vision 2020

Moderate Democrats’ Delusions of ‘Prudence’ Will Kill Us All

Fear Prudence. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the weather report for the Arctic Circle was partly cloudy with a high of 84 degrees.

Earlier this year, a United Nations report found that “potentially devastating temperature rises of 3 to 5 [degrees Celsius] in the Arctic are now inevitable even if the world succeeds in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement.” At the moment, no nation on Earth is on track to meet its emissions targets under that accord. And any temperature rise above what’s already inevitable would pose a severe risk of melting the methane-infused Arctic permafrost, thus releasing 283 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — a development that, when combined with the disappearance of heat-deflecting ice, would rapidly accelerate global warming and all but doom human civilization.

Meanwhile, the government of the world’s lone superpower remains dominated by a political party that regards climate change as something between an afterthought and a “Chinese hoax.” The GOP vigorously opposed the Paris agreement, and is in the process of repealing just about every measure the Obama administration took to uphold it. In fact, the Republican White House is so committed to a new rule that would keep economically inefficient — and ecologically ruinous — coal-fired power plants in operation, it is ignoring an EPA report that estimates such a policy would result in 1,400 additional premature deaths in the U.S. every year. For their part, Senate Republicans are so contemptuous of the notion that the climate crisis demands ambitious government action, they have turned the Green New Deal into a punching bag, and insisted that any new infrastructure package must consist largely of environmental deregulations.

America’s most powerful political party is also growing increasingly hostile to democratic values — and evermore insulated from popular rebuke by its own revisions to election law and the structural biases of America’s system of government. On the state level, Republicans have implemented a wide variety of voting rules designed to depress the political participation of Democratic-leaning constituencies. And when a Democrat nevertheless wins a gubernatorial election in a purple state, the GOP has taken to using their heavily gerrymandered state legislative majorities to preemptively strip the governor’s office of its traditional powers. These same anti-democratic tendencies are manifest at the federal level. The last two Republican administrations have launched investigations into the (nonexistent) crisis of mass voter fraud, in an ostensible bid to rationalize suppressive voting rules. And both Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration have refused to recognize the Democratic Party’s right to govern — the former by nullifying Barack Obama’s authority to appoint Supreme Court justices; the latter by refusing to comply with the (Democrat-controlled) House’s subpoenas.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has abetted the GOP’s assaults on democratic rule by gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, approving unlimited corporate spending in American elections, vetoing an Arizona law that attempted to limit the influence of such spending by providing candidates with public funds, and hobbling public-sector unions, one of the only institutions with the capacity to serve as a countervailing weight to the power of (overwhelmingly Republican-aligned) corporate-interest groups.

This synergy between conservative domination of the anti-majoritarian judiciary and Republican efforts to entrench anti-majoritarian rule over the elected branches of government threatens to trigger a feedback loop nearly as dire for U.S. democracy as melting permafrost would be for the global climate: As the Supreme Court makes it easier for Republicans to disenfranchise hostile voters and dilute the influence of those who retain the ballot, Republicans become better able to replenish and expand their grip on the judiciary.

The threat that the GOP could soon entrench the rule of a reactionary, predominantly white minority isn’t an idle one. Thanks to Senate malapportionment, the decline of ticket-splitting in an era when all politics is national, and the political polarization of urban and rural areas (a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon across Western democracies that shows few signs of abating any time soon), Republicans currently enjoy a historically large structural advantage in the upper chamber, one that is poised to grow even more formidable in the years to come. By 2040, half the U.S. population is expected to reside in eight diverse, largely urban states, while another 20 percent of the populace will be concentrated in the next eight most populous states. This will leave the remaining, overwhelming white, and nonurban 30 percent of the American population with 68 votes in the U.S. Senate. In a political culture where Democratic presidents are no longer allowed to appoint Supreme Court justices unless their party also controls the upper chamber, GOP domination of the Senate will translate into GOP domination of the judiciary, even if the conservative movement boasts an ever-smaller fraction of public support (as research on the political views of millennials and Gen-Zers suggests that it will).

All of which is to say: There’s a reasonable argument that America’s capacity to address the existential threat posed by climate change — and arrest its descent into plutocracy — depends on the Democratic Party regaining full control of the federal government, and promptly enacting a series of (small-d) democratic reforms such as federal voting-rights protections and statehood for overwhelming nonwhite territories like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington D.C., before secular trends allow a reactionary minority to lock up the Senate and judiciary for a generation.

There are many obstacles to such a beneficent development. A major one is the tendency of moderate Democrats to mistake their own myopic complacency for heroic prudence. Greg Weiner, a political scientist and onetime aide to former moderate Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, gives vivid expression to this unfortunate frame of mind, in a column published by the New York Times Wednesday.

