Democrats and contradiction

See updates through November 26, 2021, at end of post.


Ryan Grim reports that, at least in Virginia, Democrats seem to be losing on cultural rather than economic issues, particularly with education. It’s important to note that focus groups, such as the methodology Grim refers to,[1] are not based on representative samples, but given the six or seven percent response rate (possibly less now) on survey research,[2] this is probably at least a more honest methodology.

The more serious question is about generalizability. My inclination is to think Democrats nationwide should be paying attention to this but, given that this focus group isn’t even representative for Virginia,[3] I flatly do not have the evidence to back that up.

The most serious issue of all is what Democrats should do about it. The obvious answer is to move right on cultural issues: race, gender, sexuality, abortion, etc. But Democrats are already failing with voting rights[4] and white supremacist gang reform; to concede on what conservatives are calling “critical race theory,” but is actually a more inclusive reckoning with U.S. history, would be profoundly dishonest.[5] This is one of at least a couple contradictions that beset the Democrats: One would have to wonder how any such moves would affect support from people of color and members of other subaltern groups based on gender and sexuality.

That last part might help to explain why the Republicans aren’t making even more progress at dividing Democrats than they already have. But Grim leans heavily on Andrew Levison, who believes that Democrats should target “cultural traditionalists” in the white working class:[6]

[C]ultural traditionalists are people who don’t follow the news closely but have an easy-going personality and an open mind — contrasted with cranky, short-tempered people who are more likely to fall into the “extremist” category. They believe in patriotism and the “American way of life” but also believe that diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are essential characteristics of that American way of life. When it comes to race, these traditionalists have something of a Michael Scott view, rooted in the cliche that they “don’t see race” or “don’t see color.” They also have religious and moral values they’d happily describe as “old fashioned” but say they have no problem with people who have different views. When these voters shifted their views on marriage equality, accepting it as something that ought to be legal even if they were skeptical of it, the dam had broken.

Cultural traditionalists, according to Levison, also think of government as often wasteful and inefficient and of politicians as corrupt and bought off — but they don’t think government is inherently evil and can be convinced that it can do good things. Meanwhile, they think Democrats are a party that “primarily represents social groups like educated liberals and racial or ethnic minorities while having little interest, understanding, or concern for ordinary white working people like themselves.”[7]

These sounds a lot like a softer version of Thomas Frank’s Kansas “Cons,”[8] who I included as authoritarian populists in my dissertation.[9] These are the sort of people who will think that the Democratic Party has moved “too far left.” But when “too far left” includes voting rights, white supremacist gang reform, and a more honest reckoning with U.S. history, concessions will directly impact progressive enthusiasm.

I think Grim’s effort is honest. But it really winds up begging the question of a Democratic Party that is profoundly divided between so-called “progressives” and so-called “moderates.” This is the same question that bedevils them on Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative, previously widely known as a “$3.5 trillion reconciliation package,” that was supposed to accompany the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, in which the latter has passed,[10] but the former, betraying those so-called “progressives,” remains very much in doubt,[11] and when what the Virginia results[12] likely show is that neither wing of the Party can win without the other.

My dismay with the Democrats has been that, in that division, the national leadership has much more often hewed toward the so-called “moderate” wing and neoliberalism than toward the so-called “progressive” wing.[13] Accordingly, I have doubted that the Democrats even want to win; as Frank noted, the Democrats have thrown away votes like mine and even those a lot less radical.[14]

An honest approach to this division would likely divide the Democrats into two parties: Joe Manchin, Kyrstin Sinema, and the rest of the neoliberals would form the so-called “moderate,” really meaning just left of Republican, party. So-called “progressives” would form the other, possibly unifying with the Green Party. But I can’t tell you how that would actually lead to progress.

Grim instead wants Democrats to frame Amerikkka as better than the worst of its past even as he acknowledges[15] capitalism’s relationship with slavery,[16] a relationship that does a lot more than echo with employers’ utterly bogus[17] and incessant whining about a “labor shortage” today[18] that refuses to take on issues with opportunity and conditions[19] and with Democrats’ failure even now to raise[20] a minimum wage that falls far short of what it costs to live,[21] let alone what justice demands.[22] Much as people may want to believe that Amerikkka is better,[23] it’s simply not true.

No matter how you look at Democrats’ dilemma, even assuming they actually want to win, they are beset by contradiction. Their message accordingly cannot help but be muddled and the only question is how much, under any given set of circumstances, this contradiction will cost them.


