[Warning, long post]
As referred to by Hester, there’s a very clearly-stated and fair-minded article at the Guardian, describing the left and left-center divide in America. It is evident here at BMG; on social media with its argument-by-meme dopamine highs; in the Boston mayoral election; in parallel opinion outlets; at the DNC itself. The wound has not been cauterized.
This moment requires discernment: To let Trump and the enabling GOP retain power is unacceptable. We mustn’t let our grievances with each other on the left-of-center outshine the necessity of winning power in 2018. We already let it happen, and now we’re living the consequences. (Given Trump’s willingness to smash what’s left of a functioning constitutional democracy, with GOP assistance and consent, we may already be too late: Wait for the fallout of tomorrow’s arrests.)
So this is not a time for anyone to be smug or engage in told-you-so’s, or to assert without evidence that only we’ve got the winning formula for victory. Every minor factor was the deciding factor in such a close election. We. All. Lost. Big time.
I’ve been quite worried about this divide going back since before the primaries, because of the harshness of tone towards Hillary from the left (“#NeverHillary” et al), even as I agreed with many of their substantive points. My bewilderment was evident in my “endorsement” of Hillary Clinton. I’m probably closer ideologically to the Bernie wing; I’m no “centrist”. I certainly don’t oppose an assertive left wing in the Democratic Party.
But I want them to get it right — to think strategically, constructively, and relationally; to build coalitions where possible; to challenge in primaries as necessary; and to take yes for an answer from legacy Democrats when it’s offered. In short, to play to win, not merely to oppose — either in the form of electoral wins (leading to policy wins), or in the form of concessions from electorally viable leaders.
Like former MassDems chair John Walsh, I enthusiastically approve of “rock-em, sock-em” primaries. This is not energy or money wasted on internecine warfare; it is a training ground for messaging, fundraising, and organization. Especially in off-year elections, the left may well be correct that elections are won by motivating the base. The mere existence and size of a Bernie Sanders wing in the Democratic Party suggests that there’s a left flank waiting to be summoned. Primaries can test that hypothesis. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
And as Pete Davis frames them, the leftist critiques of the Democratic Party are poignant indeed. They ought to make rank-and-file party loyalists squirm. Hillary Clinton, along with many other Dems, voted for the Iraq War and was slow to come around to apologizing for it; she was too close to Wall Street; she cheered the expansion of the incarceration state in the 1990s. And more recently and regrettably, new DNC chair Tom Perez has apparently replaced left-wing members with lobbyists. I may not be a card-carrying member of the Bernie wing, but there sure ain’t no Harold Ickes wing.
There’s much more where that came from: It is nine years after the start of the Great Recession; the middle class has been crumbling for two generations; and we are well and truly a multi-cultural society. Reconsideration of political norms from (say) 1972 to 2004 is due, and the left is doing it. They say “things are different now”, and they may well be right. (The MA Senate’s passing of Criminal Justice Reform is an example of actual fruit of this re-evaluation; these were ideas that would have been mocked as “bleeding heart liberal” not all that long ago, and which are now common sense.)
But what tools to use? The threat of withholding support might well be an effective tool to make the Party move left. Experience shows that is far easier to make Democrats lose than to get progressives into office. But as we’re seeing, there’s a tremendous cost to substituting practically any Republican for even a mediocre Democrat.
The leftist wing proposes an energetic role for government — single-payer health care; prosecution of financial crime; minimum basic income; aggressive steps to curb greenhouse gases; and so forth. What is this if not establishment? And establishing things — through coalition-building and the inevitable compromises, before and after elections, is harder than tearing things down.
Today’s leftists I think correctly view politics as combat. This springs out of a response-in-kind to the GOP’s scorched-earth mentality, now being applied to decimating the federal government itself. The left rejects Obama’s futile attempt at “post-partisan” politics; and his community-organizer’s respect for accepting the presence and influence of certain constituencies — austerity scolds, Wall Street interests, and so on. His temperament was to play it as it lies: He was managerial and conciliatory, not confrontational and transformational in the face of an onslaught of right-wing money and media-ideological power.
But each side has its story, its rationalizations. Why is there a Democratic establishment that acts this way? Those who are living the shock waves of the 2008 Great Recession but may not remember the 1972,1980, 1984, and 1988 elections, will have little sympathy for an accommodationist, mealy-mouthed Democratic Party. But legacy Democrats see themselves as managing (at least) three essential problems:
- Campaign finance, particularly in the post-Citizens United era, which requires vast amounts of money to counter the deluge from the Kochs et al. (The Kochs have been quite focused on state legislatures, for instance — with devastating results.) The money has to come from somewhere and somebody — and bundlers are standing by.
- The assumption that the United States is at its heart “center-right” nation, based on the pre-1992 electoral results.
- The assault on structures that provide the infrastructure for the Party and progressive politics generally — particularly unions. Scott Walker’s attacks on public employee unions in Wisconsin, and the recent charter-school ballot issue in Massachusetts are two such examples: Destroying unions is politics by other means.
These habits of thought exist because of bitter experience, not merely because of cowardice and ulterior motives (though neither does it exclude those). People don’t want to lose forever.
And since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of seven presidential elections, even as they lost Congress except for a brief post-Iraq interregnum 2006-2010. It’s not an overstatement to say that it is the fluke of our idiotic Electoral College that led to the Iraq War; Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court; and the open sewer of the Trump presidency.
Dems have been cheated by GOP bad faith, Russian skullduggery, and plain-old terrible, terrible luck. (Red Sox fans of a certain vintage know what that looks like.) Recent history would be far, far different with the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing.
I cannot improve upon Davis’ conclusion here — it’s exactly what I’ve been thinking:
These political tribes have their benefits. They help draw people into politics, bring people together and give members purpose. But political tribalism can also be hazardous. At its worst, it creates enemies out of neighbours, turning complex people into “sell-outs” or “purists”. Tribes trick us into thinking that political participation is about being well-versed in tribal rhetoric – say, being able to list the correct takes on past inter-tribal skirmishes – rather than about pursuing tangible goals. They encourage confirmatory, self-validating thought, rather than the exploratory thought that helps our politics stay aligned with reality. The focus that comes with tribalism can lapse into myopia, such as when some liberals can see Trump’s wickedness regarding immigration so clearly, but were unable to support immigration activists protesting Obama; or when some leftwingers can see the corporate corruption of Democrats so clearly, but fail to articulate the massive gap in corruption between the two parties.
A final danger of political tribalism – one specific to the intra-party divide – is that it is a danger to the coalition-building required to gain power through electoral politics. If a party coalition is divided against itself come election day, it may not stand. And if the coalition loses, both tribes lose. And with each passing of month of Trump’s presidency, the stakes get higher.
Davis suggests an ethic of “vigorous critical loyalty”:
And finally, by agreeing from the start that everyone, no matter their level of criticism during ordinary time, is fully on board to support the party when general election time comes, concerns about party loyalty are reduced. All intraparty fights are tolerated – and even encouraged – because everyone can trust that we will be unified when it counts.
Vigorous critical loyalty presumes that people can change, and that there is a potential to re-integrate the left and liberal tribes. As issue campaigns gain support from current party leaders and improbable primary challengers become party leaders, party sceptics become more loyal, while party loyalists start showing loyalty to leaders and issues formerly seen as heretical.
Solidarity, to each other, must be the motto. We get caught up in loyalties to candidates and figureheads, cults of personality; to ideologies, modes of analysis (class vs. race, eg); a particular set of language or jargon words; or to a single issue. Solidarity is the only thing that has ever won us the things we need. Even as we struggle with each other, we only ever have each other.