Behold the Democratic Future, Boasts Jonathan Chait, Because Suspicion of Government Is Racist


Jonathan Chait

Over at New York Magazine, which today suffered a website crash that temporarily lowered Internet smug levels by a measurable degree, Jonathan Chait makes the bold claim that the Democratic Party is entering a period of dominance. His argument is partially rooted in favorable ethnic and generational trends that have much to do with the relative skills of the two major parties in enticing new voters—something that can confer a very real, but hardly permanent advantage. But Chait also proclaims victory for the donkey party because, he says, "America's unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable…from the legacy of slavery," and who wants anything to do with that?

It's tempting to say "what the fuck?" and take Chait's argument as an exercise in self-congratulatory lunacy—part of the attempt to declare an argument over, and further debate illegitimate—that has become so popular recently.

But Chait links to an earlier piece of his that is both more nuanced and very revealing of a hermetically sealed cultural and intellectual hothouse, one that can make it easy to assume a natural march to victory by his side and inevitable defeat for his opponents.

In "The Color of His Presidency," an analysis of the (alleged) racial politics undergirding support and opposition for the Obama administration, Chait acknowledged the limits of tying everything the right/Republicans (he tends to group people as "Democrat" and "Republican" and dismiss independents as really one or the other) do and believe to racism.

Yet here is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.

Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.

Chait then documents some of the more thoroughly dishonest attempts to attribute racist motives to conservatives, especially by MSNBC, whose commentators apparently see hidden hoods in every elephant lapel pin. He also discusses that network's special ability to get under thin GOP skin.

And it's here that we go back off the rails, as we discover that the Republican Party is somehow no longer mainstream and part of American culture.

It exposed a sense in which their entire party is being written out of the American civic religion. The inscription of the civil-rights story into the fabric of American history—the elevation of Rosa Parks to a new Paul Revere, Martin Luther King to the pantheon of the Founding Fathers­—has, by implication, cast Barack Obama as the contemporary protagonist and Republicans as the villains.

He later adds:

The unresolved tension here concerns the very legitimacy of the contemporary Republican Party. It resembles, in milder form, the sorts of aftershocks that follow a democratic revolution, when the allies of the deposed junta—or ex-Communists in post–Iron Curtain Eastern Europe, or, closer to the bone, white conservatives in post-apartheid South Africa—attempt to reenter a newly democratized polity.

Chait then goes on to pseudo-scientifically do what he seemed to criticize just paragraphs earlier: link support for not just Republicans but also for small goverrnment ideas to America's history of slavery. He does this based on one study of political habits and history in counties of the Old South.

And here we are again: No need for debate, it's all about internalized racism.

What does this have to say about conservatives in New Hampshire or libertarians in Arizona? Who the hell knows.

Chait is very much a Red Team vs Blue Team thinker—deep down, you're one, or you're the other. He marinates at New York Magazine, among like-minded thinkers, for whom small government ideas and the Republican Party have largely been "written out of the American civic religion." Everybody who disagrees is tainted by slavery in Mississippi.

Never mind that the president's approval ratings are kind of crappy and below average compared to his predecessors, or that both major parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans. That civic religion may not have quite the saints or shrines that Chait assumes.

This is not to say that Republicans are incapable of their own very real bouts of stupidity. When it comes to nominating cringe-worthy candidates, the GOP is perfectly capable of fulfilling MSNBC's fever dreams. It often does seem firmly fixed in an unattractive authoritarian past, even as younger Americans are receptive to arguments about the size of government, the unworkability of Obamacare, and the superiority of private charity to government spending.

Coupled with their tolerant social views, millennials would appear to be pointing more toward a libertarian future than a liberal or conservative one. If only one or both of the major parties would make a real play for that constituency.

Which is to say, if Republicans are capable of bouts of stupidity, so are liberal pundits.