So last night I fixed myself a strong drink and settled in for a long spell of nail-biting election-returns watching, but it was pretty much over before I’d swallowed even half of it. Hillary lost big. Trump won big. Kasich–the most dignified and least awful-seeming right-winger of the Republican hopefuls this cycle–edged out Bush and Rubio and Cruz, throwing the GOP quest for a more-conservative but less-alienating alternative to Trump into disarray.
First things first. Hillary didn’t just lose–somebody beat her. A Jewish atheist Socialist Democrat beat her. From Brooklyn yet, the borough that my parents grew up in, that I have lived more than half of my life in, and where both of my two children were born and came of age. This is huge and I hear almost no kvelling. When the sanctimonious Joe Lieberman got the nod for VP 16 years ago, the kvelling was literally deafening and nobody outside of Connecticut had ever cast a vote for the guy.
I was still working in book publishing back then; a couple of weeks later, I found myself sitting across a desk from the New York Times best-selling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who told me with a perfectly straight face that Lieberman’s nomination was perhaps the most consequential moment for the Jews in America’s history. My wife (who wasn’t born a Jew) went to hear Julius Lester give a talk about his conversion at a Brooklyn synagogue around that time, and a little old lady in the audience asked Lester if he was as excited about Joe Lieberman as she was. And now Sanders, whose politics and religiosity probably reflects more Jews’ politics and religiosity than Lieberman’s or Telushkin’s or for that matter Lester’s, is the biggest dark horse since, I don’t know, Donald Trump–and you can hear a pin drop in the Jewish media echo chamber. Pretty soon, all kinds of professional Jews are going to be lining up against Sanders as a clear-and-present danger to Israel. Is that ironic or what? We finally get a Jew and the Jews hate him. It’s like the old joke about the two synagogues on the desert island, one that you belong to and one that you would never go to. Except that the non-synagogue-goers are winning the day.
Watching Bernie’s and Trump’s victory speeches last night, it occurred to me that for the first time in my memory, the two parties are giving us an unambiguous set of alternatives–two completely opposite temperaments, ideologies, ethoses, and understandings of the purpose of government and the role of the US in the world. The fact that neither party likes them or knows what to do with them is just the icing on the cake.
This is an unbelievably consequential moment we are living through. If this was happening in another country, our pundits would say that this kind of sea change is only to be expected after it lost two wars, suffered an economic near-death experience, and delivered virtually all of its economic growth to the top 5 percent. But since it’s happening here, the elites and the pundits are caught equally off guard.
Political systems, we’re used to thinking, evolve incrementally and predictably and it certainly looks that way in retrospect, when you edit out all of the red herrings and dead ends. Nobody remembers the anti-Masons or the Silverites or the rural Populists or the reborn KKK except as weird eccentricities and excrescences. But had things gone just a little differently, they would have seemed inevitable too.
For what it’s worth, I thought Hillary’s speech was pretty good last night. But politicians almost always sound more gracious and thoughtful when they are conceding than when they are selling themselves. And something tells me that she’ll be making a lot more concession speeches in the months to come.
As for Rubio, I thought he was a bad bet all along as the GOP’s white knight. He’s always been a crappy speaker and a creepy personality, even if he did talk in paragraphs. Good speech makers connect. Their audiences feel like the flow is going from them to the speaker rather than vice versa, because he or she puts their inchoate feelings and aspirations into words. That’s what Bill Clinton did back in 1992 and Obama did in 2008 and what Bernie Sanders (and Trump, alas) are doing today. Hispanics see Rubio as a sellout and xenophobes see him as a Fifth Columnist. He’s like a Jewish convert politicking for Pope–nobody trusts him or likes him. Trump is genuinely popular and he’s more moderate in his politics than any of them, even Kasich. He’s vile and dangerous and evil and may well lead us into something very much like Fascism, but he’s not really a conservative, just like The National Review says.
The people don’t want what they used to think they wanted. The Republicans would reject Reagan if he came back from the grave and huge numbers of Democrats would probably reject JFK as a neo-Liberal cold warrior too.
Our politics have gotten out of sync with our economics. Late stage capitalism disinherits a lot of people, but it doesn’t disenfranchise all of them. It’s a big problem for late stage capitalism. And for old-line Democrats and Republicans too.