Dreaming of Camelot

Both Conservatives and Liberals are awash in nostalgia for days long gone. Trump Republicans long for the good old days when men were men and women and Blacks and Hispanics and gays and foreigners knew their place. Centrist Democrats dream of the glory days of Obama and Camelot. Or what might have been with Hillary.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is pouring money into entrepreneurs, ex-prosecutors, ex-security establishment, and ex-military for Congressional races that don’t challenge Democratic incumbents. Even in “safe” Congressional races, Democratic candidates still like to play up their national security bona fides, for example as Alexandra Chandler is doing in MA-03, or incumbent Bill Keating does at every opportunity in MA-09.

In a recent piece in Blue Mass Group, Chandler penned an essay that spelled out her vision for the proper use of American power. She didn’t challenge the misuse of that power, only that more of it should be in Congressional hands. Otherwise, Chandler argued for a return to a “rules-based international order,” return of a Cold War footing regarding Russia, strengthening of military and intelligence alliances, and defending spy agencies (even after learning of rogue torture, surveillance and rendition programs).

Like many Democrats, Chandler makes excuses for Israel’s murders of Gazan demonstrators while still managing to blame Hamas (“I am confident that given different orders and rules of engagement — for instance, not to use live ammunition and to use numerous specialized riot and border control tools at their disposal — they could have protected themselves, and the security of the Israeli-Gaza border, notwithstanding Hamas-directed provocateurs among the protestors.”) Chandler strongly touts her national security resume but has little to say about criminal justice or immigration reform. And not a shred of criticism of the super-predatory capitalism we experience in the 21st Century.

Chandler is the perfect example of Democratic nostalgia for the good old days when NATO and the G7, the IMF, the World Bank, and Western institutions and alliances could put the screws to Russia while still pursuing their own colonial interests. The good old days when America (together with allies who couldn’t say “no”) would throw around their weight with a higher class of people running the show. In this nostalgic Democratic daydream, as long as well-spoken men and women (not reincarnated P. T. Barnums like Trump) have the codes to nuclear footballs and are the ones spying on the citizenry for their own good, the world is in good hands. But Democrats forget that the Kennedys, Johnsons, Clintons, and Obamas were also frightening stewards of American military, surveillance, nuclear, and economic power.

Someone sent me a link to a piece from the Cato Institute perfectly titled “A World Imagined.” Libertarians are not clear-eyed critics of Capitalism but they do seem to have 20-20 vision when it comes to the defects of Neoliberalism. In this piece the author shows why we should not be so quick to embrace a lopsided world order long loved by Republicans and Democrats alike. The author argues convincingly that Trump’s polices and authoritarian inclinations are simple-minded exaggerations of the old realpolitik long practiced by Kissinger, Albright, Cheney, Bush, Kerry, Clinton, and their friends in the national security establishment. They embrace a world order based on American Exceptionalism, a world run by white men of privilege, with foreign and domestic policies ultimately resting on authoritarianism, austerity, and privilege. Trump’s only innovation is exulting in a widespread view that a master race deserves to run the world and make the country great again.

The other night I was watching “The Good Shepherd.” You might say it’s a movie about privileged white men keeping each other’s secrets — until they decide to betray one another. Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a Yale undergraduate inducted into the “Skull and Bones” society, who then becomes an OSS operative and later a CIA director. Wilson has a lot of blood on his hands — and not just for the Bay of Pigs but for sins much closer to home. Make some popcorn. The movie’s decent, if perhaps a bit too long.

At one point Wilson visits a mobster named Joseph Palmi (played by Joe Pesci), who controls criminal enterprises in Cuba. His character is based loosely on Sam Giancana and Santo Traficante, who Kennedy enlisted for the Bay of Pigs. Palmi agrees to help Wilson. At one point there is this exchange:

Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland; the Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

The movie, of course, is fiction. But the scene nevertheless holds a very real truth. We shouldn’t become too nostalgic for the Kennedy years or the post-war “rules-based international order” and its domestic reflection in a segregated nation. The America of 1961 and an administration some still wistfully call “Camelot” bore all too many similarities to Trump’s America of 2018.

Fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party

It does not surprise me that the tagline for the Poor People’s Campaign is “a national call for moral revival.” In politics, given a choice between money and morality, you know which will win. It’s also no surprise that the demands of this campaign are not strictly economic but target racism, the environment, criminal justice, voter disenfranchisement, healthcare, foreign policy, militarism, budget priorities, and democratic institutions. The very existence of this movement is a clue that, for all their lofty platform planks, Democrats simply haven’t been listening to America’s most vulnerable people.

Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. Perhaps. But local politics are now national. Dozens of Congressional primary races highlight the ideological wars being fought within the Democratic Party — viciously and with considerable help from out of state donors.

