November 10, 2014

GLICK | Lost and Insecure: Democrats in the Age of McConnell

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It’s been only a week now since we’ve entered the glorious Age of McConnell — Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), longtime obstructionist and foe of President Barack Obama, is the presumptive Senate majority leader — but it is not too soon to examine why it might be important. Republicans’ Election Night sweep is not necessarily important because it ensures legislative gridlock for the rest of Obama’s presidency. On the contrary, a GOP-controlled Congress might finally be forced to reckon with the burden of governance. I acknowledged this somewhat rosy possibility in my last column, and I hope that the cynical (but unfortunately successful) politicking of the “Ebola election” gives way to meaningful compromise on issues such as immigration and tax reform. But I could have easily written that if Democrats had succeeded in keeping the Senate. Either way, we would have been faced with a divided and probably gridlocked government. We should thus look at the dawn of the Age of McConnell not as a transformative moment for its conquering, hog-castrating heroes (Google Iowa’s Senator-elect Joni Ernst for that one), but as a potentially fatal juncture for its Democratic victims.

What’s bothered me since that sleepless Election Night — and what should bother all mildly engaged Cornellians who simply decided to sit this one out —  is that so many of the Democrats who lost deserved to lose. In Kentucky, Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic challenger to Mitch McConnell, refused to say whether she’d voted for the Democratic President; in Colorado, Senator Mark Udall (D), who has spent years distinguishing himself on issues of the environment and civil liberties, ran a one-issue campaign on reproductive rights that The Denver Post called “an insult to those he seeks to convince.” This narrative, played out dozens of times across the nation, reveals a fundamental and tragic truth of our politics: Democrats are insecure. Why would the average American voter pull the lever for candidates who skirt around their allegiances, or who try to narrow the range of public discourse to terrain they think is inherently favorable to them? Yes, Republicans were yelling absurdities about Ebola and ISIS, but they were yelling. Democrats doomed themselves by refusing to raise their voices.

I know the prevailing winds might have drowned out Democrats even if they had been yelling; a relatively unpopular president, a world spinning out of control and painful gaffes by key candidates. But it still boggles my mind that Democrats were — and, in all honesty, still are — operating under the assumption that 2014 was a year to be on the defensive. We have now experienced our 49th consecutive month of job growth, the longest streak since the Great Depression; our budget deficit has been cut by more than half; over 10 million people have health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. And, of course, our financial markets have been brought back from the brink of utter disaster. The Obama Era has given Democrats plenty to brag about, but they chose instead to submit to a Republican narrative that negated these fundamental economic triumphs. Republicans are expected to create that narrative, but Democrats are expected to respond to it. They didn’t, and so they made it even easier for the Age of McConnell to begin.

What does any of this mean for us? The tawdry dramas of a midterm election year will soon be replaced by the soaring rhetoric and glamorous engagement of the 2016 presidential campaign. Once Hillary revs her engines, it won’t really matter to center-left Cornellians what Mark Udall said this fall. Politics will be exciting again. But before we settle in and wait for that moment, we must recognize the danger of this Democratic insecurity.

College campuses — and ours, most certainly, is no exception — too often divide political discourse along fault lines that accentuate this insecurity. When society takes a step forward on something like gay marriage, we all cheer; when society stumbles backward on issues such as abortion or net neutrality, we take to Facebook and lament. But this emerging, progressive consensus on social issues has not infused the broader policy debate on campus. The “Democratic” case is consistently offered as a defensive, either because left-of-center legislation cannot reach the idealistic heights of left-of-center philosophy, or — more frequently on this campus — because left-of-center policies are perceived as harmful to the upper income brackets towards which so many of us are presumed to be skyrocketing. Thus, on a business-oriented, pre-professional campus, the “Republican” case becomes the controlling basis for political discussion, and Democrats must excuse their supposed economic failings and focus instead on the social issues that are their only saving grace. But as we saw last week, talking solely about contraception does not win elections.

This week, alumni have returned to campus to commemorate  Cornell’s Vietnam Era as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ sesquicentennial celebration. These alums have been forever imprinted on our collective memory as the prototype of the left-wing protester: In the decades since, their memories have been invoked in struggles against economic inequality, homophobia and South African apartheid. They have much to teach us, but progressive students will fall into the trap of the Age of McConnell if they believe that they are us. The role of the American left has been enormously changed since its days protesting against Nixon and Kissinger and the bombing of Cambodia. In 2014 (and 2016, 2018 and beyond), the left has to acknowledge that it has so much more to do than denounce the excesses of the right and cry out for social justice. It still has to do those things, of course, but six years of an Obama presidency has given young progressives a tangible, economic platform upon which they must make a positive case for center-left governance. And if they can’t make that case, then — like so many Democrats swept away last week by the Age of McConnell — they won’t deserve to win.