Fixing the Party Can Help Save the World

Democrats have a terrific campaign issue in the Republican attack on the Postal Service. It isn’t clear the party will make the most of it. As an example, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democratic chairwoman of the House Oversight committee, has introduced legislation to counter the administration’s actions. She wants the Postmaster General to attend a hearing, but not until September 17th. Waiting that long doesn’t suggest urgency. (Note: This afternoon, the Oversight committee invited the Postmaster to attend an “urgent” hearing on August 24th). 

If you’re interested in the world’s future, an article in The New York Review of Books by Joseph O’Neill is important reading. It’s called “Save the Party, Save the World”. It’s a long article behind a paywall. The following 2,500 words are half of it:

Somewhat unexpectedly, ensuring the success of the Democratic Party has become the most important political project in the world. The United States remains the world’s largest economy and superpower, and its constructive international leadership is essential if the climate crisis and other world-historical dangers are to be overcome. This can happen only if Democrats dominate the national government for the best part of the next ten years or so. Republicans cannot be trusted with meaningful power precisely because they form one of the world-historical dangers that must be overcome. Noam Chomsky has accurately described the contemporary Republican Party as “the most dangerous organization in human history.”

The politics that this state of affairs calls for—working to make certain that one party defeats another throughout a series of legitimate elections, in order to avert catastrophe—is a novel one. Canonical political theory doesn’t engage with the scenario. Neither does customary political practice. Even reliably partisan voters don’t feel obligated to be partisan. They reserve the right to calibrate their support for a party in accordance with private criteria that could be trivial or morally serious. It’s a free world, right? But acting in accordance with private criteria, however virtuously, begins to feel absurd at a time when global heating has ripped open the “climatic envelope” that Homo sapiens has occupied for the last six thousand years.1 As for elected officials, their outlook is largely determined by the everyday demands of constituents and donors, by institutional maneuvering, and by personal careerism. Democrats are no exception. They didn’t go into politics thinking of themselves as emergency custodians of the biosphere or as firefighters combating the arson of American democracy. They too find themselves with philosophies and wish lists and time frames that have lost their currency.

Our political situation, then, makes an unfamiliar and potentially repugnant demand on us, namely that we quickly develop a loyalty to the Democratic Party as such. To a degree, this is already happening. The 2018 “Blue Wave” midterms produced an extraordinary partisan grassroots mobilization for a wide variety of candidates. Two years later, Angela Davis and Bill Kristol, whose political views couldn’t be more different, both support the presidential candidacy of Joe Biden. But transpartisan electoral alliances, however useful in the short term, are obviously insufficient to enable the Democratic Party to edge out the Republican Party for the next decade. Much of today’s political energy on the left is not profoundly Democratic or pro-Biden, and it’s not even profoundly anti-Republican. It’s a very narrow negative partisanship—support that is significantly motivated and energized by antipathy against one figure, Donald Trump. What happens to that energy when Trump goes? How will the Democratic Party fare without it?

The long-held approach of the Democratic establishment won’t solve this problem. That approach—to minimize interparty differences in the hope of winning over politically disengaged voters, to crawl upward one step at a time while the escalator is moving downward—has enabled the GOP  [the Republicans] to win most elections for the last twenty-two years. It is self-evidently unfit for the strategic purpose of gaining and exercising long-term power. Recent events have made a return to Democratic government-by-stasis unthinkable. The Black Lives Matter protests and the disastrous Republican response to the coronavirus crisis have budged even the famously stick-in-the-mud Biden into recognizing that a new politics is necessary. If, as seems likely, he wins in November, his administration and its supporters will need a new, broadly acceptable partisan ideology in order to win a series of subsequent elections.

Two clarifications are called for. “Partisan” does not connote gratuitous animosity against one’s political opponents. It refers to embracing a party, and a party identity, as the prime means of advancing a political agenda. It involves identifying the opposing party (rather than its supporters or even its leading figures) as your stated adversary, and waging a perpetual campaign of negative partisanship against that adversary. . . .

