Rebuilding Democracy in 2018
Learning #purple politics from the history of American conservatism
What happens in the aftermath of a crushing political defeat?
In October, almost a year after the election that brought us Donald Trump, I was at the Library of Congress immersed in the archive of a man named Paul Weyrich, and thinking about the long aftermath of political catastrophe. Weyrich, some of you may recall, was a squeaky-clean political consultant from the Midwest and a midwife to modern conservatism in the United States. The son of working class Roman Catholic parents, he was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1942, and grew up among people passionately committed to Joseph McCarthy. Weyrich went to parochial schools, excelled at debating, and by high school had developed two passions: politics and media. As a teenager, Weyrich moved up the ranks of the Young Republicans, known then as the YGOP, and on the weekends spun platters and read the news at a local radio station. Weyrich went to a two-year state school, but never finished his BA: he was too busy for that. By the age of 21, he was married with two children, and having moved up the ranks as a radio journalist, in 1963 took a job as a local politics reporter on The Sentinel, a major Milwaukee newspaper. In late fall of 1964, Weyrich — a blond, boyish youngster with a broad smile and slightly jumbled teeth — became a television news reporter at WISN-TV, a CBS network affiliate.
It was in the WISN studio that Weyrich, on November 3, 1964, witnessed one of the worst drubbings in American political history. As the young reporter and conservative activist was reporting local election results spewed out by the station’s spanking new Monrobot Mark XI computer, Walter Cronkite was tracking Senator Barry Goldwater’s defeat by Lyndon Johnson.
Weyrich loved Goldwater, and had resented the Johnson campaign’s strategy of depicting the senator as a madman: the crushing repudiation of conservative politics that he watched that evening may have been life-defining. It propelled him out of journalism and into political activism. He became a media consultant to Colorado Senator Gordon Alcott, and in 1973, Weyrich co-founded the Heritage Foundation, a critical fund raising machine and policy think tank for the right, as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), designed to package model legislation to be passed at the state and local level. Weyrich, who was so conservative in his faith that he left the Roman Catholic Church for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church over the de-Latinisation of church rites, also became a key figure in suturing religious conservatives to the Republican Party’s right wing. This alliance transformed the GOP forever and in 1980 propelled Ronald Reagan — a former Goldwater surrogate — to the presidency.
I have been spending a lot of intellectual energy on Weyrich and his allies as I have occupied myself with researching a new book on political media which is one way — other than being editor of Public Seminar — I have chosen to respond to the Democrats’ crushing political defeat in 2016, and the endless bad news that has ensued. But I have also been trying to learn from the people I am studying: about how to remain positive in the face of voters repudiating a certain vision for how government — and the presidency — should be; about what counts as progress when the odds seem steep; and about how to absorb the other defeats that inevitably follow the triumph of a reactionary vision.
Did Paul Weyrich go home and rage in 1964? Did he take solace in conspiracy theories? Did he claim that Lyndon Baines Johnson was a usurper? No he did not. First, he used his local celebrity to cadge invitations to Republican political clubs; then he went to work for a senator; then he used his connections in the conservative movement, and in Washington, to build a powerful network of fundraisers and political communication techniques that brought his movement to power 16 years after liberals in both parties believed it had been crushed for good. Part of how he was able to do this was to honestly assess what had gone wrong — and how to chart a way forward; and another part of how he did it was to learn to talk to conservatives, and independent voters, differently.
So as we enter the crucial by-election year of 2018, in the spirit of a #PurpleAmerica, let me suggest some things we can do now that might facilitate a successful movement, one that might help liberals and the left see the path forward to their own movement and their own, more effective, institution building.
