Why Are Democrats Still Losing Elections?

           In an open letter to Thomas Friedman re-posted to these pages (American Counterpoint 6/21/17), Keith poses a challenge. Keith implores Mr. Friedman to use his influence among fellow liberal journalists to tone down their monolithic vitriol a bit  in favor of a more analytic rendering of Republican positions on the issues of the day. Motivating Keith’s suggestion is his own rationalism and a belief that rational arguments usually prevail in fair debate, which in turn is a precondition for sound government. As a partisan Democrat, of course, Keith believes that his party holds the natural advantage in this process, by virtue of its superior ideology, and he rejects unneeded help from a press trying to keep its thumb on the scale. Keith, to his credit,  wants and expects to win fair and square.

               To remain a viable form of government, democracy must eschew censorship in any form. The underlying theory is that open debate will, more often than not, reveal the best ideas from among those competing for control over the levers of political power. Then the voting public will, again more often than not, recognize these ideas and elect people capable of putting them into force. I would carry the theory further and argue that ideas coming from both sides are invigorated by the competition. As a result, whichever side emerges in control of government will be more capable of doing so effectively than it would have with nothing more than its own preconceptions upon which to base policy.

               It’s my own opinion that this vital dynamic largely explains the staying power of liberal democracies, most prominently the United States, in the face the authoritarian systems. Such governments, right and left, have over the years assumed seemly insurmountable power in various countries, only to reveal themselves as in fact too fragile to survive crisis.

               I don’t know whether Keith would express himself in quite these terms or not, but I’m pretty sure he agrees with my basic thinking here. It is, more or less, the meeting of the minds we had several years ago when we agreed to start this blog.
High-Tech Tribalism
               Unfortunately, I fear that both of us may be whistling in the wind in the current political environment here in the United States. Or to employ a more ominous metaphor, maybe we’re whistling past the graveyard. The problem is that effective governing ideas no longer appear to be the objective of our national dialogue. In the article to which Keith was responding in his letter, Thomas Friedman observes that in America today we seem to be descending into a kind of latter-day tribalism in which tribal identity counts for more than ideology. In primitive tribal societies, people don't much care what members of another tribe "think" about anything, only their intrinsic status as friend or foe. While our developing modern tribalism keys off shared biases rather than kinship ties, a lack of interest in what the other side thinks remains as the common denominator. Ideas matter only in so far as they reveal the more visceral underlying attitudes that identify him or her as one of "us" or of "them".

               This binary world view harkens back to orthodox Marxism, which used "class conflict" as the universal lens by which believers could reduce their world to its simple and mutually exclusive elements.  Marxists divided the entire late nineteenth  and early twentieth-century society around them down into Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, with a person's class identity counting for everything and determining what he or she thought on any subject. Since the two classes were  considered inherently at war to the death,  this mental construct was a spiritual cul-de-sac from which violence was the only possible escape. Debating the enemy served no purpose because there was no alternative ground on which accommodation could be reached. Orthodox Marxists believed in violent revolution and dedicated their lives to accelerating the process. This is how the Russian revolution came about and all the dark history that followed from it.
               In twenty-first century America, we seem to be drifting back towards something akin to this form of political interaction,  albeit without the outmoded Marxian pedantry. Where is it leading us?

               Signs of an answer are starting to appear. On May 30, comedienne and anti-Trump provocateur Kathy Griffin posted an on-line picture of herself holding up in effigy the President's bloody severed head. Her stunt was roundly denounced by almost everyone, including  people on the Left, but she initially tried to defend herself by explaining that it was the job of comedians to move lines and then boldly to cross them. Two weeks later, as if on cue,  the line she violated  was moved and crossed again when James Hodgkinson, a former campaign volunteer for Bernie Sanders, opened fire on a contingent of the Republican Congressional leadership who were gathered to practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. This event has been a friendly bi-partisan tradition in Washington since early in the last century. Mr. Hodgkinson was apparently initially unsure of who was on the field at the time,  and he unleashed his attempted massacre only after receiving assurance the ballplayers were indeed Republicans.

               Bernie Sanders immediately and, I believe, sincerely condemned the attack. But doesn't he understand his own movement well enough to know that his incessant casual use of the term "revolution", however benignly he himself might imagine it, promises bloody red meat to certain of his followers?  It was Chairman Mao in revolutionary China who once, poking fun at some of his own bourgeois supporters,  drolly pointed out to them that revolution isn't a dinner party.

