as private market conditions improve.

The jobs guarantee seems to be trying to solve two market failures at once: eliminating involuntary unemployment, and providing social goods that are currently under-provided by the market. Those twin goals drive toward a bifurcated public jobs program: one temporary “stimulus” jobs corps that does yo-yo as the economy expands and contracts, and a second much more permanent jobs corps program in communities and industries that have been long-term underserved by the private economy.

There certainly are vast regions that are jobs deserts, not to mention child and elder care deserts, too. To the extent that these three overlap, then the jobs guarantee could quickly make the government a permanently dominant employer in certain communities. Which is not inherently a problem—there are already many communities that depend on a public employer, like a university or government agencies. Communities deprived of employment opportunities today would certainly be better off with government-facilitated work than with none at all.

After all, the jobs guarantee is about much more than just an income stream. A job is a principal source of dignity for most people. Franklin Roosevelt included the right to a useful and remunerative job in his proposed Second Bill of Rights. The right to employment—the guarantee of a job—means that people will no longer live at the mercy of the markets for their livelihoods, their pride, and their dignity. A sense of self, purpose, and meaning would no longer vanish thanks to the bursting of an asset bubble, the greed of financial elite, or the cost-benefit decisions of private industry. The jobs guarantee tames the economy and puts it to work serving the human spirit.

Interestingly, a decade before his Second Bill of Rights speech, Roosevelt had opposed a permanent public jobs program. He told Congress in 1935 that public relief was a “narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” and characterized public work as “a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks.” His public jobs plans deliberately paid below the prevailing industry wage, so as not to displace or discourage private sector work. [See William Leuchtenburg’s Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, at page 124.]

It’s true that any old job is not necessarily an elixir of dignity and fulfillment. Many jobs are sources of immense tedium and displeasure. The types of jobs mentioned by Paul, Darity, and Hamilton certainly sound like socially beneficial sources of pride. But the paradox of the jobs guarantee is that the more it strives to provide long-term impactful work to the jobless, the more it stops looking like an employer of last resort and starts looking like a government takeover of a particular industry. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.)

(Interestingly, Roosevelt’s 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, largely embraced Roosevelt’s New Deal and even tried to outflank him on jobs, vowing to “provide jobs for every man and woman in the United States willing to work and to continue public relief to those who could not work.” [See Leuchtenburg at page 320.])

Booker appeals to the dignity of work to support his jobs guarantee bill. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” he said.

His bill would do for a jobs guarantee would private funders like Y Combinator are doing for a universal basic income: seeding small-scale experiments to see if the idea could actually work as large-scale public policy. That’s probably exactly where the jobs guarantee should be right now. Given its ambition to restore purpose and dignity to millions, it’s worth seeing whether we can make the mechanics of a jobs guarantee work.

Hope in the wilderness

Crooked Media is soliciting suggestions for its new podcast on how to fix the Democratic Party. Below is my submission:

When I think about how to fix the Democratic Party, I think of my family back home in Syracuse, New York. My mom’s parents were first- and second-generation Italian immigrants, and were union workers and loyal New Deal Democrats. My mom is a nurse and inherited their Democratic association, but is surrounded by colleagues that support Trump or otherwise feel totally disconnected from the Democratic Party.

Democrats have always conceived of themselves as the party of the underdog, the little guy, the working people. Something is deeply wrong if they are not reaching workers like nurses in a place like Syracuse when, just a few generations ago, these people were the heart of the Democratic Party.

While Democrats think of themselves as the party of working people, they are increasingly perceived as a party led by cultural elites. This isn’t a recent change, but the product of several decades of Democrats shifting the party’s center of gravity higher and higher up the income scale.

The truth is, Democrats win elections where they are seen as the party of working people and Republicans as the party of bosses. Think 2012 with Barack Obama vs. “guy that just fired your dad” Mitt Romney.

Of course, the Democratic Party cannot count on another Barack Obama walking through that door. But what Democrats can do is run more working people as candidates—like teachers, and nurses, and blue-collar workers. The kind of citizen candidates that have been winning in off-cycle elections like Virginia.

Democrats must fuse a working class politics that cuts across all races and religions, ages and backgrounds. And not just for electoral success, but to vindicate the American experiment: that people from all walks of life share common values and can form shared civic institutions and ultimately a shared democracy.

The Democrats’ story must be the universal story of people fighting against injustice and sticking up for themselves against interests bigger and more powerful than their own—all to demand the dignity and respect guaranteed to them as Americans.

As the party seeking to make a better society, Democrats are inherently the party of hope. They must articulate a message of hope and inspiration, grounded in a clear vision of what that society looks like, and how it makes life better and more fulfilled for regular Americans. From Roosevelt to JFK to Barack Obama, Democrats win when they inspire hope.

To me, that is how Democrats can get back on their feet: to have a clear-eyed vision of what the good society looks like that speaks to the hopes and aspirations of all Americans—rather than a flurry of white papers checking off the siloed interests and needs of individual groups of Americans. And this vision must come from the mouths of candidates and leaders drawn from the ranks of working people themselves.

That’s the identity that has led the Democratic Party to the greatest triumphs of its history from the New Deal to the Great Society to the Affordable Care Act. And it’s the identity that can create the kind of coalition that might match those triumphs for a new generation.

