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Saturday, March 18, 2017


Learning to play offense

by Tom Sullivan

A column in Jacobin takes Democratic "elites" to task for being an opposition without a proposition. Politicking without politics, as it were. Paul Heideman argues that Obama's "eight years of managerial centrism left the party hollowed out both institutionally and ideologically." The hollowing out goes back before that, but whatever.

In response to a student's question about whether Democrats might follow younger voters in moving left on economics, Rep. Nancy Pelosi quipped, "We're capitalists. That’s just the way it is.” Heideman's jeremiad against Democrats' "non-ideological and pragmatic" opposition to Trumpism keys off Pelosi's comments. He writes:

It is this continued fidelity to American capitalism, this unwavering commitment to keeping things more or less as they are, that stands behind the Democrats’ apparent fear of ideas. Any actual attempt to advance the principles that loom large in the American liberal imagination would entail some sort of confrontation with capital, and the Democratic Party, bought and paid for by capital, is unwilling to contemplate such a step.

Pelosi is, in a sense, right: while the Republicans have a clear ideology, a clear vision for society (gruesome as it may be), the Democrats can offer little more than meritocratic nostrums and technocratic tweaks. The social order should basically remain the same, their position seems to be, with an improvement here or there from smart, competent people.
Or as Howard Dean said after Democrats' 2014 losses:
The Republican message was ‘We’re not Obama,’ no substance whatsoever. What was the Democrats’ message? ‘Oh, we’re not either.’ You cannot win if you are afraid! Where was the Democratic party? You gotta stand for something if you’re gonna win!

"We're not Trump" is no more effective. The job of an opposition is not just to RESIST, not just to oppose, but to propose. That seems to have been lost on the party on much beyond social justice matters. Democratic elites, Heideman asserts, believe "they can subdue the reactionary right without articulating any alternative political vision beyond prudent governance."

On the other hand, actually presenting alternatives won Bernie Sanders a small army of dedicated supporters in 2016. Many are still engaged today. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, Sanders found support not just among the young, but among conservative-leaning Democrats and independents and, astonishingly, among older, mainstream Democrats who grew up on the New Deal. He represented a Democratic Party they hadn't heard from in years.

A priest friend once quipped that faith is a concept many staunch believers simply misunderstand. For them, having faith means believing "really hard" in something; and an act of faith is "like straining on the toilet." Democrats have the same problem conceptualizing offense. Their idea of playing offense is playing defense harder. But successful goal line stands by themselves don't win football games. Especially given their current fortunes, Democrats should play their hearts out.

While canvassing the neighborhood last week, I saw my first in-person version of the sign at the top of this page. I had only heard reports online about the yard-sign effort to welcome immigrants. Heideman notes that on matters such as this, the liberal grassroots are once again out ahead of the Democratic leadership:

When thousands of people gathered at JFK Airport to protest the Muslim ban, they didn’t make an hour-long subway trip to stand in the cold because they thought Trump was being hypocritical or unpresidential. They gathered because they felt Trump had infringed on core values of egalitarianism and fairness. They were moved by a basic sense of injustice. They were moved, in other words, by politics.

While the liberal evasion of politics gives the impression that the Democrats have no ideas they are confident enough to defend, mobilizations like the refugee solidarity protests do the exact opposite. When thousands of people assemble with signs declaring “Refugees are Welcome Here,” they stake out a political ground that directly confronts Trump. They provide a political pole capable of further mobilization.
Even though the refugee support efforts stake out a moral position that needs staking out, it is another social justice position. Even the liberal grassroots Heideman praises is more comfortable promoting social justice than confronting economic injustice. But the hollowing out of America cannot be repaired without a groundswell of public support. For now, few Democrats in leadership are leading on building that. Economic injustice will be addressed with torches and pitchforks if all Democrats are prepared to confront it with is technocratic competence.