Recently I made fun of an Emmett Rensin piece on his disappointment with the DNC that was published in The New Republic, and Rensin called me out on Twitter saying I should write an actual response.
Considering the normal bounds of political Twitter I was a bit impressed by his maturity and challenge, and while I think Rensin is a very skilled writer as he is in terms of crafting prose (I’ll certainly never be as good as he is already), I still think he’s dead wrong.
Read his whole piece, as a student of the craft of political writing it is pretty good, but I basically think that he’s resting his argument on a major category error about what the Democratic Party is.
Rensin's argument could be (I think fairly) summed up as he put it to me on Twitter that “The Left should have a big coalition, but should know where it’s going.” He illustrates this argument by citing anecdotes of delegates who couldn’t come up with good talking points when he asked theme face to face in Philadelphia about what the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for. His theme is that the Democratic coalition is too big to stand for much of anything, a sort of colossus with feet made of clay.
Or he puts it:
What program, what vision of the United States, can possibly contain all of that? What do the Democrats stand for?
“Nothing,” said one Sanders convention-floor staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, when I asked what such a large tent stands for. “Whatever you want it to. Whatever you want to hear.Rensin is trying to use this quote as a sort of hammer blow about the failures of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party: they don’t even stand for anything, what a bunch of washed up shills, she sold us out on welfare reform etc. But I’m not that impressed. The fact that exhausted staffers (who probably haven’t been paid in a while) are suffering from existential political dread sounds about par for the course in my personal political experience.
I don’t know why everyone is obsessed with using terminology from the French Revolution to describe American politics in the second decade of the Twenty First Century, but the key thing to remember is the Democratic Party is not, and has never been, an organization of “the Left”. Rather it is essentially a coalition of disparate groups that come together to form a winning electoral coalition. That’s why the party of Southern white farmers and slaveholders (Andrew Jackson! The Donkey! Woodrow Wilson making the Federal work force as white as possible!) has become over the last century the party of Cory Booker, Keith Ellison, and Barack Obama.
In other words as the coalition changes, so does the party's aims.
Once you understand this, Resin’s whole argument just comes apart. Sure the Democratic Party has trouble expressing “what it stands for” at times. That’s because any gigantic political coalition that has more elected officials in national, state, and local government offices than live in many South Pacific nations will always have trouble figuring things out at any given time.
Hence the whole story of the 2016 campaign. There were also-rans like Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and maybe Joe Biden (although he never declared). But none of them were able to lock up significant support from coalition members of the Democratic Party early on, hence they dropped out quickly. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders ran a very impressive campaign that mobilized a huge amount of support from the very liberal (white), goo-goo-reform, and people-annoyed-with-Hillary-Clinton chunks of the Democratic Party.
Combine this with some impressive support from unions, 200 million dollars, and a lot of Republican voters in states with open primaries who hate Hillary and you get yourself his wins in his home region of New England, states hammered by the recession (Michigan and West Virginia come to mind), and western caucus states (like Minnesota!) where white liberals dominate the caucus process.
Unfortunately for folks like Rensin the entire rest of what political scientists like to call “the expanded party network" was against Sanders and/or for Hillary for any multitude of reasons. And no “corruption” doesn’t explain this.
Thus a competition inside this enormous coalition which occurred both before, and during the time people where casting ballots led to one side winning, and one side losing. This hasn’t been fun for the losing side of course (I know professionally how much losing elections suck) but the fact that Rensin found people willing to point this out doesn’t really prove much of anything new.
And here’s the rub: the sad reality for all of us in this vale of tears is that of coalition politics is pain. The pain of the disappointing compromise, the pain of learning the people you identify with don’t actually see you as one of them, the pain of realizing a group in your coalition can be a bigger obstacle to the change you want than the enemy you thought you were fighting against. Jonathan Bernstein summed it up pretty well back in 2009 when Barack Obama was ruining everything by being the moderately liberal Democrat he’d always been (sorry Lefty writers) and slogging through the agonizing work of passing the ACA:
In response, I'll trot out one of my favorite quotations about politics -- in this case, coalition politics. It's from Bonnie Honig, and she is working from an essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon:
Coalition politics is not easy. When you feel like you might "keel over at any minute and die," when "you feel threatened to the core," then "you're really doing coalition work."Hence the Bernie staffer’s existential dread. Learning in a very real and visceral way that most black and brown voters, most unions, and most elected Democrats don’t think your “Revolution” will add up to much is going to hurt.
