It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are a fair number of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” — for example, nobody really knows how hard it will be to reduce inflation or whether the U.S. economy will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: Will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
But I think I can make one safe prediction about the U.S. political scene: We’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
As late as 2015, or so I and many others thought, we had a fairly good idea about how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed comprehensible.
On one side we had the Democrats, who were and still are basically what people in other advanced nations call social democrats (which isn’t at all the same as what most people call socialism). That is, they favor a fairly strong social safety net, supported by relatively high taxes on the affluent.
On the other side we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small.
The problem for Republicans was that their economic agenda was inherently unpopular. Voters consistently tell pollsters that corporations and the rich pay too little in taxes; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the GOP win elections?
The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” was to win over white working-class voters by appealing to them on cultural issues. His book came in for considerable criticism from political scientists, in part because he underplayed the importance of white racial antagonism, but the general picture still seems right.
As Frank described it, however, the culture war was basically phony — a cynical ploy to win elections, ignored once the votes were counted. “The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ,” he wrote, “but they walk corporate. … Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”
These days, that sounds quaint — even a bit like a golden era — as many American women lose their reproductive rights, as schools are pressured to stop teaching students about slavery and racism, as even powerful corporations come under fire for being excessively woke. The culture war is no longer just posturing by politicians mainly interested in cutting taxes on the rich; many elected Republicans are now genuine fanatics.
As I said, one can almost feel nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
The disconnect between a socially illiberal GOP and an increasingly tolerant public is surely one reason the widely predicted red wave in the midterms fell so far short of expectations.
Yet despite underperforming in what should, given precedents, have been a very good year for the out-party, Republicans will narrowly control the House. And this means that the inmates will be running half the asylum.
True, not all members of the incoming House Republican caucus are fanatical conspiracy theorists. But those who aren’t are clearly terrified by and submissive to those who are. The hands of power in the House will rest in the hands of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
And what I don’t understand is how the U.S. government is going to function. How do you deal with people who believe, more or less, that the 2020 election was stolen by a vast conspiracy of pedophiles?
I don’t know the answer, but prospects don’t look good.
Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist.