Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ink-Stained Wretches: The Glorious Cause of the Rational Voter

By A.J. Liebling
Content Generator

Dana Milbank has always been one of Washington's most beloved (by each other) generators of conventional wisdom.  Every so often, he tries to escape its clutches, but each time, like a boat against the current, he's borne back into it.

In today's Washington Post he sings the praises of voters whom he claims have now seen enough of the Donald Trump geek show, whose imminent closing he fearlessly predicts.  His evidence for this is the results of the primary in Wisconsin, whose Republican Party establishment operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary, as the great Charlie Pierce notes, of Koch Industries.  That, um, well-oiled machine turned out the vote for the equally-loathsome Ted Cruz, an outcome that has restored Milbank's faith in the American Voter:
Six months ago, when Trump was lapping the field in public opinion polls, I argued that he would ultimately fail because “American voters are more sensible than many poll-obsessed journalists and commentators give them credit for. Trump . . . won’t prevail in the Republican primary because voters, in the end, tend to get it right” and “will never choose a candidate who expresses the bigotry and misogyny that Trump has.”

That prediction looked shaky for some time, but Trump’s recent tumble rewards a faith that the voters, in the long run, almost always get it right.  
Those rational voters!  Of course, those nutty New York Republicans may not have gotten Milbank's memo.  According to Bloomberg Politics,
Trump has a 31-point lead in New York, which holds the next primary on April 19, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday. He has a 9-point lead in Pennsylvania, which follows on April 26, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.
Sounds more like Trump's little town blues are melting away and he's back on top of the heap.  But disproving the predictions of Washington bloviators isn't really the point.

The issue is Milbank's remarkably sanguine take on American political history.  Did those wonderfully rational voters get it right in 1968, when they chose a lying crook over Hubert Humphrey, thanks in large part to disaffected lefties who declared they would stay home before voting for an Establishment Democrat?  That couldn't happen again!

Did they make the right choice in 1972, when they voted in a landslide for the same crook who by that time had sent thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Indochinese to their deaths to conceal the fact that he had no plan to end the Vietnam War?  Or in 1980, when they voted for the TV star who promised to crack down on welfare queens and strapping bucks?  Or in 1984, when they voted for that guy again despite the efflorescence of his dementia on national television?  Or in electing George W. Bush once in 2004?

Milbank, referring to Trump's supposed collapse, concludes thusly:
It was touch-and-go for a while. But you’ll rarely lose money betting on the wisdom of the voters.
We beg to differ.  To paraphrase Warner Wolf, if you had bet your lunch money on rational voters in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, or 2004, you lost!  Similarly, you'd be hungry following the elections of Pierce, Buchanan, McKinley, Harding, or Hoover, to name just a few lumps of coal from America's glorious past.

What's really going on here?  We suspect it's the desire to imagine a lovely American political history that runs in a straight bright line from the Founding White Men, or whatever they are called, all the way to the defeat of Trump by that noted statesman and philosophe, Loathsome Ted Cruz.  After all, it's harder to defend democracy if you admit that the electorate chooses badly time and again for base reasons like fear and bigotry.

With all the electoral huffing and puffing, we're a little behind on our reading, so we just got to the November 2015 issue of Smithsonian.  It contains a long article describing an almost-forgotten tidbit of antebellum American history: the Slave Trail, down which men, chained together, women, and children were marched from the farms of Virginia to the slave markets of Natchez and New Orleans.  That's a long march with an iron collar around your neck.

The author interviews some of the black descendants of the merchandise on offer and white descendants of the slave traders.  The latter claim that it wasn't so bad, that slavery developed here “primarily because of the ignorance of blacks” and that blacks were better off coming to America, which presumably is why they queued up so patiently at the West African slave ports.  Those views are about on a par with Milbank's tall tale of the Wise Voter.

We'd ask: isn't it better to confront our history honestly, both the sordid and the glorious bits (like cronuts)?  That way, we'd be able to come to terms with the swirling cross-currents of our past, and perhaps, change course so we could finally make some progress.

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