Image Credits: AP.
Ruminating on blogger Infidel753’s piece on the “Exhausted Majority,” I find myself feeling a new level of fatigue. It’s not really that I object strongly to the argument he’s making, but more that his argument is basically myopic in the same way as most “both sides” takes on political disagreements. And, yet, it shouldn’t be. It should be straightforward common sense.
Infidel’s launching point is a study called “The hidden tribes of America.” It’s an effort to classify the American electorate into distinct groups, with a focus on extremists. But most people don’t belong on the wings, whether far left or far right.
…the largest group that we uncovered in our research has so far been largely overlooked. It is a group of Americans we call the Exhausted Majority — our collective term for the four tribes, representing a two-thirds majority of Americans, who aren’t part of the Wings. Although they appear in the middle of our charts and graphs, most members of the Exhausted Majority aren’t political centrists or moderates. On specific issues, their views range across the spectrum. But while they hold a variety of views, the members of the Exhausted Majority are also united in important ways:
They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society….. [they] are so frustrated with the bitter polarization of our politics that many have checked out completely….. they aren’t ideologues who dismiss as evil or ignorant the people who don’t share their exact political views. They want to talk and to find a path forward.
Infidel sees the size of this group as “a profoundly positive development,” but I don’t think it’s a development at all. If anything, it’s merely a response. The more bitter and dysfunctional our politics become, the more people feel as a sense of despair. They pine for civility or some way out. You don’t have to be unaligned ideologically with either major party to have this sense of exasperation. I’m fucking spent, and I’ve been spent since the day Donald Trump won the presidency. The people described in the category of “Exhausted Majority” aren’t different in this respect. They’re not even different in that “many have checked out completely,” because that’s true of plenty of ideologues on both sides who have given up on the prospect of progress. It’s true of soft partisans, too.
What’s positive here isn’t new. For most people, politics isn’t the be-all-end-all of their lives. They’d prefer if the governing business took care of itself and they can abide most compromises without as much as a notice. But that’s frankly a luxury not afforded to say, a gay couple seeking legal status for their relationship or a women who has an unexpected pregnancy. If you can walk away from politics when it frustrates you, then you’re one of the lucky majority without too much skin in the game.
One thing I’d say about this group is that they enjoy this condition until they don’t. How many parents have been shocked to learn their child has become addicted to opioids? How many people had good health insurance until they were laid off? Who sent their daughter to college in the South only to learn that she no longer has any reproductive rights?
Throwing your hands up in frustration and walking away doesn’t eliminate the vicissitudes of life. But that doesn’t describe everyone in the Exhausted Majority. Some still believe in progress and think it’s possible if people will just tone it down and negotiate.
For Infidel, this faith is key.
…what I share with other “exhausted majority” people of all viewpoints is the desire for the end of the scorched-earth, dead-end polarization and demonization that dominates politics. Part of what I look for in politicians, activist groups, and bloggers is a willingness to at least read viewpoints different from their own, to give credit where due when someone on the “other side” shows moderation, to recognize where common interests can exist, to refrain from tarring everyone on the “other side” with the brush of that side’s worst extremists.
The real radical crazies are irredeemable, but they’re a minority, even if they’re making most of the noise. Ultimately the sane people on both “sides” have to find a way to take the country back from them, instead of allowing ourselves to be herded into the existing opposing camps that view each other with hatred and incomprehension.
Speaking personally, my exhaustion stems from the realization that sane people are not going to find a way to take the country back, but I don’t really think insanity is much of a problem on the left. For evidence, consider the Philip Bump piece in the Washington Post that looks at how the voting behavior of Congress members has changed over time. Here he is discussing noncompetitive districts where incumbents have nothing to fear from the other side.
Since 1976, Democrats who won by wider margins have gotten more liberal while those who won more narrowly stayed in about the same place ideologically. Among Republicans, though, every group got more conservative to about the same extent, regardless of the margin of victory they enjoyed.
When you look at the numbers, what you see is a disparity. Democrats in safe seats have become more liberal, reflecting a leftward drift of the party overall. But there’s a drag in the middle where Democrats in competitive seats haven’t drifted much at all. Not so for the Republicans, where there’s really not much distinction between members representing safe or unsafe districts. They’re all been careening to the right as a group.
We can see this playing out in Congress now, which is split between a Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House. The House is threatening to default on nation’s debt in an effort to essentially extort concessions on government spending and priorities. This isn’t a negotiation, and it’s not in any way a mirror image of how the Democrats behave when they’re in the minority. But it is exactly what the Republicans did before in 2011 and 2013 when they had control of Congress during the Democratic presidency.
Infidel complains that he sees progressives arguing that “there is no such thing as a moderate Republican,” and I get that there are, in fact, still some moderate Republicans. But the truth is that Republicans serving in competitive districts are by-and-large voting the same way as the safest Republican in the most blood red seat in Oklahoma. And the idea that the Democrats can convince these folks to make good faith negotiations on the budget or immigration or guns or most of the other contentious issues in our country is a fantasy.
And we can’t just turn this around and say that the Democrats are just the same when a Republican president is in office. When Trump was in office, our bills got paid and there were no government shutdowns or efforts to threaten a global economic crisis if the Democrats didn’t get to set the spending priorities.
If you want to argue that the Democrats used scorched earth tactics against Trump, it was in response to his unprecedented criminality and norm-breaking behavior. He should have been convicted in both impeachment trials. On policy, however, the Democrats hashed out the best deals they could muster, won where they could, and took their losses with a normal sense of despair and bitterness.
I don’t have to call every Republican a Nazi or a fascist, and I don’t have to tar every Republican with the behavior of their most extreme members. But it’s not my side of the aisle that’s making this country’s government fail.
I cannot get a coalition of sane people together to fix this problem because the Republicans have a vested interest in insanity. The reasons they’ve become reliant on crazy is the subject for another piece (I recommend Driftglass’s latest), but it’s not something that can or will be corrected by a simple act of will or any savvy opposition strategy.
Overall, I share Infidel’s aspiration for a better brand of politics. It should be possible. But if it comes it will only come out of the other end of a likely cataclysmic series of events. A people, a nation, and a culture cannot thrive or function when one half of it is in throes of a psychotic episode.
And this relates to Infidel’s explanation for why he doesn’t consider himself a centrist: “[my] views stem more from my anti-religion stance and respect for science than from anything political.”
My views are likewise informed by a respect for science, but I’m not anti-religious. However, certain brands of religion have so much to say about the GOP’s current psychotic break that it’s not possible to say you can respect science and remain apolitical. That should have been clear since at least the point where Karl Rove corralled the GOP outside of “the Reality-Based Community.”
[Rove] said that guys like me [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Since then we’ve seen the Republican response to climate change, their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, their response to rampant mass-shootings, including of elementary school children, and their response to losing the 2020 presidential election. Our inability to talk to Republicans about these issues in any kind of evidence-based way is part of why we tend to dehumanize them. It’s why we find them incomprehensible.
Now maybe there are some areas, like gender politics, where it’s possible to see how they find the left incomprehensible, too, but tricky issues don’t balance the scales, nor do exceptions that prove the rule. We’re not talking about obvious things like you live in a gun and hunting culture and I don’t. We’re talking about whether Biden or Trump won the 2020 election. We’re talking about how viruses spread and mutate. We’re talking about whether or not America’s elite is made up of pedophiles and cannibals.
And, ultimately, we’re talking about representative government and fascism, too, because when the former fails, the latter often follows.
So, yeah, the majority of people are fucking exhausted, but that doesn’t mean it is in any way “a profoundly positive development.”