- In 2018, liberals should stop claiming that Hillary Clinton actually won the election because she won the popular vote. It seems like we give the Electoral College a pass when we win, and we hate the Electoral College when we lose. Tragic as the 2016 election has been for health care, immigration, the environment, civil rights, and the future fiscal health of the nation — Hillary Clinton really lost the election! Not enough people voted for her in the places where they needed to! More votes in California and New York does not change that! It’s weak tea to argue that, under some rules that actually don’t exist, Donald Trump is not the legitimately elected president of this country. Other than suggesting that we can just suspend the law whenever we don’t care for the outcome of a national election, this is a way of not coping with the full dimensions of why she lost, and what it means for the Democrats to build an inclusive, winning coalition as we move towards November 2018. Another way to not cope with the full dimensions of why Hillary Clinton lost is to believe it was all about the sexism. Yes, it was partly about the sexism, and for women of a certain age it was heartbreaking to see that play out so publicly. But that wasn’t the only reason, and the turnarounds in Virginia and Alabama are evidence of the underlying problem in 2016: the Democrats thought they could win without investing in a serious, grassroots get out the vote campaign and they were wrong.
- While we are at it, you probably aren’t going to wake up one day and find out that Donald Trump is being impeached. Do you really want to live in a country where impeachment is a routine political weapon? And what happens after Trump is impeached? The homophobic, anti-immigrant, rigorously pro-life, and Mercer-backed President Pence? Political change that happens emotionally, and swiftly, is anti-democratic and unstable, while even pretending this is a solution is a diversion from hard and necessary political work. Don’t you think it might be better to be a little patient and build that consensus that would bring us a Democratic Congress?
- White people on the left might want to reconsider their generic hostility towards other white people, conservatives and liberals. Thrilled as I was by the outcome in Alabama senate race, one of the more disturbing features of this victory were the large numbers of whites on left social media who responded to Doug Jones’ victory by disparaging the white voters of Alabama. It is true that the effort to get out the Black vote was decisive in this election. Jones needed 25% of eligible Black voters to get to the polls and pull a lever for him, and he got 30%, largely due to a massive advertising effort by the Democratic party and shoe leather political organizing spearheaded by the NAACP. Without this, he could not have won. Yet, the fact that only 25% of whites voted for Jones is not a reason to disparage the white voters of Alabama as a group. On the contrary. It is a reason to get your leftist head out of the sand and say: “You know, there are some white people not on the left who are very good and decent. We need to encourage them to be brave like this again by applauding them and thanking them for acting on their convictions.” Because you know what? Without the white people who voted for Jones, who wrote in another candidate, or who simply stayed home — Roy Moore would be heading to the Senate now.
- Consider throwing your leftist weight, and your money, behind liberal organizations with deep roots in communities of color, such as the NAACP. I am old enough to remember when the NAACP was considered by some to be a communist-influenced, radical group, but in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, that’s obviously over. But why can’t you support both without losing your leftist self-esteem? In 2018, you can march with #BLM, you can give money, and you can also support the NAACP with your dollars and your feet. My academic friends were all in for Hillary in the final weeks of the campaign, bussing themselves all over the place to knock on doors. But one of the things people of Paul Weyrich’s generation understood was that politics is local, and that local organizations — for Weyrich, it was the churches and local Republican clubs that had nurtured his own political consciousness — have the most influence with their own voters. Doesn’t it seem obvious that having a history professor from The New School show up at your door in North Philadelphia is going to be less effective than having the local minister, or a neighbor, drop by? But without money, often flowing in from out of state, those local door knocks don’t happen. And if you are white — please remember that the NAACP has been committed to interracial organizing since its inception, but it’s hard to maintain that commitment if we white people on the left are too politically pure to show up.
