I withheld from writing much about the “lessons” of the Virginia and NJ elections two weeks ago as I did not trust my immediate perceptions and wanted some time to digest and mull. I have also grown tired, exhausted really, of our own variant of Kremlinology that requires speculating just exactly what our Democratic Nomenklatura – from Manchinema to Biden to AOC—will or will not do regarding BIF, BBB, CBO and, of course, reconciliation. That has become a mind-numbing exercise in frustration, confusion, and quite possibly in futility.
As I write this on Sunday night, a handful of hours before President Biden engages in a tightly choreographed signing of the “hard infrastructure” bill, the fate of the larger “social spending bill,” awkwardly named Build Back Better, remains uncertain – with growing signs that Joe Manchin will simply kill it.
First, an overview of where we are at. The painful conclusion I have reached is that we find ourselves smack dab in the midst of a conservative/Trumpy backlash that signals the onset of a very dark period in our political life. The misjudgment of Democrats and independents and progressives to the left of the party mainstream are, to borrow a phrase, coming home to roost.
Dial back to 2016, even as Trump won the election by 45,000 votes in battleground states, progressives were crowing that Bernie Sanders wildly unexpected tallies in the primaries, somehow meant that “socialism” had not only been reborn in the United States, but that it was now actually popular and could even be the basis for a new Democratic Party. [Note: I use the generic term “socialism” here to include social democracy and democratic socialism.
Then came, the Democratic victory in the 2018 midterms and then the Great Reckoning of the summer of 2020, when tens of thousands who marched, battled with cops, and erupted onto American TV screens under the banners of the BLM, was again interpreted by many as harbinger of radical change.
This, of course, reached a crescendo with the election of Joe Biden and what seemed an unusually advanced progressive political agenda from the Democrats. The lightning passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package shortly after his inauguration and the pending laundry list of to-do legislation – sweeping build up of the safety net, police reform, election reform, climate change funding, immigration reform and so on --raised expectations sky high that Sleepy Joe just might just turn out to be another FDR.
That pipe dream, however, began to evaporate mid-summer as Delta re-ignited the worst of the pandemic, the media flipped out over Afghanistan (we’re still waiting for the bloodbath of Americans left behind as promised), and quickly rising consumer prices re-introduced the word “inflation” into out daily political lexicon. And it’s been downward ever since with the latest polls showing Biden continuing to slide, and Republicans being favored over Democrats in statewide congressional match-ups.
Just how did we get here?
I would argue that Democrats and their allies to the Left have avoided looking at the greater historical trends we are living through. Democrats held 57 Senate seats, an 80 seat majority in Congress, and controlled 29 state legislatures when Bill Clinton was coming into office almost 30 years ago. Obama had similar numbers when he assumed office in 2008. Both presidents wound up losing their majorities by the time the next president was sworn in.
Most recently, they made the mistake of believing that the snapback against Trump would usher in some great New Progressive Age where majorities would turn to social democracy, women would be running the cabinet and “racial and gender equity” would be the national norm.
It’s true that Sanders’ score in 2016 was astounding. Democrats were used to “fringe” or lefty candidates gaining maybe 2% or 3% of the primary vote, nothing like the roughly 40% that Bernie got. He, indeed, put himself and the vague notion of “democratic socialism” firmly on the map and he most certainly embodied the political restlessness among the younger and better educated segment of Democrats. But that’s not the same thing as making socialism vastly popular.
Indeed, when you look at the 2016 results, not only did Trump win, but Democrats came up with only 46 Senate seats and a 40 seat minority in the House.
The 2020 election also had some illusory effects. Yes, Joe Biden won by several million popular votes (giving him an anemic 45,000 vote majority in the electoral college), but the Democrats held the House (that they won in 2018) with a super-slim 4 seat majority. And the 50-50 Senate, with the twin victories in Georgia, can be ascribed not only to the extraordinary GOTV effort but also to one Donald Trump and his most vocal allies who inadvertently boosted the Dems by encouraging GOP voters to abstain in the Georgia run off. 2020 was no Democratic or progressive wave.
While defeat of Trump was probably inevitable (I suspect a reanimated Ted Bundy could have beat him), the Republicans really did not have a very bad night in November 2020. They, in fact, had a pretty damn good one.
And in this America of ours, talking about national electoral majorities means next to nothing, as our officials –including the President—are elected strictly in a series of local balloting on an unequal and skewed playing field. With those asterisks firmly in place, it is not crazy to say that in many many ways the Republicans, even with Trump as an albatross, are doing just fine and the notion – shared by too many Democrats—that once Biden was elected all would be just great is dead wrong.