Robert Kennedy’s challenge to liberalism

We are in the midst of the fiftieth anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s brief 1968 presidential campaign, which began in March 1968, and was over less than three months later when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Kennedy’s campaign is often remembered as one of the great lost hopes for American liberalism—a campaign that had the promise of uniting a coalition of white ethnic voters and inner city black voters. But Kennedy also posed a challenge for liberalism.

In May 1968, Kennedy issued a press release on reforming the welfare system. (The press release—which I’ve written about previously—is included in abridged form in a collection of Kennedy’s speeches.) Kennedy railed against the indignities of welfare, and condemned a politics that limited the reaches of its imagination to monetary redistribution as hopelessly inadequate.

“Perhaps the area of our greatest domestic failure is in the system of welfare—public assistance to those in need,” Kennedy said. This was the height of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty—a period when poverty plunged in the United States. The national unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.

Kennedy argued that welfare breeds division, resentment, and alienation. But he brushed over the hostility felt by “the taxpayer” funding welfare programs, and focused on the humiliation experienced by welfare beneficiaries themselves. “[T]here is greater resentment among the poor, the recipient of our charity. Some of it comes from the brutality of the welfare system itself: from the prying bureaucrat, an all-powerful administrator deciding at his desk who is deserving and who is not, who shall live another month and who may starve next week.”

Having one’s survival chained to a cold bureaucracy was bad enough. Even worse, Kennedy argued, was the fundamental lack of purpose that plagued the souls of welfare recipients. “[T]he root problem is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do—which means nothing to do with the rest of us,” Kennedy said.

Welfare was inadequate because it failed to bridge this foundational alienation between the poor and society at large. To Kennedy’s mind, nothing less than the pillars of American democracy were at stake. “We often quote Lincoln’s warning that America could not survive half slave and half free,” Kennedy said. “Nor can it survive while millions of our people are slaves to dependency and poverty, waiting on the favor of their fellow citizens to write them checks. Fellowship, community, shared patriotism—these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together. They come from a shared sense of individual independence and personal effort. They come from working together to build a country—that is the answer to the welfare crisis.”

Consumerism and materialism were frequent targets of Kennedy’s campaign. Days after declaring his candidacy, he gave a now-famous speech in Kansas that warned about taking too much solace in America’s ever-growing gross national product. A war on poverty was not enough, for “even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task,” Kennedy said, “it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”

To Kennedy, filling empty stomachs was just the start. The true goal was to fulfill empty souls.

Kennedy’s answer to the inadequacies of welfare was work. “We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” Kennedy argued. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”

Kennedy specifically took on proposals for a guaranteed minimum income that gained currency toward the end of the Johnson administration. “It is a myth that all the problems of poverty can be solved by ultimate extension of the welfare system to guarantee to all, regardless of their circumstances a certain income paid for by the federal government,” he said. “Any such scheme, taken alone, simply cannot provide the sense of self-sufficiency, of participation in the life of the community, that is essential for citizens of a democracy.”

Welfare dependency was fundamentally at odds with the human spirit, Kennedy thought. “Human beings need a purpose. We need it as individuals; we need to sense it in our fellow citizens; and we need it as a society and as a people.”

Kennedy proposed specific policies to replace welfare. He wanted to create government incentives for the private sector to provide jobs for everyone willing and able to work. He would have replaced the existing welfare bureaucracy with an automatic system based entirely on need. He also called for an improved and expanded day care system.

Though Kennedy found government welfare payments insufficient to meet the challenge of poverty, he was no absolutist. When powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills tried to freeze welfare payments in 1967, Kennedy attacked the bill as the “most punitive measure in the history of the country, [punishing] the poor because they are there and we have not been able to do anything about them.”

“We will never succeed in restoring dignity and promise to the lives of people … until we develop a system which provides jobs,” Kennedy continued. “Welfare is neither the cause nor the remedy. But welfare has its role: helping those in need.”

The goal of liberalism is to secure dignity and self-determination for all Americans. To Kennedy, welfare was necessary but not sufficient. Public assistance, no matter how generous, simply could not fill the void of having a job—a stake in society and a contribution to take pride in as your own.

Redistributing resources may be an easy and familiar function of liberal government. Kennedy’s challenge to liberalism was to transcend that transactionalism—to fulfill the material needs of Americans, then move on to satisfy the needs of the spirit and soul as citizens.

Rewinding American identity

I recently watched a profoundly insightful lecture by New Yorker journalist and author George Packer at the University of California-Berkeley on “American Identity in the Age of Trump.” Packer’s lecture—which had previously been featured in a David Brooks column in the New York Times—provides a useful historical account of the deterioration of American politics, and how it wrought Trumpism. By exploring the different American stories jockeying for supremacy today, Packer gives us the tools we need to craft an identity to restore our democracy.

Packer’s theme is that American identity has collapsed amid polarization—that on an individual and community level, American life has grown ever more isolated, shrinking the common bonds we share as a national community.

He points to data showing a correlation between rising polarization, inequality, and immigration since the 1970s. “A smaller pie,” he argues, “divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike drives us toward cynical and hateful extremes.”

This sense of alienation has been driven by disillusionment with our institutions—not least of which include our political parties, according to Packer. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Democrats were the party of the “fair shake,” while the Republicans were the party of “getting ahead,” as he puts it. The parties more or less neatly aligned with workers and business, respectively.

