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Further thoughts on consonance and dissonance

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

In the coming week, millions of Americans will go to the polls on May 8 to determine which candidates will run in the upcoming November general election. The November election is particularly important given the stranglehold that the Republican party currently has on all branches of the national government, and given the particularly reactionary direction of this party under the leadership of Donald Trump. But it is also important in a broader sense, as a test of whether the Democratic party can revitalize itself, in terms of electoral strength, programmatic vision, and an ability to govern according to that vision, or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof.

For these reasons the upcoming primaries are also important, for they will help to chart the futures of both major parties, in November, in the 2020 Presidential elections, and beyond.

As many commentators, including many troubled Republicans, have observed, the Republican party continues to move ever further to the right. As Phillip Bump recently put it in the Washington Post, “Trump is the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is Trump.”

Here is a recent TV ad for Todd Rokita, running for the Republican nomination for the upcoming Senate race in my home state, Indiana:

Here’s another:

Here is an ad for the more “moderate” Republican contender, Mike Braun:

And here is the even more “moderate” Republican, Congressman Luke Messer, the so-called “establishment candidate” who just last week nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, and whose latest commercial declares that he “supports the Trump agenda because it’s pro-family, pro-life, and pro-America”:

The Trumpist who wins this very nasty primary will seek to unseat the incumbent Democratic Senator, Joe Donnelly, in the November election. Donnelly has long been a center-right Democrat in a very Red state. Here is the bold, emblazoned headline of his most recent press release: “Joe Donnelly votes with President Trump 62% of the time, new study shows.”

When I saw this on Facebook, I immediately posted this:

I find this deplorable.

Will I vote for him? Yes, I will, because he will be running against someone who will vote with Trump 100% of the time, and that 38% matters.

But Donnelly is doing more than running as a “moderate” or playing to the center. He is appealing to some of the worst tendencies of the Republican party in this state, and he is normalizing Trumpism.

That is deplorable as far as I am concerned. And it cannot be justified by any electoral calculus beyond OPPORTUNISM.

And so in a few years, if a candidate to Donnelly’s left challenges him in the Democratic primary, I will be listening to that candidate, and paying close attention. Donnelly has my vote in 2018. But he has lost whatever respect I may have had for him.

I know many friends who are even more upset by this than I am. Some might even refrain from voting for Donnelly. That is, of course, their right. I personally think it would be regrettable, because I believe, and have long argued, that it is very important to politically oppose Trumpism, not as an ultimate end but as a means of resisting genuinely regressive policies and as a means of supporting an agenda of greater social justice and democratic equality. For any of the Indiana Republicans to take Donnelly’s Senate seat in November would be a disaster. Nonetheless, more is at stake than the electoral outcome: the current primary, and the November general election, and the elections that follow in 2020 and beyond, will offer opportunities to liberals and leftists across the country both to register their electoral preferences and, more importantly, to do the hard organizing and party-political work of bringing their visions of a better future closer to realization. Visions. There’s more than one. And none are as clear as their most committed adherents imagine.

Last week, the Washington Post ran an important story on how “In governor’s races, candidates battle over what the Democratic party stands for.” This piece is one of many recent pieces offering serious political analysis of these sometimes heated Democratic intraparty debates, their dynamics, and their possible consequences in a variety of situations at the local, state, and national level (see especially here and here).

In response, I posted this on Facebook:

These debates are important, legitimate, and necessary. There is no way forward for the Democrats that does not involve serious debates, and opportunities for the party’s different constituencies to advance their perspectives. At the same time, political party contests are serious business, and it is to be hoped that all contestants will keep their eyes on the prize, which is the political revival and electoral victory of the Democratic party (you don’t have to care about this; go work for some other party if this is your interest; but if you contend for influence and nomination in the Democratic party, then you sure as hell ought to care).

I hope that nastiness and innuendo can be kept to a minimum, and that the real political differences among different kinds of Democrats can be expressed in the primaries and in the election with these questions in the forefront of all discussion of candidates and nominations: (1) what are your core value commitments? (2) how do you propose to realize these commitments in the office you seek? (3) how do you propose to WIN THE ELECTION in the constituency in which you are running and against the Republican candidate likely to oppose you in this constituency?

Friends on the left who care about democracy: constituency matters. Bloomington, Indiana is not Indiana is not Massachusetts or New York or California. Every Congressional District, every state, has its own history, and demographics, and distinctive challenges. These things matter, and all viable candidates ought to have strategies for winning where they are running.

