Remember, or Repeat

Joel Bellman

Remember when hell on earth was Bill Murray’s weatherman waking up every morning to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe,” knowing that he’s doomed to endlessly relive the same snowed-in Punxsutawney Groundhog Day?

After two years of President Trump, being trapped in a time-loop in a rural Pennsylvania blizzard doesn’t sound half bad.

What I really dread is not a perpetual Groundhog Day, but a Groundhog Election. Knowing all that we now know, I just cannot stand the idea of repeating the 2016 presidential campaign and its catastrophic outcome. But I’m beginning to feel like one of those characters in a horror movie who wakes up from a nightmare only to discover that the real nightmare is just beginning.

Can we remember the past, or are we condemned to repeat it?

This time, there will be no excuses. We won’t be able to blame the result on Russian hacking and a Red Army of social-media trolls, Wikileaks dumps, vote suppression, James Comey, failures in media coverage, or naïve willingness to give Donald Trump a wholly unearned benefit of the doubt.

They all played a role, but we can no longer turn a blind eye to the man himself. Donald Trump’s official presidential portrait is the true picture of Dorian Gray, the version politicians usually stash in the attic. His sinister character and malevolent intentions are hiding in plain sight, and if we can’t see it by now, it’s only because we refuse to look.

What to do? The current Democratic field seems to be sorting itself out into broad categories: True Believers, Sensible Centrists, Dreamers, and Outliers. Here’s a sampling.

Some of my friends want to go hard Left, all in on socialism, which Bernie Sanders has purportedly made respectable (and he’s not even the first socialist to make a million from publishing, either). Then there’s slavery reparations, ( and single-payer health coverage, free college, a halt to fossil-fuel production, eliminating ICE, abolishing the “prison-industrial complex,” breaking up banks, breaking up tech companies, ending the Electoral College, packing the Supreme Court…

Their preferences seem to be splitting between Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent Kamala Harris (but as a career prosecutor, disqualified by some progressives), Cory Booker (but suspiciously too much corporate financial support), and Beto O’Rourke (similarly dismissed by some as a closet moderate, or empty suit with a relatively thin resumé beyond his unsuccessful high-profile challenge to Ted Cruz.), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, running on an environmental platform, could also garner some support.

Their argument is that only the activist base has the energy, the motivation, and the appeal of a coherent ideological program that will sway voters tired of milquetoast moderation. Otherwise, they darkly warn, if the Democratic nominee doesn’t “earn” their votes, they’ll just stay home.

Others are what might be called “sensible centrists,” assertive moderates who feel resentful of, and threatened by, progressive upstarts like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort.

Only a known quantity, they argue, a proven steady hand, a salt-of-the-earth type with rust-belt and heartland appeal—yes, we could only be talking about formerly cool/now creepy Uncle Joe—who purportedly has the broad-based appeal to reach beyond the blue coasts and into the purplish interior essential for an Electoral College win. Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar might also stake a claim to that same moderate vote—and without having to explain away all those awkward hands-on video clips. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, center-left but business-friendly, also holds some potential appeal for them.

And then we have the dreamers, who actually seem indifferent to mundane considerations like traditional experience, qualifications, legislative records, institutional support, or poll numbers. They tend to be either long shots, dark horses, idealists, or media hounds. Pete Buttigieg, the termed-out mayor of South Bend, Indiana (pop. 102,000) running as a young, smart, white, gay, Christian, allegedly hoping to make the leap directly to the White House with no state or federal experience. Or Julián Castro, 44, whose entire political resumé consists of five years as mayor of San Antonio, TX, and two-and-a-half years in the Obama cabinet. Or Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, who served two years on the Dublin, CA, city council (pop. 46,000) and was just sworn in to a fourth congressional term.

The most striking thing about the Democratic field is its fundamental seriousness and gravitas. What even the outlying candidates lack in conventional experience, they make up for in earnestness and policy ideas. But is that enough?

After 9/11, the media were briefly entranced with the idea that America had entered a post-irony age of “new seriousness,” a sudden awareness of both international threats to American interests, and of a corresponding responsibility for the free world to respond collectively. We now know how that turned out—and the results most charitably might be described as “mixed.”

With the pending 2020 presidential election, we’re at another potential inflection point—where either we continue our mad stumble down what Yale historian Timothy Snyder has called “the road to unfreedom,” a darkening dead end of mob rule, oligarchy, and dictatorship—or we reverse course and somehow make our way back into the fresh air and sunshine of a vibrant, inclusive, and functional democracy, and reclaim our position of respected global leadership.

George Santayana was right: we remember, or we repeat. The choice is ours.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at

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