Update, November 19, 2021: Kimberley Strassel is unhappy that so many Senate so-called “moderates” are not as vocal in opposing the Build Back Better package as either their House of Representatives counterparts or Joe Manchin and Kyrstin Sinema.[24]

The House has now passed that bill,[25] as it turns out that Pramila Jayapal had secured an agreement from House so-called “moderates” to support it,[26] which seems to me to at least partly undermine Strassel’s argument. Be that as it may, when all the theatrics are over, I think this bill is dead, as Manchin and Sinema, who are not, as near as I can tell, bound by Jayapal’s deal, will cling to any excuse they can dredge up, no matter how far-fetched, to oppose it. Strassel writes for the Wall Street Journal opinion page, whose veracity, I gather, is on the order of Fox News.


Update, November 26, 2021: When it comes to Democrats being “out of touch,” the Third Way is not whom I’d consult:

Written by Third Way, a Democrat think tank, and ALG Research, it highlights that voters are convinced that the economy is doing poorly. While inflation is uncomfortably at more than 6 per cent, job creation is soaring and wages are increasing rapidly.[27]

This, of course, supports a neoliberal agenda of budget cuts, especially for social services, but remarkably, never, ever, for the military, and of treating labor as a cost[28] rather than as people who need to survive.[29] The real story with inflation in the present situation is nuanced,[30] not reducing neatly to neoliberal sound bites but, of course, the entirely discredited latter[31] is what the Third Way is all about. Neoliberalism, nonetheless, rumbles on, like a zombie, because taking care of the rich, and for the Democrats, their “donor class,” is infinitely more important than taking care of people.

It’s worth noting here that this story[32] appears in the Times, which is ultimately owned by Rupert Murdoch. My revised list of issues the Democrats have failed to deal with:

The real story here isn’t just about inflation, but about a whole host of things the Democrats have failed to accomplish, including many that are existential for a great many people, and that the Democrats have simply stopped talking about.