These are very concrete questions. There are different ways of answering them. NO candidate ought to be given a pass on these questions. “Establishment Dems” do not deserve a pass because they are “insiders” or are endorsed by insiders. “Insurgent” Dems or Our Revolutionists do not deserve a pass because they are insurgents or “outsiders” or because they have morally exemplary visions of the future. Every candidate who seeks nomination ought to have a compelling strategy to win, and every activist who is serious about revitalizing the party by moving it toward their values ought to focus their attention on how compelling are these strategies, and how important it is for the intra-party contests to be played out fairly, and to result in candidates that all Dems can support, and successfully.

Because in politics the perfect is the enemy of the good. Always.

It seemed pretty clear to me that this comment was very specifically about the upcoming primary contests being discussed in the Post article; that because I was focusing on the upcoming primaries, I was addressing candidates and activists actively contending in those primaries, and proposing that all candidates be judged according to the same criteria, and that “establishment” candidates be treated no more gingerly than “insurgent” candidates; that these criteria involved three questions, only the last of which relates to the question of electability; and that this proposal was expressed as a hope and not as a moralistic demand or form of denunciation of those who might think otherwise.

But nowadays these sorts of interventions enter into a broader discursive field characterized by a great deal of suspicion and defensiveness. And so one reader interpreted my post as yet another effort of a “large-D democrat” to “tutel” people to my left, and to privilege the Democratic establishment through the rhetorical disparagement of “perfectionism” or “purism.” I understand this concern, for Democratic party elites — of which I am most certainly not one — do often appeal to “pragmatism” or “realism” as a way of silencing critics or supporting more establishment or incumbent candidates in primary contests. Such rhetoric — which did not appear in my post — has generated real distrust and alienation among some people on the left who ought to be welcomed within the Democratic party, and it has sometimes created real obstacles, and frustrations, for left party activists who seek to help shape the party’s future. Many of these people are associated with Our Revolution. And that is fine.

At the same time, it is hard to see how such activists, and their candidates, can make headway in the party, especially during primaries, without taking seriously the three questions I posed, and being able to advance plausible and indeed compelling claims that they have better answers than the establishment forces whose party leadership they are contesting.

It is not hard to see how people on the left who might be extremely alienated from the Democratic party might choose to help to organize and build alternative parties. There are such efforts, and there are situations, especially in certain state and local contexts, where the balloting procedures make this a very viable approach (Micah Sifry regularly writes about this; he also writes about why this is very unlikely to be successful at the national level). And indeed, I concede that “viability is in the eye of the beholder.” If people want to try this, they should try (I highly recommend a 2016 piece by Walid Sheed of the Working Families Party on the challenges and possibilities facing such efforts). Committed leftists who want to work on alternative parties should do so; there is no moral requirement of support for Democrats. But if they want to run as candidates in the Democratic primary, then they ought to be able to offer compelling answers to the three questions I outlined. And if they can’t, then a very reasonable question presents itself: why are they running? The answer would seem to be very politically important. Especially if one believes that elections matter and that parties matter in part because they are organizations that seek to advance candidates, and programs, through the electoral process.

To say this is not to deny that insurgents face obstacles. It is the nature of insurgency to face obstacles. It is also, presumably, the nature of insurgency to advance political goals rather than simply to furnish outlets for the expression of diffuse dissatisfaction. To be a party insurgent or rebel is thus to engage the party in which one “insurges” or rebels, and to work through the party to transform it. This means fighting for your values, and attempting to bring others to your values, and trying to win primaries. It also means being willing if you lose to support the winner of the party’s primary, even if you think the winner had advantages over you, due to incumbency or political connections or the support of party leaders — all of which are central elements of political parties by their nature. This is what Bernie Sanders did in 2016. It is what most candidates do. And it is probably what most partisans ought to expect.

To say this is not to call for “moderation.” It is indeed to endorse robust, vigorous contestation, both before and elections, and to insist that the party establishment allow this contestation and not work in heavy-handed ways to shut it down.

But it is also to urge a particular kind of “political responsibility”: an attentiveness to the limits of one’s own position, and the importance of real coalitions with people who have other positions — such coalitions are even more important for underdog efforts than they are for status quo efforts — and an attentiveness to the likely consequences of your actions. This does not mean sheer opportunism, or a focus only on winning elections at all costs. It does mean a serious effort to develop and publicize a strategy for winning over time, a strategy that necessarily involves short-and-medium-term compromises.

