Very deep divisions: within the country...and within the Democratic Party

High anxiety in the days following the election eased somewhat when Pennsylvania was called for Joe Biden while I was out on the Saturday run, a nice nine-miler on a cold morning, with temperature at 34 degrees and a bit of autumn sunshine that is always good for the spirit. I arrived home to a text from an old Atlanta friend bearing the message "Georgia! Can't believe it!" and a photo of two champagne glasses raised in a toast. I immediately tuned in to NPR and checked go-to news sites online to confirm the occasion for celebration was what I hoped. Then came another text, this one from a lifelong friend from the Dutch Fork area of South Carolina now living in California: "David. Biden wins. Time to bring America together." The message was signed off with two American flags and two thumbs up. Friends like these are always a blessing and more than ever now. Later in the morning I gave my Atlanta friend a call and we batted around thoughts about the state of things. Neither of us has any illusion about what lies ahead. We agreed there would be time for that burden later. Saturday, she declared, was a day to be giddy.


The time for that burden is upon us. As I write this, Donald Trump refuses to concede. He and his henchpeople are clear about their intent. Two days after the election Harmeet Dhillon, a conservative lawyer and co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition, told Lou Dobbs, "we're waiting for the United States Supreme Court, of which the president has nominated three justices, to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through and pick it up." Does anyone doubt that she speaks for the president and that he expects his Supreme Court to come through and overturn the election of Joe Biden?


Whether Trump really thinks he can pull off a coup in plain sight, as Ezra Klein dubs it, or merely wants to sow chaos and sabotage the new administration as a kind of vengeance is debatable. The propositions are not mutually exclusive. After the past four years only the willfully obtuse would underestimate the depths to be plumbed in that twisted psyche. A report from Tamara Keith at NPR suggests something else also at work here:


You know, they [Trump campaign] have a hotline set up for people to dial in with claims of voting irregularities. And they are fundraising. There have been so many texts and emails asking for donations to fund this fight. But the fine print says that much of that money will go to retiring Trump campaign debt.


It is always a good idea to read the fine print. That goes double with this band of grifters.


Meanwhile, within the ranks of mainstream Democrats and their allies of necessity further to the left comes the reckoning. Who is to blame for the dismal and bitterly disappointing outcomes in the House, Senate, and state elections? And what is to be done?


Free-range lefty Naomi Klein and Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and Guardian US columnist, are representative of a progressive school of thought that argues the anticipated blue wave turned out to be a mirage because the leadership of the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign, from the candidate on down, moved to the center to court disaffected Republicans and moderates prone to waffle between the two parties when they should have doubled down on what Klein and Robinson take to be a party base


much more politically aligned with Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, in their support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, for racial justice, the party was sure that Bernie Sanders was too risky. And so, as we all remember, they banded together and gave us Biden. (Naomi Klein)


The answer to what is going on is not actually mysterious. The left has been saying it over and over ad nauseum: the Democrats have failed to offer a compelling alternative. Joe Biden has been an uninspiring corrupt corporate candidate. He’s been, incredibly, less politically competent than Hillary Clinton. He opposes policies that are hugely popular with voters [Medicare for All, &c.]. (Robinson, 2020 Election Result)


There remains on the left a blind faith that the country is more left than moderate. As evidence that it is, Robinson points to "a reported 26 out of 30 nationally-endorsed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates [who] won their races," citing a tweet posted by DSA that does not provide details. The numbers alone tell us little that is useful without knowing where those candidates ran. Democratic losses in the House did not occur because candidates in swing districts flipped by the Democrats in 2018 failed to sign on to the progressive agenda or because the candidate at the top of the ticket was insufficiently progressive and otherwise uninspiring.


In Maine Joe Biden won with 430,023 votes (52.9%) to Donald Trump's 359,502 (44.2%). In a Senate race thought to be winnable by the Democrats, Susan Collins was reelected with 414,970 votes (51.1%) to challenger Sara Gideon's 342,698 (42.2%). It appears to my untrained eye that enough Republicans who could no longer rationalize supporting Trump voted for Biden to give him a resounding victory while at the same in time voting Republican in down-ballot races. They repudiated Trump but not the Republican Party. There is no reason to think these voters would have been swayed to vote differently by a more progressive platform at the top of the ticket or in down-ballot campaigns. This is only one example, but I expect similar results could be found in states around the country where Democrats were disappointed.


