Isaac Chotiner interviews
This month, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, after their sweeping electoral victory in November. And the biggest political stories in the country, aside from the fight over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, have focused on the unabashedly leftist members of the incoming class of House freshmen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been pushing a progressive economic and environmental agenda, while Rashida Tlaib created a firestorm by exclaiming, “we are going to impeach the motherfucker.” They have elicited glee (and a somewhat bizarre level of fascination) on the right, and concern in establishment Democratic circles about where these fresh faces are taking the Party.
So where is the Democratic Party headed, and are we seeing the seeds of a leftward turn, much as the Republicans turned a sharp right, beginning a half-century ago?
To talk about the Democrats’ past and future, I spoke by phone with Rick Perlstein, who has written a series of books on the postwar rise of the American right. In the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the political lessons of Newt Gingrich’s rise, the trauma carried by the postwar generation of Democrats, and what people are missing about Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric.
People on the left of the Democratic Party seem very excited about this moment and what it might mean for the future of the Party, while people on the center-right and in the center seem afraid. So it seems like everyone is convinced this is the start of a real change. Do you agree?
Well, I don’t think they’re afraid so much for the Democratic Party as they’re afraid for themselves. This is obviously a changing of the guard. When I watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez operate with such aplomb and skill and obvious erudition, she reminds me of when people like you and me stood around at a party and inevitably the conversation turned to, Why are the Democrats where they are? Why don’t they take the fights to the enemy? Why don’t they pivot off troll-y comments from the Republicans, instead of playing the game on their terms? Why aren’t they offering clear, bold, long-term, super-jumbo policy solutions people can remember instead of triangulating everything the Republicans suggest?
And, suddenly, someone emerges who seems to be listening to all this, who is probably part of those conversations. And, suddenly, she has the power to actually act in a way the Party hasn’t—a party that, almost forty years later, is still traumatized by the success of Ronald Reagan. It’s a profoundly generational phenomenon, and, clearly, it’s scary.
I think if someone were just listening to what you were saying about the institutional Democratic Party, they would not think the party just won a gigantic midterm sweep in a really good economy.
Right, they did it.
So is, or was, the status quo of the Democratic Party actually that unhealthy?
I think psychologically there’s a lot of neurosis. Again, going back to this trauma of the Reagan victory, the Gingrich victory, the Bush victories—it’s people who built their political identities around a neurotic response to trauma. It’s, We gotta build a protective shell around ourselves because, if we show our egos, our egos will be destroyed, to put it in psychoanalytic terms.
To have this young person who hasn’t experienced this trauma . . . and one of the things that’s fascinating about this—I’ll call it an often-used word—authenticity she has the Democratic Party in general does not. We see her, in very interesting ways, going back to modes of rhetoric and modes of political communication we associate with lots of pre-Reagan figures. Although I’ll also say figures like Reagan. It’s like Harry Truman.
What are examples of that?
I don’t know if she sits around and reads political history or looks at old political videos. But I see, on the “60 Minutes” interview, Anderson Cooper throws a question to her that for just about any traditional, old-generation Democrat is a stumper—Oh, the other side says you’re radical. And she had this ready-made answer in the hopper, which was to deploy these very powerful symbols from the American civic religion, and I’m going to quote: “Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like social security. . . . If that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”
Now, immediately, when I heard her say that, I heard a very famous quote from J.F.K., who was asked if he was a liberal in the same kind of accusatory tone, and he said, “If by a liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes that we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a liberal, then I’m proud to say that I’m a liberal.”
I see her Reagan-like brilliance when she comes up with a phrase, like I heard her do in an interview on the shutdown, which she immediately took to a much higher level. She said the people at the border trying to get in “are acting more American than any person who seeks to keep them out will ever be.” I mean, she mentions the kids who died in custody—she mentioned it was Christmastime, which was just so Reagan, to use this resonant emotional symbol. She mentions people coming to the country just with the shirt on their back. She says the people trying to keep them out are “anti-American.” This is the American civil religion. This is playing the game in a way that a pre-traumatized generation of Democrats was able to play the game.
I think people see her as in touch with this new generation but, in a way, it seems like you’re saying that she recalls a New Deal or New Frontier Democrat.
Well, there’s a real back-to-the-future thing going on here, right? In a lot of ways, the Democratic Party is a complicated, complex coalition, and always has been, with lots of elements, both reactionary and progressive, in it. But, in a lot of ways, she’s returning the Democratic Party to the roots—this idea the Democratic Party is always going to be fighting for you.
O.K., but you didn’t really answer my question earlier about whether the Democratic Party is unhealthy. This party just won a huge national victory, I think it’s won six of the past seven popular votes for the Presidency, et cetera.
Right, so what do you do with that political capital? That’s the trauma—they don’t even see political capital. They still see the Democrats in a situation of political deficit.
So liberalism and the Democratic Party have always been O.K., but, because they’re so traumatized, and because of the rise of the right, they haven’t been willing to rhetorically, and in terms of actual policies, push forward enough and get enough done?
Well, look at the Democrats at a time like 2004. George Bush has started this disastrous war, he’s beginning to approach going underwater in his popularity, and yet he wins reëlection. His campaign strategy was to try to get voters saying, “Well, I don’t really agree with what he is saying, but he really seems to believe in what he is saying.” And he ran against a candidate, John Kerry, God bless him, who literally formed his political identity as this brave, truth-telling veteran who talked about the immorality of the Vietnam War. And Kerry ran an entire Presidential campaign in which he did not say one word about the thing that defined him. And then ran a party convention in which no one was allowed to criticize George Bush by name. So of course they voted for the authentic candidate.