That dichotomy gradually broke down in unpredictable ways. On the left, after the bloody 1968 convention, Democrats reformed their nominating process. This weakened the influence of entrenched labor interests, and gave more voice to the “new politics” of the day, with its emphasis on civil rights, the environment, and resisting militarism. This generation was proceeded by the Atari Democrats and Bill Clinton of the 1980s, with its own emphasis on embracing globalization and promoting education as a cure-all elixir. The Democratic Party, in short, became steadily detached from the concerns of working people over the last fifty years.

Over the same time period, the Republican Party has by and large been a “shaky marriage” between the rich and downscale whites. The GOP odd couple became a (white) workers’ party led by the Kochs, and stained by nihilism fed by rage, according to Packer. In 2008, the possibility of vice president Sarah Palin stirred political excitement in a segment of the Republican base that had long felt forgotten. That excitement was populism, which slowly seized Republican politics.

Palin’s populism turned working-class whiteness into a breed of identity politics. She doubled down on anti-institutional and anti-intellectual strains that had percolated in conservative politics for generations, amplifying them into all-out contempt for “lamestream” institutions, beaming ignorance as a point of pride. She tacked on infatuation with her own celebrity and unrestrained narcissism for good measure, as Packer puts it. With this combination, Packer says, “Palin was John the Baptist for Donald Trump.”

Packer alleges that our institutions stopped meeting the aspirations of those at the bottom, while those at the top stopped believing in interests larger than their own. His 2013 book The Unwinding traces the lives of several individual Americans over thirty-five years, as their senses of isolation and alienation deepened on the back of broader political and economic shifts in American life. It’s a book that describes the early warning of something like Trumpism. Packer says—“a democracy where no center holds.”

Packer met an Ohio steelworker who found Trump’s insults refreshing, saying that Trump’s ugliness is a “mirror of how they see us”—turning the tables on those elites who defile Middle America as flyover country populated by uncouth rubes. The lower Trump’s language and behavior sank, Packer observed, the more the press vilified him, and the more he was celebrated by his tribe. It’s a trend that has carried on into the Oval Office: the more he demonstrates manifest unfitness and danger to the office, the more the press hollows, and the more his Republican base rallies around him.

To Packer, Trump has revealed what has been true all along. Republican voters are not small-government principled conservatives who read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and belong to the Federalist Society. They want government to do things that benefit them, and not people who don’t look like them. The party’s most energized elements, Packer says, “are driven by violent opposition to changes in color and culture to the country they once knew.”

The election in 2016 was in part about economic anxiety—not necessarily economic hardship. Trumpism succeeded in places with low levels of mobility, little hope, and lost faith in the success of their communities. (Of course, these attitudes tend to correlate with and be informed by harsh attitudes on gender and race, as well.)

Put together, the election was about alienation, Packer concludes. It had very little to do with actual policy. Hillary Clinton came armed with pages and pages of policies and white papers aimed at making the economy more responsive to working people, breaking up economic monopolies, and more. When he interviewed Clinton just before the presidential election, Packer suspected none of her ideas would break through to voters. “She’s a lifelong institutionalist at a time of bitter distrust in institutions, a believer in gradual progress faced with violent impatience,” he wrote at the time.

In short, the traditional partisan divide between the “fair shake” and “getting ahead” has broken down. “The essence of American politics today is tribalism,” Packer says. He points to Richard Rorty’s influential tract Achieving Our Country, which tells us that politics is a contest of narratives. Different narratives of the American story have always jockeyed for supremacy in our politics. But to Packer, the narratives that dominate public debate today have become increasingly balkanized and splintered.

Packer sees four dominant narratives in America today:

  1. Libertarian America. This narrative emphasized individual freedom and free markets. It’s the narrative of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek; of Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, and the Republican establishment. “The libertarian idea regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers—everything but citizens,” Packer says. There’s little respect for self-government to meet our needs, which is why Ryan sits back and lets Trump trash our democracy for the sake of tax cuts for the rich.It’s also a shell narrative with little actual support in the real world. Packer calls the libertarian narrative a “head without a body”—the ideology of the donor class and conservative think tank bubble, with little resonance among actual Republican voters.
  2. Cosmopolitan America. This is the narrative of meritocracy and globalization. It’s the narrative that embraces modernity and technological change, thrilled by the prospect of disrupting old system and flattening hierarchies. This narrative prevails in Silicon Valley and educated urban professionals. It’s the legacy of the New Democrats that occupied the Democratic establishment from the 1980s on through the bridge to the twenty-first century.
  3. Diverse America. This is the narrative of social justice that focuses on remedying histories of oppression and celebrating America’s pluralism. It sees Americans as members of groups, each with their own stories and historical perspectives. Packer sees Diverse America and Trump each reacting to one another. Trump deliberately picks fights with subscribers to this narrative (indeed, its largely the narrative that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016), and shrewdly sees it as his ally—as the progressive the progressive mirror of “America first.”
  4. America First. This is the narrative of Trumpism. Its one that pits true patriots against their victimizers: disloyal coastal elites. It’s the narrative of the heartland, of Palin’s “real America”: white, Christian America.