I don’t see the Democratic defeat in Virginia and their near death in New Jersey as much of a turning point, but rather as a continuation of very worrisome trends that were already firmly in place. The Democrats did what they too often do. They ran a tired retread of a candidate, the uninspiring bag man for Bill Clinton, and…whoosh… they were gone. The Republicans deftly exploited the anxiety that parents – and not just white parents—were feeling about their kids in school in the era of a pandemic, they injected race into the discourse (as always) and that helped mobilize an extra quotient of white and suburban voters who might not have even have school age children but who were frightened by the very words Critical Race Theory even if they didn’t know exactly what the fuck it is.
Since summer, and arguably since inauguration, and in any case well before the Virginia election, the Democrats were on course to lose the House in the midterms. After Virginia, the question is not will they lose the House, but will it be just a Big Blow or a full-on Massacre (smart money takes massacre meaning more than 40 seats). As to the Senate, there are 8 seats in play – we think—four Dem seats and four Republicans. Some of these are in swing states where Democrats currently are way underwater.
I cannot remember a time when Democrats were more isolated from the working class and therein resides their major debility. The culture war is very real and many working class and middle class Americans lead very different lives than the professional and technical urban strata that have become the new base of the Democratic Party. This COULD have been a golden age for Democrats if they had put forward, with real determination, an immediate economic program that connected with the travails of the lower 50% of the population that is being battered by health care, education and housing costs.
You don’t reassure anybody, except some lobbyists, when you take months and months to publicly debate a multi-trillion dollar program bereft of details while gas prices nudge $5 a gallon in many places, and where steaks have to be bought on an installment plan. Yeah, yeah, so the “moderates” blame the “progressives” and vice versa while the voters just blame “Democrats.” I’m not interested. And few people are.
What the Democrats have seemingly forgot is that 70% of the electorate is white. Or, if you prefer, White. How is it, then, that the term White Working Class has become an epithet in the Democratic environs? How stupid, how self-destructive, how feckless do you have to be to cede the bulk of the working class to an oligarch like Donald Trump and his party whose primary purpose is to service the wealthy?
Most Democrats are not guilty of being aggressive agents of WokeThought (though AOC made the intemperate remark that woke is a term used only by old people). But almost all Democrats are complicit by not disassociating themselves from what I consider to be no less than a cultural plague with profound and negative political implications. And voters are constantly reminded of the power of political correctness as it has come to dominate the popular culture. As cranky, lefty writer Freddie de Boer put it:
The left-of-center is in a profoundly strange and deeply unhealthy place. In the span of a decade or less a bizarre form of linguistically-radical but substantively-conservative identity neoliberalism descended from decaying humanities departments in elite universities and infected social media like Tumblr and Twitter, through which it conquered the media and entertainment industries, the nonprofit industrial complex, and government entities as wide-ranging as the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the brass of the Pentagon. That movement now effectively controls the idea-and-story generating power of our society, outside of explicitly conservative media which exists in a large silo but a silo all the same. On any given day the most powerful institutions in the world go to great lengths to mollify the social justice movement, to demonstrate fealty, to avoid its wrath. It’s common now for liberals to deny the influence and power of social justice politics, for inscrutable reasons, but if the current level of control over how people talk publicly is insufficient, I can’t imagine what would placate them. Are most of these institutions false friends? Of course. But that, too, is not much of a defense.
As Republicans push a sort of “educational McCarthyism” by spreading the fear of “indoctrination by CRT” at the local school level, the standard Democratic response that CRT is simply not taught in schools is doubly off base. It’s a rather disingenuous response because while CRT per se is not part of non-university curricula, all sorts of its cousins, mostly in the form of so-called “anti-racist training” has, in fact become very common. Readings from white fragility huckster Robin D’Angelo, or the race-reductionist Ibrahim X. Kendi, parts of the flawed 1619 Project and the now de rigueur race “workshops” that accompany them are very much present in public schools.
And, second, there is absolutely no question that these artifacts and lessons do impart the “lesson” that there is some sort of collective guilt attached to that evil notion of Whiteness or of simply being white and that our entire society is and has always been organized exclusively on the basis of White Supremacy because, after all we are told, it is in our national DNA (strange because my DNA turns out to be 97% Eastern European Ashkenazi. What’s yours?).
Personally, I am very much in favor of tough versions of American history, honest versions, being used in the school. Again, that is very different than the ham-fisted cookie cutter racial and gender identity programs now in vogue or those incredibly stupid and demeaning “workshops.” In my professional life, I have been forced into about a dozen of these jagoff fests and I cannot remember one where there wasn’t a solid consensus of the participants that the sessions were worthless and laughable (of course not so much for the new class of “diversity trainers” who hit up schools and companies for $15,000 or more for a few hours of painful power points and humiliating role playing).
