Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Franklin Foer on why the Democrats need to tweak themselves, but just a little bit (according to him)

"The presidency was everything," is how Franklin Foer describes the practical attitude of the Democratic Party in the years prior to the 2016 election. (What’s Wrong With the Democrats? The Atlantic July/Aug 2017)

I'm cautious about the rest of his argument in that piece. But it that comment does get at the problem of the Democrats having seriously neglected building the state and local parties for years. And he's also right in judging that approach, "Anyone who examined the strategy that the Democratic Party has embraced ever more tightly in recent years could see its essential precariousness." And he also describes the results this way, "On Inauguration Day, the party’s power ebbed to its lowest level since the 1920s."

Foer describes Bernie Sanders with the Yiddish word "luftmensch," which Mirriam-Webster defines as "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income."

Foer describes the Bernie-Hillary primary contest in a corporate-Dem-friendly way:

To win the Democratic presidential nomination, it helps to secure the African American vote. But another path to victory involves rallying white voters with a populist bent. This can create an uncomfortable dynamic in presidential primaries, where race vies with class to become the defining concern of the party. Politicians rarely vocalize the tension. But the socialism of Bernie Sanders—which hindered his efforts to explain the centrality of race to American life—made this split less subterranean than usual.

Of course, Hillary Clinton would have preferred to avoid an argument about the primacy of race versus class. But African American voters provided her the surest path to primary victory. They gravitated to her, in no small measure out of loyalty to Obama. Where Clinton posed as the president’s anointed successor, Sanders questioned Obama’s legacy and called for revolutionary change. He never dedicated himself to making meaningful inroads with African American or Latino voters, and so Clinton doubled down. After she lost New Hampshire in February, she began traveling with the grieving mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other African American casualties of violence. Criminal-justice issues became an elevated feature of her standard pitch.
The corporate Democrats understandably want to frame the New Deal Democrats as more-or-less white racists, who don't prioritize the needs of African-Americans. For those with longer memories and/or history buffs, that general position tries to picture progressives as George Meany laborites. Although we always need to be careful with historical analogies. Although Meany's enthusiastic support of Cold War 1.0 would set well with Democratic advocates for the New Cold War.

Foer also takes the corporate Dem position that Sanders' "campaign did real damage to [Clinton's] chances in November."

And, in a sadly common failing of mainstream reporting and commentary, Foer talks a lot about the "white working class" without any clear definition, much less any explanation about what might be distinct about the white part of the working class. In practice, this usage of "white working class" seems to imply that white workers are the real working class. At best, it's a lazy habit.

In line with this, he speaks admiringly of Obama's Mugwump no-red-America-no-blue-America bipartisanship because in his view it served "to reassure whites, particularly those past middle age and with an acute sense of cultural and economic anomie." It also meant we had a President for eight years who accepted Republican framing of economic issues.

Foer also describes Clinton's support as "a coalition of the cosmopolitan." Here I'll refer to Charlie Pierce's The Historical Significance of 'Cosmopolitan' as an Insult Esquire Politics Blog 08/02/2017.

Foer sets up a framework in which he calls the corporate Dems the "cultural left" and the progressives as the "economic left." At least he doesn't used the term "Cultural Marxism," which has its own obnoxious status as a concept on the right. (See my post "Cultural Marxism": a far-right conspiracy theory involving the Frankfurt School 07/30/2011)

Foer also provides a reminder that Hillary's 2016 primary strategy against Bernie "was an inversion of the 2008 primary campaign. Desperately attempting to forestall Barack Obama by collecting wins in Appalachia, Clinton posed then as the tribune of 'hardworking Americans, white Americans.'” That phrase was one of her bloopers in 2008. Or deliberate dogwhistle, depending on your perspective.

Foer's description of the "economic left" sounds like damning with faint praise: "While the cultural left champions a coalition of the ascendant, the economic left imagines a coalition of the despondent. It seeks to roll back the dominance of finance, to bust monopolies, to curb the predations of the market. It wants to ply back the white working-class voters—clustered in the upper Midwest ..." A coalition of the despondent?

And he presents Cory Booker as a exemplar of the establishment Dems ("cultural left") and Elizabeth Warren as that of the New Deal wing ("economic left"). Foer's admiring treatment of Booker gives a hint of Foer's own preferences, if any more were needed at that point in the article. Even his favorable commentary on Warren seems calculated as much to raise questions about her left credentials and emphasizing her supposed differences with Sanders than at arguing for the value of her economic positions.

The following sounds like a sneer of the "even-the-liberal" type:

A turn toward populism will never be enough to win back a state like West Virginia, which is now deep-red. And there are legitimate questions about whether a strident former Harvard professor, no matter her Oklahoma roots, can effectively purvey that message to a sufficiently broad audience. But Warren’s brand of populism could help cool white-working-class hostility toward the Democrats ... Empathy with economic disappointment, and even anger over the status quo, might reduce the sense that Democrats are perpetrators of the status quo. And liberal populism would take the party beyond ineffectual arguments about Trump’s temperament. A populist critique of Trump would point to his fraudulence as an enemy of the system, a fraudulence that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with plutocracy.
And the article gives a strong hint of trying to define a "liberal populism" that could be serviceable as a corporate Democratic marketing position that need not disturb Wall Street. His example of this kind of approach? Chuck Schumer, Mr. "Bettter Deal," a slogan that makes "Stronger Together" sound edgy.

Foer obviously thinks that the Democratic Party's real problem is that they need to tinker with the advertising a bit: "The makings of a Democratic majority are real. Demographic advantages will continue to accrue to the left. The party needs only to add to its coalition on the margins and in the right patches on the map." And he observes hopefully, "does not require the abandonment of any moral principles," i.e., does not require much discomforting the most comfortable. One could be forgiven for failing to see how that's any different than the standard corporate Democratic approach.

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