September 11, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Yes, Democrats are ‘nervous.’ Good
Defeat would mean the advance of the GOP's politics of annihilation.
The headlines over the last seven days have been terrible for the president. It was reported first that he said dead American Marines were “losers” and that volunteers for military service were “suckers.” Last came Bob Woodward’s bombshell. Turns out Donald Trump knew the new coronavirus was deadlier than the flu. Turns out he consciously chose to minimize its anticipated impact as early as February. His abject dereliction of duty produced a death toll 66 times that of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
That’s a lot of bad press, so I suppose we’re due for a change of pace from members of the Washington press corps. If they’re going to spend time and energy producing bad headlines for the president, journalistic “balance” demands they produce at least one bad headline for Joe Biden—even if they must look under rocks and bushes to find it. NBC News’ Sahil Kapur and Jonathan Allen, right on cue, made it happen with “Democrats are nervous about Trump’s persisting edge over Biden on the economy.”
Liberal Democrats are always nervous, not because of Trump’s swing-state resilience, but because they’re liberals. They doubt themselves when it comes to attaining power. Once they have it, they doubt again. That’s a good thing.
This is not to say Kapur and Allen are wrong. They are quite right in reporting that polls suggest “Americans in battleground states still trust Trump over Biden on the economy, which often tops the list of decisive issues for voters.” I’m not here to quibble with their interpretation of the data. I’m not here to say the economy is an increasingly unreliable metric of voter behavior. The only points I want to make are simple ones. First, Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, are always nervous, not because of polling or Trump’s swing-state resilience, but because they’re liberals. Second, and more importantly, Democrats should be nervous. The stakes can’t be higher. Defeat will surely mean the advance of the GOP’s politics of annihilation.
Liberals doubt themselves habitually in ways experienced rarely by Republicans, especially the White House’s current occupant. Trump believes he’s always right about what’s going to work for him politically, and after every instance in which he expresses superlative confidence in himself, he’s shown to be wrong. (When I say “every instance,” I mean every single one. Being impervious to shame means being impervious to humiliation wrought by troglodyte political judgment.) Liberals just don’t work that way. Doubt is part of the mindset that makes them liberal. This is important to point out as it pertains to journalistic “balance.” Worried Democrats will always appear newsworthy compared to Republicans who are never worried, even if they should be.
Having doubts, moreover, is a good thing compared to the alternative. Here, I’m thinking of an essay written by Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe. Published 16 years ago, it examines movements within the Republican Party at the time. It finds elements of thinking originated by fascist philosopher Carl Schmitt. In the process, Wolfe outlines the philosophical underpinnings that distinguish liberals from “conservatives” (his word). I think of the differences while reading news treating Republicans and Democrats as if they were two sides of the same coin. The parties are different and dialectical in the ways they position themselves in the world. One has grave reservations about the moral use of political power. The other has none at all.
Wolfe writes that the most important lesson Schmitt teaches is that the differences between liberals and conservatives are not restricted to policy but include the very “meaning of politics itself.” Residues of Schmitt’s German version of conservatism, he said, “which shared so much with Nazism,” can be “detected in the ways in which conservatives today fight for their objectives.” Writing in 2004, he went on to say:
Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water’s edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency … the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.
When journalists equate the unequal, they not only obscure what’s bad about the Republicans—making them seem confident and strong, when they might in fact be overconfident and weak—they obscure what’s good about the Democrats, and in turn, veil the authoritarian creep over an American liberal tradition for which there’s always something more important than winning, whether that’s “procedural integrity, historical precedent, or consequences for future generations,” Wolfe said. Democrats doubt themselves when it comes to attaining power. Once they have it, they doubt again.
That’s good. That’s worth voting for.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.