In case you missed it … there’s so much in this excellent conversation with Sean McElwee of Data For Progress on the Ezra Klein Show. I found myself nodding in agreement so much I got a crick in my neck. (Teaser here.) It’s long — over an hour-and-a-half, but I listened to it in two chunks. Klein is a model liberal-wonk; McElwee is an erstwhile hard-leftist who pushed #AbolishICE from his Twitter feed; but founded Data For Progress as a way to try to convince Democratic elected officials of the popularity of leftish ideas. The first part of the podcast is a post-mortem of the Bernie campaign; and the rest is a broader discussion of effective politics.
Though both McElwee and Klein never mention them by name, they both riff on some contemptuous memes and taxonomies created by the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, to describe supposed class enemies: “Wine moms”, the “professional-managerial class”, “sh–libs”, “bend the —-ing knee” — and so forth. And as can now be told, this counter-productive and self-spiting brand of anti-politics has succeeded in keeping a podcast afloat for four-plus years, and mean tweets into infinity; but somehow failed to produce a Presidential nominee. How did this happen?
Klein asked about the contempt on the left for the so-called “Democratic Establishment”. Here’s McElwee:
I really dislike the view that people who do the hard work to go work in an office like Merkley’s office, get their hands dirty, learn the weeds of policy, are somehow bad people. And I think it’s harsh the way the journalism happens … How many people know the two women on Wyden’s staff who gave every unemployed American $600 in additional UI benefits? How many people know that it’s because people dedicated themselves to the intricacies of policy making and got to the right place at the right time and were set to deliver one of the biggest gains to working people in the last decade? Nobody valorizes that, but I think it’s really important … A lot of the reason people don’t understand that the people who do Democratic politics are very liberal, is that they don’t f-in’ talk to people who do Democratic Party politics … When you want to get laws passed, you have to understand how the people who are going to be passing and implementing laws are thinking about that, because you can’t persuade them … Otherwise … it goes back to not wanting to do the hard work of persuasion and coalition-building.
There are people who are leftists who do this very effectively … [But] on the left there tends to not be a first discussion with [elected officials] of, what is the roadblock of us getting to yes, and what can we do to prove that credibility [of the popularity of our positions] to you; to prove that we’re approaching politics from the desire of helping you, and helping people. And … one reason it’s tough for the left to do that is because a lot of folks spend a lot of time on Twitter saying that these people are neoliberal corporatist hacks and shills. … A lot of it’s going to come down to trust, and … gut. And that’s why I want people with more progressive guts in Congress. But I also want progressives to, when you take a piece of legislation … or polling … to a member of Congress … that that member of Congress really believes you have their best interests at heart, that you care about them and really want to persuade them.
In other words … politics, old-school.
Now, Judy Meredith has been saying this for ages, and literally wrote the book on it: You have to give elected officials “hero opportunities.” And as McElwee implies, elected officials are followers, not leaders. I would indict myself in this helpless-outsider mode of operation, wherein one is forever innocent of policy outcomes, because one didn’t engage in a tangible way that people “in the building” understand. (Again, cf Tufts poli-sci prof Eitan Hersh’s critique of online “politics”, which is not really politics.) Now, there are indeed corrupting powers within the Democratic Party; and worse yet, an institutionalized, habitual contempt for demands that are a.) popular (eg. McElwee’s work at Data For Progress) and b.) based on constituents’ lived experience, but deemed “unrealistic” (eg. Dianne Feinstein’s treatment of Sunrise Movement constituents; Joe Biden’s habit of finger-jabbing and telling voters to “vote for someone else”).
But long before Occupy Wall Street, there’s been a tension between the left crashing the gates; and a refusal to engage, a preference for power fantasies, of “revolution”. A primary challenge is not a revolution; it’s politics. And taking one’s one vote hostage so as to weaken the Democratic Party in a general election doesn’t strengthen the left; it leads to Republican victories and more appeasement politics in moderate districts. Again: Politics. No one here gets out alive.
There’s one more piece of the podcast on a matter that I think doesn’t get enough attention, which is the “revolving door”: As Klein states, Congressional staff are one of the repositories of expertise, and therefore a check on the power of lobbyists. Perhaps not coincidentally, many Congressional staffers don’t get paid especially well (look at these constant-dollar graphs of staff salaries — down) — certainly not compared to what that expertise can fetch in the private sector. This weakens the public interest and strengthens private influence and legislative and regulatory capture. I’ve made this case at the state level as well, eg. at the MBTA: You need to have qualified people with specialized training in the government, on competitive salaries. A professional civil service is a bulwark against corruption — indeed against authoritarianism and fascism.
And to ring this bell again: That’s why we need to return Ed Markey to the Senate. No one, but no one, embodies legislative professionalism and expertise like Markey. He knows the details; his staff is sharp and dedicated; he has longstanding relationships; he’s relentlessly practical and optimistic. He is the quintessential public servant. It doesn’t get appreciation, but it should.
Vote Ed. It’s important.