The Strange Amnesia of Michael Barone

I don’t usually pay much attention to the writings of Michael Barone, who long ago traded in a keen analytical intellect for the comforts of an easy career shilling for the Republican Party. Typically, Barone will choose one meme and pursue it shamelessly and repetitively in columns and electronic media and speaking engagements. I hope to God the column I just stumbled on isn’t his Meme of the Cycle.

It bugs me because the optic Barone uses is George Dangerfield’s political history classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, one of my favorite books, which analyzes the breakdown of the nineteenth century British paradigm under a host of pressures and emerging social movements.

According to Barone, the Liberal Party lost its way and its electoral majority for the simple reason that it was warred upon from within by leftist constituency groups:

They were bedeviled by demands from different constituencies — Irish Catholics, feminist suffragettes, militant union leaders — which their compromising tendencies could not assuage. Liberal Britain faced internal violence, Dangerfield argues persuasively, when it unexpectedly went to war in August 1914.

Parties that are uneasy coalitions of self-consciously divergent groups with varying agendas, groups that consider themselves out of line with (or oppressed by) the national majority, are prone to splinter. It’s hard to keep everyone happy and onboard.

And so, today, are the U.S. Democratic and British Labour Parties, according to Barone:

In May’s election, the Labour Party lost Scottish seats to Scots Nationalists who won 56 of 59 seats; lost working-class votes to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party; and lost upwardly mobile Hindus and Sikhs to the lower-tax Conservatives.

Democrats face competing demands from teacher unions and poor parents; Black Lives Matter protesters and environmental cultists; and from skeptics about the Iran deal and pacifist-leaning doves.

What these constituencies have in common is an angry rejection of the center-left political formula that only recently produced impressive party victories. The first black president was able to corral 51 percent for re-election and retains enough loyalty to keep most Democrats from grumbling about his performance.

But the leftward lunge so visible at Sanders rallies and Corbyn hustings pushes their parties to extreme positions and splinters what were majority coalitions. The strange death of the center-left threatens to make Britain solidly Conservative again and consign the Democratic Party to unanticipated minority status.

That, of course, is the happy ending of every Barone column.

But it’s extremely odd for anyone to cite Dangerfield’s book without so much as mentioning the external force that confronted the Liberal Party prior to World War I: a suddenly extremist Tory Party that threatened civil war if the Liberal government redeemed its pledge to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Watching Republican presidential candidates take various pledges this year to defy laws and policies established from the Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s (Roe v. Wade) to the Obama administration, I was reminded repeatedly of Dangerfield’s account of Tory leaders like Bonar Law standing with Ulster Unionists and taking a solemn vow “under no circumstances to submit to Home Rule.” Liberal leaders’ confusion, irresolution and (ultimately) surrender in the face of these threats had a lot to do with their political decline.

Given the rather obvious parallels here, it’s probably not surprising Barone ignored this feature of Dangerfield’s book. But it’s strange he didn’t choose a more apt model for his cheerful tale of the coming global conservative victory.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.