Capitol building
Credit: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

I’m going to share two excerpts from articles I read this morning while perusing the news. The first comes from a piece Sarah Jaffe wrote for The New Republic on the recent Congressional Progressive Caucus strategy summit in Baltimore which included guest speakers from Europe.

Yiannis Bournous [of Greece’s Syriza Party] was surprised, in the summer of 2016, to find that the American left did not share his and his colleagues’ prediction that Trump would likely beat Hillary Clinton. Having watched the rise of the nationalist right across Europe, he assumed—accurately, it turned out—that given an establishment politician versus a nationalist, the nationalist would win. People who were feeling excluded from an attenuated welfare state, along with a middle class afraid of losing what it had, made up a base of those frustrated with the status quo and increasingly willing to listen to racist anti-immigrant attacks. Yet in Greece and, this past election, in the U.K., there was another anti-establishment option: the left. People voted for these parties, as Abbott noted, not even because they agreed with everything they stood for, but because they saw them as genuine.

The second comes from an article Campbell Robertson wrote as a kind of post-mortem on the special election on Tuesday in Western Pennsylvania.

For Janet Supko, 63, a retired schoolteacher who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, the [special] election was all about the president.

“There have got to be some changes made,” said Ms. Supko, who had just rounded the corner of Macy’s in her morning walk at South Hills Village. While she had benefited from the Republican’s income tax overhaul, she lamented the president’s “lack of professionalism,” the numerous hirings and firings, and the general sense of chaos in the White House.

Mr. [Conor] Lamb was young and fresh and new; maybe he represented the change she had been hoping for when she voted for Mr. Trump in the first place.

“Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to try something else.”

Her walking partner, Clare Rex, 68, was never a fan of Mr. Trump, but for her, in the end, the election was about Mr. Lamb.

“I saw him at the fish fry at Our Lady of Grace,” she said. “He just seems to bring a fresh perspective.”

A lot of ink is spilled trying to figure out why Donald Trump had appeal and what it says about his supporters and whether those supporters are beyond hope or even worthy of being courted for their political support. Trump is a unique character whose fame and supposed business acumen gave him credibility he didn’t deserve. His anti-politician schtick and his willingness to insult everyone in sight on a bipartisan basis gave him the sheen of an outsider. His racism and sexism and xenophobia and trade protectionism aroused a sleeping beast in segments of the Democratic electorate. But, I think people underestimate how much an advantage any anti-establishment candidate would have had against figures like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Too much attention is paid to Trump and not enough attention is paid to the credibility of the American establishment. And the same is true in Europe where the Western coalition is reeling. Germany is having trouble forming a government. The U.K. is staggering in almost every way. Italy just saw fascists clean up in the most recent elections. Eastern European countries are moving back into Russia’s orbit.

A lot of what explains Trump’s political success is summed up in this quote: “Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to try something else.”

But that’s also why the Republicans are seeing a massive movement against them. For one, Trump has governed too much like a typical Republican, which explains why Democrats who were willing to roll the dice with him weren’t responding in Pennsylvania’s 18th District to advertisements about the GOP’s plutocratic tax cuts. Conor Lamb ran explicitly and aggressively against those tax cuts even in the face of a media blitz from the right. For another, people feel like they gave Trump a chance. They tried something radically different. And, for the most part, they don’t like the results.

So, just as they did with Trump, they decided to try something different again with Conor Lamb. The people of Virginia did the same thing in their legislative elections. The people of Alabama decided to go with a Democrat to serve them in the Senate. Individual candidates did more or less well with differing political strategies, but they were all benefiting from a sense that any change is better than the status quo.

This is a reflection of a long period of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. that has been brought to us mainly through the aggression of the conservative movement. For a long time, they had a weird advantage where the worse they were at governance, the more it justified their anti-government stance. This caught up to them during the Bush years—first, in 2006, when scandal and a failed occupation of Iraq became too hard to ignore, and then in 2008 when an economic collapse met up with a fresh face calling for change. But the overall drift has been in the Republicans’ direction because the worse our establishment performed, the less the people believed in giving power to the establishment to solve problems.

What really explains this drift, however, is the impact Washington’s dysfunction has had on American communities. It’s easy to say that neoliberalism is at fault, or NAFTA, or the corporatism of both major parties, but it really comes down to the conservatives having enough power to block the Democrats from taking action to address problems that arise. We can’t even keep our roads, bridges and airports up to code, let alone figure out how to protect our small-towns from the ravages of corporate consolidation, automation. and globalization. We can’t put a dent in the opioid crisis or even protect our kids in their schools, and we probably won’t be able to do these things even if we win the midterms in a tsunami and put a Democrat in the White House in two years. And that’s because the conservatives will maintain enough power, even in the minority, to prevent sweeping changes.

There are many reasons the conservatives will maintain this power. The courts play a part. Election and campaign finance laws play a part. Media play a part. But it’s also the establishment’s shattered credibility and the clear record over a few decades now that Washington D.C. does not have the ability to solve problems that actually winds up playing the biggest role.

In a way, the Democrats are beginning to wake up to this, which is why you see them trying to fix the gerrymandering problem. They realize that structural barriers are in place that prevent them from getting the power they need to be effective agents of change. Gaining majorities isn’t going to be close to enough, nor is winning the White House, as the last six years of Obama’s presidency proved.

To fix this, the Democrats need the kind of majorities they had in the 1960s, and then they need to perform on every level, from building up our small town communities to showing competence on the international stage. This may seem utopian, but it’s the only way out of this morass, and that’s why the Democrats can’t be satisfied with any strategy that gives them a normal or narrow majority. They have to find a way to do a much better job of uniting the country, and that’s why they can’t just trade rural areas for suburban ones.

With all the computing power at their disposal now, political strategists can figure out how to cobble together a bare majority by dividing people. But that’s just going to create more of the same. To really fix this country, the conservative movement has to be broken and the establishment has to be freed up to prove that they can govern effectively if given the chance. Without that, the people will continue to hate their leaders and to show a willingness to try almost anything, including fascism, to shake it out of its gridlock and stupor.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at