Why is Sessions and, by extension, the Trump Administration, doing this? Two reasons. One moral, one political. The moral component of it will get all of the attention, but it sort of bores me. The political one is far, far more significant. Indeed, I think it’s a harbinger of a new political realignment I’ve been discussing in this space in recent months. A realignment which will do untold political damage to Sessions, Trump and those who follow their lead, be they Republicans or Democrats.
Not everyone is a zealot like Sessions. Most politicians who oppose marijuana legalization do so out of political calculation. There’s one problem with this, though: polling shows that far more people support legalization than oppose it. Indeed, as Five Thirty Eight noted today, a record high 64 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And it’s not just lefties. Fifty-one percent of Republicans favor legalization. Given that politicians who make political calculations tend to make them in a way that favors going in with what the majority of people or, at the very least, a majority of what their constituents want, why would these guys continue to oppose legalization?
I believe they do so because of inertia. Inertia born of the political alignment of the past 40-50 years in which politicians have constantly fought and refought the culture wars that broke out in the 1960s. A war that, given all of the advances in women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and the overall liberalization of American culture since the 1950s, most believe was won by the liberals, but by purely political measures, was really won by conservatives and reactionaries. At the very least it is the conservatives and reactionaries who have controlled the discourse in these areas since at least 1980 and, in turn, have caused Democrats to opportunistically tack to the right.
It’s this dynamic what has put us in the rather absurd place we’re in today, with marijuana legalization and a whole host of other issues. Those who recognize this absurdity and break its cycle will find that those 1960s-era culture wars are not worth fighting anymore and that a new political alignment awaits them.
None of which is to say that these initiatives were uniformly successful. There were lots of flaws, inefficiencies and wrong turns when it came to this stuff, some of it bureaucratic, some of it structural. While those flaws would be challenging enough to overcome in and of themselves, America also saw its crime rate rise and a couple of disastrous oil embargoes and recessions hit, one of which — from 1973-75 — that hit pretty damn hard. These crisis, poorly addressed by Presidents Ford and Carter, created an opportunity for conservative forces led by Ronald Reagan. Forces which began to roll back the progress achieved since the 1960s and which began to recast the nature of political discourse in this country.
If you win an election or two, you get the right to set the agenda, and that’s what Reagan did after 1980. He cut taxes, social programs and regulations while massively increasing military spending and enacting laws and regulations that put the interest of business and the wealthy first. He likewise encouraged and enabled the ascension of religious and cultural conservatives who launched a war, in policy and rhetoric, against that which they considered undesirable and immoral. The word “liberal” soon became an epithet and liberal and progressive values were cast as un-American or, in some cases, anti-American.
One can argue about the prudence or success of Reagan’s policies, and one can take issue with the manner in which opposition to his agenda was cast as un-American, but one cannot argue with the success of his undertaking.
Reagan cruised to an easy reelection in 1984 and his successor, George H.W. Bush, cruised to victory in 1988. These victories were almost always occasioned by the victor taking up the mantle of so-called Real Americans who were shocked and offended by everything that had happened in this country between 1960 and 1980. He and those who followed him made the promise, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that they would return America to the way it was before that time. To that end, Reagan and his acolytes would bash working women and single mothers. They’d demonize minorities as criminals or as insufficiently subordinate. They’d scapegoat gays for a public health crisis that they themselves refused to acknowledge or address. They’d blame drugs — at least certain drugs — for societies’ ills.
Democrats who tried to fight back against all of this were routinely trounced at the polls. It was pretty understandable, actually. The vast majority of active voters in the 1980s either came of age before the 1960s and didn’t much like what they saw before Reagan came on the scene or made a lot of money in the 1980s and thus felt adequately compensated for leaving their youthful ideals in the past. People vote with their hearts just as much as their heads and the story of America that Reagan was telling them either made them feel better or made them rich. That’s the heart and the head.
By the time the 1990s rolled around the Democrats had a serious goddamn problem on their hands. How do you fight political opponents who control both the hearts and the minds of the majority of the electorate? How do you take on forces of seemingly overwhelming superiority?
The answer: guerrilla warfare.
