What if Karl Rove was right about the reality-based community?
Does reality matter in politics?
I am haunted by Karl Rove — or rather by what may be the most notorious anonymous quotation from a senior official during the eight years that George W. Bush served as president of the United States. It's a quote that's been widely attributed to Rove, though the man himself has strenuously denied it. So maybe Rove didn't say the words. But unless the author of the essay in which it appeared, Ron Suskind, made it up out of whole cloth, someone in the Bush White House said it. And that is the person who haunts me.
I'm talking, of course, about the statement about the "reality-based community." Here it is in its entirety:
The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." [The New York Times Magazine]
Like most people who read that passage when it appeared in The New York Times Magazine two weeks before Bush's re-election in October 2004, I scoffed. So much hubris! So much delusion! No wonder these bozos invaded Iraq and made such a mess of the place!
But what if "Rove" was right? Maybe democratic politics is more fluid and flexible than many of us assume. Maybe those who see it as a game of responding to relatively static public opinion place themselves at a competitive disadvantage by adopting a reactive stance, while those who audaciously bolt from the grid sometimes end up redrawing the political map and forcing others to play catch up.
I set up precisely this kind of dichotomy in a column published at the end of May. There I adapted a Rovian idea from political theorist Corey Robin about a mode of politics that doesn't just treat the electorate as given, fixed in its interests, desires, and sense of the possible. Instead, it actively seeks to "create a public" where one doesn't yet exist. An example of this would be the push for same-sex marriage, which went in less than a generation from a marginal goal pursued by a tiny handful of activists to a policy favored by a sizable majority of the electorate. In my column, I invoked this transformational style of politics to explain what Democrats would need to do to bring public opinion around to supporting the impeachment of President Trump.
But after the complete dud of Wednesday's testimony of Robert Mueller before the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, I can't help but wonder: Was "Rove" wrong? Or are Democrats just really bad at this?
I suspect it's a little of both, though I'm strongly disposed toward the second option.
What Democrats did on Wednesday was pretty much the opposite of what I proposed in that May column. They didn't "create a public" that favored impeachment of the president. They pointed to a set of facts contained in the Mueller report — facts that have been reported and discussed in the news for more than three months already — and they presented them again, using a reluctant authority figure to back them up, on the assumption that doing so would be sufficient to carry the day. They appear to have hoped or assumed that the country would respond spontaneously with disgust to the self-evident awfulness of the president's behavior.
That's not creating a public. It's assuming they don't need to create a public — that the public is already implicitly on their side, if only it can be informed of the neutral, obvious, indisputable facts.
Is there anything more characteristic of today's Democratic Party than this assumption? It's what led Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign to run a series of ads in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign that focused exclusively on Trump's horribleness — even though the ads conveyed nothing that Trump himself hadn't gone out of his way to demonstrate all on his own. It's what leads progressive-minded journalists and activists to seize on every new example of Trump's racism, xenophobia, and nativism as if he's made a terrible gaffe — "See?! I told you he was a racist!" — and as if affixing the epithet to the president will magically destroy him, like the Wicked Witch of the West after she's doused by a bucket of water. And it's what led the Democratic leadership of the House to think that putting a frail, old man on a national stage to repeat the same set of facts that he blandly and even evasively presented months ago would make a meaningful political difference.
That's not how politics work. Politics requires changing minds — and changing minds doesn't happen by presenting a set of ostensibly neutral, indisputable facts. Minds are changed by telling a gripping, cogent story that opens up the possibility of a new reality that voters choose to inhabit.
But can it be any story and reality at all? Is reality as infinitely flexible as "Rove" seems to have presumed?
Observing what's happened to the Republican Party in recent years might lead you to think so. Trump seems to have taken a party that expects moral rectitude from its leaders and that has been broadly supportive of immigration, free trade, and ideological wars undertaken in the name of "freedom" and transformed it into a party that couldn't care less about the president's character and that follows his lead on policy even when it requires a complete reversal of long-standing ideological commitments. It's as if all Trump had to do was make a forceful case for breaking with the status quo and the voters happily came along.
If this were the norm, you'd expect the leftward shift of the Democratic Party to be catalyzing an equal but opposite shift in the electorate. But so far, at least, we haven't seen one. The most moderate candidate in the race — Joe Biden — continues to lead every poll, and a Marist poll released this week shows a serious disconnect between policies embraced during the June debate and the stated preferences of respondents. Medicare-for-all as a replacement for private insurance, government-funded health insurance for immigrants who entered the country illegally, and the decriminalization of border crossings — all three policies were endorsed by several of the candidates on the debate stage, and all three are opposed by solid majorities of Americans in the Marist poll.
When it comes to the question of why, the answer, once again, may well be that today's Democrats just aren't very good at this.
Consider the policy of decriminalizing border crossings. In the Marist poll, the policy is dubbed a "good idea" by just 27 percent of respondents, while a whopping 66 percent call it a "bad idea." The candidate who made the strongest case for the policy last month was Obama administration secretary for Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. What did he have to say? That we need to "go back to the way we used to treat this when somebody comes across the border, not to criminalize desperation, to treat that as a civil violation."
That's it. Nothing acknowledging that, without some kind of national ID card or strongly enforced penalty against employers for hiring undocumented immigrants, this would amount to a policy of open borders. That's a pretty radical change, even if Castro is right that, in some respects, it would be a reversion to "the way we used to treat this." Why should voters support the change? Castro doesn't say. He merely implies that it's the right thing to do. As if that's obvious. As if there's something morally questionable even in raising an objection to existing policy or suggesting we need to grapple with its implications and consequences. He thinks that current law leads to policies he considers self-evidently bad. Therefore, it's equally self-evident that the law should be gutted.
But 66 percent think it's a bad policy. Why would they change their view? How will Castro create a public that takes a different position?
Of course this presumes that creating such a public on this issue is possible — that Castro simply isn't trying. But is that true? Is the only thing standing in the way of the Democrats creating a left-wing public on this and other issues a lack of willpower and storytelling abilities? Or are there still limits to our ability to (in the words of that anonymous Bush administration official) "create our own reality"?
We have reason to think so. The left was able to create a public in favor of same-sex marriage because the case for it cut with the grain of American public opinion — allowing gay and lesbian couples to join the intact institution of marriage. Despite what some social conservatives (and a handful of radical activists) claimed at the time, allowing same-sex couples to wed didn't tear down or shred the institution. It expanded the institution's boundaries while forcing those who were invited to join it to conform to its norms and expectations.
Things are very different when it comes to decriminalizing border crossings — or using transgender ideology to dissolve the distinction between men and women. Both treat accepted boundaries or differences — between citizen and non-citizen, between male and female — as arbitrary and morally illegitimate. That might cut too sharply against the grain of public opinion, generating opposition that can't just be willed away by the evocation of a new reality. This doesn't mean that strong majorities can't be forged in favor of making our immigration policies less cruel or strengthening protections for transgender persons. But it might mean that pushing too far on either issue will remain a losing proposition no matter what Democrats say or do.
One thing is certain: The effort to create a new public will fail if political actors don't even try — if they complacently assume the self-evident rightness of their views and attribute a lack of spontaneous public support to the ignorance of the masses, who will come around as soon as they're presented with the facts.