Each narrative brings forward a set of winners and losers. Libertarianism has its makers and takers, in the words of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Cosmopolitanism has urbane meritocrats and Trump’s beloved “poorly educated” white working-class. Diverse America pits group against group. And America First pits “real Americans” against elites.

Packer thinks that none of these narratives will suffice to forge a true American community. He does not offer a fifth competing narrative, but instead offers an aspiration that we define national identity in the most inclusive terms possible, turning away from tribalism and toward broadly shared citizenship.

*          *          *

To my mind, a narrative that turns back polarization and unites a true American community must be one that actually values such a community. That narrative must build upon what is right and good about our existing narratives, while doing away with their zero-sum spoils and losses.

Each narrative has something compelling to offer. Americans have always believed in individual freedom and autonomy—just not the narrow anti-government strain offered by today’s libertarian right. America has always been a country that embraces innovation like globalization and technology—but cushions must be set in place to withstand the disruptions of those forces. America is a nation of immigrants, and is exceptional precisely because it undertook an experiment to prove self-government by heterogeneous groups can actually work—a belief that people of different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds can come together and form one community, not siloed tracts of black, white, and brown. And America has always been a proud, patriotic country. At its best, that patriotism is an inclusive celebration of shared American values. But at its worst, it can mutate into an exclusionary chest-thumping assertion of an ultra-limited claim over “true” American heritage.

Perhaps we can retain these compelling features of Packer’s four narratives, while sanding off the downsides to create an American identity that doesn’t presuppose winners and losers. That would create a new narrative that doesn’t accept or encourage a winner-take-all society between makers and takers, or between Ivy Leaguers and high school graduates. And it would strive for something bolder than a politics of factionalism based on either intergroup rivalry or resentful mono-cultural purity.

Such a narrative might expand upon Packer’s hope for inclusive common citizenship. It would be a narrative that relies on communitarian values and social democracy to achieve greater dignity and self-determination for all. The politics that undergirded the era of progressivism from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal on through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society do not fit neatly within Packer’s four narratives. The proud American identity of this era, and the national aspiration of broadly shared uplift and prosperity, ought to be resurrected today.

Of course, racial and cultural politics ultimately unwound that common identity. Lest we circle back to Packer’s descent into polarization from the ‘70s onward, we must update the New Deal politics to eliminate its exclusions. Fortunately, much of that work has already been done by none other than Barack Obama, who relentlessly cast the American story as one of steady progress, where groups rise up against legacies of oppression to demand a place in the American community—a current always churning toward broader citizenship.

The four American narratives that prevail today are products of our long descent into polarization. To escape that spiral, we must transcend the narratives that define our current politics. A narrative that is both new and old, that harkens back to America’s heyday as a secure middle-class nation while pointing forward toward America’s future as a dynamic multicultural democracy, may just be what we need to reverse our long unwinding.

The rise of the New Democrats

Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is the final tome in his trilogy (so far) on American conservatism. The contemporaneous developments in liberalism take a back seat throughout the trilogy. But one subplot lurking in Perlstein’s chronicle of the post-Watergate era is the breakthrough of a new breed of Democrat. The rise of the Democrats swept into power in the wake of Watergate may portend what’s in store for the class jockeying for power in the midst of Russiagate today.

The emergence of the New Democrats began before the dust had settled on Watergate. In December 1973, then-Representative Gerald Ford was confirmed to serve as vice president after the scandal-ridden resignation of Spiro Agnew.   This led to a special election for the House of Representatives seat in Michigan that Ford had vacated.

The Democratic candidate for that district—which no Democrat had won in over sixty years—was Richard Vander Veen. Hoping to capitalize on public disgust with the illicit governance of the Nixon administration, he ran heavily on Watergate, insisting that his special election bid could be a “referendum on Richard Nixon” in the manner of a vote of no confidence in the British political system.

Vander Veen also distanced himself from the Democratic Party. He “was a peculiar kind of Democrat,” Perlstein writes, “one apparently indifferent to being a democrat at all. He spoke rarely if at all about the New Deal accomplishments upon which the party of Jefferson and Jackson had been winning elections for a generation.” Instead, Vander Veen modeled himself upon Michigan’s moderate Republican former governor George Romney, and hoped to undertake a nonpartisan citizens’ commission to brainstorm ideas to reform Washington.

Indeed, Vander Veen saw Watergate as a not a Republican scandal, but a Washington one. “Democrats can take an equal share of the blame for failing to present the country a candidate of sufficiently broad base in the presidential election of 1972,” he maintained—a shot at the liberalism of failed candidate George McGovern. This pox-on-both-their-houses attitude engaged a cynical strain of public thought at the time that both parties habitually partake in Watergate-style underhanded shenanigans, but Nixon just happened to be the one who got caught.

On Election Day in February 1974, Vander Veen pulled off a stunning upset, defeating his Republican opponent in a district that Gerald Ford had won thirteen times. Vander Veen’s anti-Washington nonpartisanship had resonated with his Michigan district. But Democrats drew national implications from his unlikely win. Vander Veen’s crusade, Perlstein writes, “was just the sort of antipolitician, it turned out, Americans longed for to effect their political deliverance.”

With voters looking to wash away the rot of Watergate three months after Nixon stepped aside, Democrats were elected in a wave election in the 1974 midterms. Democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, winning a dominant two-thirds majority. In the Senate, Democrats won four seats, holding 60 seats in total.

