So: are Democrats going crazy? Consider the data points. Since the party’s triumphant showing in the midterm elections of 2018, leading figures have, to a greater or lesser degree, embraced: an end to fossil-fuel use in 10 years; a Medicare-for-all health-care system; infanticide; and reparations for the descendants of American slaves. These ideas are so extreme it is impossible to believe that the party that wishes to take control of the White House wants to go anywhere near them. And yet like a moth to a flame, the heat and the light tempt them. Tempt them so much. Is self-destructive behavior crazy? We all indulge in it at some time or other in our lives.
So it might be on the normal side of crazy. But it’s not not crazy.
Should a party be prudent and cautious as it prepares itself for a long hard slog, or should it let out a rebel yell and just charge unceasingly at the enemy? There’s no right answer. Prudence and caution are always sensible in the long term, but politics is about emotion—and they are emotion-killers. If what you want is to make sure people invest with you emotionally, you need to engage with them directly. That has obvious risks, but potent rewards if the engagement takes. The rebel-yell charge only works if it terrifies your opponents. The Democratic rebel yell doesn’t seem to be worrying Donald Trump. Quite the opposite.
The problem with America in 2019 is that we are so used to having our emotions played with, every hour of every day, by outrage machines on the one hand and cute Internet cats on the other that, like drug addicts, we need ever more potent doses just to get our pulses racing at all. So the political-involvement machine has to be cranked up to 11.
Therefore, in 2019, it’s not enough to be for Obamacare, even at a time when Republicans don’t know what to say about health care; to really get the juices flowing, you need to propose a $32 trillion plan that will terrify everyone in the country who is fine with their own health-care plan (which, according to polls, is about 66 percent). It’s not enough to support abortion rights; you are obliged to defend the procedure whereby a viable baby is murdered if a mother says so, perhaps even entirely outside the womb. It is not enough to fear climate change and support policies to mitigate it; you are called upon to pursue the complete elimination of fossil-fuel vehicles in a decade. (I have a 2010 model car I think might last another decade, by the way. Are they going to blow it up?)
Perhaps Democrats are to be commended for following the logic of their own views to their conclusions. If you believe climate change will end life on this planet in 100 years, then ridding the world of greenhouse gases now is a noble pursuit. If you believe a mother’s actual say-so is the legal standard allowing a baby to live, then logic dictates partial-birth abortions are perfectly moral. And if you believe Donald Trump is the harbinger of fascism, then niceties are not only unnecessary in your efforts to oust him for office; niceties are actively dangerous.
So yes, there are signs the Democratic Party is going crazy. But that doesn’t mean Democrats are going crazy. Just those in the party who stand for election or help others stand for election or who comment professionally on elections. Nearly 55 million Americans of voting age describe themselves as Democrats, and surely 55 million people are not going crazy simultaneously.
One might also say Republicans have gone crazy in their own way—indeed, that has been a recurring theme in American politics since 2011. If that is so, and the Democrats are crazy, too, then the problem is a general madness afflicting the United States. That madness has had different effects on Democrats than it’s had on Republicans but comes from the same root. Which raises an ancillary question: If Republicans and Democrats alike are going or have gone crazy, isn’t this craziness just the new normal? If an entire nation of 330 million people is nuts, then maybe the truly delusional are those of us who seem utterly sure we aren’t bonkers.
If we define “crazy” as “out of touch with or entirely at odds with reality,” then that, too, is problematic because in the 2018 midterm election, 62 million Americans voted for a Democrat—9 million more than voted for a Republican. That kind of showing would hardly indicate that Democrats are out of touch with reality, since an Election Day is one of the very few moments frozen in amber in which we can say we can see the reality of the present moment clear. It might indicate, rather, that the person who says Democrats are going crazy is the crazy one.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, and given you leave to argue that I am the crazy one, hear me out: I think that some Democrats are going crazy. Not all. Some. And not necessarily the Democrats you might think I’m referring to.
For example, I do not think that the most radical Democrats in the House of Representatives, the freshwomen who are taking up all the oxygen in the chamber, are crazy at all. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are leftist ideologues, full of brio, and they are using their talents as controversialists to advance their agendas. Their socialist ideas may have been discredited by experience and history decades before their births—but they’re not crazy. Bad is not crazy. It’s bad.
