Thoughts on losing, winning, and politics
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington
In my last two “Blue Monday” columns I reflected on the theme of “consonance and dissonance” and politics. More concretely, I suggested that it is very important, especially on the broad democratic left, to promote what William Connolly has called an ethic of “agonistic respect.” It is possible to place too much emphasis on the agonism or the respect.
In mainstream political discourse, all too often appeals to “respect” are linked to moralistic calls for “civility” and “moderation” — which imply that the addressees are “uncivil” and “excessive” — and sometimes even to homilies to a bipartisanship that involves sacrificing core value commitments in advance. In radical discourse — which by its very nature faces great obstacles in its challenge to the mainstream — all too often appeals to contestation are linked to a disparagement of others deemed to be too mainstream or at least too solicitous of the mainstream. One form this position takes is the view that left liberals (of which I am one) are complicit in the marginalization of radicals simply by virtue of articulating the idea that the ethical expectations associated with “agonistic respect” apply to radicals on the left as much as they do to liberals closer to the mainstream.
I have tried consistently to defend the view that liberals and those to their left ought to vigorously debate, argue, protest, and press their points of view, and that it is to be expected that this will often be messy, sometimes nasty, and necessarily contentious, and that it is thus particularly important for the contenders to develop both thick skins and an appreciation for the thinness of the skins of their adversaries. Such an encounter is agonistic in a respectful way, and respectful in an agonistic way.
This is necessarily unsettling, challenging, and agonizing. It would be easier to simply fight for what you believe without worry about what those others think. But there are two problems with such a stance. One is that such a stance breeds a kind of self-righteousness that is in tension with one’s sincerely liberatory purpose. The second is that it is likely to generate cycles of recrimination and resentment that render it ineffective. To put this in simpler language: if your goal is to join together with others to challenge injustice and to make the world a better place, then it is probably a good idea to be both passionate and self-critical; to avoid the rhetoric of militant Crusades or the rhetoric of polite Communions; and to be prepared to work hard, and beyond your comfort zone, to cultivate alliances.
Since I first started writing regularly for Public Seminar in 2016, commenting on the Clinton-Sanders contest, I have been trying to articulate this perspective for the democratic left broadly understood. I am not a communitarian. I am a person of the left who considers himself a liberal, and a liberal who has long identified with the left. From the start, I have been motivated in large part by my strong, principled, and passionate opposition to the reactionary agenda of the Republican party and especially to the authoritarian danger associated with Trump and Trumpism. I have not been kind in the things I have said about Trump and his enablers. I regard Trump as a political enemy, not an “enemy of the people,” but an opponent of and an enemy to liberal democracy and social justice.
Even in dealing with enemies, it is important to be reflexive, and to make alliances (sometimes with other adversaries or even enemies that may be less dangerous), and to avoid hubris.
At the same time, I have never argued that for an “agonistic respect” toward Trumpism, or even toward the Republican party, which is now an accessory to Trumpism. I do believe that while Trump is a danger to the republic, he has not (yet?) overturned the republic and instituted an authoritarian regime, and that it is important, for moral and ethical-political reasons, to pursue opposition to Trump primarily through the established means of the liberal democratic political process, means that include non-violent protest and civil disobedience (my friend and colleague William Scheuerman explains the centrality of disobedience to liberal democracy in his recent book Civil Disobedience). But within those broad but important constraints, I take the view that Trumpism is a great danger and an enemy to be combated and defeated politically.
But I do take the view that liberals and left liberals and radicals who comprise the democratic left broadly — I know this term is fuzzy — should try their best not regard each other as enemies in this sense, but as allies and even as potential or actual friends who would do well to work a little harder at their friendship. One reason is because we share many values, and are not really enemies. A second is because our differences really pale in significance when we consider the values and efforts of our real enemy, who has no difficulty discerning what we share, and who wishes to destroy it.
I possess no special wisdom about these things, and indeed what I’ve just said is drawn as much from my reading of a wide range of writers — Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Adam Michnik, Bill Connolly, etc. — from whom I have learned as it is from my own six decades of experience living in this world. And what I am saying offers nothing but the broadest of outlines of a “practical political ethic.” Quite obviously, even those drawn to what I am saying must think for themselves, concretely, in the situations that present themselves to them. It is not for me to tell anyone when it is best for them to extend a hand in friendship, or walk away, or say “fuck you,” or say “upon second thought, I can see your point, and I’m sorry for what I said, let’s keep talking.” There is nothing easy in any of this. At the same time, I think a general attitude of “agonistic respect” is important, in an existential and a political sense, for those who oppose Trumpism in the name of a better democracy.
The main thing that I have done to oppose Trumpism is to write.
But I have also chosen to involve myself in the effort to “flip the House” to the Democrats, by supporting and for a time working for the campaign of Liz Watson, who has sought to capture the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Trey Hollingsworth to represent Indiana’s 9th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. I’ve been particularly active on social media; many months ago I posted a widely read open letter on Facebook, “Why I Support Liz Watson,” and awhile back I published a piece here, “Why Liz Watson’s Progressive Endorsements Matter,” on the importance of supporting Watson in this race.
