The Democratic Civil War: It’s About Policy, Not Personalities

CapturePolitical blogger and journalist Matthew Yglesias has offered his own take of the present tensions within the Democrats between the centrist and progressive wings of the party. In his view, the irascibility between the two factions boils down to “who gets to be in charge” and not about determining policy. I strongly disagree with this view, as the argument that the Democratic Party establishment has genuinely tried to accommodate left-wing reformers rings hollow. Not only has the Democratic Party failed to address myriad calls for bold policy proposals, but in several important ways it has (and continues) to actively oppose and frustrate the Democratic left. By claiming that the ongoing divide among Democrats is reducible to personality actually reaffirms the establishment talking point that left-wing Democrats are motivated less by genuine grievances and are caught up in a cult of personality around Bernie Sanders and/or an irrational, visceral dislike of Democratic elites like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.

The problem is that Bernie Sanders is actually not all that charismatic. With his thick accent and penchant for finger-wagging, he does not come across as naturally eloquent or statesman-like. Unlike Barack Obama, Clinton, or Pelosi, you won’t find many memes of him sporting sunglasses and swaggering. In fact, he’s more well-known for unkempt hair and cheap suits covered in crumbs from his last meal. His bombastic speaking-style is old-fashioned, reminiscent of politicians inflaming audiences with fiery and passionate rants. Today, the preferred style is the calm and composed fluency of the non-ideological expert and technocrat, as embodied by Obama and Clinton, meant to assure people that the candidate is a safe pair of hands, a statesman and not a firebrand. There’s also the obvious fact that Sanders is old. When you actually look at his social attributes, he fails pretty much every test of what it takes to be a media-friendly, easily-marketable political candidate in U.S. politics. Hence, he was pretty much discounted before 2016.

Yet Sanders became the most popular politician in the United States. He achieved this not because of personality but because of principles. If Sanders were to walk away from his left-wing stances tomorrow, do a U-turn and embrace a Third Way platform, his support would evaporate. In an age where politicians reject ideology in favor of “whatever works” (or, more accurately, whatever is most expedient at the time), it is refreshing to have a politician who touts a clear vision and can credibly say they have stuck to that vision throughout their career, even when it would have better for them to have “gone along to get along” and towed the party line. When a politician like Hillary Clinton attempts to promote herself as a progressive when her record proves otherwise (especially in an age where such information is readily available to everyone), many people see through the spin and, quite rightly, their intelligence is insulted.

It should be noted that, as the Sanders campaign picked up steam, Clinton did publicly acknowledge that policies and legislation she supported in the past (like tougher crime bills that disproportionately targeted people of color, or gutting social welfare meant to help vulnerable communities) were mistakes, and she amended her platform to placate some left-wing demands. Yet these steps only came grudgingly, and it was plainly obvious that she viewed such demands as unreasonable obstacles to her nomination. There were also plenty of signs that she thought she could ignore activists, be it in her selecting a garden-variety centrist like Tim Kaine as her running mate or the cynical attempts by her campaign to appeal to young voters by framing her as “your abuela” or using emojis to have a “conversation” about the serious issue of crippling student loan debt. These were all blatantly obvious marketing ploys meant to sell Clinton, and many voters — increasingly informed consumers who recognize when they’re being manipulated — believed that their legitimate grievances were being discounted. It wasn’t strictly Clinton that was the problem (although, like all politicians, she has to own her record and her legacy). It was that her campaign was trying to run a business-as-usual campaign in a year of unprecedented populist unrest in the U.S. and across the world.

What’s more, it came out that the DNC had tried to put in the fix to make Clinton’s pathway to the nomination all the more easier. Many people seem to forget that this is what ended the careers of long-standing Democratic elites like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Donna Brazile. In his tweets, Yglesias laments that Sanders promotes a “dyspeptic, cynical view of the Democratic Party as an institution.” What he omits is that the DNC has done plenty to legitimate that view, both before and since the 2016 election. Sanders tapped into resentment among many left-wing Democrats that the DNC takes their votes for granted; by no means did he create that unhappiness. It’s been there since the Third Way wing of the party secured control in the 1990s. With non-ideological technocratic centrism failing to inspire people in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty about the future, that fundamental disagreement about direction (not personality) is what explains the fragmented state of the Democratic Party.

Yglesias claims that the Democratic establishment has sought to “accommodate insurgent policy demands” by adopting Medicare for All or raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The reality is that the Democratic leadership has long and vocally opposed Medicare for All, and policy institutes associated with the Democrats are only just now entertaining highly compromised versions of the bill. Clinton surrogates roundly opposed adding support for a $15 minimum wage to the 2016 platform. Just last year, DNC chair Tom Perez appointed an opponent of the measure to the DNC finance committee. You do not need to be a pundit as famous as Yglesias to realize that every concession made post-2016 to the progressive wing of the party smacks of unenthusiastic and unwilling allowances purely meant to mitigate the potency of left-wing criticisms. The attitude that progressives should be grateful for the crumbs tossed to them from the banquet table of DNC elites goes to show why left-wing activists remain dissatisfied.

Speaking of Perez, recent developments indicate that the DNC is eager to make many of the same mistakes it did in 2016. Right now, Perez is an ugly war with the leaders of state Democratic parties to acquire their voter information to use nationally. The DNC wants this knowledge so it (and party-affiliated super PACs) can continue in its approach of figuring out how to manipulate voters to get their votes. In probably the best example of the DNC’s current technocratic style, Clinton’s 2016 campaign infamously relied on an algorithm named Ada to guide her to victory. Instead of doing traditional politics, learning about the public mood and their actual needs and concerns, the DNC thought it could create a win using mathematical modeling and statistics. As a result, the Clinton campaign took support in the Rust Belt for granted, and did not see the populist wave that propelled Trump to power coming. At a time when the DNC should be looking at ways to make itself more accountable and transparent, it appears as though Perez and the centrist wing he represents want to continue a top-down model where they figure out how to sell the policies they want, rather than a bottom-up approach where they hear what voters want and then adopt those proposals accordingly. In other words, it does not appear that the DNC has learned much of anything from 2016 at all.

Yglesias is not entirely wrong that personality matters; he is just wrong in how it matters. Again, it’s not a matter of charisma or style, but of substance and records. Clinton could not spin her way out of her Third Way legacy, and her attempts to use spin or to downplay her past votes and positions only served to undermine her. Politicians since Nixon have seemed to ignore the fact that the public is prepared to forgive almost anything if a politician forcefully and earnestly admits they were wrong and the damage they did; it’s when they try to be slick and sidestep both the mistake and its consequences that the public (usually smarter than what politicians presume) turn even more against them. Clinton and the seemingly irremovable Democratic leaders like Schumer and Pelosi have to own what they have done in the past, and understand that if their records make them unpopular now, it’s not a personal attack but the result of the choices they made. Those choices do not have to define them forever, but they will continue to define them as long as their attitude is that the people are wrong and they are still correct.

Vladimir Lenin wrote that a revolution cannot occur just because “the lower classes no longer want to live in the old way; it is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way.” Contrary to what Yglesias would have us believe, the upper class within the Democratic Party have failed to recognize that many among the rank-and-file will no longer support the DNC’s conventional practices. Unless they are prepared to admit that the present conflict within the party goes beyond image and is a matter of substance, that conflict is likely to continue on into the 2020 election and beyond. As history shows, institutions neglect their constituent bases at their own peril.