The “Watergate baby” generation of freshmen Democrats elected in 1974 was notable for its hostility not just to Nixon’s Washington, but also to the traditional New Deal ethos of their own party. Democrats picked up where Vander Veen left off, running on a reform agenda resistant to partisan labels and contemptuous of Congress itself.

These Democrats eschewed government-based solutions for the economy in favor of centrist neoliberalism. Where old school liberal Senator Scoop Jackson wanted to nationalize energy companies to solve the 1970s energy crisis, new school centrist candidate Gary Hart wanted pubic-private partnerships—“cooperative ventures between the environmentalists and the energy developers,” as he put it.

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Hart—the soon-to-be junior senator from Colorado—was among the most visible of the New Democrats running in 1974. The former McGovern presidential campaign whiz kid was the candidate most eager to announce a clean break with the New Deal generation that crashed and burned two generations’ worth of political capital in Vietnam. Hart’s stump speech was titled “The End of the New Deal.” He declared American liberalism to be “near bankruptcy.” He blasted LBJ’s “ballyhooed War on Poverty” for “succeed[ing] only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” He chastised the American consumer that “The party’s over, the day of having it all is gone . . . We’re entering a period of history when conspicuous consumption and waste just must end.” The post-World War II age of affluence must give way to a post-Vietnam age of austerity, Hart argued.

The New Democrats shifted the Democratic Party’s center of gravity further up the income ladder. The New Deal coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt had elevated two generations of Democrats to electoral success as a fundamentally working-class party. The Watergate Babies of were intent on turning the ‘70s Democratic Party into a middle-class one. The New Democrats eschewed economic populism for middle-class “lifestyle issues,” like environmentalism and conservation, Perlstein writes.

The insurgency of the New Democrats had immediate tangible consequences for domestic policy. Despite the Democrats’ newly dominant position in Congress, the House failed to override President Ford’s veto on a public jobs bill backed by the AFL-CIO. The Senate also buried a $9 billion economic relief bill introduced by liberal stalwart Sen. Walter Mondale with labor’s backing. One labor lobbyist summed it up, saying, “The freshman Democrat today is likely to be an upper-income type. I think a lot of them are more concerned with inflation than with unemployment.”

Hart endorsed this assessment, saying that his post-Watergate freshmen class was “not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” The New Democrats had no use for an old ardent champion of liberalism.

In 1974, taking on the Democratic establishment meant challenging it from the right. Hart preached austerity, and California governor Jerry Brown advocated for smaller government. After all, liberals had gotten the U.S. stuck in Vietnam, and had led Democrats to consecutive presidential losses to Richard Nixon. Rebelling against entrenched and discredited party leaders demanded a right-flank action.

By coasting in with a Democratic landslide, the New Democrats landed on a formula that would come to dominate the party’s electoral strategy for much of the rest of the century: triangulate toward an inoffensive and uninspiring brand of centrism, and stand ready as an acceptable alternative when Republicans abused their power or bungled the economy. A “Democrats by Default” strategy won the party power at the turns of the political pendulum, but never truly came close to permanently altering the rhythms of that pendulum again.

The shift in the Democratic Party that labor activists glimpsed in the 1970s hardened in the 1980s, as the New Democrats became techno-optimist Atari Democrats more at home in Silicon Valley than in the Rust Belt. The one-time party of the workingman was bidding Lunch-Pail Democrats adieu. The party of Roosevelt, Johnson, and Humphrey belonged to Hart, Clinton, and Gore now.

Perhaps the drift was inevitable. The racial confrontations of the 1960s—in the streets, at the lunch counters, and in the policy arena—began to polarize the parties. The dog-whistling campaigns run by Nixon expedited this realignment, making a successful bid for a large chunk of the Democrats’ working-class base. The New Democrat sentiment may have merely accelerated the unavoidable.

Yet nostalgia for the New Deal coalition persists. Democrats have never recaptured the feats and widespread loyalty that a coalition grounded in class politics achieved in reshaping American life from 1932 through the mid-1960s. The Obama coalition came closest, but has so far proved unable to endure without the twenty-first century’s first great Democrat on the ballot.

There are signs that today’s Democratic Party stands at another inflection point. Like in 1974, the party establishment has steered the party wrong in humiliating fashion against an unacceptable presidential opponent. Only now, it’s the center-left descendants of the New Democrats making up the party establishment. The insurgency now comes from the left, demanding prominent Democrats sign on to social democratic objectives, and levying primary challenges against congressional Democrats sitting comfortably in deep blue districts. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s galling 2016 loss will prove to be the last gasp of the New Democrats.

Time will tell whether the Democratic class of 2018 can emanate political reverberations on the magnitude of the class of 1974. But if the Watergate babies proved anything, it’s that when a party is at its lowest ebb is when its foundations are ripe for shaking.

Which side are you on?

As the United States wrestles with potential high crimes emanating from its highest office, the closest historical parallel we have for guidance is Watergate. All indications suggest that the Trump administration’s ties to Russia and efforts to bury them are quickly throttling toward another Watergate-style crisis—if not worse.

Which makes the continued presence of so many full-throated Trump administration defenders in our politics so puzzling. Forty-five years after Watergate, why would so many willingly place themselves on the wrong side of history?

