Stakes is High
Bear with me. At the end of “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” the fifth episode of the second season of The West Wing, there’s a scene that sums up a lot of the show’s strong, formative appeal to the current generation of political people and the wonk class. A spunky, smart Republican named Ainsley Hayes joins the Bartlett White House. Some brocialists in the office are jerks to her. Eventually the good guys find out, fire the jerks, and end up in Hayes’ office, where they sing her a Gilbert & Sullivan tune and initiate her into the show’s fraternity.
All of Aaron Sorkin’s shows are about ad-hoc families and their ad-hoc dads. In The West Wing, the family is the Bartlett administration, but it’s also politics more generally. There are some straw-man villains, but generally everybody shares some high-minded goals and is trying to achieve some platonic idea of Good. They come from the Ivy League, they all banter, they sleep with each other, and they argue about Social Security or whatever. It’s a political fantasy. That’s not to knock it: I’d rather live in that world than this one. But the world of the show is possible because so little is actually at stake. Most of the early plot points are about tiny policy changes and budget minutiae, minor foreign crises, and personal drama. It was a show of the 1990s, which is to say it was of a time when everybody was fat and happy and concerned mostly about bullshit.
Sunday night’s successful effort by some self-identified Democrats to raise money for the North Carolina Republican Party, to “rebuild” the county party HQ that was recently set on fire by an unknown party, is straight out of the West Wing. It’s a hand across the divide of that great fraternity. There’s a lot of weird things about the effort which I’ll skip over, except to note that the organizers didn’t seem to realize that any money dumped in the state party’s coffers at this point in the race would probably be going to support state lawmakers’ re-election campaigns, rather than reclaim office space for a local party that can probably get it for free as an in-kind donation from some local businessman.
Are we making too much of the fundraiser? Sure, probably. It’s a thing people got mad about on Twitter, which they tend to do, and here I am writing a lot of words about it, so the joke is on me, really. I’m positive most people who chipped in a few bucks for the campaign did so with pure and admirable intentions, and in a way I admire the impulse.
But I found the quick embrace of the effort by elite commentators deeply irritating, for reasons it took me a while to unpack. The overriding sense I’ve had this election is that despite Trump, and despite many bad years in Congress, the center-left hasn’t fully grappled with the meaning and consequences of the wave of reaction that has gripped the country since 2009. We don’t live anymore in a country with a ruling party and a loyal opposition. That will remain the case after Trump is defeated. And the stakes are really, really high.
If you live in California or New York or Maryland or Massachusetts, as some of the fundraiser’s boosters do—like Professor Jeff Jarvis, who tweeted that his donation was “a blow for civilization and peace”—things are going OK for you, on the whole. There might be problems, and your state legislature might be weak. Your state Democratic party might be corrupt. You might be irritated by congressional dysfunction, and concerned about what it means for the country. But the level of basic services provided in your state is generally intact, or at least similar to what it was 15 years ago. It might well be that Trump’s campaign represents a kind of political insanity that is threatening to touch you, in a real way, for the first time.
This is not true for many Americans. Since 2010, Republican state legislatures — comprised of Republican lawmakers that look very little like what Republican lawmakers used to look like — have inflicted massive harm on the social compact in states where a significant number of Americans live. Sam Brownback shattered Kansas, and Bobby Jindal left a smoking hole in Louisiana. The changes that have taken place in states like Oklahoma and North Carolina since 2008 have been so sweeping as to be revolutionary in nature. The “normal” flow of partisan politics in many of these places, and the minimal social safety net it used to support, has been broken in ways that Americans living in more stable states might have trouble even believing.
Many millions of people live in states where lawmakers are, effectively, intentionally weakening public education. After the recession, Republican legislatures elected in the tea party wave hacked out huge portions of their budget for education and health care, and it didn’t come back when the economy improved. When the cuts create dysfunction, the proffered solution is to weaken public schools further by expanding charters and providing vouchers. There’s too many examples of this to list: Oklahoma has cut its per-student spending by 24% since 2008. State lawmakers and conservatives in places like Kansas have taken to calling public schools “government schools.”
But there’s a lot of other programs that have been axe-chopped. Agencies that used to do a minimal job of rooting out child abuse and coordinating foster care for vulnerable kids are now non-functional. Nineteen states, including many of the country’s poorest, still haven’t taken money to expand Medicaid. It is somehow considered unchill to point out that this is a decision that has a death toll, but it does. But just as much, it means a lot of poor people living in pain, with ailments that are manageable or preventable: The difference between diabetes medication and an amputated foot.
That’s what politics is — the way we distribute pain. It’s not a sport or a fraternity or a game. It’s how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty, whose school has a counselor that’s trained to look for signs of sexual abuse and who doesn’t.
To my mind, the most urgent priority for people on the left or the center-left in this country should be how to make inroads in places like North Carolina — and how to create a feeling of productive national solidarity. It’s a moral imperative, and we’ve done a pretty piss-poor job at it so far. National anger rises up when there’s a confrontation over a hot-button social issue, like North Carolina’s trans bathroom bill or Texas’ abortion law. The former came up a lot last night in relation to the fundraising project. And we should talk about those issues—they’re important.
But we don’t seem to feel the same urgency about helping poor people in North Carolina preserve good schools and improve health care. We haven’t yet developed the sense that it represents a national crisis. That’s puzzling to me—but not half as puzzling as the sense that giving money to a political organization that disenfranchises African-Americans and has a punitive relationship to poor people represents a blow for “political civility.”
Here’s the thing: You can believe all this and still believe in nonviolence, and democratic values. Last year, Texas Republicans made dramatic cuts to the Medicaid program that helps provide physical and speech therapy to severely disabled children, many of whom are in foster care. They used bad math, and didn’t think it through, and cut the program too much. In doing so, they forfeited a huge amount of free federal funding for the program. That means some 60,000 kids will have less access to the physical and speech therapy that used to help them walk, or communicate, or attend school. For some kids with severe physical disabilities, that means pain.
I’m friends with a number of Texas conservatives. I like them personally. They have an ideology that’s not mine, and part of being an adult in the world is learning how to interface with people who don’t think like you do. I write in opposition to them, but I’d be horrified if someone starting firebombing their offices. But just the same, I’d no sooner give them $100 than I would to a man who punched one of those kids on the street.