De-Humanization Of The Enemy
               In the background to all this is the so-called "antifa" (for anti-fascist) agitation that has been gaining momentum since Trump's election. This is the movement driven by the guys is the ISIS-style black coats and full face masks who keep popping up in various places to shout down conservative speakers or intimidate Trump supporters. Fascism was actually a discrete political movement among radical Italian nationalists prior to World War II. The Communists of the day, however, generalized the word and eagerly took it up as a catch-all epithet with which to tar anyone perceived as standing in the way of their road to power. Even moderate Social Democrats, more-or-less equivalent to our modern-day American liberals, found themselves labeled, incomprehensibly, as "Social Fascists". The enemy could never be seen as human.

               In twenty-first century America, the hard left has modernized in many respects, having mustered a glitzy social media presence for example, but its adherents have retained the old-fashioned heavy-handed tactical style of their political forebears,  as well as their odd love for the indiscriminant word "Fascist". Trump is, of course, a "Fascist".
               It's not being lost on too many people, certainly no Republicans, that for all the talk about Trump's supposedly incendiary style, most of the true incendiary behavior during the past year has been coming from the Left. During  the Presidential campaign, it was Trump rallies, not those of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who were repeatedly disrupted by abrasive outsiders. The media tried to blame Trump himself for most of this, but people could see what was happening and quietly stored away their thoughts.

Is The Liberal Media Inadvertently Destroying The Democratic Party?
         Democrats still can't quite seem to understand why they're losing elections. The same pollsters who stroked them with promises of Hillary Clinton's impending landslide in 2016 have ever since been reassuring them with data about Trump's deepening unpopularity. And as during the campaign,  the liberal media keeps dropping these data points into its echo chamber and magnifying the sound into a roar. Yet Democrats continue to come up short whenever actual votes are tallied.

               Most recently, Republican Karen Handel won the special election held for the Georgia Congressional seat vacated when Tom Price stepped forward to join Trump's cabinet. This election had been widely heralded as a referendum on Trump's presidency, and Democrats were breathless in anticipation of good news, especially after pouring in enough big money from outside the state to turn the contest into the most expensive congressional election in the nation's history. However, the costly hot thrust was all for naught. Furthermore, this was only the latest in five special elections that have occurred since the onset of Trump's reign, and the Democrats have managed to lose every one.

               What's going on? Trump's weird and disordered Presidency should be a golden opportunity for Democrats emerge as the adults in the room and bring back some balanced dignity to American politics. It should be easier than ever for them to start winning elections again. Instead, they seem to be pandering to their Hollywood faction and tolerating if not encouraging fringe elements like BLM and radical LGBT activists, the antifa people, and  the monomaniacal Trump-haters.
               Liberal dominance of the mainstream media, that should be an asset for them,  has instead become a liability because it's making them look like bullies. CNN sounds like Pravda in its 24/7 blaring of the anti-Trump party line. The impeachment process started before Trump had even assumed office,  like a show trial getting underway ahead of any crime. Amazingly, the media is allowing Trump actually to bring credibility to the ludicrous victim's posture he often affected during the Presidential campaign.

               Well-heeled voters in places like Georgia's sixth district, by no means the heart of "Deplorables" country, had to have been appalled by all this. Traditional Republicans, independents, and even moderate Democrats must be wondering what the two parties are even about anymore. Only the Trumpites and Bernie's people seem to think they know. People are getting caught up in the tribal passions and voting, increasingly it seems against Democrats,  without even understanding why. Politicians on both sides are no longer addressing our minds. They are speaking to our ids, and the appeal is subconscious.

It's A Matter Of Time
               Meanwhile, people like Keith and myself sound increasingly quaint trying to engage one another in rational debate, as though policy still mattered.  We'll keep at it, however, even if no one much cares. If, as I suggested above, a vigorous democratic process is key to national survival in the face of crisis, then our politicians had better break out of their dysfunction and pick up  the ball. There are enough existential threats lurking in the world right now that advent of serious crisis of one sort or another is only a matter of time. If our nation then is still locked in its present state of paralysis, the world's oldest continuous constitutional democracy will at last be consigning itself to the history books.