In The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein returns time and again to those who stuck it out in Nixon’s corner throughout the Watergate saga. For many, it was worth being on the wrong side of history for the sake of doing battle with those on the other side.

By June 1973, American politics was circling chaos. In March, after trial proceeding for the Watergate burglary, defendant James McCord had informed the judge that his testimony was perjured under pressure from high levels of government. In May, the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings, aired on national TV. Independent prosecutor Archibald Cox had just been appointed to investigate President Nixon’s role in the break-in. And on June 3, recently fired White House Counsel John Dean told Watergate investigators that he had personally discussed the burglary cover-up with Nixon at least 35 times.

Washington power brokers were grasping for a way out of the crisis. Clark Clifford had served in three Democratic presidential administrations, including as Harry Truman’s White House Counsel and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. This eminent Washington establishmentarian took to the pages of the New York Times to propose a creative solution: First, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigns. Next, Congress would elevate three replacement candidates “of outstanding ability and the highest character” from both parties. Of these three, Congress would confirm one as the new vice president on the condition that he not run for president in 1976. Once the new vice president was confirmed, President Nixon would salvage some dignity and resign. The just-confirmed vice president would then assume the Oval Office.

This, Clifford thought, would spare the country from the traumatic course it was set upon: a “government of national unity” could “transform the next three and a half years from years of bitterness, divisiveness, and deterioration to years of healing, unity, and progress.”

Fat chance. True believers on the right had no interest in falling on their sword for the sake of national harmony. Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan accused the “President’s traditional adversaries [of] happily drawing up surrender terms,” alleging that Clifford and other media establishment forces were conspiring to force Nixon to “betray the mandate of 1972.” A former Republican congressman spun around Watergate cover-up allegations, calling it in fact a “cover-up for an unconscionable attempt by Nixon foes to seize the presidency.” Senator Jesse Helms argued that “Watergate became the lever to reverse the judgment of the people” by overriding the results of the 1972 election.

Grassroots conservatives shared this sense of grievance, too. Perlstein surveyed letters to the editor published in the spring and summer of 1973, and found that a third were from ardent Nixon defenders. A New York magazine reporter watched the Watergate hearings in a bar in working-class Astoria, Queens, where iron workers and truck drivers stuck by Nixon’s side and dismissed the hearings altogether.

The Senate Watergate Committee captivated the country by operating with a level of serious that matched the gravity of the offense. But even there, Nixon had at least one staunch defender: Republican Senator Edward Gurney from Florida, who dismissed Watergate as “one of those political wing-dings that happen every political year,” and bemoaned the investigation for sullying the institution of the presidency. During the hearings, Gurney interceded to protect Maurice Stans—Nixon’s former Secretary of Commerce and head of the finance committee for Nixon’s reelection campaign—from tough questioning by Committee chair Sam Ervin.

Ronald Reagan too never wavered from Nixon’s side. Of Watergate, he said, “We are witness to a lynching.” Even as late as June 1974, Reagan’s thoughts on Watergate amounted to: “I just think it’s too bad that it is taking people’s attention from what I think is the most brilliant accomplishment of any president of this century, and that is the steady progress towards peace and the easing of tensions” with the Soviet Union. Watergate was just a big distraction meant to undermine the president.

* * *

History often forgets, but the American public and political system hardly mobilized in lockstep against Nixon’s offenses. That’s because Watergate came to be about choosing sides. In an insightful column in the New Republic, Jeet Heer traces forward the lessons of Watergate from Trump-era elected Republicans by comparing the career arcs of Reagan and Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee: “Reagan became the biggest Republican icon since Lincoln, while Baker’s brand of moderate Republicanism has been diminishing since the late 1970s. Today, for ambitious Republicans who want remain relevant in their own party, the lessons Reagan taught are clear: If a Republican presidency is threatened by scandal, hold your nose until the smell goes away. The voters will reward you for your loyalty.”

We are seeing the tribalism of group loyalty hardening before our eyes in the Trump-Russia scandal. The vast majority of elected Republicans have tethered themselves close to Trump, largely because Republican voters overwhelmingly remain diehard Trump true believers. “The president is, as you know — you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base — it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker recently said. “People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.”

You’re with Trump, or you’re against him. Just like you were with Nixon, or you were against him. Reacting to presidential abuses of power becomes a matter of signaling values and tribe membership, not one of evaluating facts or deliberate inquiry.


From within the eye of Trump-Russia, it is tempting to run the Watergate tape forward and assume a similar outcome. In spite of the polarization of unyielding presidential loyalists, the truth won out. Reasoned, deliberative fact-finding will again carry the day, and a petty authoritarian will be forced from the White House in disgrace—a grand happy ending to a national morality tale.

But Watergate didn’t have to end that way. It could have been different—had Nixon not recorded his every Oval Office conversation; had Democrats not controlled the Senate; or had Republican senators been more committed to party over duty.

That alternative scenario is alarmingly proximate to what we’re facing today. A Republican Party beholden to Trump controls both chambers of Congress. And within it, the Louie Gohmerts (“I think Mueller should be fired,” he said this week) drown out the Bob Corkers. And even the Corkers are feeling the cross-pressure from a tribalized Republican base that’s all in on Trump, collusion be damned.