Second, “ideology,” in this sense, isn’t exhausted by the concept of a policy agenda. But if Democrats want to win elections repeatedly, they must enact policies that are both effective and popular with Democrats. The emphasis refers to an insight that for years has been mislaid by the left but not by the right: an American political party can’t consistently win elections, midterm and state-level races in particular, without the sustained and vigorous grassroots participation of its base. What about swing voters? They don’t vote much in midterms, and in this polarized era have shrunk to such small numbers that their influence on national elections is much diminished. Swing voters will support you if the big outcomes—jobs and the economy, in particular—are favorable and if your branding strategy (positive and negative) is strong. Base turnout, though, won’t happen unless the grassroots identifies strongly with the party, is united by a common purpose, and is determined to win. What can be done to make this a reality?

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s [new book] Code Red addresses this question. . . .

Dionne’s foundational assertion is important: the present moment offers an “opportunity we dare not miss” for progressives and moderates (these are Dionne’s terms) to jointly create “a movement that can and should be the driving force in our politics long after Trump is gone.” Referring to the spectacular exploits of the Democratic grassroots in the 2018 midterms, he writes:

These newly engaged citizens have created an opportunity to build a broad alliance for practical and visionary government as promising as any since the Great Depression gave Franklin Roosevelt the chance to build the New Deal coalition.

A coalition of this kind isn’t fanciful, Dionne argues. The entire liberal-left spectrum is outraged by the Trump presidency and, more deeply, is “appalled by the extremes to which economic policy has been pushed by a radical, deregulatory, anti-tax right.” Furthermore, the political intuitions of Americans have propitiously changed:

The “common sense” of politics…was redefined in the Reagan era as a belief in the supremacy of markets and the futility of government action. Now, our common sense, while still skeptical of government’s competence (after the Trump years, who could not be?), is deeply troubled by economic concentration, the power of corporations, the growth of monopoly power, and the unfairness of the distribution of wealth and income.

Dionne recalls that Democrats were once capable of doing big stuff, quickly:

The years between 1963 and 1966 saw the most extraordinary outpouring of liberal legislation since the New Deal…. Until the 1966 midterm elections put an end to lopsided Democratic majorities in Congress and strengthened conservative voices in the congressional GOP, an era of consensus enabled a large and confident majority to embrace national action expanding opportunities and alleviating needless suffering. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, new environmental laws, Head Start, the Job Corps, immigration reform—these are among the achievements of [the] period.

How do we get there again? “At the risk of sounding like a perhaps unwelcome counselor attempting to ease a family quarrel,” Dionne stages an intervention that tactfully surveys the viewpoints of the mutually infuriating quarrelers. This is of course a slippery undertaking. Big Tent politics encompasses class politics, movements of recognition and representation, moderation and radicalism, socialism and neoliberalism, cults of personality, boldly structural and incremental theories of change, good ideas and terrible ones. Dionne is at pains to not take sides—or, rather, to acknowledge the discrete merits of all sides. But his bottom line, it’s fair to say, is that moderates must accept that their conservative assumptions have been overtaken by events, and that the Democratic policy terrain has been mostly staked out by progressives. Progressives, for their part, must see that their efforts have been astonishingly effective, and move forward in a spirit of alliance and, if necessary, “visionary gradualism.” (Dionne likes this phrase, which he credits to the theorist and activist Michael Harrington, who founded the Democratic Socialists of America.)

The general tilt leftward is embodied by Biden’s apparent metamorphosis from restorationist centrist to agent of change awake to the new political landscape. His campaign website, “Joe’s Vision for America,” sets out a platform that is conspicuously more progressive, both in its rhetoric and in its practical proposals, than those of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. . .

Dionne is not yet fully persuaded by Biden’s new credentials. Nor could anyone be until a Biden administration, backed by a Democratic Congress, exercises power as progressively and aggressively as circumstances (for example, control of the Senate) permit. Biden’s career has largely coincided with the moral, intellectual, and electoral capitulation of the Democratic Party to the GOP. Like his contemporaries Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he has been programmed to not use power in a way that will anger Republicans or upset bankers or frighten the horses in an imaginary Middle America. It’s a generation of decent but passive people who find it difficult to grasp that their job is to enact meaningful policies that Democrats like and Republicans don’t like. . . .

Vital Democratic causes have been advanced not by the party but by activism, in which Millennials and Generation Z have played a crucial part. . . .