They have a genius for public relations—or, at the very least, for leveraging the identity-politics qualities that make it especially hard for the mainstream media to whisper any criticism of them. They dazzle with their ability to seize and hold the spotlight—or, at the very least, they are continually being placed in the spotlight so that mainstream media outlets can claim to be serving the goal of providing and promoting diversity.
As both the subjects and the objects of a liberal tokenism that ensures they have a front line of defense every time they say something outrageous or unseemly, the Freshman Three have convinced their less dazzling and less controversial colleagues that they are the wave of the future. In some cases, those colleagues are terrified that the wave the radicals are both creating and riding will swamp them. They fear primary challenges from the left championed by the radical freshwomen, somewhat along the model of the Tea Party primary challenges to more conventional Republicans in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.
This is the first real sign of craziness among Democrats, no matter which way you look at it. First, let’s take up the possibility that these more conventional Democrats are right and that primary challenges would be launched against them were they to show any resistance to the #Resistance. The one thing we know about 2020 is that Democrats need to be united and avoid roiling controversies within their own ranks if they are to coalesce powerfully and defeat Trump’s reelection effort. Internecine warfare during the primary season that isn’t just candidates jousting for the right to represent the party in the November election but is ideologically driven—the hard leftists against everybody else—could be ruinous.
America is a country with a closely divided electorate whose legislative chambers have changed hands routinely from party to party over the past 25 years (following a 40-year period of very little change). The Trump Republicans, who are deliberately polarizing, have led their party since 2016—and lost the House in 2018. Throughout his presidency, Trump has remained astonishingly static when it comes to his approval ratings of somewhere around 40 to 42 percent. Are Capitol Hill Republicans and Trump a model to be followed, or to be transcended? Yes, they dominate the news, but not in a way that has redounded to their benefit. Following their example is, therefore, a little bit crazy.
This is why there is significant reason to believe that appearances are deceiving, that the party’s hard left should not occupy its high ground, and that the facts on the ground will start shifting the party in the direction of the not-crazy Democrats. That is why Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, went on 60 Minutes and dismissed the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic House caucus as “like five people.” But if those following Ocasio-Cortez are so small in number, why did Pelosi’s effort to devise a resolution censuring Omar for her anti-Semitic slitherings end in ignominy at a March meeting of the House Democratic caucus? Pelosi knows that the Democrats took the House of Representatives not by talking about the evil of fossil fuels but in general by seeming more sane than Trump and the Republicans. An inability to deal with an open anti-Semite and the possibility of a legislative obsession with presidential impeachment, along with unrealistic policy prescriptions; these do not echo the successful 2018 Democratic campaign. They all but undo it.
But there is also reason to believe that the craziness is exciting enough and fresh enough and energetic enough that it will continue to dominate the national discussion and overwhelm the natural trend toward political homeostasis. That is exactly what happened in the Republican Party in 2015 going into 2016—there was a presumption that the GOP would somehow emerge from the Trump fever dream that did not pass the test of actuality. Of course, Trump won it all in the end; it would be ironic in the extreme if Democrats decided to bet the house on their own version of extremism on the grounds that the man they hate the most in all the world pulled it off in 2016.
Mostly, though, I think the Democrats are going crazy because they are finding it hard to perceive reality plain. Plato’s allegory of the cave is helpful here. Ordinary Democrats are both titillated and frightened by the extremists in their midst. But what if they are like the people in Plato’s cave, chained to a wall in such a way that they can see only the distorted indistinct images cast by flames and cannot see the actual objects, which are mere puppets?
As Allan Bloom wrote, they “cannot distinguish between what is merely a shadow, a distortion caused by the idiosyncrasies of our mental vision or those of the reflecting medium, and what is an accurate reflection of the objects.” They will believe the shadows are monsters, or terrors, or gods to be appeased. And even their release from their captivity will not immediately show them the truth: “Don’t you suppose [they’d] be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”
The question for the Democrats as they head into 2020 is whether they see reality clearly or whether they are teasing and thrilling and tormenting themselves by dwelling on the potential power of their hard left to turn the Democratic electorate against the very sorts of Democrats who won seats away from Republicans in 2020. Available evidence from those 62 million votes is that the fear gripping them is the by-product of the puppet shows of our time—with the shadows cast not by fire but by Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. And that’s crazy.