Hiding from History

While it is generally frowned upon to speak ill of the dead, this rule of etiquette cannot be observed for someone who exerted as much power in Washington for over three decades as John McCain. As I.F. Stone once observed, “funerals are always occasions for pious lying, A deep vein of superstition and a sudden touch of kindness always leads people to give the departed credit for more virtues than he possessed.” Conversely, sentimentality at funerals sometimes reveals deeper truths about those expressing condolences.

When John McCain died last week, his Senate desk was draped in black crepe and it was announced that his body would lie in state in the Rotunda and be interred at Arlington Cemetery. Writers from both Right and Left seized upon McCain to idolize both the man he was and the man he was not, pointing at his work across the aisle, his self-deprecatory humor, and his status as an honest-to-god American hero. Even Democratic Socialist Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez was smitten by McCain’s “decency.” McCain was Audie Murphy, Jack Armstrong, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all rolled into a single myth. And he got a lot of mileage from it over a long career.

There is no question the nation has been traumatized by Donald Trump. Some of the effusive praise of McCain seems at first glance to be nostalgia for the days when not all Republicans were white supremacists or proto-fascists. There are plenty of journalists who remember McCain as he was — warmonger, friend of the super-rich, the man who made the Tea Party “respectable” with his Vice Presidential pick — and not as some want him to be (see this and this and this and this and this and this for examples). But much of the praise we’re hearing reveals a bipartisan appetite for McCain’s militarism and love of American Exceptionalism. Numerous Democratic pundits removed their veils this week, revealing that McCain’s values were really their own.

In John McCain’s farewell statement, read by a former campaign manager, he wrote that Americans “never hide from history. We make history.” McCain was wrong. We may know our history but it is precisely the American penchant for hiding from history which allows us to repeat our mistakes over and over again. McCain certainly hadn’t forgotten the history of Viet Nam when he voted to invade Iraq. But he hid from it. Democrats know their history too, but hiding from it permits the strange posthumous embrace of a man who represented everything they claim to oppose.

The Far Right — that is, today’s Republican Party — has little to lose by valorizing McCain even if they did bash him for the occasional clash with Dear Leader Trump. But the effusive praise by Centrist Democrats (examples here and here and here and here) is egregious and focuses on McCain’s better personal qualities, and not on an honest reckoning with his — or their — politics.

When it comes to immigration, defense spending, and economic policy, Centrist Democrats aren’t really as distant or distinct from Republicans as they claim to be. Despite McCain’s swipe at Trump “hiding behind walls” in his farewell statement, in 2008 McCain went to Mexico to argue that America needed more border walls — a view both Clintons and Barak Obama shared. In 2013 McCain went to Syria to drum up support for American intervention and regime change, but it was the Obama administration which actually initiated the war. In 2018 the massive “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act” was passed overwhelmingly by both Republicans and Democrats, stealing much from the poor and giving it instead to defense contractors.

Another recent preoccupation of Centrist Democrats has been the defense of the American security establishment. FBI head James Comey and CIA head John Brennan have become national heroes for many liberal Democrats. Conveniently forgetting history has led to liberals like Stephen Colbert forgetting James Comey’s spying on Black Lives Matter and American Muslims, or Bill Maher forgetting John Brennan’s long history of war crimes, including torture and rendition, dating back to the Bush administration (Obama kept Brennan on at the CIA). As an institution, Comey’s FBI has a long history of repression of Afro-Americans and Leftists.

Since Hillary Clinton’s accusations at the 2016 DNC Convention of political meddling by Vladimir Putin, there has been a Russian lurking under every bush. Suspicion, calls for additional sanctions, and even red-baiting have led to a new Cold War mentality, with some Democrats even demanding Internet censorship of news outlets not hard enough on Russia. NATO, a relic of the Cold War, now has more flag-waving Democratic boosters than ever.

If Russia is the foreign nation Centrist Democrats obsess over the most, Israel is the one they won’t even talk about. Since the 2016 election, Donald Trump has cozied up to the Israeli settler movement. The American ambassador to Israel is, in fact, a settler himself. The US has cut UN contributions for Palestinian refugees and given Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to annex East Jerusalem and roll out more settlements in the West Bank. Israeli snipers recently murdered dozens of “Land Day” protesters in Gaza, and there was scarcely a peep from Centrist Democrats. And when it comes to all-too real “foreign interference,” Israel’s domestic lobbying partners have successfully passed legislation in dozens of states making it illegal to criticize or boycott Israel. And all with Democratic Party help.

I.F. Stone was right about lies at funerals, but sentimentality sometimes reveals its own truths. No one for a second believes history can be conveniently forgotten, but we can and do hide from it — and who we really are. This week’s outpouring of love for America’s most recognizable nationalist and American Exceptionalist tells a disturbing truth about both our country and the Democratic Party.

Fixing America

If you hadn’t noticed it before, the 2016 presidential election only sharpened our awareness of America’s festering race problem. White liberals may be repulsed by Donald Trump’s Tweets and his unapologetic racism, but White Supremacy in America is not simply foul-mouthed malice. Once you realize that White Supremacy is mainly about creating a system of privilege for White people, it’s like noticing cars exactly like yours on the road — you start recognizing its insidious presence in almost every institution — the courts, schools, jobs, police, housing — and politics. And, like much in this country, the debate over the Democratic Party’s soul often overlooks the importance of African-Americans.

