Let’s Go Brandon to Dark Brandon: Don’t cry for America

This commentary is by Narain Batra of Hartford, who is the author of several books including The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and the most recent, India in a New Key.

It was a beautiful day on the Lake Morey Country Club golf course that had drawn hordes of visitors, some hopping from one golf course to another, others attending weddings and golfing, and of course, the ladies (bless them the way they play!) and the regulars like us amused about the migratory birds that had suddenly descended upon us. Long waits at every hole but it was fun — five hours long fun.

It was on the 6th hole that a hurly-burly jolly good golfer, with a beer belly laughter, let’s call him John Doe, from Massachusetts with a bottle in his hand came to us apologizing for holding us back. I love to talk to strangers. Sometimes they open a door that opens another door. Sometimes you stumble upon someone who makes you re-think your preconceived assumptions.

I was with Jim Wilson, an old-school liberal Yalie and Dartmouth Osher instructor, and Dick Nordgren, a retired Dartmouth medical professor dedicated to his political wife, a Democratic state senator, and we were just talking about how we have become so polarized that we hesitate to communicate with “the others.” Overall, we’re a group of ten golfers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and professors and our conversation is mostly about the sorry state of Trump America, apart from golf jokes and the unfolding narrative about Saudi-backed LIV Golf and the venerable PGA Tour whose golf monopoly is under challenge. However, politics, inequality, racism, white supremacy and other hot buttons issues pop up every now and then. How the group became so like-minded sometimes surprises me. Perhaps, birds of a feather do flock together, which may not always be good for democracy if it leads to groupthink tribalism. “The other” becomes the political enemy.

But John Doe with his “Let’s Go Brandon” red hat sounded lovable and irresistible. With the bottle on his lips, he said he normally drank only one beer at a round, and that’s a promise to his wife, but with the slow-moving foursomes and some even sixsomes on every hole, he might need two or more beers. So, to keep him talking, I said, German pilsner is my favorite. Of course, we too, German beers for us, and the Irish stout, he guffawed. Your wife, too? I asked. Of course, he said. Looking at his Brandon hat I said, you and the wife have the same politics? All the way, he said. A Trump acolyte from Elizabeth Warren’s blue Massachusetts, what kind of a civil war it would be?

Instead of the blue and red states map of the United States that gives the erroneous impression that Americans are irreconcilably polarized, a bridge too far from each other, America to me looks like a mixed-up nation, a vast unevenly distributed red-and-blue polka dot stretch of land where dots keep changing their colors and positions in a perpetual state of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Why is it so?

Fundamentalists believe that the U.S. Constitution must be interpreted as it was originally intended, as we saw in the recent Supreme Court’s revisionist decision regarding Roe v. Wade nullifying women’s abortion rights. Some others believe that all our present political malaise is due to the fact that American democracy was not designed to be democratic.

Writing in the New Yorker, Louis Menand said that “American government has never been a government ‘by the people.’” He faults the Constitution for many of our problems. He considers the Senate a check on and distortion of democracy because it gives Vermont, for example, with 624,340 population two senators as it does to California with thirty-nine million. 

But he forgets, what would America be without Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy (now retiring), two of the most politically constructive and transformative senators? Also, let’s keep in mind how California — with a $3.4 trillion economy — exercises its immense corporate political and lobbying power over Washington, D.C. Small states enhance democracy by checking the potentially abusive power of mega states. Don’t doubt the wisdom of the founding fathers.

On the brighter side, in spite of all the systemic faults including partisan gerrymandering, electoral college problematics, the unrepresentative power of the Senate, the Supreme Court’s unelected powers over the people, many astute presidents, Republicans and Democrats, learned to master the system and accomplished much during their tenures at the White House. The challenge is how to work with the system and get things done since it’s impossible to bring about any significant structural changes unless it becomes an existential threat to both Democrats and Republicans. Academics are more worried about American democracy than people who know how to play politics. 

Consider this: In the first two years, in spite of his low popularity in opinion polls, bouts with Covid-19, toxic political and cultural polarization, and the ongoing Trump Mar-a-Lago drama, Joe Biden has remained cool and has achieved transformative accomplishments that would have generational and global impact. The Inflation Reduction Act with a $740 billion outlay and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law with a $1 trillion investment would lift all boats whether you wear the “Let’s Go Brandon” hat or you’re a senior citizen worried about the rising cost of lifesaving drugs. At the core of the Inflation Reduction Act is the energy and climate program that would reestablish the trust in America’s global climate leadership especially now when massive floods, uncontrollable fires and devastating droughts are sparing no global region. 

After the disastrous Afghanistan exit, Joe Biden re-established American NATO leadership confronting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. With his promise to stand by Taiwan, Joe Biden let China know that America ain’t backing out, which was affirmed by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island nation.

In November, voters will decide whether Democrats are still good enough for them. The fault is not in American democracy, but “in ourselves, that we are underlings,” as the bard would have said.

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