For the second time in a single season, several million Americans owe their lives to the fact that Sen. John McCain would rather die a consensus hero than an object of conservative hagiography. The Graham-Cassidy bill is dead. Beating back Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham and Bill Cassidy’s particularly vicious effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act isn’t the only Democratic victory in recent weeks. On September 13, Democratic Congressional leadership announced that it had reached a tentative deal with President Donald Trump to create a pathway to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act without the precondition of funding Trump’s promise of what will likely become a permanent Banksy gallery on the southern border. Neither victory is entirely secure — Graham-Cassidy will no doubt be resurrected in an even more ghoulish form; Trump is liable to tweet any day now that the DREAMers path to citizenship runs through his forthcoming land war in Korea — but for a party that presently controls no levels of American government, the Democrats have had a fair September.
The surprising success liberals have achieved playing defense against the Trump administration should not surprise us, really, because liberals are never more comfortable than they are on the defensive. For all the accusations that Republicans possesses no coherent vision for capitalizing on a decade of useful obstruction, the GOP has never lacked for a plan. It is the same as always: redistribute wealth upward. Ronald Reagan succeeded in this goal, halting decades of labor advances and drastically reducing marginal tax rates across the board. George H.W. Bush succeeded in this goal, remaining faithful to the Reagan agenda, and failing only to keep his promise never adjust the meager revenue streams the rich still paid into the state at all. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich managed to succeed in it despite the Clinton presidency (or with it, as the “era of big government” was over), and George W. Bush succeeded on a scale unmatched even by his predecessors, in every field from tax policy to regulatory oversight, while coming within a hair’s breadth of converting Social Security into a slush fund for derivatives traders.
I have no doubt that Trump will leave a similar legacy. Democrats, for all their self-conception as architects of a progressing world, possess no such singular purpose. Their plan, even when they are in office, consists largely of defending the paltry welfare state already in place against the vastly more disciplined forces of reaction. Their ambition — when they have the opportunity to realize one — is just to tweak. Sometimes they tweak for the better. Sometimes they call their tweaking “welfare reform.”
Even positive Democratic accomplishments of the past thirty years are defensive maneuvers, masquerading as world-historical triumphs. The Affordable Care Act, so valiantly defended today, began as a pre-emptive concession to the insurance industry born of a Heritage Foundation proposal, predicated on the notion that the corporate parasites leaching blood money from American illness ought to be guaranteed a consumer base as a payoff for being kinder. Graham-Cassidy would rob 21 million people of their health insurance. This, it has been rightly pointed out, is mass murder. The Affordable Care Act left 28 million uninsured. This is the slow progress of steady tweaks. Anything more ambitious, anything that did not from the beginning negotiate against itself, would surely fail, Democrats argued. Their opening position is defensive.
Liberals are never more comfortable than they are on the defensive.
As it happens, DACA operates on this same infernal logic, conceding, as it does, that illegal immigration is a “sin” and merely arguing that children do not deserve to suffer for their parents’ transgressions. This is roughly the same as proposing that while desperate bread thieves deserve to have their hands chopped off, their children shouldn’t be beheaded just because they ate the stolen loaf. It is no wonder that these programs are under relentless attack. Their very formulation suggests that their authors find them barely defensible. It is a testament to their abilities that Democrats have nonetheless succeeded in defending many of their programs, but even here we ought not give them too much credit. It was, after all, McCain’s inexhaustible narcissism, coupled with the disruptive tactics of organizations like the national disability rights organization ADAPT, which have done more to save the Affordable Care Act than all the Democratic maneuvering in the world.
Despite the willingness of Democrats to compromise with themselves on behalf of their opponents, American reactionaries have never reciprocated the gesture. While Democrats treat the world as settled, asking only for an improvement here or there, the GOP follows Faulkner’s adage that the past is not even past. Even Hillary Clinton, in her campaign apologia What Happened, concedes as much, arguing that the Republican Party has never given up on its desire to undo Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The brief era of the American labor movement was snuffed out with barely a protest from liberals, and even then the GOP is not content — one day, they will move to abolish the National Labor Relations Board entirely.
Democrats view Supreme Court picks as the maintenance of balance, a bulwark against catastrophe. Republicans view them as a forever war to bring that catastrophe about. They have already undone campaign finance reform and key portions of the Voting Rights Act. We are only one bad heart away from losing Roe. Clinton argues that Democratic victories of decades past demonstrate the strength of their slow-bore strategy, but as their plans grow less ambitious and each week presents a new threat to past ambitions realized, it is difficult to imagine that any victories they’ve had before will stand forever as a monument to their tinkering.
Since the middle of last century, we have already lost nearly as much as we have gained. Even today, Trump, inept failure that he is, has quietly turned back decades of environmental regulations, while escalating our drone war beyond Barack Obama’s most malicious dreams. At any rate, Democrats are far better these days at resisting pressure borne of the sorts of crises that force programs like the Great Society or New Deal. The Depression brought us Social Security. The Recession brought us a relatively toothless regulatory bill. This, perhaps, is the final way that Democrats will win their defensive war: by abandoning anything new they might have to defend. Then all they need to do is hold their ground, and history will finally be over.
The Democratic party is a poison of the imagination, persuading the victims of our collective depravity that tweaking is the only solace left.
I used to believe that all of this was attributable to a kind of arrogant stupidity on the part of the Democratic Party, a belief that as wonk-managers of the world, their primary obligation was to shore up the market where they could, keep despair within tolerable levels, and wait for their opponents to catch up on the latest white papers. I believed that the distinction between American liberalism and socialism consisted of the distinction between believing that the world we live in could be better and believing that we could live in a better world.
But I have begun to wonder if it is all really so blundering, if all of this merely reflects the well-intentioned losing effort to save capitalism from itself. There are many ways that power serves itself and while the GOP has long represented the naked malice of our market-empire, the force by which the structures of capital will always bend back toward their most vicious configurations, I am not so convinced anymore that the Democratic Party is just a dupe in all of this. Permanent defense is its own kind of offense.
The Democratic Party is not merely a collection of hapless tweakers. They are a poison of the imagination, persuading the victims of our collective depravity that tweaking is the only solace left. The GOP pushes. The Democrats encourage you to fight the good fight, but to revise your expectations downward. Once, it was thrilling to imagine a world in which every citizen had unencumbered access to the triumphs of our medical science. Now you are meant to be thrilled that the worst people in the world did not destroy your right to purchase a barely sufficient bronze plan this week. It is easy to resist the Republican Party. It is more difficult to resist your ostensible allies telling you once again that it’s time to retreat.
Several weeks ago, I attended a rally in Iowa City for DACA recipients protesting the Trump administration’s threat to rescind the program. The rally was, I imagine, what its organizers had in mind: well-attended and well-paced, filled with a mix of attorneys offering legal advice, politicians voicing their support, and young DREAMers telling the stories of their time in the U.S. One speaker asked the crowd why we were all gathered there on that day. I don’t recall what answer he wanted us to give, but I remember thinking that we were there because it was the last line of a defensive and that the most optimistic outlook on current political conditions was that we would all be able to be here again, and again, and again — no ground lost or gained.