The compelling alternative that Nathan Robinson has in mind is the agenda for which Bernie Sanders is a passionate and articulate voice, indeed, the most compelling voice progressives have. This agenda is broadly associated with socialism, or more precisely in Bernie's terms, democratic socialism. I will leave polemical nitpicking about whether Bernie's democratic socialism is an authentic socialism, whatever that may be, to editors and contributors at Jacobin, Current Affairs, &c. Democrats will be smeared as socialists, far-leftists, Marxists, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. Robinson is correct on that point. Witness the absurd claim that Kamala Harris is the most liberal, far-left member of the Senate. Whatever became of Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren?


Robinson is unconcerned by a kneejack antipathy to anything smacking of socialism that is widespread throughout the country and not restricted to Trumpists. The charge of socialism is best countered, he says, by leaning into it and explaining why the socialist agenda is reasonable and moderate. This appeal to reason blissfully disregards what we have witnessed from both wings over the past decade, not to mention some 250 years of history since the Enlightenment popularized appeals to reason and the observations and insights of thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Edmund Burke. Attitudes and opinions are rooted in habit, custom, emotions, passions, and the ordinary human bias to which each of us is susceptible. Reason and rational argument are part of the mix but often serve more as rationalization and justification for opinions already held than for objective demonstration of what is reasonable or true.


One need not be a hardened cynic to question how far Robinson's reasonable explanations will go with the large chunk of the citizenry that buys into the demagoguery of a sociopath and a revanchist ideology that Republicans pass off as conservatism. Nor would he be likely to get much further with Biden-voting Republicans and former Republicans in the Never-Trump camp who reject Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other elements of the progressive agenda on the basis of their own reason and experience. Maybe he can convince some moderate Democrats, but even the extent of that is problematic.


Never-Trump conservative Tom Nichols understands what he refers to as his "former tribe" better than Klein and Robinson:


Sadly, the voters who said in 2016 that they chose Trump because they thought he was “just like them” turned out to be right. Now, by picking him again, those voters are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong. (A Large Portion of the Electorate Chose the Sociopath)


Nichols warns that Democrats


might look at this near-death experience, and, as they sometimes have in the past, conclude that moving left…is just the tonic they need to shore up their coalition. Some Democrats tend to believe that almost every election confirms the need to lurch to the left, when in fact the 2020 election should be a reminder that Trump would have beaten anyone left of Biden.


Yet another interpretation of the Trumpist dynamic comes courtesy of Rich Lowry, editor of the Forever-Trump National Review, in a column published the week prior to the election:


If Donald Trump wins a second term, it will be an unmistakable countercultural statement in a year when progressives have worked their will across the culture.… Trump is the only way for his voters to say to the cultural Left, "No, sorry, you've gone too far." …Trump is, for better or worse, the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tide that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between.…


To put it in blunt terms, for many people, he's the only middle finger available—to brandish against the people who've assumed they have the whip hand in American culture. (The Only Middle Finger Available)


Nineteenth-century Russian radical Alexander Herzen understood this: "You can work on men only by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream them themselves, not by demonstrating their ideas to them as geometrical theorems are demonstrated" (quoted by E.H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles). The inescapable conclusion from the last four years, culminating in the election, is that Donald Trump dreams their dreams more clearly than moderates or progressives, myself included.


I would like to see progressives take seriously the possibility that Tom Nichols may well be right that Trump would have defeated anyone running to the left of Biden. There is nothing to suggest that Biden or the Democratic Party would have fared better by running substantially further to the left. I would also like to see woke progressives recognize there is something to what Rich Lowry says and take from that the good counsel to watch what they themselves say. The rhetoric matters.