Reagan and Bush could find success by casting their opponents as hopeless hippies or mindless moonbats, but what could they do when their opponents looked . . . a lot like they did? When they went out of their way to demonize criminals and the poor and to talk even tougher on drugs than they did? When the manner in which they favored banks and corporate interests were, more or less, indistinguishable from the way in which they themselves did? It was an impossible challenge, especially in a tough economic year like 1992. Clinton hammered Bush on his inability to feel the economic pain of ordinary Americans, Bush’s efforts to portray Clinton as Mondale or Dukakis or McGovern or Carter were unconvincing and Clinton rode to victory.
Since 1992, Democratic politicians have almost uniformly aped the Clinton model. They have heavily emphasized their superficial economic differences with Republicans, mostly outflanked them in attracting the support of Wall Street and the entertainment and technology sectors and have done whatever they could to avoid taking bold or controversial stances on cultural matters unless or until public opinion led them to do so first (in which case they’re, by definition, no longer bold or controversial stances).
The Democrats have found a lot more success with this tactical focus than they had back when they ran on progressive principles in the 1980s, but it has come at a huge price. For one thing, once you start playing the triangulation game, you have to keep finding new, seemingly fresh ways in which to contrast yourself with your opponents in the service of triangulation. Some of them — like positioning the party as the best and only advocate for women, minorities and people of color — are laudable. Others, like positioning the party as something akin to a consumer product — the choice of celebrities and cool kids! — are embarrassing and counterproductive. At the end of the day politics is about advancing a policy agenda and you gotta stand for something. Preferably something bold and visionary, not just something that can win you an election if everything breaks just right.
For their part, Republicans, generally speaking, have tracked further and further to the right economically and culturally, increasingly dependent on religious conservatives and, beginning in 2016, a quite small but newly bold and unapologetic contingent of white supremacists. People playing Ronald Reagan’s game of castigating progressivism and trying to turn the word “liberal” into an epithet while still trying to fight those 1960s culture wars.
That has left us, politically, in more or less the same place we’ve been for decades: Republicans trying to paint Democrats as irresponsible hippies and moonbats and Democrats desperately trying to change the subject because they fear that such charges might stick. It’s a matter of inertia. It’s also madness.
It’s certainly something which extends into our leaders’ absurd views about marijuana legalization, with people like Jeff Sessions thinking that they can smoke out some hippies on the issue and use their support of pot legalization against them politically, playing up to the Silent Majority back home. Meanwhile, people like Hillary Clinton have taken a cautious, even calculated approach to the issue, seemingly more worried about protecting themselves from attack by cultural conservatives than in having a coherent set of principles on the matter.
It shouldn’t be this way. Pretty soon it won’t be.
Soon, if it has not happened already, these labels and these party affiliations are going to change to reflect the true political fault lines in this country, which primarily fall along lines of class, race, age and opportunity. On one side will be those who are interested in making the lives of most Americans, the poor and the middle class, people of color as well as white people, women as well as men, better. On the other side are those whose primary interest is in supporting business or the wealthy or those already in power or place of privilege.
Legalized marijuana may not, historically, be a needle-moving issue, but politicians who either dismiss it or auto-pilot the debate about it into that old culture war territory do so at their peril, for the electorate is quickly realigning itself with respect to marijuana as well.
- There is a massive drug epidemic afoot in this country and a great many people — people from both sides of the old, degrading political aisle — who have found relief and recovery from it by virtue of marijuana use. Those who have will not take kindly to being labeled outcasts and criminals;
- Marijuana use invokes matters of personal freedom, liberty and agency that causes a whole lot of people who may have been in the Republican camp for decades to think differently about things when it comes to issues of prohibition and legalization;
- Marijuana use has become mainstream enough by now that far more people have a basic familiarity with it now than they once did and they know now that, contrary to the old propaganda, its use is not some great evil or public nuisance;
- The 1960s are a long time ago now. What counted as the establishment or the counterculture then — or when the matters were relitigated in the 1980s or 1990s — has less and less purchase every year. The belief that being in favor of or opposed to something which was a hot button issue then brings with it the same electoral benefits or detriments now is increasingly absurd.
All of which is to say that, when it comes to the matter of marijuana legalization, our politicians are hopelessly out of step with what the people want. Just as they are increasingly out of step with what they want with respect to all manner of cultural and economic issues. Out of step due to their devotion to a political arrangement that, however well it served them for several decades, is approaching obsolescence.
Those politicians who understand this will be our future leaders. Those who prefer to fight old wars will be left in the dust of history.