Saturday, June 03, 2017

Liberal concern trolling? Or a bad hair day?

Michael Tomasky has, for whatever reason, cranked out a column that reads like straight-up "liberal concern-trolling," i.e., repeating conservative criticisms of liberals in the form of giving liberals helpful advice: Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem New Republic 05/30/2017.

The New Republic had a long stretch under Andrew Sullivan as editor (1991-1996) when it largely reflected the posture of the late, unlamented Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) of 1985-2011, which was a prominent vehicle for what we're calling Corporate Democrats these days. The magazine in more recent years has drifted back to something like its historical progressive stance. There are what we might call successor organizations to the DLC, like Third Way and the New Democrat Network. (It's still a "tell" when an allegedly Democratic group adopts the Republican usage of "Democrat" as an adjective instead of "Democratic.")

Politics and "the elite"

Before digging in to Tomasky's text, I want to talk a bit about the concept of "elite" in politics.

My favorite definition of populism comes from Ernesto Laclau, who sees it as an approach to politics that constructs a political alliance of "the people" that stands in opposition to "the elite." In this view, populism is a political style, not some kind of ontologically different kind of politics. Various populist movements have defined the elite in different ways: "Wall Street" (the US Populist Party in the 19th century); the "economic royalists" (FDR in 1936); "the oligarchy" (Juan Perón in Argentina). One of my favorite variations was Perón in the 1946 Presidential campaign. The American Ambassador in Buenos Aires was a guy named Spruille Braden, a stereotypical ugly American who was focused on getting maximum benefit for his cronies in the mining business. He went on to become a founding member of the John Birch Society. Perón defining slogan in that election was "Perón or Braden." In this case, "Braden" came to symbolize the Argentine oligarchy and their foreign patrons. (Perón won the election.)

In 2016, we saw Donald Trump making "the liberal media" and "the swamp" (corruption) work as slogans for the elite. For Bernie Sanders, "the million-auhs and billion-auhs" became his symbol of the elite.

The person-to-person part

Also, it's tempting for reporters, pundits and bloggers to focus on messaging and framing and the like. Ideology and positions and how they are explained and popularized are obviously critically important, because that get to the actual policies that elected official follow in office. But retail politics also gives a central importance to organizational issues. And fundraising, of course. Mobilizing the base for the Democrats isn't just a matter of policies and slogans, it's also a function a function of face-to-face involvement with voters and particularly get-out-the-vote operations. The Internet and social media have made dramatic changes in politics. But the retail, person-to-person operations are still essential in winning elections. And more so for the Democrats than for the Republicans, because Republicans tend to be more consistent about voting in elections.

Howie Klein in What Is Today's Democratic Party Offering The Working Class? Down With Tyranny! 05/31/2017 emphasizes a critical weakness for the Democrats that was apparent in last November's results for the Democratic Party: depressed turnout among African-American voters, for which a significant part of the problem is the widespread voter suppression being practiced by Republicans all across the country.

Howie's headline reflects an important point. When pundits talk about the working class in the US, not only is the functional definition usually fuzzy, but it usually focuses on white workers, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not. But it's a notoriously tricky undertaking. Minorities like blacks or Latinos have distinct problems from racial/ethnic discrimination that white workers typically do not have. But they also have common problems that affect them all. The American Prospect has a new symposium taking on this perennial issue for the Democrats.

I don't want to dwell on it here. But Hillary Clinton's excuse-making doesn't strike me as very helpful at this juncture. (Zaid Jilani, Clinton Says Obama Broke Through the Racial the Racial Barrier Because He's An "Attractive, Good-Looking Man" The Intercept 06/02/2017) The now-famous interview from this past week is here, Full interview: Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Recode 05/31/2017:

The Democratic Party and democratic traditions

Tomasky cheerfully adopts the conservative stereotype of the elitist coastal Mean Libruls as applying to himself:

... let me announce that I myself am an elite liberal. I tick all the major boxes. I’m not religious. I have few Republican friends. I have deeply conflicted feelings about patriotism. I would never consider living anywhere other than a major city, or at the very least a liberal university town where the odds are slim that I would end up next door to an actual racist. So if I’m hectoring anyone here, I’m hectoring a group that includes me.
The boxes he checks are those of the Republican talk radio slogans against the Mean Libruls. Libruls are city slickers. Libruls are stuck-up intellectuals. Libruls don't know Real Amurcans ("middle America") who hate blacks and Latinos.

