Saturday, February 25, 2017

What are the key questions…
...which conflicts to make salient?

EJ Dionne in today’s Washington Post provides us with a very thoughtful analysis of the challenges ahead.

The most striking aspect of the vast and swiftly organized movement against President Trump is how little it had to do with the Democratic Party. Whoever is elected to chair the Democratic National Committee this weekend should draw two conclusions from this, and they are in tension.

Just like the Tea Party movement—part spontaneous, part ‘organized’ by elites—current protests are emerging as a challenge to both parties, in this case most particularly to the Democratic Party.

One distinction here that I think is generally discussed in an oddly distorted way is the degree to which any protest movement is an authentic grassroots movement.
While it is important to distinguish between phony grassroots organizations that are entirely run out of a PO Box by a wealthy individual or lobbying firm and ‘real’ movements, when the distinction is not obvious and extreme it also difficult to clearly sort out.

The March on DC had organizers, as did Tea Party and Civil Rights and the original Tea Party where our founders participated…but having organizers does not mean it is not authentic, grassroots, anger. All movements have organizers. So, when you hear this distinction framed to suggest that merely having organizers means it is phony, pause and think again.

Further, even entirely phony movements need to be taken seriously because resources matter and these can easily attract the attentions of new segments of voters and become more and more authentic over time.

First, the anti-Trump effort, while broadly motivated by a progressive worldview, is diverse in both philosophy and experience. Trump incites antagonism from the center and the left. Those protesting him include citizens who have long been engaged in politics but also many recently drawn to activism by the sense of emergency this dreadful administration has created.

So, what are the conflicts Dems should make salient to bring this coalition together as a unified fighting force? Depending on which of the multitude of conflicts they choose to make salient, key publics will be divided and re-divided in different ways, resulting in either a powerful and large coalition or more intramural squabbling strengthening the president by focusing on the more trivial issues Dionne describes brilliantly below as ‘relishing in the narcissism of small differences.’

Second, Democratic leaders need to organize this discontent into a potent electoral force at a time when the very words “party” and “partisanship” are in disrepute, particularly among young Americans who are playing a key role in the insurrection. Democrats will not be up to what has become a historic responsibility if they indulge their tendencies toward heaping blame on the factions they oppose (“It’s Hillary’s fault” vs. “It’s Bernie’s fault”) or relishing the narcissism of small differences.

Thus the political tightrope the incoming head of the DNC will have to walk: A political party should not get in the way of a spontaneous and principled uprising rooted in so many movements across civil society. But in the end, as the tea party understood, power in a democratic nation comes from winning elections. And a two-party system, like it or not, requires picking sides.

In the end, unless there is a rule change (changing the game, in this case an unimaginable change to how we run elections) that no one expects to happen, anyone interested in displacing the current conflicts on the agenda with other conflicts or reframing these current conflicts or altering venue (strengthening federal oversight or weakening the power of the executive branch, for instance)…

…must choose one of the two major parties. Any other pathway ignores the game, pretends we are playing a game that does not exist, and dooms efforts to failure. We must choose one of the major parties to play in this game.

As Ryan Grim and Amanda Terkel reported this week for the Huffington Post, this process is starting to happen on its own as once-moribund local Democratic parties suddenly find themselves inundated with recruits inspired by the urgency of resisting Trump. Whoever wins the DNC job will have to do far more than national leaders have done in the past to nurture this energy in the precincts and neighborhoods, and to build party structures in places where they don’t even exist.

Almost as important will be fighting misleading assumptions about why Democrats failed in 2016. At the top of the list: the idea that Trump brought together a brand-new coalition and scrambled politics entirely.

Which is to say, at a deeper level, well below what should we do with ACA or China policy, there is a clash over how to interpret an observation (Trump won)…because winning that deeper conflict will have an enormous impact on the outcome of many, many other ‘presenting’ conflicts.

Wrong. Trump largely rallied the Republican base (he carried 88 percent of Republicans, according to exit polls, and 81 percent of conservatives) and received only 2 million more votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (62.98 million for Trump against 60.93 million for Romney). Those 2 million were crucial, of course, and they were distributed in the right states, but 2016 was not a realigning earthquake. The contours of politics remain familiar. And, yes, remember that Trump ran 2.9 million votes behind Hillary Clinton.

This underscores how false the choice is between a strategy based on increasing turnout among core Democratic constituencies and an emphasis on converting swing voters. It’s not dramatic to say it, but what’s required is some of both.

Here Dionne is brilliant. Nearly always, when faced with an ‘either/or’ sucker’s choice, the best option is to reframe the question from either/or to both/and as he does here, demonstrating his skill at ‘exercising more control over what he thinks ABOUT’ by not accepting the given question, but asking a better question.

The best analysis I’ve heard suggests that Clinton fell just short because she underperformed in three ways: Democratic base turnout was a bit lower than it should have been; working-class white defections were slightly higher than her campaign expected; and she did not do quite as well as she hoped with upscale whites. There will be trade-offs over which of these problems is most urgent, but this is not some grand do-or-die choice.
Given how the candidates are converging, the DNC race isn’t do-or-die, either.

Former labor secretary Tom Perez, whose candidacy was encouraged by the Barack Obama/Clinton forces, appears to be in the lead. He has a stoutly progressive record and has reached out to Bernie Sanders enthusiasts.

Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), who has Sanders’s strong support, has gone out of his way to talk the language of building broad coalitions and enjoys a lot of backing from congressional colleagues.

And Pete Buttigieg, the talented 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has made a name for himself by promising a “fresh start” and arguing that the last thing the party needs is to keep refighting the 2016 primaries. In the eight-person field, Buttigieg seems to have the best chance of emerging as the alternative if neither Perez nor Ellison wins early.

Whoever prevails will have an unusual opportunity and a large burden. The grass-roots vitality Trump has unleashed against him in just a month is already close to matching the positive enthusiasm Obama nurtured during his 2008 campaign.

As Peter Parker’s dad told him, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Elites do not see conflicts as problems, but as opportunities. Dionne points out here that those seeking to lead the DNC today (and to lead the RNC after Obama’s first election) absolutely face an ‘opportunity and a burden.’ These two always come together.

The hard part will be convincing the newly mobilized that the Democratic Party knows what to do with their commitment.

Here, the ‘newly mobilized’ highlights the large numbers of newly energized voter segments, publics, audiences, who have been mobilized by elites who are not the ‘usual suspects,’ not the establishment DNC elites…so these are a force to be recognized, potentially allied with, or if the new DNC fails to expand the scope of the conflicts that animate these voters…this could be a missed opportunity resulting in the re-election of the current president…and in doing so, perpetuating the agenda he is setting, continuing to focus on the conflicts he is publicizing, and in the terms he is framing them.

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