UMass Amherst political science professor Raymond LaRaja writes that, for all the Democratic Party’s disagreements, “if there is one thread that links party adherents today, it is a view of themselves as outsiders trying to gain for themselves and others a share of the fruits of American democracy and capitalism, which have been denied to them by social status.” But there any agreement ends.

In this authoritarian age a lot is at stake. Democratic Party centrists think they can tinker with and improve Capitalism, while progressives and socialists know that only radical change — and a stronger defense of democracy — will make life better for working families. These are irreconcilable philosophies that must eventually end in divorce. But for the moment — here we are together in a very odd bed.

Unlike Republicans, who abhor heterogeneity and tightly enforce party discipline, Democrats function more as a coalition than a party. LaRaja writes, “Coalitions do not make it easy to come up with coherent campaign slogans. But a more profound problem of Democratic pluralism is that the party can be biased toward a few moneyed and highly organized factions who do not reflect the broader rank-and-file. These factions include pro-environment groups, abortion rights organizations and public sector unions. They may champion important causes, but their dominance over the party’s agenda has a powerful impact on who runs for office as Democrats and what kinds of issues get pushed in government.”

No surprise, then, that the “moneyed and highly organized factions” run their political races differently too. Since their objective is to win and not necessarily fight for principles (either during or after an election), Democratic centrists run campaigns based on “viable candidates” while progressives are more interested in principles. Centrist Democrats won’t waste a dime on a candidate who can’t win, and they will look for one who can — even if he is barely distinguishable from a Republican.

Progressives, on the other hand, are willing to see their candidate go down in flames — if only for the chance to have her issues heard by voters or to keep the party from sliding even farther to the right. And progressives often have to fight the good fight with little or no support from Democratic Party institutions like the DNC or DCCC. This too is an irreconcilable difference that must eventually end in divorce.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) doesn’t yet have a Fifty State strategy but is trying to get there. It previously conceded elections in some states and put all its chips on “sure things” in others. The DCCC’s “Majority Makers” program is targeting dozens of Red districts thought to be winnable. The special Alabama Senate election of Doug Jones provided the party with new energy — but lowered the bar for its candidates. The DCCC doesn’t even conceal its bias toward Blue Dogs like Henry Cuellar over progressives and has even gone out of its way to sabotage the campaigns of progressives like Laura Moser. In the New York primary DNC Chair Tom Perez endorsed Andrew Cuomo, breaking a promise that the DNC would never again interfere in a primary election.

Last April I attended a meeting of Marching Forward in Dartmouth. The group was recruiting campaign volunteers after deciding to support four swing state Congressional candidates in the midterm elections. Three of their four candidates were DCCC “Majority Makers” — Andy Kim (NJ-03); Mikie Sherill (NJ-11); and Perry Gershon (NY-01). Volunteers would travel to these swing states and essentially take their marching orders from the DCCC.

It’s difficult to begrudge Marching Forward’s efforts. After all, each of their candidates is challenging an especially noxious Trump Republican. Each was chosen, like genes for therapeutic treatment, to target a specific defect in a specific Congressional district with precisely calibrated politics and personal attributes. Andy Kim, for example, is a former Defense Department analyst; Mikie Sherill is a decorated Navy helicopter pilot and “get-tough” federal prosecutor; and Perry Gershon is the Chief Investment Officer at Jefferies LoanCore Capital Markets LLC. None is what anyone would call a progressive. And the number of DCCC candidates waving military and national security resumes should worry everyone in post-911 America.

These candidates, to use LaRaja’s words, all want “peace, protecting the environment, separation of church and state, guarding the right to an abortion, and quality of life issues like eating locally-grown food.” But generally absent from the campaigns of these genetically-engineered DCCC candidates are issues important to brown, black, and poor people. Each represents the Clintonite wing of a Democratic Party that Thomas Frank describes in “Listen, Liberal” — gatekeepers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, prosecutors, the security establishment, technocrats.

Of course, the U.S. Congress is not the only battlefield. Republicans must be fought in state houses too. EveryDistrict has an approach similar to the DCCC’s, but aims to put more Democrats in state government, neglected for decades by the DNC. And who in their right mind would wish for EveryDistrict to fail? In 26 of 50 states Republicans have a trifecta — total control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. In contrast, Democrats have only 8. EveryDistrict’s strategy is to pick horseraces it thinks it can win, and Democratic winners twill then make the state more liberal. At least that’s the theory.

The Bernie wing of the Democratic Party consists of idealists, progressives, and socialists. Funding their candidates are various PACs that endorse and support progressive campaigns and/or candidates of color — people with a serious personal stake in making real change. They include: Color of Change, Democracy for America, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and The Collective PAC. They don’t take corporate money, they don’t have much support from the Democratic Party, and their campaigns are funded by individual donations. Sometimes even their campaign videos are self-produced, as in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is challenging Blue Dog Democrat Joe Crowley in the NY-14 Congressional primary.

