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The Obsolete Politics of James Carville

The Clinton-era avatar of respectable Democratic politics continues to confuse elite opinion with public sentiment.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Ahh, 1994. What a time to be alive. Ill Communication, Monster, and Superunknown were blaring from every boom box and Chevy Cavalier cassette deck. Final Fantasy 3 had a generation of socially awkward kids glued to a Super Nintendo. Forrest Gump was spinning a Boomer fever-dream of American history on the big screen, and Pulp Fiction was about the coolest thing imaginable.

To news junkies of that era, there was James Carville: omnipresent and unquestionably brilliant, with a quiverful of colorful Cajun quips. Disregarding the fact that the 1994 Gingrich-led “Republican Revolution” represented a sharp setback for Democrats, Carville was nevertheless among the unlikely personalities to ride Bill Clinton’s 1992 election to notoriety, credited as the architect of Clinton’s rise from no-name governor to president. Never mind that on Election Day the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, had an approval rating of 30 percent or that Ross Perot siphoned off 18 percent of the popular vote with a populist anti-deficit message. Carville and his “It’s the economy, stupid” tagline were treated with something approaching awe by CNN and the Sunday panel shows.

Times change, however. At present, Carville represents much that’s wrong with the Democratic Party—its refusal to learn from its mistakes; its obsession with appealing to wealthy suburbanites while telling its traditional base of the working class and people of color to suck it up because the Republicans are worse; its preference for the performative over the substantive (Pelosi ripped the speech!); and, above all else, the belief that “operatives” and “consultants” know the pulse of the nation and can soothsay the will of the common man.

Last Tuesday, in the wake of the Iowa caucus on February 3, Carville emerged from MSNBC’s cryochamber to deliver a “fiery rant” against Bernie Sanders, to which the most common reaction among people who do not obsessively watch cable news was, “James Carville is still alive?” In a lengthy follow-up interview with Vox’s Sean Illing, who asked challenging and direct questions throughout rather than the fawning softballs to which Carville has grown accustomed, the Ragin’ Cajun trotted out all the greatest hits of people whose political worldview has not been updated since 1994 and for whom the takeaway from 2016 is that Hillary Clinton lost because of Jill Stein and Russian hackers.

Carville is the most skilled practitioner of a hobby common to his social and political stratum: ascribing to “the working class”—or simply “voters”—a resistance to any kind of change that inconveniences people like James Carville. Simply put, his performances seek to demonstrate the remarkable coincidence that “voters,” particularly of the central casting Average Joe variety, dislike all of the same things he dislikes.

This is endemic among liberals of the Clinton 1990s vintage, the insistence that their caricatured ideal of the working class cannot stomach the sort of change the left wing of the party prefers. A decade after Clinton’s second term ended, this idée fixe was trotted out to excuse liberals’ refusal to champion marriage equality (Barack Obama ran explicitly opposed to it, and Hillary Clinton famously was “a big fan of civil unions” until it was safe to flip). Sophisticated and urbane liberals like Obama and Clinton were allies to the LGBTQ community, of course! But as a matter of pragmatic politics, neither one could afford to risk alienating that guy in the hard hat, could they?

In other words, we sure would love to back gay marriage, but They won’t let us. Who are “They”? Well, they’re an avatar Democratic elites created and onto which they have unflaggingly projected their own bad politics. As for exercising opinion leadership and telling voters why Democrats believe in a given idea, that’s out of the question. Carvillian politics cannot go beyond analyzing the thin skein of polling and focus group data and then adopting whatever positions come out ahead. This is a Democratic politics that has persuaded itself never to try to persuade.

Now that the Sanders campaign (Warren, for whatever reason, largely escapes Carville’s ire) has gotten some traction with tuition and student debt forgiveness proposals, Carville has emerged from his coffin to simply assert from his own evidence and a couple readings of Hillbilly Elegy that, “people all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans. They don’t want to hear this shit.” It’s worth pointing out that in 1971, the average annual cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public university was $1,410. This amounted to approximately 20.4 percent of a man’s annual median income; 58.6 percent of a woman’s. By 2016, similar college expenses had risen to $20,150 per year, working out to 51.8 percent of the median annual income for men, 80.9 percent for women.

Given the well-documented reality of the situation, it would be useful to know from what source Carville obtained the information underpinning his belief that no one wants to “hear this shit.” When was the last time James Carville had the occasion to speak with someone outside of his circle of politically connected social elites? For all anyone knows, his idea of a “Regular Joe” could be an intern, the son of a connected donor from Connecticut, who drives him to the studio for his talking head appearances. Who knows, maybe his gardener or Uber Black drivers are unrelenting opponents of debt forgiveness. What seems more likely is that Carville simply attributes whatever he personally opposes to the will of the unwashed masses.

During his most recent rant, Carville went on to conjure all the bogeymen of “voters” that are actually the bogeymen of highly educated, affluent white liberals, with racial scaremongering about letting “criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells”; he  characterized people who don’t buy his exhausted messaging as a bunch of kids on Twitter and posited a three-person list of “good candidates” that includes both Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock—who, after many months of campaigning, have somehow remained completely alien to the working-class Democratic voters of Carville’s imaginings.

Carville closes on the note that has defined liberal electoral politics for nearly three decades—an obsession with “swing voters” that always leads to the same conclusion: to win, move to the right. If you don’t win, keep moving further right until you do. It couldn’t be more 1994 if Jerry Seinfeld showed up in a turquoise Geo Tracker to say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” Rather than make a pitch to a massive population of disaffected nonvoters, obsess over peeling off the odd Republican whose mind could be, but almost certainly will not be, changed.

Carville is absolutely entitled to his opinion that Bernie Sanders is a bad presidential candidate; it could certainly be the case that leftist policy ideas are destined to not gain traction. But he should be forced to acknowledge that these are, in fact, his opinions about the political world that he wants to inhabit. Instead of, say, pitching deficit-hawkishness as a winning issue for the teeming masses, he should own the fact that that idea is only truly popular with elites who are salivating to take the knife to Social Security. Instead he ascribes these views to others and paints himself as just the messenger, bringing the real talk from Middle America. In this way, he excuses Democrats from the need to actually talk to millions of ordinary Americans and makes them seem like the true impediment to progress.