The race essentially pitted Watson against Dan Canon. Both candidates, lawyers who have done advocacy work for workers and minorities and women, were progressive by any stretch of the imagination. There were differences between the two, very small differences of emphasis and of “branding” that had almost nothing to do with issues of consequence; there was almost no “daylight” between them on the issues. I supported Watson, but never said a bad word about Canon, who was indeed supported by many local friends. Indeed, here in Bloomington, the local Indivisible group is led by strong Watson and strong Canon supporters, and the group made a deliberate and public decision to stay out of the primary contest and to support whichever of these candidates won. It seemed to me that at a few moments a bit of tension could be discerned between some of these people. But this tension was minor; savvy leadership helped to keep it in check; and all involved promised that after the primary they would work together to defeat the reactionary Republican incumbent and to help the primary winner to win. A few days ago, on May 8, Liz Watson won, by a margin of roughly two to one.
Within a very short period of time, Dan Canon put out this statement:
Friends, we all thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all your support in its many forms. We hope you feel great about what we have accomplished together- we effectively changed the national dialogue around many issues- not the least of which was abolishing ICE and a guaranteed jobs program.
Tomorrow we continue the #FightForward and take the battle to our out-of-touch “Congressman” Joseph Albert Hollingsworth III. While we did not win the primary, the doors you knocked, the calls you made, and the voters you registered will forever shift Indiana toward a better future.
Please join us in supporting Liz for Indiana as we work to unseat Rep. Trey.
In the local newspaper, the Herald-Times, Canon was quoted thus: “We’re aligned on 99.9 percent of everything, and I want to help her. I think Liz ran a great campaign, I think she’s a great candidate and I think she’s a great person. Anything we can do to maximize her chances of winning in November, we want to do.”
Within a few hours, Watson put out this “Letter from Liz to the Ninth District”:
I am honored to accept the Democratic nomination to represent Indiana’s ninth congressional district. Thank you to everyone who knocked on doors, made calls, baked cookies, wrote postcards, walked in parades, and gave money to defeat Trey Hollingsworth in November! We did this together!
I want to thank Dan Canon for running a strong campaign – he engaged new voters across the district and built momentum for the change we need in November. Thank you to everyone who volunteered on Dan’s campaign. Your passion and drive are a big part of why we are going to flip our district!
I want to especially thank the 31 labor unions who supported me in this race. You are the backbone of the Democratic party, and the backbone of the middle class. I’m proud to stand beside you in the fight for a southern Indiana that leaves no one behind.
The question we will put to voters in November is this: do you want to be represented by someone who works only for the wealthy and well-connected or do you want to be represented by someone who is going to work for all of us?
Trey Hollingsworth bought his seat, and now he’s using Congress as a cash register to line his own pockets. He’s turned his back on us. I want to fight for working families in southern Indiana and the real representation we deserve.
We’ve come so far together, and we still have a lot of work to do. Everything that we hold dear is at stake. Let’s come together and take our district back in November!
What do Canon and Watson really think about each other? I am inclined to believe what each of them has said. But truth be told, I don’t really know and I don’t really care. Do I imagine that there were moments during the primary campaign when each of them was offended by something the other had said and done? Yes. I also know that both conducted themselves publicly with great integrity and respect. Do I imagine that interactions between supporters of one or of the other sometimes became testy, or even heated, and that some friendships were a bit frayed during the contest? Yes. But, again, from everything I saw and heard, this never became too heated. Conversations across the divide never stopped, on the Indivisible Facebook page and other forums, where members were asked not to speak about their candidates but to have robust discussion of the issues, of the dangers of Trumpism, and of the ways forward. There were vigorous discussions about immigration policy, the Justice department, the Mueller probe, the local economy, race, class, and gender, etc. And there was also a primary contest. And an outcome. And a quick coming together that was led by the two candidates, the two contestants, themselves.
And political savvy.
This has been really challenging, and I am betting it will continue to be challenging. For the agonism of the sincere contention over candidates and issues necessarily generates passions, and passions necessarily are passionate, and sometimes exceed our best efforts to channel or control them. And respecting an adversary is sometimes hard. But in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, a combination of excellent leadership, strong local ties, and the wise activism of groups like Indivisible, seems to have succeeded.
As someone who has been involved, for a while intensely, and more recently at a distance, I can honestly say that it feels good — the Watson victory, but even more the way that everyone has responded to the outcome — and also portends great things for the general election contest to come. Last night the Huffington Post published a piece whose title says it all: “This Trump Country House District Just Became a Key Progressive Battleground: Liz Watson’s victory in Southern Indiana will test the appeal of liberal populism in November.”
These are dark times for liberal democracy in the United States, and the struggle to flip the House, and to defeat Trumpism, will be an uphill climb. Indeed, if this week’s Indiana primary results were satisfying, Trump’s repudiation of the Iran deal the same day cast a dark shadow on U.S. politics and indeed world politics. At the same time, there is also light, and hope. And the most hopeful thing about the unfolding of events here in Southern Indiana is less the excellent electoral outcome than the process that enfolded it, that produced it, and that will continue to promote it — grass roots citizen action, agonistic and respectful contention, dissonance and consonance.