Massachusetts primaries will be here in roughly 90 days. The primaries and the general election will provide more clues about the future and the soul of the Democratic Party. Last September I pondered where Democrats were headed:

It’s still a bit early to definitively answer the question of what kind of Democrat represents the future of the party, but we should know by the time the Democratic primaries come around. If Reagan Democrats like Keating remain unchallenged, and a slew of Baby Keatings appear on ballots, then we’ll know the party’s true character — regardless of whatever lofty language is written into the platform.

We are indeed knee deep in Manchins, Joneses, Heitkamps, Moultons, and Baby Keatings. But I no longer think the future of the Democratic Party can be divined so quickly or easily. The fight for the party’s soul could take a decade — after all, it took the Tea Party twelve years to turn the GOP into a bunch of goose-stepping kleptocrats. This fight will continue as America becomes browner and poorer — and as our democratic institutions struggle to recover from the shocks of years of authoritarianism.

If you compare the two videos in this post there are obvious differences between Democrats. The America I want to live in will not be led by PAC-reliant, flag-waving technocrats but by courageous working people with moral centers and very personal stakes in an inclusive democracy. But for now we may need the technocrats — and they us — to keep the Republic from sliding even further into the abyss.


It turns out that Hillary Clinton was right about one thing — Trump’s supporters are Deplorables.

It was a fleeting, and uncharacteristically harsh, judgment from a party now running its own right-to-lifers, gun-toters, and militarists, lip-syncing the GOP’s lyrics that White America was somehow “left behind.” Taking a cue from the GOP, the Clintons’ DNC and DCCC is now downplaying racial injustice in order to court Deplorables with their Better Deal — which Dems announced last Summer from the Heart of Dixie. But their midterm strategy — sending people of color to the back of the bus if not throwing them under it — neglects the stinking rot at the root of our so-called American “democracy.”

A new study by Diana Mutz from the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, debunks the theory that White America voted for Trump because they were afraid of losing their jobs. They were simply afraid of losing their privilege.

Mutz’s abstract:

“This study evaluates evidence pertaining to popular narratives explaining the American public’s support for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election. First, using unique representative probability samples of the American public, tracking the same individuals from 2012 to 2016, I examine the “left behind” thesis (that is, the theory that those who lost jobs or experienced stagnant wages due to the loss of manufacturing jobs punished the incumbent party for their economic misfortunes). Second, I consider the possibility that status threat felt by the dwindling proportion of traditionally high-status Americans (i.e., whites, Christians, and men) as well as by those who perceive America’s global dominance as threatened combined to increase support for the candidate who emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past. Results do not support an interpretation of the election based on pocketbook economic concerns. Instead, the shorter relative distance of people’s own views from the Republican candidate on trade and China corresponded to greater mass support for Trump in 2016 relative to Mitt Romney in 2012. Candidate preferences in 2016 reflected increasing anxiety among high-status groups rather than complaints about past treatment among low-status groups. Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change.”

Another study by Steven V. Miller at Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis at Texas A&M confirms Mutz’s “loss of privilege” theory, and also refutes the notion that democratic traditions inoculate Americans from fascist leanings. In “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy,” Miller and Davis write:

“Democracy has been durable in the United States – so durable, in fact, that serious inquiry into Americans’ attitudes toward it has been uncommon. No more.”

Working from World Values Survey data from 1995 to 2011, Miller and Davis discovered that:

“White Americans who would not want an immigrant/foreign worker, someone who spoke a different language, or someone from a different race as a neighbor are more likely to support strongman rule in the United States, rule of the U.S. government by the army, and are more likely to outright reject having a democracy for the United States. These findings are robust across multiple model specifications we analyze and report in the appendix as well.”

Their study documents the strong correlation between White America’s bigotry and proto-fascist leanings. Once White America perceives that the benefits of democracy are being extended to “others” their commitment to democracy is quickly abandoned. Like a child playing a board game, if they can’t win, they won’t play.

But this hardly comes as a surprise to the rest of America:

“[White] American citizens have not historically exhibited the sort of lofty, normative commitments to things like equality and tolerance that we might expect from one of the richest and longest-running continuous electoral democracies in the world. As Sullivan and Transue (1999) note, most citizens were willing to apply double standards that afforded one set of rights to popular groups while denying rights to more extreme or less popular groups.”

Tinkering with Capitalism may sound like a plan, but Democrats need to do a better of job of defending democracy. The surest way to do this is by defending the rights of all citizens and opposing every institution of an authoritarian, surveillance, and police state America. Once Democrats are back in power — unless they roll back the Patriot Act, stop the endless wars, pare back the military budget, dismantle FISA courts and institute sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system and ensure police accountability — they will have done nothing to rescue what’s left of our shredded democracy.