I recently heard conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat “in conversation” with left-wing historian Rick Perlstein at Fairfield University’s Quick Center. The next night, I drove across town to hear Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, the dean of contemporary Catholic Church historians, deliver the Jorge Bergoglio Lecture at Sacred Heart University. O’Malley’s talk was titled “The Current Crisis: Thoughts and Historical Perspectives.” The crisis under review was the church’s sexual-abuse quagmire.
As Commonweal readers know, Douthat frequently writes about Catholicism and is an outspoken critic of Pope Francis. His most recent book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, paints a rather dreary picture of a radical reforming pope eager to punish his critics and out of his depth theologically. Douthat’s discussion with Perlstein, however, addressed not the church’s crisis but this country’s political tumult. Although a staunch conservative and ardently anti-abortion, Douthat is no fan of President Trump. In extemporaneous opening remarks, he described politics in the United States and Europe as “paralyzed,” caught in a stalemate that is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon. Trump’s “zombie Reaganism” and Britain’s Brexit catastrophe show that “no one can govern.” In the United States, this has been the case since at least the Clinton administration.
Douthat attributed this political paralysis to the stranglehold that meritocracy and global elites have over the economy and the political system. The result of this concentration of wealth and power at the top is middle-class insecurity and the immiseration of the working class. He was not sanguine about the chances for dramatic political change. The “establishment” ensures that opposition to its meritocratic rule is futile by co-opting the best of the underclass. The result is the rise of an inchoate populism that elites have little problem ignoring. Trump’s legislative successes, after all, have been little more than the implementation of traditional Republican policies: cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy, gutting regulation, and increasing defense spending. His “populist” promises have gone unfulfilled. Stasis and stagnation will continue, Douthat said, until a politician or a movement arises that has the capacity to channel populist anger into real reform. The Democrats are too elitist to pull that off.
Perlstein, a contributing writer at the Nation, is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. “I don’t believe in a moment of stalemate,” Perlstein began his response to Douthat. He went on to lay out the ways in which centrist Democrats, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, betrayed Roosevelt’s New Deal consensus, adopting Republican demands to “shoot Santa Claus” by shrinking the federal government. Clinton, after all, announced that “the era of big government is over.” In the Democrats’ return to power in the House, Perlstein sees the possibility of a robust expansion of the federal government’s role in ensuring economic and social justice.
I doubt Perlstein is right on that score. As Douthat pointed out, American society is too old and relatively too well-off to embark on a dramatic political realignment, let alone a massive redistribution of wealth. But Perlstein was right in noting that the Republicans have essentially played a bait-and-switch game, never seriously attempting to reduce the size of government, let alone the national debt. Instead, they have redirected government largess to the extremely well-off, while cynically demonizing Democrats as illegitimate “governing partners.” Dug in across the South and rural states, Republicans have anti-majoritarian advantages in the Senate and the Electoral College, and are likely to control the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future. It is going to take some very hard and very imaginative political work to undo what Republicans have put in place over the past forty years.