The Politics of Feeling

The seemingly pointless infighting between professional Democrats and its grassroots activists over the direction of the party has many liberals concerned. If the party is united in opposition to President Trump’s agenda, his controversial executive and judicial appointments, and his very presence in the Oval Office, why would its members turn to infighting and bickering about the way forward? After all, it’s not just Trump that connects Democrats of all stripes. Even after a deeply disappointing electoral defeat in November and the predictable media handwringing about out-of-touch, Eastern elites that followed, there has been surprisingly little dissent from the basic tenets of party orthodoxy as laid out in the 2016 Democratic platform. Protecting health reform, reducing income inequality, increasing taxes on the wealthy, combating climate change, passing criminal justice reform, expanding worker protections and LGBT rights. There remains no serious divergence from this agenda.

And yet…things are not so harmonious. The largely meaningless contest for the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee was marked by intense lobbying and bitter rancor by the candidates’ supporters. Although Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison were both progressives of color with preexisting institutional party roles, many liberal activists treated Perez’s victory as some sort of corrupt bargain. Never mind that there was little difference between the two candidates on how the DNC should operate, or that Perez ultimately picked Ellison to serve as his deputy, some committee members treated the choice as one between corporations and the people (Perez and Ellison were early backers of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, respectively, and their supporters mostly aligned themselves that way, as well).

Then last week the Democrats nearly picked off one of the reddest congressional seats in the country in a Kansas special election to replace now-CIA chief Mike Pompeo in the House of Representatives. The Democratic candidate lost by only seven points in a district Trump carried by twenty-seven, which somehow led to furious anger on the left that Perez’s DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t spend more on the race. It’s entirely unclear how an arguable misallocation of resources by party fundraising organizations is a reflection on the progressive bonafides of so-called establishment Democratic institutions. But clearly self-destructive outrage is not the exclusive province of the GOP. Consider the hopelessly counterproductive We Will Replace You PAC—a new organization dedicated to primarying Democrats like Joe Manchin who dare vote for any Trump nominee or initiative.

In truth, these nasty little skirmishes were simply proxy battles for the primary battle that just won’t die. Bernie vs. Hillary, Round II, if you will. Though, since that contest was more about personal affect than policy effect, and considering that neither of those two prophets will get to lead the Democrats into Canaan in 2018 or 2020, rehashing the party’s great debate from a year ago seems awfully pointless. Which is why mainstream party participants and anti-Trump writers are getting concerned. Take Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, who made two pleas to liberals this month to cut it out. First, in response to comments Sanders made about why Democrats lost in November, Pierce noted his disagreement with his thesis but rightly emphasized that “I’m not going to define my politics going forward based on that disagreement. This clamorous futility has to end. There’s too much at stake. The country is going off the rails and there’s a cartoon character at the wheel.” Then, after the fallout from the Kansas near-miss, Pierce complained: “Is this never going to stop? Is this weird dynamic in which the actual leaders—Bernie, Tom Perez, and Keith Ellison—all get along, but their supporters insist on an endless food fight, ever going to run out of steam?”

Probably not, at least not until a leader emerges who can assure the raging left they aren’t a sell-out while comforting traditional Democrats and communities of color that they are level-headed enough to compromise and govern. As Barack Obama proved in 2008, this two-step won’t be accomplished through policy differentiation. It will be done through personal connection, assuring each group that the candidate is one of them.

As noted in this space one year ago, the actual policy disagreements between Sanders and Clinton were miniscule. Clinton’s pre-convention economic agenda, some of which dated to mid-2015 before Sanders caught on as an electoral force, was surprisingly progressive, calling for expanded Social Security, high-frequency transaction and risk fees on Wall Street, and higher taxes on capital gains and upper income brackets. For his part, Sanders came around to support the kind of serious criminal justice reforms Clinton proposed in the first week of her campaign.

The tense bitterness of the primary contest instead reflected more emotional reactions to the two candidates. Sanders supporters rallied behind the blunt authenticity of their curmudgeonly candidate and recoiled at the decades-long relationships between the Clintons and their network of donors. Similarly, the Clinton contingent respected their candidate’s decades of commitment to liberal causes, steely determination and work ethic, and deep knowledge and preparedness, while balking at her upstart opponent’s singular focus on an economic morality play without producing detailed programs or the realistic means to achieve them. None of this was about liberal values. It was a matter of trust.

Which is why these scuffles make little sense and yet make all the sense in the world. Democrats agree about what they want and who they oppose, but their diverse members are divided over the politicians with whom they identify and connect. This is a problem. It can be self-defeating. Parties shouldn’t substitute emotional catharsis for policy, or worse, mistake one for the other. But it is understandable. Indeed, it’s a large part of why Donald Trump is now sitting in the White House. At some point, however, the Democratic Party’s activists need to acknowledge that the internal divisions they feel are insignificant in the face of their shared goals and the task ahead.


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