Each side is supported by a set of assumptions that brings it a measure of emotional reassurance. Those inclined to blame racism take a dark view of middle America; they’re often accused, by those on the other side of the partisan divide, of being too sheltered, too politically correct, too obsessed with identity politics. Those who argue it was mostly economics are implicitly saying that, the horrors of a Trump presidency notwithstanding, the electoral situation isn’t really all that bad, that those people aren’t really all that bad; they’re typically accused by the other side of being soft on racism, or even racist themselves.
That's stated in a neutral way. At least superficially. But the parallel construction of the paragraph is an odd one. The inclined-to-blame-racism position is contrasted to what "those on the other side of the partisan divide" (Republicans) say about them. While the electoral-situation-isn't-all-that-bad position is contrasted to what the establishment Democrats say about them; because I don't hear Republicans criticizing anybody for being "soft on racism."

He cites various ways that "elite liberals who live on the coasts" supposedly need to clean up their acts to relate to the salt-of-the-earth middle Americans. I'll mention one particularly odd one here: "middle Americans go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives." Church not temple? Is Tomasky seriously suggesting that the Democrats have a problem of being too Jewish?

I know Bernie Sanders' campaign last year refrained from accusing his Democratic critics of anti-Semitism. Unlike Obama's campaign in 2008, which encouraged tagging criticism of the candidate as racist. And unlike Hillary Clinton's campaigns of 208 and 2016, both of which were happy to accuse their Democratic opponents as motivating by sexism, "Obama boys" in 2008, "Bernie Bros" in 2016. Politics is politics.

Maybe it would have been advisable for Bernie in 2016 to take more of a poke at anti-Semitism among his Democratic critics, as well.

This framing of the Democrats' situation by Tomasky particularly struck me:

It has been observed that today’s conservative movement, to use the old Leninist vernacular, is a “vanguardist” movement. The word referred to the revolutionary party, the one that was going to make the revolution happen. (Its weak-kneed counterparts were the “spontaneists,” who were going to sit around and wait for it to happen, being alert to the moment.) Some conservatives welcomed the comparison. In Blinded by the Right, David Brock reports that Grover Norquist had a portrait of Lenin in his home.

A movement intent on hastening the revolution develops certain habits of mind. It has enemies, to be sure. But it knows that it’s an embattled minority, so it welcomes new recruits, as long as they agree on some basic principles. That’s why every liberal who abandons liberalism to join the right — from the Irving Kristol neocons of days gone by, to David Mamet and Donald Trump — is joyously embraced. So you’ve finally seen the light! Welcome!

American liberalism is, of necessity, anti-vanguardist. It is counterrevolutionary, since liberals know well that the only revolution that stands a chance of taking hold in this country is a right-wing one. At the same time, elite liberals are regularly being smacked around by a left that is stronger and more confident than it has been in 40 years.

As an anti-vanguardist movement, liberalism thinks very differently than its conservative opponents do. In trying to protect its territory against insurgencies on both the right and left, it becomes defensive and distrustful. Whereas the vanguardist movement that won is on the prowl for new comrades, the anti-vanguardist movement that lost is looking for people to blame. It’s not plotting a revolution. It’s rehashing year-old fights.

Tomasky seems to be trying to make a point that is valid in itself, that the Republicans are more focused in their conservative messaging and their political determination than the Democrats are with theirs.

But he (probably inadvertently) makes an additional point with the comparison. The alt-right/neo-Nazi movement with which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has been identified indulges in a kind of mirror-image thinking about the radical left. The John Birch Society, the one-time mother ship of rightwing conspiracy theories, modeled itself after the semi-clandestine cell structure they understood the US Communist Party to be using. They often style themselves against their image of the Enemy. Which is one reason that we can often tell what rightwingers are thinking by listening closely to what they are accusing the Mean Libruls of thinking.

But instead of following that line of thinking, he celebrates this: "American liberalism is, of necessity, anti-vanguardist. It is counterrevolutionary, since liberals know well that the only revolution that stands a chance of taking hold in this country is a right-wing one."