Dionne’s central proposal is designed to meet this challenge. In order to strengthen partisanship across varied standpoints, he argues, Democrats require a moral claim to power that is fresh, clear, and collectively shared. “The galvanizing idea,” he says, “should be dignity”:

A politics of dignity can bring progressives and moderates together and also begin to close the deep social divides that have distorted our politics and torn our country asunder. Opening the way to a new spirit of solidarity requires something else as well: An honest reckoning with the urgency of overcoming the injuries of race and gender but also with those of class.

“Dignity” refers to the enlightened idea that all persons are inherently valuable and worthy of respect. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” At the moment, dignity figures only peripherally in American liberal-left discourse, but as Dionne points out, Democrats from Biden to Ocasio-Cortez to Senator Sherrod Brown make regular use of the concept in their public remarks. They do so because dignity synthesizes issues of justice and recognition, tax and economic policy, family values, environmental policy, even statehood for the District of Columbia. It also links struggles associated with working-class white Americans to struggles associated with American minorities. If unifying the Big Tent requires finding a generalizable, unsullied, and instantly useful focal theme, the principle of [human] dignity is as actionable and inspiring as any. . . .

The difficulty . . . is that an ideology of partisanship isn’t something you can exhort into existence. In order for Democrats to cohere around the principles of dignity and grassroots power—the two are closely related, if you think about it—commitment in the abstract won’t be enough. It must be embodied by party relations, structures, and deeds. Specifically, it requires appropriate action by the three main stakeholders: the Democratic Party apparatus, in particular the [Democratic National Committee]; Democratic elected officials; and, finally, the (potential) supporters of the party who are ordinary civilians. Of these stakeholders, the institutional ones have the most immediate agency—the power to generate partisan coherence by action. It’s pretty clear what they must do: gain the trust and loyalty of the younger, more progressive cohort; keep the trust of the more centrist party faithful; and make swing voters trust Democrats more than they trust Republicans. The following steps must be taken.

First, embrace the principle of dignity as a central partisan theme. That will help unify and energize the party through this campaign season and provide a powerful and protective narrative for future partisan action.

Second, appoint figures trusted by the left to senior positions in the Biden administration and in the party organization. The progressive (younger) wing of the party is almost completely without representation in the congressional and DNC leaderships. That is a scandal, and must be fixed right away. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces (entrusted with producing policy recommendations in a variety of areas) are a very good step in this direction.

Third, the Biden administration and its allies in Congress must take the strongest legislative and executive action possible to do what Democrats, younger ones in particular, want them to do. A Green New Deal—with a substantial jobs component, not a pro forma one—will be crucial. Taxing the rich a lot more will be essential, as will a historic leap forward in health care. Doing stuff that Democrats like will be much more powerful in creating partisan loyalty than saying stuff that Democrats like.

Fourth, substantiate the narrative of dignity by reforming the police and ICE, fixing voter suppression, and fast-tracking immigration reform. Such measures are supported by the majority of Americans and are urgently awaited by party loyalists of color. A narrative of dignity—which is also applicable to the economically progressive measures outlined above—will enable a wide range of liberals to support these measures.

Fifth, enact reforms that will correct the dangerous electoral advantages enjoyed by the GOP. Statehood for D.C. is a no-brainer, as is restoring the reach of the Voting Rights Act. Scrap the Senate filibuster rule if need be. Criminalize intentional voter disenfranchisement. Expand the Supreme Court as necessary.

Sixth, start thinking about the 2022 midterms on day one. Because midterms and special elections are won by base turnout, Democrats must internally rebrand their party as the party of grassroots organizers. That entails more than a PR campaign. It will require funding, empowering, and privileging grassroots organizations, and putting the DNC apparatus at their disposal. Primary challenges should not be discouraged. Factional disputes should be viewed as good-faith differences of opinion—unless they undermine the shared partisan purpose and the mutual respect that an ethos of dignity requires.

Finally, stoke negative partisanship. Americans—whether they’re swing voters or party activists—must go to the polls in 2022 and 2024 with a strong (and valid) fear of letting the GOP back into power. Thus, always be negatively branding the GOP in the eyes of swing, or persuadable, voters. Exactly what approach to take in a branding operation is a complex question, but suffice it to say that it must be undertaken, and that the master narrative is: The Republican Party can no longer be trusted with power. Repeat this at every opportunity, then verify this narrative by investigating and bringing to light all Republican misdeeds. Brand them as Republican Party misdeeds, not as aberrant Trumpist corruption.

