It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are a fair number of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” — for example, nobody really knows how hard it will be to reduce inflation or whether the U.S. economy will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: Will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
But I think I can make one safe prediction about the U.S. political scene: We’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
As late as 2015, or so I and many others thought, we had a fairly good idea about how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed comprehensible.
On one side we had the Democrats, who were and still are basically what people in other advanced nations call social democrats (which isn’t at all the same as what most people call socialism). That is, they favor a fairly strong social safety net, supported by relatively high taxes on the affluent. They’ve moved somewhat to the left over the years, mainly because the gradual exit of the few remaining conservative Democrats has made the party’s social-democratic orientation more consistent. But by international standards, Democrats are, at most, vaguely center left.
On the other side we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small. Many advocates of that agenda did so in the sincere belief that it would be best for everyone — that high taxes reduce incentives to create jobs and raise productivity, as do excessively generous benefits. But the core of the G.O.P.’s financial support (not to mention that of the penumbra of think tanks, foundations and lobbying groups that promoted its ideology) came from billionaires who wanted to preserve and increase their wealth.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Democrats were pure idealists. Special-interest money flowed to both parties. But of the two, Republicans were much more obviously the party of making the rich richer.
The problem for Republicans was that their economic agenda was inherently unpopular. Voters consistently tell pollsters that corporations and the rich pay too little in taxes; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the G.O.P. win elections?
The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” was to win over white working-class voters by appealing to them on cultural issues. His book came in for considerable criticism from political scientists, in part because he underplayed the importance of white racial antagonism, but the general picture still seems right.
As Frank described it, however, the culture war was basically phony — a cynical ploy to win elections, ignored once the votes were counted. “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ,” he wrote, “but they walk corporate. … Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”
These days, that sounds quaint — even a bit like a golden era — as many American women lose their reproductive rights, as schools are pressured to stop teaching students about slavery and racism, as even powerful corporations come under fire for being excessively woke. The culture war is no longer just posturing by politicians mainly interested in cutting taxes on the rich; many elected Republicans are now genuine fanatics.
As I said, one can almost feel nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
Oddly, the culture war turned real at a time when Americans are more socially liberal than ever. George W. Bush won the 2004 election partly thanks to a backlash against gay marriage. (True to form, he followed up his victory by proclaiming that he had a mandate to … privatize Social Security.) But these days, Americans accept the idea of same-sex marriages almost three to one.
And the disconnect between a socially illiberal G.O.P. and an increasingly tolerant public is surely one reason the widely predicted red wave in the midterms fell so far short of expectations.
Yet despite underperforming in what should, given precedents, have been a very good year for the out-party, Republicans will narrowly control the House. And this means that the inmates will be running half the asylum.
True, not all members of the incoming House Republican caucus are fanatical conspiracy theorists. But those who aren’t are clearly terrified by and submissive to those who are. Kevin McCarthy may scrape together the votes to become speaker, but even if he does, actual power will obviously rest in the hands of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
And what I don’t understand is how the U.S. government is going to function. President Barack Obama faced an extremist, radicalized G.O.P. House, but even the Tea Partiers had concrete policy demands that could, to some extent, be appeased. How do you deal with people who believe, more or less, that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast conspiracy of pedophiles?
I don’t know the answer, but prospects don’t look good.