Few things are more likely to precede defeat than the conviction that you are on the verge of victory. One hundred years ago, in the spring of 1917, Germany had every reason to believe that it would triumph over its enemies in the First World War. France had been bled white in repeated attacks on the German army’s fortified lines, England was suffering from shortages of both munitions and military manpower, and Russia was descending into a revolution that would, within a year, enable Germany and its Austro-Hungarian allies to shift enormous numbers of troops and guns to the Western Front. Yet the entry of the United States into the war on April 6, 1917, proved to be the counterweight that shifted the balance. By the autumn of 1918, the fond hope of Germany victory had been exposed as a delusion. The ultimate result of the Kaiser’s war was the destruction of the Kaiser’s empire, and of much else besides.
What is true in war is true also in politics. Hubris is nearly always the precedent to unexpected defeat. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory; less than four years later, LBJ could not even win his own party’s nomination for re-election. In 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide; less than two years later, he was forced to resign from office. More recently, after George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, some imagined that this victory was the harbinger of a “permanent Republican majority” — a GOP electoral hegemony based on a so-called “center-right” realignment — but two years later, Democrats captured control of Congress and in 2008 Barack Obama was elected president. Obama’s success in turn led Democrats to become overconfident, and Hillary Clinton’s supporters believed they were “on the right side of history,” as rock singer Bruce Springsteen told a rally in Philadelphia on the eve of the 2016 election. Unfortunately for Democrats, history disagreed.
The bitter disappointment of Hillary’s defeat, however, has done nothing to cure Democrats of their confident belief that “history” is on their side. Democrats regard the presidency of Donald Trump as invalid and illegitimate because, in their blinkered worldview, Trump was elected by the forces of racism and sexism (and also, they claim, an elaborate Russian conspiracy to steal the election). Because liberalism is so widespread among the cultural elite — in academia, in journalism, in the entertainment industry — Democrats can avoid confronting the possibility that history has plans of its own, plans which have nothing to do with the social justice slogans of the Left.
“The Future Is Female,” a slogan that Hillary’s supporters adopted from a 1970s-era radical lesbian named Liz Cowan, expressed their sanguine confidence that the feminist movement represented “the right side of history.” In the aftermath of Trump’s election — in which the Republican won such formerly Democrat-controlled states as Michigan and Pennsylvania — one might imagine Democrats would revise their estimates of feminism’s future. However, the hubris that preceded Hillary’s defeat in 2016 has been replaced by a denial of the significance of that defeat.
Typical of this post-defeat denial is Katha Pollitt. An aging radical whose parents were Communists — the FBI had a file on her father “five inches thick,” she once said — Pollitt has spent her entire adult life being disappointed by history’s failure to fulfill Marxist prophecy. Instead of the collapse of capitalism and the triumph of socialist revolution, Pollitt has instead seen history do the exact opposite of what Marx and Engels had so confidently predicted. Yet she has learned nothing from history. In a column in Sunday’s New York Times, Pollitt claimed to have at last found the vanguard of the forthcoming revolution in a sociology seminar at New York University. When she asked how many of those at the NYU seminar were feminists, Pollitt was pleased to report, “All the students raised their hands — including the two men.”
Katha Pollitt apparently did not wonder why there were only two male students in that class. Nor did Pollitt bother to remark that NYU is a very elite school where the cost of attendance is more than $60,000 a year ($49,062 annual tuition plus $17,578 room and board). Basing one’s political forecasts on the opinions of rich girls in a sociology seminar might be unwise, but Pollitt’s enthusiasm could not be restrained. One of the NYU girls told Pollitt that feminism is “cool” because of “the movement against sexual assault on campus… and the influence of pop culture idols like Beyoncé and Emma Watson.”
Feminism may be “cool” among college girls at elite schools in Manhattan, but this is unlikely to produce many more Democrat votes among the blue-collar folks in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. It was Hillary Clinton’s inability to win the trust of those voters which led to her defeat last November, and not many working-class Midwesterners can afford to send their sons and daughters off to New York to study sociology for $60,000 a year.
Considerations of political pragmatism were far from Pollitt’s mind, however, as she gushed to her New York Times readers how the feminist movement is now “more interracial, younger, queerer and far more internet savvy than it was a decade or so ago.” Young feminists are inspired by the “concept of intersectionality,” Pollitt explained, which means they are part of “a bigger grass-roots movement for racial justice, immigrant rights, prisoners’ rights, labor rights and more.”
Exactly how is this “grass-roots movement” among elite university students supposed to help Democrats regain the political power they have lost? Does anyone beyond the NYU campus imagine that sociology majors are going to give Democrats a decisive advantage in next year’s mid-term elections? Will issues like “racial justice” and “prisoners’ rights” turn the tide against Trump? If Pollitt’s fantasies of a feminist-led revival for Democrats are their best hope, they’ve got no hope at all. Having lost touch with voters in Middle America, Democrats now seem to be losing touch with reality.
Similarly delusional ideas prevailed at German headquarters a century ago, when General Ludendorff believed that Germany’s submarine warfare would cripple the Allied war effort. Three months after America joined the Allies, the German industrialist Walter Rathenau went to see Ludendorff to explain that the British were making extraordinary efforts to replace the ships sunk by the U-boats. More ominously, Rathenau warned, now Germany faced “the possibility of America building more tonnage than we sank.” After listening to the statistics, Ludendorff replied that, whatever Rathenau’s numbers might say, “I have to follow my feeling.” And so he did, and Germany went down to defeat.
The future is always uncertain in politics, and no one can predict what will happen in the next election. Nearly every political expert was blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory last year, and the political climate now is extraordinarily volatile. Yet if Democrats imagine they can easily and swiftly regain power because “The Future Is Female,” or because they are on “the right side of history,” they are likely to be disappointed. History has a habit of making fools pay for their folly.