Apparently, there’s a hilarious debate in Democratic ovals and rhomboids (who says people talk only in “circles” anyway?), about whether Democratic politicians should use the word “transformative” or “transformational” to describe the Build Back Better bill.
The whole thing is very weird to me because even a logophile like myself fails to see a significant difference between the two words, at least not for political purposes. One means a radical change of some kind, usually positive, and the other is an adjective that describes, uh, transformative things. Also, last I checked, Build Back Better—while not wholly dead—is, as Miracle Max might say, “mostly dead.” So why Democrats should be talking about it at all is a bit of a mystery to me.
Lastly, color me dubious that using “transformative” loses public support for BBB but “transformational” doesn’t—or vice versa. I’d love to meet the voter who is opposed to the massive “human infrastructure” bill when told the most apt suffix to the prefix “trans” is “formative” but suddenly supports it with the abracadabra suffix “formational.”
Now I am tempted to argue that the government shouldn’t be in the transformation business at all. But intellectual honesty compels me to admit that there have been “transformational” moments in American history and that some of those moments were good. Freeing the slaves was pretty transformational, and that was a good thing. Giving women the vote, integrating the military, heck, even the building interstate was transformative or -formational. But such moments are rare and should be.
The problem with Democrats for a very long time and Republicans more recently, is that they think they’re simply in the transformation business.
Let’s start with the Democrats. Normally, I’d begin with Woodrow Wilson, but let’s rewind a bit further back. William Jennings Bryan, one could argue (if one were me), started it. Bryan never became president, thank goodness. But he managed to get the Democratic nomination three times—in 1896, 1900, and 1908—so it’s fair to say he had quite an impact on the party’s outlook. Bryan was America’s most famous populist, but he was also arguably it’s most influential revivalist. And the two sides were as one in his heart. He saw politics as an expression of his sweeping religious vision. He was a crusader, but to his credit not an imperialist. He thought he could transform the world with laws and redemptive rhetoric, not ironclads.
Bryan definitely had strong policy views, but he was not exactly a wonk. When railing against populism’s anti-intellectualism, I often quote his “argument” for free silver. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.” But my favorite Jenningsism was about his heartfelt commitment to Prohibition. In 1923 he proclaimed, “Our Nation will be saloonless for evermore and will lead the world in the great crusade which will drive intoxicating liquor from the globe.”
Fortunately, he lost that fight. But the point is that Jennings was a sincere Christian who saw his political work as both downstream, and as an extension, of his religious vision. “Christians have no other alternative; they must believe that the teachings of Christ can be successfully applied to every problem that the individual has to meet and to every problem with which governments have to deal.”
Jennings’ last bid for the White House came in 1908. Four years later, Wilson got elected and while his messianism was different than Bryan’s, he shared his belief that government should be in the transformation business and that he, too, was an “instrument of God.” No wonder H.L. Mencken dubbed him “The Archangel Woodrow.” Wilson thought that the point of education was the retail process of making students as unlike their fathers as possible and the point of government was to do the same thing wholesale. “America is not anything if it consists of each of us. It is something only if it consists of all of us.” That might sound nice, but in the context of his view that the Bill of Rights should be considered a dead letter and that every unit of society should work together, under his direction, it’s actually quite sinister. America is something precisely because it lets “each of us” pursue happiness as we define it.
FDR, likewise, was a transformation guy. The “New Deal” itself was conceived as a do-over, a reinvention, an exercise in turning the page on the past and rewriting the social compact from scratch. Its conceptual culmination was his “Second Bill of Rights” which, thankfully, never got very far.
What started as a religious mission imported into politics over time became a political mission that took the place of a religion.
The Great Society was in many ways the apotheosis of this transformation. LBJ pushed the Great Society out of an indomitable faith in the wonder-working powers of government itself. Johnson painted his mission as one of good—liberalism—versus evil—dissent from liberalism. During the 1964 campaign he painted the choice in Manichean terms:
“We will do all these things because we love people instead of hate them . . . because you know it takes a man who loves his country to build a house instead of a raving, ranting demagogue who wants to tear down one. Beware of those who fear and doubt and those who rave and rant about the dangers of progress,” Johnson railed.
“Americans,” he said, “are not presented with a choice of parties. Americans are not presented with a choice of liberalism and conservatism. Americans are faced with a concerted bid for power by factions which oppose all that both parties have supported. It is a choice between the center and the fringe, between the responsible mainstream of American experience and the reckless and rejected extremes of American life.”
Once elected, however, LBJ had a problem. The Great Society guys knew they wanted to transform America but they lacked the vocabulary to explain it in non-religious terms. In the summer of 1965 Goodwin offered what the New York Times called “the most sophisticated and revealing commentary to date” on the question, what is the Great Society? His answer lay in the need for the state to give “meaning” to individuals and “make the world a more enjoyable and above all enriching place to live in.”
“The Great Society,” Goodwin explained, “is concerned not with the quantity of our goods but the quality of our lives.”
The problem for the Great Society crowd is they didn’t know how to do it. And many of the problems of the late 1960s and 1970s—inflation, family breakdown, runaway crime, social unrest—were at least partly the result of trying to transform a nation without knowing how. Not everything they did was bad or a failure, of course. But the greatest of Johnson’s successes—the Civil Rights Act of 1964—was successful for two reasons. First, it was bipartisan. Indeed, Republicans voted for it at a higher rate than Democrats. Second, it wasn’t so much an attempt at social engineering but an effort to repeal bad social engineering. It got government out of the way and let the fundamental rules of a free society operate. Sure, there were enforcement mechanisms involved, but these were essentially remedial in nature, seeking to ensure that we lived up to our highest ideals.