Letter to Thomas Friedman re lack of moral authority and trust

Mr. Friedman, if the lack of moral authority in our leaders is the core problem, what about President Obama? We have plenty of fine people vying to serve in leadership positions, but the smears against Nancy Pelosi that apparently kept the Georgia seat Republican indicate that good character is not enough. I think the problem arises more from a lack of mutual discussion for which the press, including the NYT, shares some of the blame. Although a staunch opponent of many Republican positions, I do want to understand their thinking. Are they really all, without exception, venal people without a moral core who do whatever is most expedient and profitable for themselves? Or do principles, facts, and logical reasoning underlie the positions they take, however cruel, unjust, and destructive those may seem to me? I search the Times and other liberal publications in vain for articles that take their serious thinking (not their discredited nonsense) seriously. You, Mr. Friedman, are in a great position to begin explaining their reasoning, and critiquing it appropriately and respectfully, and if you do it may lead us all to a more civil and productive discussion than the name-calling, disinformation, and character assassination that now prevails.


The Trump Gang is not Conservative

It is a serious mistake to consider the Trump-Pence-McConnell-Ryan-Tea Party gang “conservative,” as in just a more intense form of skepticism about the value of government action. This gang is not conservative. It is radical, breaking as starkly from the political and philosophical values of America since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln as the Russian Revolution did from the Czarist rule, or the French Revolution from the Bourbon monarchy. 

David Brooks has it right that this gang views political life as a Hobbesian nightmare, a zero sum struggle of all against all, in which the only morality is winning, defined as gaining wealth and influence. Forget about the equal worth of all people, or the concept of inalienable rights. The only right the Trump gang believes in is the right of the wealthy, powerful, and connected to pursue their self-interest without regard for the consequences to others. Hence the Trump gang’s admiration for brutal dictators who have murdered their citizens and its utter disregard for truth.

In their view, out of every 1000 American citizens approximately 10 are “winners.” Perhaps 200--mostly the owners of small business--are, in Lenin’s term, “useful idiots” who support the winners' dominance despite the harm their policies cause to their self-interest. Another 200 or so are dupes to be tricked with distractions and lies. The rest of us are enemies to be jailed, deprived of our vote, or otherwise nullified. 

The Trump gang aims for a return to feudalism, in which dominant barons and their families, plus retainers, lived vastly better than everyone else. Everyone else--peasants, serfs, and slaves--lived short, miserable, unhealthy, and unfree lives. Trump gang feudalism is based not just on the traditional sources of baronial wealth--land and plunder--but also business monopolies and privilege. And instead of small fiefdoms ruled by deadly force, they have gained and expect to hold power by duping voters in democracies-in-name-only. But otherwise, it’s the same world of virtually universal misery as the Middle Ages.

As to the Paris Climate accord, we mistakenly accuse Trump and his gang of denying climate change. They don’t have to deny it, they simply don’t care about it. As long as Koch Brother money flows, it doesn't matter to them If millions of Bangladeshis and islanders drown, hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their lives and/or property in tornados, hurricanes, and coastal innundations, and millions or billions of other people become victims of wars over water and other resources. The Trump gang, the Koch Brothers, and their retainers will be safe and comfortable in gated communities on high ground. 

In short, as they see it we are not in anything together; we are separate, rivalrous, and wolfish. They forget that in a feudal world even kings and queens had to live harsh, dangerous, diseased, and uncomfortable lives. But they never heard of Chaucer or Boccacio.


3 Impressive Opinion Pieces

Here are summaries of three recent opinion pieces that impressed me.

1. In the NY Times Charles J. Sykes, a former Wisconsin talk show host, wrote “If Liberals Hate Him, Then Trump Must be Doing Something Right.” Despite the misleading title, the piece was saying that the conservative GOP is gone, leaving in its place a party with nothing to offer except opposition to those who oppose Trump. He concludes,
In many ways anti-anti-Trumpism mirrors Donald Trump himself, because at its core there are no fixed values, no respect for constitutional government or ideas of personal character, only a free-floating nihilism cloaked in insult, mockery and bombast.