Trump has henchmen allies in Congress like Devin Nunes working hand-in-glove to discredit the Mueller investigation on his behalf. When Trump attacked Mueller on Twitter, most Senate Republicans—including their leadership—opted to shrug and offer the president a sort of autocratic mulligan, rather than standing up to warn the president off from interfering with an ongoing investigation. The Republican Party has internalized its own lessons from Watergate, and completed its long transformation into an anti-institutional brigade of kamikaze nihilists. It’s Edward Gurney’s party now, most definitely not Howard Baker’s.

It is inconceivable that Republicans in Congress will ever turn on Trump en masse. Whatever final recommendation the Mueller investigation makes will assuredly be met with a giant shrug from a Republican-controlled Congress. For Americans hoping to hold the Trump administration accountable for conspiratorial wrongdoing and abuse of power, electing Democrats in 2018 is simply the only plausible path forward.

Maybe Democrats reclaim the Senate, and justice will ultimately be served. But it could always be different. In a nation of deeply polarized loyalties, the rule of law increasingly rests on the happenstance of political power.

The bridge and the bayonet

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which covers the few years from Watergate through the 1976 election. Those years came on the heels of a series of national traumas that shattered the nation’s self-image: loss in Vietnam, criminal conspiracy in the White House, economic shocks that rocked the age of affluence. By studying those years, you can almost see the directional lines pushing toward today’s American discontent.

Ronald Reagan makes for a useful touchstone into these years, both as a political actor himself during this time, and as the country’s inevitable next horizon in the years to come. And here’s one thing that becomes clear from reading Perlstein: Reagan as governor was the original Donald Trump.

Reagan rose to power on the back of the culture wars. As a candidate for governor, he attacked California’s incumbent governor Pat Brown and the chancellor of the University of California was failing to forcefully discipline campus protestors—for not taking them “by the scruff of the neck and thrown them off campus.”

This hardline stance against campus disruptors won Reagan tremendous backing among California voters. Digging a trench in this culture war, according to Perlstein, “even more than singling out alleged abuses of California’s welfare system by ‘able-bodied malingerers,’ or his fulminations against the violation of economic liberty represented by the state’s new statute outlawing racial discrimination in housing, or high taxes and runaway government spending generally, was how he won his stunning upset victory.”

Much in the same way Trump has eagerly picked fights with black athlete dissenters, Reagan never missed a chance to deepen the cultural clash. When Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver was enlisted to guest lecture at Berkeley in 1968, Reagan threatened to investigate the school “top to bottom,” warning that “if Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.” Cleaver taught the course anyway, instigating his end of the clash by challenging Reagan to a “duel to the death or until he says Uncle Eldridge.”

At the start of the spring semester of 1969, a group of San Francisco State University students blockaded the campus a demanded a new ethnics studies program. Reagan called the students a “small group of criminal anarchist and latter-day fascists,” vowing that “Those who want to get an education and those who want to teach should be protected at the point of a bayonet if necessary.”

Reagan presented his government as siding with the innocent, sympathetic, silent majority. “When you see a co-ed, a girl trying to make her way to class, and she is pushed around, and physical abused for trying to go through the picket line and go to class,” he said, “this girl is entitled to have the forces of law and order to defend her right to go to class.”

“Law and order” would stifle these uprisings and restore societal peace, Reagan assured. Soon, his tactic in the culture wars would shift gears toward outright violent repression. When UC Santa Barbara students burned down a bank—an act that Marxist student leaders cheered for “heightening the contradictions”—Reagan shot back: “If it’s to be a bloodbath, let it be now. No more appeasement.” Four days later, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University.

Political wise men assumed Reagan was toast in the 1970 election. Instead, he won reelection overwhelmingly. He had achieved virtually none of the promises of his 1966 campaign—his “tax reform” plan had been dead-on-arrival in the state legislature. But his stance in the inflamed culture wars bailed him out. Reagan’s “most effective campaigners,” Life magazine observed, “have been those college-based Reagan haters who rioted over People’s Park in Berkeley and set fire to the Bank of America’s branch in Isla Vista last spring.”

More than anything, what Reagan offered California voters was the promise of a return to innocence. A way around the challenges levied against the status quo. A way to revert back to those golden years for the white middle-class before the tumult of the 1960s.

No doubt, Reagan’s insistence on American-pie innocence often had a head-in-the-sand quality to it. In May 1973, just as the Senate Watergate hearings were beginning, Reagan called the allegations of criminal wrongdoing by President Nixon and his staff “none of my business”—allegations that in his opinion had been “blown out of proportion.”

Still, Reagan tapped into an appetite for absolution among the American public—a desire for a return to quiet normalcy, even if it meant “peddling fairy tales,” as Perlstein puts it. Reagan felt the nostalgic yearning across the affluent society to turn back time, and realized that no line was too hard to take against the gatecrashers who were intent on speeding it up.

Reagan would soon take his crusade of fairy tales and innocence national. And the crusade has proved its staying power among generations of American reactionaries. After all, Reagan was the first to promise to “make American great again,” but hardly the last.

Progressive health reform in 2020

Progressives are readying the next era of health reform. Bernie Sanders has introduced a Medicare-for-all bill, with substantial support among prominent Senate Democrats. Other Democratic proposals include letting people buy into Medicare, or letting them buy into Medicaid, or creating a “Medicare X” plan that would let people buy into a new form of Medicare on Obamacare’s marketplaces. The left-of-center terrain is rife with ideas about what comes next in healthcare.

