The political class, particularly Democrats (since they lost), continue to conduct their post-mortems of the 2016 election that threw so many for a loop. As is often the case, it’s questionable whether they are pursuing a real understanding of what they didn’t grasp before, or simply looking for snippets to restore confidence in their prior beliefs — which they can try to sell back to the same folks who rejected them earlier as reasons why their approach hadn’t been all that errant in the first place.
It’s a ritual familiar to both political parties. As we saw of the Republican Party in 2016, following its famous autopsy of 2012, the establishment’s reassurances that it knows the way forward aren’t always shared by the masses — and don’t always show us where things are actually heading. Might the Democratic establishment also be pointing in the wrong direction?
An early sign that is might be doing that is this very well done piece by Molly Ball in The Atlantic, in which she follows a group of researchers from the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, as the headline puts it, “On Safari in Trump’s America.” If that title sounds like foreshadowing about the mindset of the “explorers,” you must have aced English lit.
The piece is too long and too well done for me to summarize in a couple of snippets. Instead, I’ll give you this excerpt — after the Third Way crew visited a kind of hippie farming commune in Wisconsin — which gets at the premise of both the trip and the article, in the hope that you’ll take 10 minutes to read the whole thing:
“The trip was predicated on the optimistic notion that if Americans would only listen to each other, they would find more that united than divided them. This notion—the idea that, beyond our polarized politics, lies a middle, or third, path on which most can come together in agreement—is Third Way’s raison d’etre. It is premised on the idea that partisanship is bad, consensus is good, and that most Americans would like to meet in the middle.
“But these are not uncontested assumptions. And, three days into their safari in flyover country, the researchers were hearing some things that disturbed them greatly—sentiments that threatened their beliefs to the very core.
“The last focus group, a bunch of back-to-the-land organic farmers and artisanal small-businesspeople, was over, and the researchers had retreated to their car to debrief. There was a long pause after Hale turned off the tape recorder on which they were recording their impressions.
“‘I had a very hard time with that meeting,’ she finally said. ‘The longer the meeting went on, the more it started to feel to me like just another community that had isolated itself, and it was right and everybody else wasn’t, you know?’ The hippies should have been her kind of people, but the attitudes they’d expressed had offended her sense of the way America ought to be. She had come seeking mutual understanding, only to find that some people were not the least bit interested in meeting in the middle. And now she was at a crossroads: Would she have to revise her whole worldview to account for this troubling reality?”
It turns out, America is a pretty complicated and opinionated place. A place populated by people who do not lightly agree to sacrifice their own ideas of the good, of the happiness they are pursuing, to some gauzy notion of consensus with others about what is good for most, or agreed upon by a plurality.
Regular readers have seen me refer before to Yuval Levin’s 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic.” The Third Way researchers would have done well to read it and grapple with its arguments before setting out on their Wisconsin safari. For Levin very ably details the ways in which national political consensus is an artifact of the mid-20th century, a consensus that developed over a few short decades beforehand and had more or less dissipated a few decades afterward. In other words, consensus is not a natural status for Americans; it is the exception to the rule, an exception we have been moving away from for the better part of 50-60 years. The project of government in the 21st century, then, isn’t to make Wisconsin’s hippie organic farmers agree to compromises with, say, Atlanta’s black middle class or Texas’ oilmen that are seen as largely unsatisfying but not-quite-worthy-of-outright-revolution by all. It’s to organize government in such a way that the members of each group — and the many, many others in this vast nation — can pursue happiness in the way they see fit. And that probably means devolving as much power to as local a level as possible.
But back to Ball’s article. One reason to read it all the way to the end is to see how closely the Third Way researchers’ report of their own trip fits with her own observations. No spoilers here, but it’s probably the most important part of the article because it indicates just how close a mainstay of the Washington establishment is to figuring all this out.