In an op-ed titled “It’s Not Always the End of the World,” Weiner scolds Democrats and Republicans alike for grossly exaggerating the stakes of partisan conflict in the contemporary United States. Against the catastrophism embraced by the likes of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Weiner champions the lost art of political “prudence,” which Abraham Lincoln once practiced so well:

Prudence is a capacity for judgment that enables leaders to adjust politics to circumstances. In extraordinary times, prudence demands boldness. In mundane moments, it requires modesty. Lincoln, the foremost exemplar of prudence in American political history, can instruct today’s voters in both ends of that continuum.

 

In 1838, an ordinary historical moment, a 28-year-old Lincoln warned the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., that the greatest danger to American liberty would arise from leaders seeking greatness in times that did not require it … A quarter-century later, as Lincoln prepared a bold stroke that helped define his own legacy — the Emancipation Proclamation — his annual message to Congress spoke of historical circumstances more grandly: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

 

Those poles of Lincoln’s politics — modesty in ordinary times and boldness when required — illustrate the essence of prudence. The gateway to prudence is accurately gauging the character of one’s moment in history.


These paragraphs do a rather poor job of establishing Weiner’s own capacity to distinguish history’s “ordinary times” from its “mundane moments.” Was the “greatest danger to American liberty” in 1838 really politicians who demanded bold reforms in an era that required none? Or was it, perhaps, the slaveocracy that condemned more than 1 million Americans to lifetimes of forced labor, family separations, rape, and physical abuse? And was Lincoln’s complacency about eliminating slavery, until the moment when abolition became militarily expedient for the Union Army, a mark of extraordinary prudence or an all-too-ordinary moral failure?

Weiner is no more discerning when he turns his gaze from antebellum America to Donald Trump’s. “There is no question that Mr. Trump’s political style is aberrant,” Weiner writes. “But what if, all things considered, the needs of the moment are ordinary?”

In his ensuing argument for the mundanity of our republic’s present challenges, Weiner never acknowledges the existence of climate change, voter suppression, Trump’s ongoing war on the rule of law, or any of the other maladies catalogued above. Here is the entirety of Weiner’s argument for why those who regard our present moment as one defined by crisis are deluding themselves:

Yet for all the polarization in our politics, Mr. Trump and many of his Democratic challengers agree on the core claim that we live in the throes of a historical crisis. They concur that economic dislocation has ravaged the middle class: many of them might have uttered Mr. Trump’s inaugural proclamation of “American carnage.” All speak of constitutional crises — Mr. Trump of the excesses of the administrative state, Democrats of his violations of longstanding norms.

 

But the erosion of the middle class is not an acute ailment: It is a gradual, nearly half-century phenomenon that is susceptible only to gradual solutions as well. As for the supposed collapse of American government promulgated by the bureaucracy, the truth is much less dramatic: The administrative state is the product of an eight-decade consensus dating to the New Deal, not an emergent calamity. It can be unwound, but 80 years of practice will not yield to sudden solutions.

Even if we stipulate that Weiner has accurately — and comprehensively — identified our republic’s crises as each party defines them, his argument would be uncompelling. It can be simultaneously true that the middle class has been in decline for a half century, and that we’ve now reached a moment of crisis in that long descent. Weiner could perhaps marshal empirical evidence for complacency about the middle class’s present state. But instead, he has rested his case on the claim that “a social problem that has been gradually deepening over a period of many years cannot possibly become a crisis in the present moment”; by this logic, it would have been “imprudent” for anyone to warn of an impending Civil War in 1860, as tensions between the North and South over the expansion of slavery into the Western territories was a “nearly half-century phenomenon” at that time.

But, of course, Weiner ignores the principal reasons for the left’s catastrophism, while badly misconstruing those behind the right’s. It is not the threat of malignant bureaucracy that led former Trump White House senior adviser Michael Anton to describe 2016 as the “Flight 93 Election,” but rather “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” which was rendering the electorate “more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

Weiner’s column isn’t without its merits. His observation that presidential candidates and the political press have to engage in reckless hyperbole to get noticed are fair (there is a reason why the headline to this column is a bit shouty). And “the rhetoric of catastrophe,” as he calls it, certainly has had a malign influence on America’s civic life in recent years. Nor is he wrong to accuse the Democratic Party of engaging in such threat inflation on many occasions.

But in its blithe elision of the primary threats facing our polity and planet, Weiner’s column epitomizes the self-congratulatory complacency of the moderate Senate Democrats, who are more scandalized by the thought of the filibuster’s abolition than the climate’s ruination. If Team Blue can somehow wrest Senate control from Mitch McConnell in 2021, we will not need “modesty” from lawmakers like Jon Tester and Joe Manchin; rather, we will need them to display uncharacteristic boldness, by voting to diminish their own small states’ overrepresentation in the Senate and for sweeping action to mitigate the climate crisis.

Such is the minimum required by prudence in our time.