A new symposium hosted by the American Prospect and the Century Foundation adds to this terrain. All six contributions from healthcare experts are worth reading (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). I’d like to focus on two of these ideas, and what they mean for how health reform thinking is evolving on the left-of-center.

The first comes from Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale. He is also the godfather of the public option—the Affordable Care Act-era proposal to create a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

In 2007, Hacker proposed a healthcare plan that paired a mandate on employers to provide insurance with a Medicare-like public plan to cover the uninsured. At the time, Hacker’s plan was out of step with mainstream Democratic priorities on healthcare. As I’ve written, Democrats felt burned about being tagged as overreaching statists during Bill Clinton’s 1993 health reform effort. When Barack Obama made another attempt at health reform, Democrats opted for a centrist approach built around government facilitation of competitive private insurance markets.

Within this framework, Hacker’s proposal was whittled down to a public option that would offer plans within Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces. This was the chief liberal imprint on the Affordable Care Act debate. But the public option ultimately proved too much for the Senate Democrats that held the decisive votes on health reform. Hacker’s public option was unceremoniously excised from the bill.

Obamacare went into effect with no alternative to private insurance for most people. The law has made tremendous gains in getting people covered. But most of these gains have come from the law’s expansion of public insurance under Medicaid. Obamacare’s private insurance marketplaces have been wobbly and in flux, constantly under attack by Republican opponents, and prone to price increases and exits by insurers.

Now Hacker is back with a new contribution to the liberal healthcare brainstorm session. He proposes a plan he has called “Medicare Part E”—Medicare for everyone who wants it. “All Americans should be guaranteed good coverage under Medicare if they don’t receive it from their employer or Medicaid,” Hacker writes.

The key features of Hacker’s plan include:

  • Automatic guaranteed coverage for all Americans under a new Medicare Part E.
  • You can opt out of this default Medicare coverage by enrolling in an employer-sponsored plan or other private insurance plan with benefits at least as good as those offered by Medicare.
  • A “pay or play” requirement on employers, who would be responsible for either providing good health insurance to their workers or contributing toward the cost of Medicare Part E.

Hacker’s plan has a lot going for it. It takes the best part of single-payer—guaranteed coverage—while leaving room for consumer choice. Medicare Part E wouldn’t jeopardize the employer-provided coverage that people have and like (as long as those plans meet quality standards). And the experience of Obamacare shows that employers are unlikely to ditch their insurance offerings in droves to dump workers on to a new public plan.

Medicare Part E builds on the public preference for voluntary, rather than coercive, government healthcare programs. The idea for a voluntary public option has been consistently popular, while Obamacare’s now-stricken individual mandate was consistently not. Rather than banning private insurance (as some single-payer plans would), Hacker would supplement private insurance with a Medicare fallback available to all Americans as a right of citizenship. Like the idea of making Medicare the default coverage for kids (which I’ve written about), those who prefer private coverage could still get it.

The second proposal comes from John Holahan and Linda Blumberg of the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. They argue that instead of creating a public option, we should cap the payment rates that hospitals and providers can charge to insurers.

The strongest version of a public option would help control healthcare costs by paying providers the same low rates that Medicare pays. But this public option would draw fierce industry opposition from both insurance companies and providers.

Blumberg and Holahan suggest that we can capture the same cost savings of a public option by simply applying the same payment caps to private insurers. Under their proposal, private insurers would pay providers at rates capped at what Medicare pays (or the Medicare rate plus a percentage more). This would achieve cost savings while defusing potential opposition among insurers.

This plan would essentially import the regulatory structure used in Medicare Advantage into the rest of the health insurance system. Medicare Advantage is the program that allows private insurers to compete with traditional single-payer Medicare. It currently enrolls about one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries. Under Medicare Advantage, out-of-network providers cannot charge private insurers more than Medicare rates, which also implicitly caps the rates paid by in-network providers, too.

Blumberg and Holahan would expand these rules beyond the Medicare Advantage market and into the broader health insurance market. In effect, the insurance industry would become more like a public utility—the broader market would functionally be a public option. “This approach would control costs in areas where premiums are high,” Blumberg and Holahan write, “and it would reduce barriers for insurers in markets where monopoly conditions currently exist.”

It’s not clear that this proposal would lure health insurers off the sidelines to sell in the nearly barren areas underserved by Obamacare’s marketplaces, like rural regions. And it wouldn’t provide an alternative to the administrative complexity of the private insurance system.

But Blumberg and Holahan are right that absurd costs are at the root of much of what ails our healthcare system. Rate-setting and price controls should be in the discussion for the next phase of health reform. Healthcare simply isn’t a market where we can let prices fluctuate with supply and demand. “Consumers” aren’t able to easily shop around or walk away from healthcare services that are just too essential to turn down. This removes the downward price pressure that exists in other true markets for goods and services. Government can step in and restore that price pressure by limiting the prices that doctors and hospitals can charge.

“Medicare-for-all” is a good campaign slogan for progressives to run on. But it’s also a bull-in-a-china-shop approach that would upend the existing system. There are other ideas on the table that more gingerly navigate the political headwinds that Health Reform Phase 2 will inevitably face. Coupling national price controls while making Medicare available to everyone may just be the way forward.