South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn argues that the phrase "defund the police" hurt Jaime Harrison in his Senate race against Lindsey Graham, likening it to "burn, baby, burn" from the 1960s, which did not exactly advance the cause of civil rights. Clyburn went on to the broader point that Democrats hurt themselves with sloganeering around progressive policies, warning that sloganeering destroys movements and urging us to instead " go about the business of representing people and building hopes and aspirations for people" (McCammond, Top House Democrat)


Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D–Virginia) delivered the same message independently of Clyburn:

  • The number one concern in things that people brought to me in my [district] that I barely re-won, was defunding the police. And I've heard from colleagues who have said 'Oh, it's the language of the streets. We should respect that.' We're in Congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in the way where we mean what we're talking about. If we don't mean we should defund the police, we shouldn't say that.

  • We want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring good engagement in community policing, let's talk about what we are for. And we need to not ever use the words 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again. Because while people think it doesn't matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it. (Cizzilla, This Democratic Congresswoman)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shot back that "progressive policies do not hurt candidates" and called out "finger-pointing" by moderates. Clyburn and Spanberger could have used less combative, more diplomatic language, but Ocasio-Cortez's criticism rings hollow coming as it does from someone whose brand is hardly built on a record of discretion and restraint. I find this record maddening because she is so sharp and capable. In an interview with Chris Cizzilla at CNN, she alternates good points, important points, with fire bombs, for instance, excoriating the campaign run by Conor Lamb, who actually won his House race, and misrepresenting Spanberger's objection to "defund the police" and other moderate critiques of progressive rhetoric. She recognizes "very deep divisions within the party" and calls on factions to come together (Warmbrodt, AOC urges Democrats). By this she seems to have in mind moderates signing off on progressive policies, with only glancing acknowledgment that deep divisions within the party represent equally deep divisions among Democratic voters. Coming together will require give and take from all sides.


I happen to agree with Clyburn and Spanberger about "defund the police." If you continually have to explain what you really mean by a slogan, it is probably advisable to come up with a better slogan. The uncomfortable fact is that a minority—I believe, I hope, a very small minority—really do have abolition in mind when they call for defunding the police.


For my part, I support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in principle. I do not object to being called a socialist, but heck, I could not be elected dogcatcher. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may win handily in their districts, and that is great, but they would not be viable candidates in other districts around the country that Democrats need to win to maintain a majority in the House.


Much of the divide within the Democratic Party is less about principles and ideals than about rhetoric and what is politically possible. Rhetoric that fires up young progressive hotheads can be counterproductive with other factions that Democrats also need in order to win elections. By the same token, a timid, tepid moderation dampens the enthusiasm of more progressive spirits and fails to energize anyone else. Nathan Robinson's call to explain that the socialist agenda is reasonable and moderate is fine as long as progressives realize that many Americans will not be buying it anytime soon. That is not reason to abandon the effort. It is however reason to think long and hard about how we couch our message. It would be helpful if people like Robinson would take it on themselves to explain to their comrades the distressing truth that change when it comes can be painfully slow and incremental, that compromise is not surrender—and conversely, that surrender is not compromise, and that people of good will can, and must if we are to get anywhere, respectfully disagree on fundamental issues.


We need Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez, and their comrades to advocate their ideas and policies because the pandemic, the environment, health care, racial inequity, and a host of other issues demand substantive action. We also need them to recognize when half measures are better than no measures, because after all is said and done the loftiest rhetoric in the world is empty without legislation to put its principles into effect. We need Spanberger, Lamb, and their comrades in the middle to represent a sizable number of Democrats who are wary of the ideas and policies advanced by their progressive brothers and sisters. We also need them stand up to Republicans whose idea of compromise is for Democrats to roll over, and we need them to figure out ways to give progressives wins for their constituencies. We need from both factions leadership that will accept the difficult task of explaining to their respective constituents that pragmatism and compromise are not tantamount to betrayal of principle.


None of this will be easy even if Democrats somehow win two run-off elections in Georgia to flip the Senate. None of it will matter if Trump's effort to subvert the election, the Constitution, and the idea of America as a constitutional republic is successful.


Postscript. Wed, Nov 11, 6:04 a.m. If I had slept on the essay for one last round of review and revision before publication, the final sentence would have stated that these things will still matter but will be secondary to the more pressing issue of Trump's coup if he holds on to power.


References and related reading

David Matthews

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