Last week brought welcome news for those of us looking for some light at the end of the tunnel as we close in on the first year of the Trump era when voters repudiated Republican rule by handing resounding victories to Democrats in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere around the country.
While this is clearly a morale booster for beleaguered progressives, let’s hope that it does not stop folks from continuing to ask the hard questions that need to be answered if we truly want to change the course of the country from the dangerous path we are on.
Some of those questions were beginning to be debated with a fresh focus in the wake of Donna Brazile’s revelations about the 2016 campaign in the days leading up to the good electoral news on Tuesday. While most of the coverage belabored the question of whether or not the Democratic primary was “rigged,” what was more important about Brazile’s recounting of her time at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was what she revealed about the culture of the Clinton campaign and the national party.
In 2015, I wrote a column pushing back against the laudatory coverage being given to the wonder boy of the Clinton presidential campaign, Robby Mook. Indeed Mook’s soulless embrace of technocratic values was, I thought, a warning sign for progressives. Hence I argued that:
Mook’s “new kind of organizing” seems to be modeled on a somewhat perversely postmodern form of Benjamin Franklin’s “bold and arduous project” of arriving at “moral perfection” which, for Franklin, was all about mastering the virtue “Order” among other things through rigorous time management that he monitored in his little book. While Franklin ironically observed his own weakness and admitted to never being able to master himself, young Mook’s project is, it seems, beyond irony.
After reviewing Mook’s humorless gospel of data I ended by pivoting to the larger question that this turn in our politics and our culture raised:
Thus it is easy to see how nicely [Frederick Winslow] Taylor’s philosophy has come to occupy the heart of the neoliberal worldview with its market fundamentalism, unthinking technophilia, and disdain for all that cannot be measured or made part of the totalitarian gospel of efficiency.
And what this means for our politics is that what matters most is not movement building or the exchange of ideas but aggressive marketing.
It does not just make the staff of a campaign cogs in a Taylorist system; it objectifies the voting public and turns our politics into just another enterprise driven by corporate values and a thoroughly unexamined corporatist ideology.
One of the philosophical questions that is never entertained in the practical world of political campaigns is how much do the formal structures of our political campaigns and organizations, progressive or otherwise, consciously or, more importantly, unconsciously, influence our political values. When you run your campaign in a way that mimics the most draconian practices of the corporate workplace, does that tell us anything about how you will govern?
At that point, all the sage talk in political circles was of Clinton’s inevitability so as I lobbed my Luddite rant from the remotest of outskirts of the political landscape, I had no reason to believe that some folks inside the Democratic party’s establishment might be thinking similarly.
But some apparently were.
As the Washington Post reveals, Brazile was observing the profound disconnect between the Clinton campaign and actual voters and tried to warn them, but her input was given little notice by the technocrats ruling the roost at campaign central:
As she traveled the country, Brazile writes, she detected an alarming lack of enthusiasm for Clinton. On black radio stations, few people defended the nominee. In Hispanic neighborhoods, the only Clinton signs she saw were at the campaign field offices.
But at headquarters in New York, the mood was one of “self-satisfaction and inevitability,” and Brazile’s early reports of trouble were dismissed with “a condescending tone.”
Brazile describes the 10th floor of Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, where senior staff worked: “Calm and antiseptic, like a hospital. It had that techno-hush, as if someone had died. I felt like I should whisper. Everybody’s fingers were on their keyboards, and no one was looking at anyone else. You half-expected to see someone in a lab coat walk by.”
Brazile’s portrait of the condescending arrogance displayed by team Clinton sounds like something straight out of Thomas Frank’s writing about what went wrong with the party of the people with his biting portrayal of the cult of the well-schooled and meritocratic. It also speaks to the blindness of relying on an unquestioned faith in data-crunching to the exclusion of knowing how to inspire regular folks to become part of the democratic process. As the Post again reports:
Brazile writes that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and his lieutenants were so obsessed with voter data and predictive analytics that they “missed the big picture.”
“They knew how to size up voters not by meeting them and finding out what they cared about, what moved their hearts and stirred their souls, but by analyzing their habits,” she writes. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary, but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”
In sum, Brazile’s story reveals that the super smart folks running the Democratic ship at the time had a big problem with what George H.W. Bush once derided as “the vision thing.”
Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi also argues that the question of the “rigged” primary is not what is important about Brazile’s revelations. For Taibbi, her story of a party willing to play it fast and loose with the rules is emblematic of a greater darkness at the heart of American political culture:
The rise of Trump and the crypto-fascist movement that crushed establishment Republicans is half of the story. The sharp move among many white middle American voters away from Beltway Republicanism toward something far darker and more dangerous crystalized in 2015-16. So it has to be studied over and over.