Call the disastrous Republican economy that Biden will inherit “the disastrous Republican economy.” Call the Republican pandemic crisis “the Republican pandemic crisis.” Always be trumpeting the success of your initiatives, always be talking about the danger of letting Republicans back into power. On no account repeat the mistakes of 2008–2010, when Democrats apologized for the Affordable Care Act and took ownership of the Republican financial crisis. If Democrats comport themselves like the natural party of government, they will be perceived as such and win more elections.

Biden will be crucial in all of this. He has spent fifty years accumulating bipartisan political capital. He is broadly viewed as an exemplar of personal honor. If he responds to this moment of historic need and opportunity, there could be no more credible messenger of the demise of the GOP nor a more reassuring leader in an era of transformative and partisan legislative action. It will be challenging, of course. Many of the steps outlined above will not be possible without having both the Senate and House under Democratic control—but then again, many will be. The challenges can be overcome—but only if Democrats, [all kinds of Democrats], start thinking and acting as partisans.

There Is No “Congress”

It is true that the Constitution of the United States of America created a legislature. Its principal function is to make laws. It comprises the legislative branch of the federal government, the other two branches being the executive and the judicial.

The authors of the Constitution called this legislative branch “Congress”. They also divided this “Congress” into two parts.

Article I, Section 1:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

When a law or a change to a law is proposed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both endorse the proposal in order for it to become official, i.e. “the law of the land”. (The Executive branch, embodied by a “President”, also gets to participate in the process. Sometimes the Judicial branch does too.)

So far, so good.

The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties, but it only took a few years for a “two-party system” to develop.

The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. . . .  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison . . . wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president, George Washington, was not a member of any political party . . . Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation . . .

Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system merged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison . . .  ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm . . . that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being [Wikipedia].

How does the two-party system affect Congress? If the majority in both the Senate and the House belong to the same party, it doesn’t make that much difference. If, say, the Racoon Party has the majority in both houses, there is general agreement on which laws to adopt (since senators serve for six years and representatives only serve for two, the members of the two houses sometimes have different priorities even when they belong to the same party).

But what if the Racoons are the majority in the Senate and the Otters are the majority in the House? Or the other way around? It is more difficult for the two majorities to agree on what the country’s laws should be. Sometimes it’s almost impossible.

Since 1857, when the Republicans joined the Democrats as one of America’s two major parties, there have been eighty-two sessions of Congress. By my count, the same party has controlled both houses of Congress sixty-six times, leaving sixteen sessions in which Congress has been divided. We are living through one of those sixteen sessions now, since the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate.

As we would expect, with two different parties in charge, things are not going well.

For example, the Democrat-led House agreed on legislation in May, almost three months ago, in order to deal with the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19. Among other things, House Bill 6800 (unfortunately called “The Heroes Act”) would extend the $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, make another round of direct payments (up to $6,000 for a family), provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and increase aid to state and local governments.

The Republican-led Senate has not taken a vote on the House’s bill. Nor has the Senate proposed its own version of legislation to address the same issues (which would then be subject to negotiation with the House). The result is that the $600 increase in unemployment insurance agreed to earlier this year has lapsed. A moratorium on housing evictions is also ending.

So the country is in quite a pickle.

Now here’s what motivated me to express myself today. It’s a headline in The Washington Post.

Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences

Here’s one from USA Today.

Congress leaves town without a coronavirus stimulus deal, allowing $600 unemployment benefit to end

Here’s a classic example of the problem from an experienced New York Times reporter:

A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.

With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the [Republican] White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.

In a private party session, arch-conservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.

And that’s just the past few days.

By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess . . .

Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine. He referred to the problem twice in the past month:

If I could change one thing about political coverage, it would be the practice of attributing actions by one party to “Congress” [June 27].

The single worst practice in political journalism is attributing decisions by one party to “Congress” [July 26].

I’d make it “actions or inaction by one party”, but he made a very good point.

My suggestion is that when two different parties are in charge of Congress, people who write about politics for a living should make an effort to specify which party in which house is doing (or not doing) something. That would help readers understand where the dysfunction usually lies (hint: it’s not the Democratic side).

Since my suggesting this will have no effect, I’ll alternatively suggest that when we readers see references to Congress in times like this, we keep in mind that Congress has two parts and that one of those parts (same hint) is totally screwed up.

In fact, in times like this, “Congress” doesn’t really exist.