Other forms of politics have joy of course. The joy of winning on election night (I’ve been there, it can really be amazing) or the joy of direct action that really works. Just try to imagine how Reverend William Barber felt last Friday morning when they told him the Federal Courts just struck down North Carolina’s voter id law.
But not coalition politics; coalition politics just goes on and on and on and every day there’s a new thing to be frustrated with.
The upshot is that coalition politics can do really powerful things, like stop a postmodern fascist ogre from becoming President of the United States. And it can also do things like elect a woman to be the most powerful person in the world, who can then establish a liberal Supreme Court for the first time in two generations.
This pain and difficulty, something inherent in coalition politics, was of course put on national television last week. There were the Bernie delegates who love their guy, but got on board with Hillary over the last few days and months for whatever reason. There are also the depressed staffers and other delegates (that Rensin quotes) that are still mad but accept that Hillary’s the only person who can now stop Trump. Finally we saw the Bernie dead-enders who decided to burn every bridge with the coalition by doing things like screaming during moments of silence and booing decorated generals on national television under some sort of “heighten the contradictions” theory of politics.
In other words this giant coalition is already remaking and shaping itself to do with its new members. Some of the Bernie’s non-dead ender groups will focus on electing more liberal officials at the state and local level; others will demand more liberal policies from Hillary if she wins, meanwhile other groups will demand a bigger share of the pie because they were stalwarts for Hillary from the beginning. It’s all moving and changing in the great kaleidoscope of politics in a nation of 320 million people dependent on future events like who will win this fall.
So yeah, it can be hard to figure out what’s going on at any one given time.
I can imagine Hillary taking down The Terror and winning this fall in a squeaker. In this case you’d see today’s liberal Democratic Party with a much smaller focus on things it could work on. I can also imagine the unlikely but very possible reality of Trump winning as well, and a resulting Democratic Party that would care a lot more about winning in 2020 than morality of drone warfare.
Personally I hope Hillary will just blow the doors off and win in a landslide leading to big wins in Congress and state legislatures. This would make all sorts of change possible (Immigration reform! Giant infrastructure bill! John Lewis’ Voting Rights Act fix!) both at the national and state level. But this in turn would probably give us a different Democratic Party than the one we have now. It would probably be a party where the concerns of white suburban and rural groups are more salient than now, as that's where Democratic pick-ups in Congress and state legislatures would happen. In other words this hypothetical Democratic Party would care more about things like public lands and water rights and somewhat less the issues of single payer health care and drones the Left values right now.
This is why it's hard for a writer to figure out “what it all means” on some ideological scale that doesn’t explain American politics very well by talking to some twenty something DNC delegate who hasn’t had good media training yet.
Rensin closes with several big paragraphs which summarize his frustrations with the Democratic Party. I’ll just quote the important one:
When a single party absorbs the whole of “reasonable” political opinion, the consequence is rarely a single-party state. The adversarial logic that dictates the terms of American political life will only drive the opposition to the fringes, where there’s oxygen to be found, until the bounds of the “reasonable” are so expanded—eventually, the unreasonable win an election. Defeating Trump is a viable strategy. Praying that no Trump ever wins is not.Well of course praying that no Trump ever wins is not a good strategy. No more that praying for the end of human failure, death, or postponing the eventual heat death of the Universe is a good strategy. Meanwhile back in Philadelphia we can use our human agency to make the world a marginally better place. Whether that’s showing on television to millions of people the profound leadership capabilities of women or color (no small theme in the 2016 Democratic National Convention!) or pointing out that many Muslim immigrants have given more to their country than Donald Trump ever has or will.
This might be profoundly annoying to people on the Left who seem to want the entire Democratic coalition to organize around their priorities because of their self-ascribed superior moral position, but this frustration is not something that will make real social and political change in the long term. And it’s pretty clearly not something the gigantic coalition they chose to join with their push for Sanders necessary agrees with. For all sorts of reasons many members of the Donkey Party coalition don’t necessary think campaign finance laws, or drones, of staffers in the DNC making offensive jokes on email are the world’s most pressing business compared to other things we could work on. None the less this is the world we live in, and this is party the Left may want to be a part of.
What exactly is your alternative?