The politics of the Wokerati dead-end in to a panoply of emotional and psychological “solutions” that have everything to do with an individual’s attitude, behavior and vocabulary and have absolutely nothing to do with offering any concrete programmatic or policy solutions (because, after all, racism is in our DNA and therefore can never be defeated).
Am I arguing that Democrats and progressives should therefore forego issues of racial inequity in favor of economic ones?
I am arguing that economic reforms and transformation ARE more efficient ways to battle racial inequality. Take the broadband expansion proposal in the BBB proposal. Just who do you think are the majority of those Americans who suffer from poor or no connectivity? Or look at the Child’s Tax Credit of up to $300 a month for each child. Exactly who does that most benefit? Just which social class do you think most Blacks, Latinos and, yes, Whites belong to? Call it what you want but it’s the bottom half.
Take a look at the post-Virginia piece in the NYTimes by activists Adam Jentleson and Tory Gavito where they insist Democrats cannot continue to be silent about nor should they just deflect the racial punches landed by the GOP but, rather, have to completely re-assess their own strategy on this issue:
“Democrats must separate our (accurate and necessary) analysis of structural racism from our political strategy in a country where the electorate remains nearly 70 percent white — and as much as or more than 80 percent white in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Instead of ignoring race while Republicans beat us silly with it, Democrats must confront it and explain that powerful elites and special interests use race as a tool of division to distract hard-working people of all races while they get robbed blind. Then pivot back to shared interests. The pivot is critical: Without it, Democrats are simply talking past voters, while Republicans play on their racial fears.” [H/T Micah Sifry for the heads up on this piece].
Wow, what a radical idea! That we go back to stressing that it’s the powerful who most benefit by dividing people by race and that power from below requires multi-racial cooperation and unity. We knew that for decades but now are consciously stuffing that simple equation down a memory hole and then sealing it closed with a bunch of mouthy acronyms and undigested slogans.
I don’t think there’s much else to discuss about Democratic politics other than this central fact. Either Democrats start finding a way to appeal to these white voters, while maintaining a progressive economic offering, or face a generation or two of Republican domination beginning next November. Democrats and progressives have to meet voters where they are at to engage them, not make them first pass a racial/gender identity and new vocabulary litmus test. Better to talk to voters about combatting the pandemic, making the rent, sending their kids to university and providing care for their elders than to scorn and browbeat them or diminish them because they do not properly use or even understand concoctions like BIPOC, WOC, POC, gender fluid and so on.
That, in turn, means some pretty tough going for a lot of self-proclaimed progressives. It means learning that Wokeanthology is NOT your friend. It should not be encouraged. It should not be tolerated without debate. And if Wokerati continue to suppress that debate, then the debate must be forced (if not by us, the Republicans will certainly do it and on their racist terms).
It means progressives must also face the fact that some of our given assumptions of past decades must be at least scrutinized, updated or discarded. We have argued as long as I can remember that expanding the electorate would mean expansion of liberal and progressive agendas. Well, Democrats did that in 2020 but so did Republicans and there was no instant success.
It also means that progressives must accept the fact that middle-class suburbs have been instrumental in most Democratic victories in the Trump era and that writing them off, or ceding them as was clear in Virginia, is a prescription for Republican authoritarian rule as they become organized on racial and class lines imposed by the Right. Likewise, it means the liberal left must abandon such preposterous notions as “It’s black trans women who must lead social change.” Hey, register me as 100% supportive of black trans women, but do not insult my intelligence. Blacks are a crucial part of any liberal/progressive coalition but make no mistake, they are generally much more conservative (as are Latinos) than the mostly white, mostly more liberal, mostly college educated whites who make up the bulk of Democratic Party staff and operatives who have a bad habit of projecting their own personal politics onto those they are purportedly trying to organize or, at least, fund raise from (like imposition of the term Latinx which is firmly rejected by 95% of actually living Latinos). The White Folx who insist on branding others with these non-organic titles remind me of the clueless couple of American vegetarians who bumble through Graham Greene’s The Comedians and who wind up getting played by the Dictator.
Finally, Democrats and progressives (especially the latter) need to update and revise their view and rhetoric around policing. That in no way obviates the need for serious reform. I might add very difficult reform especially as police across the country become increasingly politicized and increasingly tolerant and, in some cases, even complicit with the Insurrectionary Right. Ideas like police are engaged in mass extermination of Blacks is simply not true. Blacks (and many others) are poorly treated by cops, but “genocide” it isn’t. The issue of crime has become a Republican dividend because violent street crime is truly rising and in some areas like Portland, at stratospheric rates, and because Democrats mostly don’t want to talk about it all. They don’t want to talk about it out of fear of offending BLM who, in turn, pretty much magically denies the rise in crime and somehow puts it at the foot of the cops.