You said A.O.C. is very erudite. She’s obviously very smart. I saw her give an answer on why she thinks Trump is a racist that was just beautifully phrased and not at all euphemistic. [It was] extremely impressive. And then other times she talks about things she doesn’t really seem knowledgeable about, like the Pentagon budget, and her inexperience is clear. What’s your sense of her?
(Editor’s note: The Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud Exposed just because you don’t believe the Pentagon is missing $21 trillion, does not mean the Pentagon can tell you where your “not-missing” $21 trillion is.)
I just don’t think that’s very interesting. Yes, she occasionally makes empirical errors. She is twenty-nine years old. She’s going to be delving into budget minutiae, and she’ll pick up a lot of stuff, as one makes mistakes. But great politicians know how to pivot off of mistakes. So when she went on “60 Minutes” and was challenged about that mistake, she owned it. And she said, Oh, and, by the way, the important underlying issue is the morality. There was no politician who was more robust in empirical errors than Ronald Reagan. I’m not going to defend that. She’s much better than that. She’s much better at learning from her empirical mistakes. But she’s also skilled at using the attention the mistakes give her to change the subject to things that she wants to talk about, which is, like, amazing.
She said, “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” I think we should agree, especially at a time like now, being factually correct, when you are a politician, is important. I know she later said she appreciates the work of fact checkers, and so on, which is good. I’m glad she did. But that was not the totally ideal way of saying this.
I guess, in a sense, the question is what she says next time. Does she learn from her mistakes? And I haven’t seen the evidence that she hasn’t.
I was going to ask you about the rise of the right post-Goldwater and the rise of the left now, and whether you see similarities, but you said I had to ask you about a comparison between A.O.C. and Newt Gingrich in 1979.
Ultimately, Newt Gingrich was about wrecking and destroying and not building, so obviously there’s profound foundational differences. In 1978, when Gingrich won his congressional seat after his third time trying, Congressman Thomas Mann had this off-the-record briefing session in which they explained to new members how the House worked. Mann tells this story that this young congressman was basically talking back to them and lecturing them about how Congress should work. And he explained to them this plan he had, all the way back in January of 1979, of how the Republicans could become the majority party and take back the House. And no one was saying that in 1979. People were talking about this statistic that only twenty-one per cent of people identified themselves as Republicans. And, all the way through 1979, you see Newt Gingrich showing up in stories as a spokesman for the Republican Party, as the voice people in the media are seeking out.
And, to go back to another Republican example, in 1966, when Richard Nixon was starting his comeback that obviously culminated in him winning the Presidency, in 1968, his entire strategy, Pat Buchanan explains, was built around getting mentioned in the same sentence as Lyndon Johnson. Getting Lyndon Johnson to notice him, to mention him, to criticize him. So, in the same sense, Newt Gingrich is suddenly finding himself quoted more in the newspaper than Bob Michel, the House Republican leader, because he has the audacity to talk about his party as agenda-setting.
The giant difference—and this goes back to what we were talking about before—is A.O.C. is coming in with a Democratic wave.
Right, and that gets back to the trauma, right? The Democratic Party doesn’t even know how to take yes for an answer. They can’t even accept the idea they are a majority party. There’s this great line, “He who seems most kingly is the king.” Unless you act like a leader, people aren’t going to treat you like a leader.
Take Tlaib using a swear word. Truman got in trouble for saying “If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell.” And that was a brassy sort of rhetoric people had come to expect from Democrats. Not this pearl-clutching response that, every time someone uses strong language, they have to apologize for it.
I think you’ve heard a version of the argument, made by centrist Democrats like Claire McCaskill, Democrats may be a majority party, they may get fifty-one per cent of the vote, but, if they want to do things like ever win back the Senate, our political system is what it is, and red states and rural areas have outsized advantages. So, if they want to hold power, there are certain compromises the Democrats have to make, because of our system, Republicans do not.
You sound like one of these super-analytic Democrats—you’re immediately negotiating with yourself, you’re immediately apologizing. I think having a position A.O.C. has — the top marginal tax rate should be increased for people making millions of dollars —it’s not something that needs to be apologized for.
The left has been correctly pointing out for many, many years how messed up the system is. And so, if that’s the case, there may be consequences.
Well, the system was messed up in 1932 and 1936, and F.D.R. managed to find a way.
Segregationists were voting for F.D.R. It’s a different world we’re living in now.
Well, I just don’t think that’s a fair analogy.
Uh-huh. Well, I think there are always structural constraints, right? There’re always ways any system is unfair. And our system is unfair. But, as an opening bid for breaking through these logjams, I think a bid of strategic boldness is a tonic for a party.
Anyway, my concern if you’re a Democrat and you need to win in red states, which, by definition, you do, would be much more around cultural issues than it would be around things like the top marginal tax rate.
Well, yeah, and that’s where A.O.C.’s ability to teach other Democrats who aren’t going to be Puerto Ricans in the Bronx—they might be ranchers from Montana—to speak in terms of the American civil religion is so brilliant. To talk about people who oppose immigration as betraying Reaganism, right?
Or the American way? The way she uses a phrase like “No one should feel unsafe in the United States of America”—but she’s not talking about locking people up for third strikes. She’s talking about violence against minorities in the United States.