This is what we used to call "Cold War liberalism." Now we have a new version of it, a Cold War Liberalism 2.0 of sorts, with Russia now as the enemy bogeyman again. And still with a bias toward stability and conservatism in foreign policy, even though the Russian bogeyman today is is now a reactionary power, not a Communist one. But if the 1.0 version of Cold War liberalism had a bias toward social-democratic, welfare-state orientation in social and economic policies, the DLC/corporate-Democratic version has a neoliberal approach in economic policy that's often hard to distinguish from Herbert Hoover economics, while adhering to a social liberalism opposing racism, gender discrimination and xenophobia.

But there is a distinctly conservative, quietist cast to Democratic neoliberalism. Hillary Clinton's 2016 slogan of "Stronger Together" captured that attitude well.

Meanwhile, the Republicans style themselves as revolutionaries against their imaginary version of The Elite. We've had the Reagan Revolution and the Gingrich Revolution. And they have been willing to use the neoconservative brand of Trotskyist sloganeering about spreading democratic revolution to places like Iraq via war. The favorite party of the billionaires casts itself as the champion of the regular working folks against the "globalists." While the Democrats insist on pitching even their most New Dealish policies, like Obamacare and the 2009 bailout, in terms of free-market, budget-balancing conservatism. And God forbid that they should push through something like "card check" to facilitate union organizing!

This also accounts in part for one of my pet peeves: the unwillingness of Democrats to embrace even the progressive aspects of Democartic Party heritage prior to 1860, or even later. Because that tradition was very much a revolutionary tradition. For all its limitations from the viewpoint of today's democratic standards, the American Revolution and the Constitutional government it made possible was seen by people in Europe and Latin America as a genuine "vanguard" for democracy in the world at that time. Andrew Jackson's movement, currently in especially bad regard, represented a significant expansion of democracy and an extension of democracy into the realm of using politics to resist the power of concentrated wealth. At least Democrats can still recognize that the Union side of the Civil War also enacted a revolutionary change by ending the slavery system. In the common terminology of the time, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he changed a "conventional" war to preserve the Union on the prewar basis to a "revolutionary" war aimed at overthrowing the social system in the South, which was based on slavery.

Lincoln was a Republican, of course. But he led a Republican Party that for all its limitations at the time was literally a revolutionary-democratic party. Lincoln himself took Democratic Party founders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as models for his own political project, which he understood as a continuation of democratizing the United States and expanding the boundaries of freedom. But for today's Democratic Party, that sounds like corny left dogmatism. And we're talking about what Lincoln was trying to do in the 1860s!

How long has it been since you heard a Democrat talk like this, from Lincoln's in his First Annual Message of December 3, 1861?

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. [my emphasis]
Even Bernie Sanders doesn't express such a strong point as, "Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." Most Democrats would fear their tongues would turn to ash if such words ever escaped their lips.

But Bernie has been willing to tap into that radical democratic tradition. And he hasn't been afraid to talk about "revolution," which in his version would be made by reducing the power of money from corporations and the One Percent to influence elections, establishing universal medical coverage, and increase the active participation in politics by labor and ordinary citizens. We could have an interesting political science discussion about whether achieving those changes would change the social system so fundamentally as to be considered a revolution. They certainly wouldn't in themselves abolish the corporate capitalist structure of the economy! But they would represent a significant shift in the dynamics of political power from what currently exists in the US in 2017.

It wasn't that long ago that American policymakers' failure to adequately understand revolutions was a major problem for US foreign policy. Back when Bill and Hillary Clinton were protesting the Vietnam War, that point was commonly being made and for some time after. I hardly if ever encountered it stated in that way today.

The Republican Party is currently able to have it both ways. They are the safe-haven party for "the super-rich and the giant corporations," to borrow a phrase used by Sen. Fred Harris in the 1970s. But with Trump, they also get to posture as the champion of the ordinary person against the destructive "globalist elites."

If the Democrats can't reorient themselves more toward their own "people's power" traditions, it's hard to see how they can easily overcome the Republican Party's current advantages. And even harder to see how they can move away in practice from neoliberal economic policies which are a dead-end for the Democratic Party as a progressive force in politics.

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