Among the most important questions pollsters ask during a presidential campaign is this one: Do you think the country is on the right track, or the wrong track? The answer respondents give to this question, we’re told, can tell us more about the likely outcome of an upcoming election than any other. The question is based on a metaphor — the metaphor of a “track” or, in some versions, “direction.” That alone should make us wonder what the question means, exactly, or what we’re assuming when we answer the question on its own terms. “All of us, grave or light,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch,” “get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”
The trouble with accepting the “track” metaphor is that you begin to think of the nation as having somehow careened off course, and that it can be put back on track with the right sort of effort. But a nation is not a train or a car. If a nation has gone off course (whatever that might mean), it’s going to stay off course for a long time. Societal trends, cultural progress or regress, major judicial and policy decisions: These things can’t simply be undone. And even in those rare instances when they can be undone in some sense — a court decision overturned, a momentarily popular practice stigmatized — the damage is permanent; outlooks and habits are forever altered.
That’s what many Republicans fail, or refuse, to understand. They think of the Obama era as, in essence, an aberration that can be corrected with sufficient willpower. I am inclined to agree with these Republicans’ diagnosis, but their prognosis is delusional. It’s largely true, in my view, that the Obama administration has encouraged American culture’s obsession with identity politics, made an already grossly overregulated and inefficient health-care market far worse, given new life to discredited fiscal policies and practiced a kind of deliberate naiveté in foreign affairs. But Americans asked for these things, and they would ask for them again if given the chance.
The reality that many Republicans have still not come to terms with is this: that Barack Obama was elected and reelected, fair and square, and that the American public knew what it was doing. Those who supported or still support either Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) or Donald Trump frequently sound as if they think the Obama administration’s policies have been imposed on the U.S. citizenry against its will. Cruz offered nothing but disdain for voters who didn’t share his worldview; Trump speaks as if the entire Obama administration is so egregiously stupid that it must have been put in place by a foreign power. The idea that it’s possible somehow to unmake the past seven years of policymaking — to reverse it all, to make it not so — is precisely what appealed to Republican primary voters.
I completely reject the defamatory belief, cherished by many a progressive, that the reason the Republican base detests Obama so deeply is that he is black. I’ve spoken to many, many Republicans about Obama over the past seven years, and not once has the man’s race been even a subtext in the conversation. What has rattled Republicans so badly, rather, is the swiftness with which American political culture has moved leftward and the wanton way in which the president and his administration have abetted it. Many Republican voters simply have not come to terms with this reality. They believe the president has put the nation on the “wrong track” and that it can be put back on the “right track” by some fearless personality whose views are uncompromising and whose regard for contrary opinions is minimal.
Let me put it in a different, more unpleasant way. Republicans need to acknowledge that America is in decline. It is, by their own criteria. The U.S. economy is fast becoming a European-style regulatory state; neither the country’s political class nor its voters seem to care that the national debt has reached literally incomprehensible levels; and its cultural arbiters are hopelessly obsessed with microscopic grievances and therapeutic political gestures.
If all this is true, then America is in decline, and there’s nothing any politician or political insurgency can do to reverse it. A republic in decline doesn’t need a leader who will try to force its electorate to be something it isn’t, or who will insult and berate its leaders into doing things differently. What’s needed, rather, is a president who will behave like an adult — someone whose words and actions do not routinely contradict each other; someone who will stand against the excesses of modern liberalism without entertaining the vain hope of obliterating it; someone who likes the country as it is, without trying to transform it or make it “great.” Someone, in short, who can manage the decline of a great nation without making things worse.
America has careened off course, yes. But overcorrecting will only flip the vehicle.