In short, radically transforming society is difficult even if you think it’s desirable. Barack Obama learned this the hard way. He improved greatly on Great Society rhetoric, infusing it with a kind quasi-religious messianism—“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and all that—but, as even a lot of lefties will now admit, he came up very short of the “fundamental transformation” he promised.
But he did succeed in getting his opponents—including yours truly—to take all of that talk seriously. In fairness, it wasn’t hard given some of the creepier stuff people said about Obama being “The One” and a “Lightworker” and all that. Obama campaign volunteers were taught that they shouldn’t talk about the issues but instead “testify” about how they “came to Obama.” Michelle Obama insisted that her husband “is the only person in this race who understands that, that before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.” Barbara Walters admitted that “we thought he was the next messiah.”
I still cringe whenever I watch this kind of stuff.
One consequence of the creepy cult of personality surrounding Barack Obama is that Republicans were primed to get in on the act. I don’t want to venture too far into David French’s turf, but the willingness of many evangelicals—and people who play them on TV—to embrace Archangel Donald was among the most shocking features of the Trump presidency. He was a “modern day Cyrus” and a new “King David.” Trump was in his own Manichean struggle against Satan, against witchcraft, etc.
Of course, not everyone embraced the religious version of Trumpism. But the secular MAGAs were no less committed to the idea that Trump would be a transformational, messianic, redemptive force—and quite a few are still committed to this stuff. They think that through sheer force of will a handful of politicians and the scribblers who love them can “Make America Great.” I left off the “Again” because the most passionate partisans in this struggle have given up on making America more like the 1950s, as impossible and silly as that was (if you haven’t noticed 2022 Hungary doesn’t look a lot like 1955 Cleveland). They now bat around batty ideas about making America more like Prussia in the 1550s.
I used to argue that the problem with George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was that it wasn’t an alternative to Bill Clinton’s “feel your pain” liberalism, but a Republican version of it. I think with the benefit of hindsight that’s becoming even more obvious. I suspect historians of the future will see a similar continuity in the transition from Obamaism to Trumpism.
Now, I think this statement probably pisses off partisans across the ideological spectrum. And I’m the first to concede that just as there are significant differences between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—just ask their wives—there are significant differences between Obama and Trump.
But the through-line is this increasingly bipartisan hunger for “transformational” politics and the belief that the presidency is less a political and policy position and more of a metaphysical or even mystical talisman. As Kevin Williamson has long argued, there’s a good deal of idolatry in how we think of the presidency these days. In short what people want from the president, and politics generally, isn’t actually “transformation” but “transmogrification”—the magical process of transformation.
And it’s all nonsense.
Do your jobs.
Which brings me to the rank punditry. Progressives have convinced themselves that they should concentrate on making government the engine of transubstantiation of the body politic. And, increasingly, conservatives have internalized this conception of politics as their own. And, again, it’s all so incredibly stupid.
The great irony is that even if you buy this buncombe, the smartest thing for either party to do is engage in a vigorous, serious, campaign to simply make government do the stuff it’s supposed to do: fight crime, get a handle on inflation and the pandemic, keep the schools open etc. Ron DeSantis isn’t popular with normal voters because he’s “transformative,” he’s popular because he’s doing a passably good job of being a normal governor. Glenn Youngkin won a brilliant campaign by being aggressively normal. Biden himself won by promising normalcy and competence.
If you want Americans to be receptive to sweeping new government initiatives—I don’t, but that’s not the point—the first thing to do is your job. Give people basic confidence that you know how to clear the snow, run the schools, collect the garbage, evacuate from Afghanistan in non-humiliating fashion, reduce the homicide rate, etc., and maybe they’ll give you a shot at taking on more ambitious projects.
But no, the Democratic Party, ever the cargo cult to the New Deal, went a different way despite the clear message from the voters they didn’t want a new New Deal.
(I don’t want to pick on Nicholas Kristof but he’s such a great example of what I’m talking about. A decent and idealistic liberal, he made a great show of quitting his perch at the New York Times to run for governor in Oregon. He publicly wrestled with the idea like MacBeth for what seems like years. He thought about all the wonderful transformative things he’d do as governor of Oregon. But he never bothered to investigate whether he was eligible to run—until after he quit his job and moved out there. Why should we trust a sincere liberal to be able to transform the lives of Oregonians if he can’t be bothered to do the minimal homework required to run for office?)
The same goes for Republicans. But they’d rather suck up the oxygen on cable shows defending or minimizing January 6, or pretending that maybe the election was stolen, or babbling about how COVID vaccinations are some kind of Satanic plot. Kevin McCarthy has already announced his top priority when he takes the speaker’s gavel is t0 act like he’s the captain of an alien spaceship on a mission to anally probe Democrats at every opportunity.
The quasi-religious obsession with making government an engine of social transformation is a direct byproduct of the government’s inability or unwillingness to do the simple, normal, work of government. Talking about “transformation,” “making America great,” fighting Frankfurt School Marxism, white supremacy, structural racism, the deep state, and all the other abstract hobgoblins that consume our imaginations is what you get when politicians don’t know—or don’t care—about doing their jobs.
The problem with “do your jobs” is that that has become to mean undoing what the previous administration did, which disenfranchised those who voted for that administration, as 2020 Trump voters have witnessed since Jan. 20.
Beyond that, the biggest group of American voters are neither Republican (or right-leaders), nor are they Democrats (or left-leaners). They vote based on who they think will make their lives better, not merely different, and not “transformed” in a negative way.