- We need to be committed to truth, fact, and persuasion not propaganda and insult. Here’s the news: conservative media outlets and hackers are not the only source of political falsehoods and bad journalism; and conservative audiences aren’t the only ones who hear what they want to hear. Ongoing, responsible criticism of left and liberal media, and renewed media literacy on the left, will be key components of revived public conversations in 2018. One of the best commentaries I have heard on this lately has been Jeremy Scahill’s editorial introduction to a recent episode of his podcast, Intercepted (December 13, 2017). Scahill points a finger at the left-liberal MSM for publishing leaks out of the Trump administration that have not been properly verified and which later have turned out to be false, misleading, or decontextualized. As Scahill notes, the urge to publish first has overwhelmed the principle of publishing the best stories: networks like CNN and MSNBC might want to slow down their coverage and check it responsibly rather than having to walk a story back later. And as we know, you can’t always walk a story back in the age of the Internet: what we then have is more junk information circulating as eager Trump-haters post and retweet bad stories. Interestingly, since the confidentiality of sources is an article of faith in journalism, Scahill also suggests that when a leak proves to be false, the leaker should be exposed as a purveyor of bad information.
- We can avoid being nasty and aggressive on social media. Public nastiness has become so casual and ubiquitous that I think many people don’t even understand that they are accomplishing little else but dumping their own depression, rage and anxiety into other people’s news feeds. Here’s one insult I’m sick of: “FFS.” For those in the know, it means “for f*ck’s sake,” and it is how you signal a disagreement with someone that is so profound that what it really means is: “You are too stupid to live, much less be listened and responded to.” It is also a way of opening rhetorical divides that are so vast that they cannot be bridged through normal conversation, or even an agreement to disagree on one thing. For example, imagine that I have posted: “Susan Collins voted for the tax bill because she was able to get compromises that were good for the state of Maine; she wasn’t elected by New Yorkers or Californians.” The likely response, from someone who just weeks earlier was declaring Collins a hero for voting against health care repeal, might be: “FFS, Claire — she is completely untrustworthy and two-faced.” There are three things at issue in this (invented) exchange: one is a political analysis nullified by a (spurious) off the cuff statement about Collins’ character; the second is contempt for me; the third is an unwillingness to imagine the circumstances that make the economic and social world inhabited by the people of Maine profoundly different from that inhabited by, say, me — or you — and how we might address that. FFS just foreclosed that conversation — as do unnecessarily dramatic posts like “If you (do/say/believe a certain thing), please unfriend me.”
- Restoring our political culture will require backing down from the view that every vote a politician takes, and everything she does or does not accomplish, is a test of that person’s character. Part of what heightened partisanship has accomplished is the constant division of public figures into enemies we disparage, and friends who we hold to such high standards that when they disappoint us, they become enemies too. Last week, for example, the Working Families Party in New York City decided to celebrate the Christmas season by demonstrating outside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s home for not having gotten DACA legislation through the Senate this fall. I am as distressed by the limbo that these young people and their families are in as the next person, but really? The immigration situation is his fault? Chuck Schumer has kept the Democrats together on every vote, all year; managed to orchestrate the defeat of Obamacare repeal; and mitigated the hideous tax reform legislation to some degree. Where was a victory like DACA legislation — otherwise known as Republican Kryptonite — going to come from? The definition of being the minority leader is that you don’t get to say what legislation makes it to the floor. I don’t blame the people who were demonstrating — but what is wrong with the WFP leadership that they think that orchestrating such a demonstration has anything but symbolic value?
- Rebuilding the nation we want may take a long time, it will require compromises, and it probably won’t be socialist. You know, I supported Bernie Sanders too, for reasons I still believe in. I would prefer to live under socialism. But I have been wondering lately, as many of my friends on the left continue to disparage liberal solutions to political problems, what in American history causes any of us — on the right or the left — to think that European style socialism will ever happen in this country, or that a socialist candidate could put together a winning coalition that could govern at the national level. Although I believe we need socialists, and a robust vision for socialism, there is absolutely no evidence that, to paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, it could happen here. I am game to keep trying — but in the meantime, could we stop it with the fantasies that the minute the right goes too far the revolution will come, and that voting for liberals only defers the revolution?
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am ready to roll up my sleeves. I don’t have time for cynicism, I don’t have time for sniping, and I don’t have time for all-or-nothing politics. What happens in the aftermath of a crushing political defeat?
We get to work.