But there is an ugly thing on the other side that also began at that time.
This is when establishment Democrats began to openly lose faith in democracy and civil liberties and began to promote a “results over process” mode of political thinking. It’s when we started hearing serious people in Washington talk about the dangers of “too much democracy.”This isn’t about Hillary Clinton. It’s about a broader movement that took place within the Democratic establishment, and spread rapidly to blue-friendly media and academia.
It’s a kind of repeat of post-9/11 thinking, when suddenly huge pluralities of Americans decided the stakes were now too high to continue being queasy about things like torture, extralegal assassination, and habeas corpus . . .The point of the Brazile story isn’t that the people who “rigged” the primary were afraid of losing an election. It’s that they weren’t afraid of betraying democratic principles, probably because they didn’t believe in them anymore. If you’re not frightened by the growing appeal of that line of thinking, you should be. There is a history of this sort of thing. And it never ends well.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Virginia afterglow aside, if the Democrats and those who rely upon them are going to be able to ride the wave of Trump resentment back into power at the national level, this as-yet unresolved crisis at the heart of the Democratic party must be addressed. It would be a huge mistake to let last week’s success push that essential question to the wayside.
This is particularly important when one considers that the Democratic victory in Virginia was largely about winning back the suburbs from Trump and wooing large numbers of college-educated voters in a state that had already voted for Clinton in 2016. But even in the midst of Tuesday’s victory, Democrats still failed to win non-college educated voters, the very group that helped decide the last election in Trump’s favor. Thus, as Bernie Sanders writes in his Politico column in the wake of both the Brazile story and the election results, more work remains to be done before we can win back the country:
Donna Brazile’s recent book makes it abundantly clear how important it is to bring fundamental reforms to the Democratic Party. The party cannot remain an institution largely dominated by the wealthy and inside-the-Beltway consultants. It must open its doors and welcome into its ranks millions of working people and young people who desperately want to be involved in determining the future of our nation.
In sum, the Democrats have to stop looking and sounding like peoples’ bosses and all the other professional types who always seem to know what’s best for them. How would this help?
Another Washington Post story from last week on a new report on the 2016 election from the Center for American Progress just might provide some answers. Simply put, the study observes that the number of non-college educated white voters was radically underestimated and black turnout significantly underperformed the previous presidential election particularly in the key states that decided the election in the Rust Belt—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. While ceding the fact that matching Obama’s historic runs might not have been a reasonable expectation the study notes that, “even a modest improvement in her performance in 2016 would have allowed Clinton to win the three Rust Belt states.”
The final takeaway:
Trump will be vulnerable in 2020, but Democrats still must better learn the lessons from Clinton’s defeat. To appeal to the full range of voters they need to win, the authors argue, Democrats must “go beyond the ‘identity politics’ versus ‘economic populism’ debate to create a genuine cross-racial, cross-class coalition.” Is there a leading Democrat out there who has cracked that code yet?
Some of the signs in the Virginia election point to what might help build that grand progressive coalition with health care outpolling the divisive cultural issues by 2-1 there and with a progressive expansion of health care winning in Maine. Maybe we can run a national campaign on quality health care for all, add free college education to the mix, start talking about economic justice and turn the generalized rage of much of the population that Trump has successfully manipulated into a more focused anger aimed at the proper targets—the real sources of the great inequities of our age.
As Thomas Frank points out in his recent piece on the Paradise Papers, an exposé of the billions of dollars the rich have amassed in off-shore tax havens that could have helped address a multitude of social ills, our anger has been directed at each other rather than the real cause: “It’s the system itself, and the way it was deliberately constructed to achieve these awful ends, that should be the target of our fury.”
So can we stop blaming each other? Can we marry the struggles for economic, racial, and gender equality rather than argue about which is most important? Surely, this must be possible.
Perhaps it’s finally time to abandon the cautious neoliberal incrementalism that has marked the last generation of Democratic leaders and start speaking to people’s deeper aspirations and maybe challenge them to think about transforming our economy so it works for everyone and gives us a chance to address climate change hence saving the future in the process.
The historical precedents are there from the New Deal to the Civil Rights era. We’ll soon see if progressives can continue to transform revulsion at Trump into what MLK called a “divine dissatisfaction” with the injustice that he embodies or whether the party that is their primary vehicle just doesn’t have what it takes to move from corporate marketing strategies and clever triangulation to movement building.