Congress is 90% White and 80% male. The Senate has only three African-American Senators — and only one is a woman. If the Senate looked like the rest of America, we’d have thirteen African-American Senators and seven of them would be women. But. because of demographics and the disproportionate Senate representation that states like Vermont and Wyoming receive, the Senate is one more structural element of White Supremacy. And in a nation with a median age of 37, Congress looks more like a retirement community than Main Street. The average age of the top three House Democrats is 76, and most are millionaires. The people who represent us are nothing like us — and I’m talking about Democrats.

Emily’s List is the second largest Democratic political action committee (PAC) after ActBlue. Its mission is simply to get pro-Choice Democratic women elected, and it’s been pretty successful at it. But when it comes to race, the Democratic Party isn’t ceding power to a younger, browner America. In addition, Democratic political action committees aren’t recognizing candidates of color as “viable” as readily as they do White contenders and they haven’t historically provided much funding. With both representation and funding of African-American candidates lacking by both centrist Democrats and progressives, political consultant and CollectivePAC founder Quentin James wasn’t sugarcoating it when he titled his Medium piece, “The Left Has A White Supremacy Problem, Too.”

Last year the Democratic Party sent its leadership to Berryville, Virginia to woo White voters with its “Better Deal” economic campaign. In a New York Times editorial Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color and author of Brown is the New White, warned of a midterm disaster for Democrats in 2018 if they insisted on repeating the mistakes of 2016, specifically “prioritizing the pursuit of wavering whites over investing in and inspiring African-American voters, who made up 24 percent of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in 2012.” In Brown is the New White Phillips offers postmortems of the 2010 and 2014 midterms. And guess what? Democrats still haven’t learned their lesson — they’re still pursuing the White swing vote in 2018.

In its first iteration, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” candidate list — campaigns designed to take back the House — did not include a single Black candidate. Now, less than a hundred days before midterms, there may be a few more people of color on the roster, but the DCCC’s candidates are still overwhelmingly White and Centrist — technocrats and gatekeepers selected mainly for “viability.” Democrats aren’t listening to Phillips and they aren’t listening to Thomas Frank either. Frank’s book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People, takes Democrats to task for abandoning the working class and embracing a technocratic caste located somewhere between upper-middle and the ruling class. Call it what you want, but it’s not the party of the people.

As elections have unfolded this year, the special Senate race in Alabama (in which a Democrat narrowly beat an alleged pedophile) focused attention on Black women in the party. All of a sudden Black women were receiving thanks and praise, but not feeling enough love to propel them into positions of power. And political power is to politics what air is to breathing. Black women were sick and tired of being sick and tired of being asked to support White candidates without the favor being returned.

Michelle Laws, who challenged incumbent David Price in North Carolina’s 4th Congressional district, said it best during her campaign, “There are many black women around this country who are no longer willing to be the mules of the party, doing the hard work on the ground, and receiving very little in return in terms of support and endorsement of the party to serve in key leadership positions.” With the DCCC’s strategy of defending (White) incumbents, Laws received only 16% in the Democratic primary. Political consultant Jessica Byrd expressed her frustration with the dearth of Senate seats for Black women when she wrote — “how about you get out of my chair?'”

Candidates of color endorsed and financed by PACs like CollectivePAC, PowerPAC+, Color of Change PAC, and BlackPAC have made it possible for younger and browner candidates to throw their hats into political races. Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York are both running campaigns with wide progressive support, which involve hundreds of operatives and canvassers — both adding to a pipeline of future candidates of color and energizing White progressives. And these are the sort of campaigns the Democratic Party should be fiercely supporting.

Steve Phillips’ New American Majority is neither a new idea nor complex math. His thesis is that if you add up white progressives and progressives of color you’ve got a numerical majority that can beat Conservatives — not in 2040, when Whites will be a numerical minority, but right now. Phillips grumbles that he’d rather Greens and Libertarians vote with their Democratic friends than split the vote, but he’d really prefer that the Democratic Party offer better reasons for registered African-Americans voters to show up at the polls — like representation, support, and money. But this requires real change, not rhetoric.

Uniting progressives of different colors will require the blindingly White Democratic Party establishment to loosen its death-grip on power, while candidates of color receive more support to fundraise, train political operatives, and run candidates who reflect who they are and the values they care about. It is no coincidence that the Democratic Party has done so little for national criminal justice reform, police accountability, or immigration. Our most serious problems — racism, xenophobia, income inequality, criminal (in)justice, police abuse, healthcare, education, housing, jobs, militarism, civil liberties, political representation — all have been the concerns of Black America since the very beginning. If African-American and Latinx politicians actually held proportionate political and economic power within the Democratic Party, we might actually see some change.

In July Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez went before both the NAACP Convention in San Antonio and Black voters in Atlanta to apologize for the party’s turning its back on African-Americans. At this late date there’s little hope of changing the party’s orientation to White swing voters. But if the direction is ever to be changed, it will come from the grassroots, not from the leadership.

Last month I had the opportunity to attend CollectivePAC’s Black Campaign School in Atlanta, Georgia. I met Quentin and Stephanie James, lead trainer Jessica Byrd, and numerous candidates (and sitting politicians) of color who shared their campaign experiences with a largely millennial audience of first-time candidates and volunteer staffers. I was not the only White person in attendance; several others were working on campaigns for African-American candidates, mainly in the South.

I came away believing more than ever that Steve Phillips is on to something. The rescue of the country depends on whatever political power the Democratic Party can still muster. But the Democratic Party has a vision problem, a values problem, and a representation problem. When it comes to social and political reforms, the overwhelmingly White Democratic Party leadership just doesn’t have enough skin in the game. Does Chuck Schumer have an incarcerated brother? Stacey Abrams does.

The best way forward, I firmly believe, is by working with, and following the lead, of those who truly, personally, know the value of fixing America.