TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2021
Recording a type of decline: Long ago and far away, Bob Dylan released his first album.
The album was simply called Bob Dylan. It was released in March 1962. Dylan was 20 years old.
The album included only two original compositions. It included one original "talking blues" and one original song.
The original song was called Song to Woody. It was beautifully written, very beautifully sung. Its lyrics start like this:
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings
Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along
Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.
We'd have to say, as we look around, we keep seeing a world that seems tired and torn, a world that looks like it's dying.
No, you can't terminate a world in the way a referee can stop a prize fight. But our political and cultural worlds are in a type of downward spiral, and as we've noted on many occasions, we can't exactly see a way to get out of this mess.
It could be that we're wrong, of course—and our national "world" isn't going to disappear or run away from home. But according to anthropologists, we the people are dividing into tribes in the way we humans typically do when we're on the verge of one of our destructive wars.
The longing for war is emerging within both major tribes, as is masterful dumbness. And of course, at times like this, we humans can only see the dumbness among those in the other tribe, or so the top experts all say.
Here within our failing blue tribe, are we losing a bit of political ground as the undeclared war comes on? We ask that question based on last November's congressional elections. Yesterday, we summarized those elections, offering this somewhat discouraging profile:
House elections, November 2020
Democratic candidates: 50.8% of the nationwide vote
Republican candidates: 47.7% of the nationwide vote
Resulting membership: 222 D, 213 R
(150.3 million votes cast)
Even after four years of Donald J. Trump, Democratic candidates were barely able to top 50 percent of the nationwide vote in those 435 House elections. Even after four years of Trump, a very solid block of the electorate still didn't see things our way.
Here within our flailing blue tribe, we tend to react to this state of affairs with something resembling denial.
Rachel burns away oodles of time telling us how dumb Boehner and Ryan were with their silly "own goals," while Nancy is so much smarter. When journalists interview The Others to ask them why they voted for Trump, our tribe tends to howl in complaint:
Do not speak to The Others, we cry. Is this the route to our wars?
As is true of all human tribes, our tribe isn't super-sharp. The tendency to live in denial is especially strong, the experts all say, at times of heightened partisan conflict.
We mention this because we've been looking at the way the public voted back in November 2008.
Last fall, we elected Biden after four years of Trump. In 2008, we elected Barack Obama after eight years of Bush—and here's the way the public voted that year, in those 435 House elections:
House elections, November 2008
Democratic candidates: 53.2% of the nationwide vote
Republican candidates: 42.6% of the nationwide vote
Resulting membership: 257 D, 176 R
(117.5 million votes cast)
No two years are perfectly comparable, but we're comparing results from two election years which are roughly comparable. In 2008, Obama was elected to his first term, following eight years of Bush. In 2020, Biden was elected to office, following four years of Trump.
The differences between those two sets of numbers help explain why Democrats are currently having such a hard time getting legislation passed. In saying that, we're looking at nationwide vote totals as well as at House membership figures.
In November 2008, the electorate favored Democratic candidates by a margin of more than ten points. Last November, after four years of Trump, the margin was barely three points—and many more people turned out to vote last year.
That narrow three-point margin translated into a very slender Democratic majority in the House. In the Senate, Democrats have only been able to elect fifty senators over the last three election cycles. We only got the number to 50 because of Manchin and Sinema, and because Trump's crazy post-election behavior probably helped two Democrats squeak out narrow runoff wins in Georgia last fall.
Let's return to the House:
Dems were preferred by more than ten points back in 2008. Twelve years later, after four years of Trump, that advantage was down to three points!
That produced a tiny Democratic majority in the House. In Sunday's New York Times, Carl Hulse explained where that state of affairs has left the political arm of our flailing blue tribe. Much of this is obvious:
HULSE (10/3/21): Previous presidents who were able to carry out agendas as ambitious as Mr. Biden’s enjoyed far greater latitude on Capitol Hill, a point Mr. Biden made himself on Friday as he met privately with House Democrats at a unity rally. Lyndon B. Johnson had supermajorities in both chambers of Congress when he maneuvered Medicare into law in 1965. Even then, the process was a difficult one, requiring intensive lobbying by Mr. Johnson, himself a longtime denizen of the Senate.
Enactment of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration was also accomplished with much larger Democratic majorities, including a brief window in which the party held a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate. Even then, the path to enactment was treacherous and circuitous, forcing adjustments in the legislation that hindered its rollout and have complicated coverage under the law to this day.
Then as now, it fell to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who specializes in navigating legislation through impossibly tight political squeezes, to muscle the measure through to enactment. But in 2010, she had much more leeway; despite 34 House Democrats opposing the health care bill, she still had enough votes to pass it.
The situation was substantially different under FDR and LBJ, whose large majorities included lots of flatly conservative Southern Democrats. But as recently as 2010, Pelosi was able to pass Obamacare in the face of 34 Democrats who voted against it.
Today, our margin in the House is much smaller. Last November, for whatever reason, Democratic candidates were barely able to attract 50 percent of the nationwide vote—and that was after four years of Donald J. Trump.
Our point in this is simple:
Every liberal will note the moral and intellectual superiority displayed by our own blue tribe. That said, despite our obvious brilliance, we almost seem to be losing ground with American voters.
Even after four years of Trump, we came remarkably close to losing control of the House last fall. And when we start explaining why people would have voted this way, we all know where things will take us.
Bob Dylan, still just 20 years old, finished his song to Woody in the following way:
Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too
And to all the good people that traveled with you
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind
I’m a-leavin’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.
Cisco was Cisco Houston; Sonny was Sonny Terry. That closing lyric refers to the Guthrie song, Hard Travelin'.
This extremely young person dedicated his song to "the hearts and the hands of the men [sic] / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind."
Everywhere FDR looked, he saw "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Everywhere we look today, we see a project that may soon be gone with the wind—and we sometimes think we see our own self-impressed tribe looking for war over wisdom.
Tomorrow: The 47.7%