BLM played a significant role in the Great Reckoning of 2020 but it is not a great organization for political leadership. Its leadership has become divided and professionalized in the quest for foundation and corporate funding and it has doubtful resonance among older Blacks. To automatically “submit” to its leadership is a fool’s errand as leadership is earned and not granted a priori. Blacks, often more than others, want increased policing because it is Black neighborhoods and Latino neighborhoods that suffer the brunt of violent crime and gun violence.
Like Occupy a decade ago, BLM has had its moment and has since faded. We are in a new moment now, one that is a pro-police pushback and we must find a strategic way to accommodate and re-position.
Beyond utopian visions of a classless and stateless society, police are very much an integral and necessary part of our current one. Once again, if progressives cannot find some sort of accommodation with cops (while not abandoning reform), it’s the Republicans who fill the void, as they already are.
And… so what? Where does that leave all of us? I said before Virginia and I will say it one more time (I think this is the fifteenth time this year). The situation we have now, the very precarious situation where the Democrats are bumping up against their own institutional limits and where the Republicans continue to strategically place Trumpies in local positions of power in advance of the 2024 election, is what you get when you outsource social change to others, and most tragically when it is forfeited to one of the parties of the Duopoly.
I have turned quite negative on the Biden administration, convinced it has doomed itself by frittering away this first year in a debate completely abstract to most while slowly and then quickly losing control of the pandemic and the national narrative and staying remote from much of America. But at best I always considered the Biden admin as a mere ally of a yet-to-mature social movement rather than a vanguard.
I have not given up on social change.
I knew long before Biden as I know now that a progressive alliance can only build power (let alone reach power!) by building from the bottom up, by organizing in place, by erecting and growing local organization that probably takes years or perhaps decades to pay off. Though there is plenty of evidence that in certain pockets where ground level social organization has been successful, so were election outcomes two weeks ago.
No shortcuts are allowed. This idea rubs up against endemic American impatience as well as against romantic notions of heroic mass uprisings. Nothing beats deliberate, ongoing, multi-racial organizing and organization.
From my personal experience let me cite the example of Chile, a place I know well as I worked as President Allende’s translator in 1972-73. Chile’s socialist movement dated back to the beginning of the 20th century and was firmly rooted in organized trade unions as well as social movements. The Chilean Left dug in for the long term and constantly organized and had a brief taste of power in the early 1930’s when a progressive military coup created a Socialist Republic that lasted, alas, twelve days. While oligarchic and centrist regimes came successively to power, the socialist Salvador Allende led a broad electoral coalition in running, unsuccessfully, for president in 1952, 1958 and 1964. When preparing to run yet again in 1970, he joked that his epitaph would read “The Future President of Chile.”
In 1970 he actually won, with a plurality of 35% of the vote. The administration he put in place, while totally democratic, was infinitely more radical than anything proposed by Bernie Sanders and the governing Popular Unity coalition was composed of Socialists, Communists, Social Democrats, Christian Leftists and some radical centrists. In subsequent local and parliamentary elections it earned 50% and 45% respectively. That still left half the country in opposition. And it’s one reason why Pinochet initially had a surprising amount of support when he staged his 1973 coup.
Though Pinochet ruthlessly arrested, tortured and murdered much of the leftist and even centrist leadership, he could never extinguish the spidery network of deep social organization that is a feature of Chilean society. Even under the iron heel of bloody military repression and with all electoral mechanisms outlawed, Chileans nevertheless and with great risk, continued to organize and it was a decade after the coup, in 1983 that several mass eruptions of street protest shook the dictatorship and finally forced into a 1988 referendum that Pinochet lost.
After the dictator was dislodged, a series of centrist, center left, and center right civilian regimes traded power but were reluctant to broaden the electoral democracy into a more just social democracy. That also led to a mass uprising in 2019 that has now set the stage, through a new constitution, for a very advanced social democratic outcome. In sum, it took, the Chilean left – much more highly organized than the American center-left, some 30 years of organizing to win a national election with a plurality. It took them another 17 years to dig themselves out of dictatorship. And then another 30 years to begin radically reforming that partially democratic society.
There’s a message there.
No, I’m not recommending simple moderation and backsliding. No way. I am prescribing instead only some very hard and diligent work and a jettisoning of counter-productive and delusional fantasies. ++