2. On the website Medium is “What liberals get wrong about the Republican approach to health insurance,” by someone named Taylor Williamson. He points out that liberals and conservatives do NOT share the same goals for a health system. These goals, he notes, “are clearly ideological; they are based on a set of values and ideals that underpin the right to health.” Liberals view good health care as a right, so they want better, fairer, more efficient and more responsive healthcare, plus risk protection, goals embodied, albeit imperfectly, in Obamacare.
But conservatives do not believe in a right to health. Rather, they advocate conservative principles of free markets, less government regulation, and more personal responsibility. So they want people to pay for their own health care or insurance. Insurers should be able to charge premiums that reflect the buyer’s risk. Obamacare, by contrast, subsidizes health insurance. It forbids insurers from charging older people for the true insurance risk they entail, while requiring insurers to overcharge younger, healthier people.
Conservatives want a free market in health insurance, providing maximum choice and flexibility. They oppose Obamacare’s regulation of insurance terms, and its other mandates and restrictions as well. Conservatives think “People should know, and purchase, their needed level of insurance.” Miscalculation is their problem, not ours.
Citizens should get the healthcare they can buy, “no more and no less.” The freedom conservatives seek is access to whatever you want to buy, not for everyone to have access to good care. Indeed, although liberals point to data showing that healthcare in the US is, on average, worse than in other developed countries, conservatives point to data showing that for the richest people it’s the best available anywhere.
Williamson’s helpful conclusion:
Republican willingness to trade health equity and financial protection for reduced regulation, increased flexibility, and high-end quality stem from an ideology that promotes personal responsibility, free markets, and reduced government intervention over equity, access, and risk protection. Pretending that Republicans lawmakers care about the same things that Democrats do, is a fundamental error.

3. Thomas Friedman’ column in the NY Times of May 16 points out that the problem with Trump is basically a problem of craven Republicans, and will not be resolved by demonstrations, Saturday Night Live skits, or other self-indulgent entertainments. Rather, the only solution is to throw the rascals out, a matter of hard work in organizing, choosing candidates, and helping them through work and finance. He says that the only choice is chicken or fish, a phrase I think he should have changed to “fish or cut bait.” It’s purely a power struggle, a matter of either fighting or surrendering; there exists no third way.


On Krugman's review of Elizabeth Warren's This Fight is our Fight

I agree with Krugman that Warren probably misses altogether the forces that lead disadvantaged workers to support nasty false prophets. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff to get some understanding, and my basic conclusion is that it comes down to emotion, especially respect and the lack of it. The politicians, intellectuals, policy wonks, and professional classes that for the last 50 years have been in charge of public policy, one way or another, have significantly disregarded workers and their unions, and one way or another showed agreement with Hillary’s term “deplorables.” In reality, we have rendered, or allowed the Republicans to render many of our citizens incapable of functioning effectively in the modern economy. As they have slipped into the fox hole of helpless poverty they have done what we all do in a fox hole, where there are no atheists, self-protection is crucial, and the enemy is ever-present. Which party, then, stands for God, guns, and blaming immigrants?

That said, whatever policy prescriptions people like Warren (and us) come up with doesn’t mean anything without political competence, which starts with understanding peoples’ emotions, the communications necessary to speak to those emotions, and the organizing ability to make personal connections. The fact that Obama, as Krugman notes, did a lot for these people doesn’t weigh much against the enormous resources that right wingers (and Putin?) have poured into a cultural onslaught against liberalism through their manipulation of media like Fox and Rush Limbaugh, and their attacks on the "lame stream media." There are voices, like Drew Westen and Sandy Lakoff, who have tried to warn the Democrats, and written brilliantly about this stuff for decades now. I wish they had more influence.


Do America's Political Parties Still Have Coherent Identities?

               I agree entirely  with the first paragraph of Keith's latest article (Pathetic Democratic Politicking - American Counterpoint 3/22/17), including his "vile and destructive interlude" characterization of the current Trump era. However, his argument jumps the track after that I think and never recovers its balance or momentum.
               Keith's problem, in my judgment, is that like many Democrats, he doesn't want to acknowledge anything more than exogenous factors as real causes for his party's woes. Prior to this last election,  money was always the reason of choice among Democrats trying to explain any electoral failures. The Koch brothers and other garishly wealthy bogeymen were, so the trope ran, using their money to corrupt the channels of political discourse and advance Republican stooges into positions of power. Rich Republican backers, in other words, were buying elections in which honest Democrats  never stood a chance. This argument had already lost most of its force by 2008 when Barak Obama and his allies sailed into Washington on a sea of money. The argument had become an embarrassment by 2016 when Hillary Clinton ran what was probably the most lavishly-funded political campaign in the history of the world and still came up short.