What I have in mind is something that William E. Connolly has called “agonistic respect.” As he wrote in Identity/Difference (p. xvii): “Agonistic respect is a reciprocal virtue appropriate to a world in which partisans find themselves in intensive relations of interdependence. Agonism is the dimension through which each party maintains a pathos of distance from others with whom it is engaged. Respect is the dimension through which self-limits are acknowledged and connections are established across lines of difference.”

As one commentator explains:

Connolly construes agonistic respect as an ethos of engagement appropriate for the complexities of late modern society, an ethos in which partisans of all sides approach political debates with “a certain forbearance and hesitancy” with respect to their perspective’s universal applicability (see Pluralism2005). This does not mean that a lukewarm middle ground is sought, for “partisans may test, challenge, and contest pertinent elements in the fundaments of others.” Connolly suggests that when such contestations are explored without resentment, they can evolve into “reciprocal commitment to inject generosity and forbearance into public negotiations between parties who reciprocally acknowledge that the deepest wellsprings of human inspiration are to date susceptible to multiple interpretations.” Agonistic respect is respectful because it recognizes this ultimate ambiguity and tempers the debate accordingly (usually with a vision of shared interest), but agonistic because it nevertheless engages in deep contestation regarding the fundaments of others’ viewpoints, as well as strenuous justification of one’s own.

It would perhaps be a good thing those of us who consider ourselves leftists, left liberals, or simply liberals practiced our politics — now, looking toward upcoming elections, but also more broadly — with a sense of “agonistic respect.” There are real adversaries out there, and even genuine enemies. In the face of these real antagonists, it might be a good thing to be able to recognize that more often than we might at first believe, we might be friends if we tried, or if not friends allies, or if not allies at least co-belligerents in a struggle against something that is pretty dangerous. How much sense does it make for us to make more of our differences than our enemies do? For to them, we are pretty indistinguishable. And the more we exaggerate and exacerbate our differences, the more we empower them.

There is a strong tendency in modern politics to think in binary terms, of friends and enemies, victories and defeats, progress and regress. We want to win, and it is tempting to regard our efforts as a resolute march toward the triumph of what we value most. Straight ahead. Perhaps like Benny Golson’s classic “Blues March,” here played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers:

But perhaps the trajectory of the struggle for justice is less straightforward, involving a never-ending discord and concord, dissonance and consonance, in each of us and in our organizations and coalitions. Like Charles Mingus’s classic “Haitian Fight Song.” As Mingus remarked in the liner notes to one of his recordings of the tune:

Haitian Fight Song, to begin with, could just as well be called Afro-American Fight Song. It has a folk spirit, the kind of folk music I’ve always heard anyway. It has some of the old Church feeling too. I was raised a Methodist but there was a Holiness church on the corner, and some of the feeling of their music, which was wilder, got into our music. There’s a moaning feeling too in those church modes … I’d say this song has a contemporary folk feeling. My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: “I told them! I hope somebody heard me.”

Allesandro D’Arcangelis nicely explains Mingus’s radicalism and his political relevance in “Charles Mingus: Sounds of Struggle”:

As critic Gary Giddins aptly pointed out in his book Visions of Jazz, Mingus was “the most persistently apocalyptic voice” of this genre. He “was the black-music experience in the United states”. This is because Mingus’ music is inherently political and its “hybridization, its questing after form, its improvisation, competitiveness, impertinence, outrage, intellectualization, joy, emotionalism, bitterness, comedy, parody and frustration” reflect the complexity of a socio-political discourse, which the composer never shied away from, but, instead, confronted with full force, impeccable clarity and a hint of cynicism …

Haitian Fight Song , characterized by a regular rhythmic section, with various solos emerging from a chaotic polyphony, follows a structure similar to Pithecanthropus Erectus’, gradually building tension and finally culminating in conflicting, revolutionary chaos. The track, as the title implies, is concerned with the revolution taking place in Haiti in the 1790s; yet, it was written in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King’s mobilization of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Consequently, Mingus often stated that Haitian Fight Songmay easily be renamed Afro-American Fight Song, or simply Fight Song, highlighting how notions of injustice, struggle, uprising and, consequently, revolution have a grander meaning and cannot possibly restricted to one instance or group only.

Next week the Democratic primaries will select candidates in the upcoming November election. Some of these candidates will be very left. Some will not be. Many will be “left” on some issues, and not on others. All will be more liberal, more progressive, more egalitarian, than the Republicans against whom they will run in November.

Those Republicans are contending to serve as the protectors and enablers of Donald Trump. The man who said of Haiti: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

Think about that. And listen again to “Haitian Fight Song.” And do what seems right, on May 8 and, much more importantly, on May 9, and in the days and weeks that follow.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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