The day after the second Democratic debate, Ron Brownstein had a very thought-provoking essay in The Atlantic–-a publication that has become one of my essential sources of information. He introduced it thusly:
The same explosive question rumbled through this week’s Supreme Court ruling on the 2020 census and the two nights of Democratic presidential debates: How will America respond to the propulsive demographic, social, and economic changes remaking the nation?
The juxtaposition of these two events, purely coincidental, underscored how much of American politics in the years ahead is likely to turn on that elemental question. Trump’s determination to add a citizenship question to the census, which many think will depress Latino participation, demonstrates how thoroughly he has pointed his agenda at the voters most uneasy about these fundamental changes, a group I’ve called the coalition of restoration. Even after the Supreme Court, for now, blocked the citizenship question in a 5–4 decision yesterday, Trump immediately tweeted that he’s resolved to include it, even if that means delaying the census.
Brownstein suggests that all the splintering and tribalization we see around us can actually be re-categorized into two overarching and fundamentally opposed mindsets: one of restoration and one of transformation.
There are, of course, other descriptions we might append to these categories: delusional (Make America Great Again) and aspirational (make America come to terms with its past and work toward a fairer, more inclusive future) come to mind. Or just Republican and Democratic….
There’s no doubt which is the party of the past. The question so many of us obsess over is whether the Democratic Party is sufficiently aware of, oriented to, and able to navigate an inevitable future.
Especially in last night’s debate, the Democrats crystallized the question of whether the party can look back for leadership or must lean into America’s changing society by picking a presidential nominee who embodies it. That dynamic was underlined as much by images as by words, as two candidates—South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is a gay Millennial, and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is of mixed-race descent—ran rings around, and sometimes directly over, the two white male septuagenarians at the center of the stage and the top of the polls: former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Brownstein argues convincingly that the primary contest isn’t between people of differing ideologies so much as different generational worldviews.
Whether or not it immediately moves the polls, last night’s debate raised the possibility that the axis of the Democratic race could shift from left versus center to new leadership that reflects the modern party’s diversity versus old leadership that does not.
The effort to add a citizenship question to the census is a perfect example of the GOP’s hysterical defiance of American reality. As Brownstein writes, suppressing the count of Latinos and other immigrant communities would be a powerful symbolic statement: what better way to deny an emerging American reality than to literally wipe millions of people out of existence by not counting them in the census?
People angered by this analysis–an analysis with which I entirely agree– say that proponents of generational change are being ageist. There may be an overlap, but age isn’t the issue. Ageism is discrimination against people solely because they’ve lived a certain number of years. Brownstein’s concern, and mine, is with people whose worldviews are rooted in realities that no longer exist.
We are all products of the world into which we were socialized.
No matter how many gadgets I use, I will never be as comfortable with technology as my grandchildren. Most older people–granted, not all–will never be as comfortable with, or as fully aware of, the political realities of today’s America as their younger counterparts.
Restoration isn’t possible. Transformation may be.