               So where do the Democrats turn now in trying to get a grip on their political dysfunction?  Keith takes a stab at this by telling us that the problems are "pathetic politicking" and "and an almost unbelievable level of incompetence". He then illustrates his case with the performance of one hapless Democratic spokesman sent before the cameras to oppose the Republican healthcare bill without coaching or a script,  as though poor speech training were the main problem. Keith's point aligns with a notion long popular among Democrats that voters would  convey to them untrammeled power if only the Party could do a better job of packaging and marketing its superior ideas.

               The Democrats' problem, however,  is more fundamental than any of this. What has undermined the contemporary Democratic Party is a loss of identity. In order to regain political vitality, the Party must first find answers  to two related questions: Who do they represent, and what do they stand for? The questions may appear straight-forward, but it is clear by now that they are not. The life-or-death issue facing the Democrats is whether the questions can be answered at all without abandoning dearly-held illusions and splintering themselves beyond recognition.
               For their part, the Republicans now face an identity crisis of probably even greater magnitude. They find themselves in the unprecedented  position of having to rally around an opportunistic standard-bearer whose past party affiliation has been entirely fluid and who just spent most of the past year mocking Republican leaders as liars, wimps, losers, cowards, fools, and corrupt sycophants. Trump feels he won the Presidency without the Party's support and that he is now free to excise power without adherence to its traditional ideology or the advice of establishment allies. Yet he has no real ideology of his own.  As result, Trump has already begun his decent into a trap whereby the ideology is defined for him by the rhetoric of an increasingly hateful and hysterical opposition. Should this slide continue, Trump will pull the Republican Party into the trap with him, and in the public eye, it will become the party of racists, misogynists, homophobes, Christian fundamentalists,  and fans of Vladimir Putin.

               America's two-party system has served it well through most of its history. Power had ebbed and flowed between various incarnations of the two parties as one or the other has seemed to get a firmer handle on the critical issues of the day, only to yield the ground once more when conditions change.  Yet what happens in a two-party system when neither of those parties seems capable  of constructive engagement or pragmatic problem-solving? What happens when there's nothing left but mockery and hatred?
               I'm afraid we may be about to explore the hard road to the answers for these particular questions.


Pathetic Democratic Politicking

Although it is becoming ever clearer that the Trump Presidency is a vile and destructive interlude in American politics, the Democratic Party deserves a healthy dose of blame for this development. The Democrats did not create Mr. Trump, but as Thomas Frank clearly shows in his Listen, Liberal polemic, they did a lot to create his support. And their opposition to his nominees and his actions continues to demonstrate an almost unbelievable level of incompetence.

This is especially clear in contrast to the Republican assaults on President Obama and his programs. Republicans on TV or in the media endlessly repeated a few simple lines from a common script, driving home a clear, simple, and unified message. “The [you name it] is  a disaster, a handout to the undeserving [cheats, immigrants, welfare queens, etc.].”  Or, in support, they would unanimously chant: “The [you name it handout to the rich and powerful] will create jobs, reduce the deficit, fight terrorism, etc.”

But even this morning, March 22, when a Democratic Congressman came on the news to oppose the Republican anti-healthcare bill, he obviously had no script, gave hardly any reasons for his opposition, and essentially wasted his 2 minutes of airtime on worthless comments. Each Democrat, in other words, is on his own. No coaching, no script, just make it up as you go along. It’s as if all they’ve got is a pickup team to oppose one that is well coached and highly practiced.

Why are the Democrats so pathetic in their politicking? I think a crucial factor is the difference in ideology. Republicans, from the time of Reagan, have come to unite behind a pretty simple concept of opposition and destruction. They deny the existence of a national community (in older times, called the Union) except in the realm of security—defense, spying, policing, and perhaps the enforcement of Christian morals. For those who agree with that ideology, it’s easy to unite in favor of almost any policy that supports the armed services or undermines, delays, or destroys other federal programs.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that national community action can make life a lot better for everyone. But for those who agree with this ideology, it does not follow that they will all like any particular program. While it’s simple to destroy things, the process of creating or improving them on a national level is very complex. It leaves plenty of room for disagreement, and to support any one program does only a little to advance the overall ideology. So united support is difficult to gain, while unity in opposition comes far more easily.