  1. [1]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  2. [2]Courtney Kennedy and Hannah Hartig, “Response rates in telephone surveys have resumed their decline,” Pew Research Center, February 27, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/27/response-rates-in-telephone-surveys-have-resumed-their-decline/
  3. [3]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  4. [4]Steve Benen, “As Senate Democrats reach a deal on voting rights, what happens now?” MSNBC, September 14, 2021, https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/senate-dems-reach-deal-voting-rights-what-happens-now-n1279115; Philip Bump, “Biden warns that American democracy is under threat — a message targeting many in his own party,” Washington Post, July 13, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/13/biden-warns-that-american-democracy-is-under-threat-a-message-targeting-many-his-own-party/; Stephen Collinson, “Revolt by Texas Democrats heaps pressure on Washington to act on voting reform,” CNN, June 1, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/01/politics/texas-democrats-voting-reform-pressure/index.html; Mike DeBonis, “Senate Republicans block debate on a third major voting rights bill,” Washington Post, November 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/senate-voting-john-lewis/2021/11/03/de00974e-3cc5-11ec-bfad-8283439871ec_story.html; Matt Ford, “The Democrats’ Voting Rights Bill Is Dead,” New Republic, July 13, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/162974/democrats-voting-rights-bill-dead; Maya King, David Siders, and Daniel Lippman, “‘We’re f—ed’: Dems fear turnout catastrophe from GOP voting laws,” Politico, July 26, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/26/democrats-gop-voting-laws-crisis-500726; Carrie Levine, “Why there’s even more pressure now on Congress to pass a voting rights bill,” Center for Public Integrity, July 9, 2021, https://publicintegrity.org/inside-publici/newsletters/watchdog-newsletter/why-theres-even-more-pressure-now-on-congress-to-pass-a-voting-rights-bill/; Abby Livingston and Carla Astudillo, “Sen. Joe Manchin, key Democratic holdout on federal voting protections, coming to Texas for fundraiser hosted by several GOP donors,” Texas Tribune, June 16, 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/15/joe-manchin-texas-fundraiser-republicans/; Amanda Marcotte, “Kyrsten Sinema’s run out of excuses: Supreme Court leaves Senate Democrats with little choice,” Salon, July 2, 2021, https://www.salon.com/2021/07/02/kyrsten-sinemas-run-out-of-excuses-supreme-court-leaves-senate-democrats-with-little-choice/; Manu Raju, “Democrats cut deal with Manchin to get party behind long-shot voting overhaul bill,” CNN, September 14, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/14/politics/democrats-manchin-voting-overhaul-bill/index.html
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Talking about critical theory—and critical race theory,” Not Housebroken, November 3, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/06/11/talking-about-critical-theory-and-critical-race-theory/
  6. [6]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  7. [7]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  8. [8]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  10. [10]Andrew Restuccia and Eliza Collins, “Biden Signs $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill Into Law,” Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-infrastructure-bill-signing-11636997814; Tony Romm, Marianna Sotomayor, and Mike DeBonis, “Congress approves $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, sending measure to Biden for enactment,” Washington Post, November 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/11/05/house-infrastructure-reconciliation-vote/
  11. [11]Robert P. Baird, “Inside the Democrats’ Battle to Build Back Better,” New Yorker, November 8, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/inside-the-democrats-battle-to-build-back-better
  12. [12]Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella, “Republican Glenn Youngkin wins Virginia governor’s race,” Washington Post, November 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-governor/2021/11/02/ba9c3ccc-36b2-11ec-91dc-551d44733e2d_story.html
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Why I do not vote,” Not Housebroken, February 25, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/02/23/why-i-do-not-vote/; David Benfell, “California omens and Washington gridlock,” Not Housebroken, October 11, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/09/12/california-omens-and-washington-gridlock/
  14. [14]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  15. [15]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  16. [16]Sven Beckert, “Slavery and Capitalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/
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  18. [18]Justin Lahart, “Jobs Are Hard to Fill, and Ideology Makes It Hard to Understand Why,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/jobs-are-hard-to-fill-and-ideology-makes-it-hard-to-understand-why-11625050801; Eric Levitz, “Letting the Economy Create Jobs for Everyone Is (Sadly) Radical,” New York, June 4, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/06/biden-full-employment-policy-labor-shortage-inflation.html; Heather Long, “It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America,” Washington Post, May 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/05/07/jobs-report-labor-shortage-analysis/; Bryan Mena, “Unfilled Job Openings Outnumber Unemployed Americans Seeking Work,” Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/unfilled-job-openings-outnumber-unemployed-americans-seeking-work-11628531130; Joe Napsha, “Western Pa. business owners lament: Where have all the workers gone?” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 5, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/regional/western-pa-businesses-owners-lament-where-have-all-the-workers-gone/; Anna North, “The death of the job,” Vox, August 24, 2021, https://www.vox.com/22621892/jobs-work-pandemic-covid-great-resignation-2021; Greg Rosalsky, “Is There Really A Truck Driver Shortage?” National Public Radio, May 25, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2021/05/25/999784202/is-there-really-a-truck-driver-shortage; Michael Sainato, “Companies claim there’s a labor shortage. Their solution? Prisoners,” Guardian, July 20, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jul/20/companies-claim-theres-a-labor-shortage-their-solution-prisoners; Jon Schwarz, “The Business Class Has Been Fearmongering About Worker Shortages for Centuries,” Intercept, May 7, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/05/07/worker-shortage-slavery-capitalism/
  19. [19]Abha Bhattarai, “Retail workers are quitting at record rates for higher-paying work: ‘My life isn’t worth a dead-end job,’” Washington Post, June 21, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/06/21/retail-workers-quitting-jobs/; Jessa Crispin, “Welcome to dystopia: getting fired from your job as an Amazon worker by an app,” Guardian, July 5, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/05/amazon-worker-fired-app-dystopia; Tim De Chant, “Amazon is using algorithms with little human intervention to fire Flex workers,” Ars Technica, June 28, 2021, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/06/amazon-is-firing-flex-workers-using-algorithms-with-little-human-intervention/; Ryan Deto, “A Pittsburgh Burger King closes temporarily as workers apparently walk out,” Pittsburgh City Paper, July 26, 2021, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/a-pittsburgh-burger-king-closes-temporarily-as-workers-apparently-walk-out/Content?oid=19895999; Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” New York Times, June 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/15/us/amazon-workers.html; Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford, “Power and Peril: 5 Takeaways on Amazon’s Employment Machine,” New York Times, June 16, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/15/us/politics/amazon-warehouse-workers.html; Jenn Ladd, “‘This is a real job’: Philly’s restaurant workers dissect the labor shortage, and contemplate a different future,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 10, 2021, https://www.inquirer.com/news/labor-shortage-pandemic-workers-restaurants-philadelphia-hiring-20210710.html; Gene Marks, “Rude customers are a drag – but can we small business owners do more?” Guardian, July 25, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/25/small-business-owners-rude-customers; Matt Petras, “In the continuing pandemic, businesses need workers, but are jobs meeting the needs of residents?” Public Source, August 12, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/pittsburgh-workforce-covid-unemployment-hiring-worker-shortage/; Alina Selyukh, “Low Pay, No Benefits, Rude Customers: Restaurant Workers Quit At Record Rate,” National Public Radio, July 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/07/20/1016081936/low-pay-no-benefits-rude-customers-restaurant-workers-quit-at-record-rate;
  20. [20]Burgess Everett, “8 Democrats defect on $15 minimum wage hike,” Politico, March 5, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/05/democrats-15-minimum-wage-hike-473875
  21. [21]Anna Bahney, “Minimum wage workers can’t afford rent anywhere in America,” CNN, July 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/15/homes/rent-affordability-minimum-wage/index.html; Francisco Velasquez, “How much money a single person needs to earn to get by in every U.S. state,” CNBC, August 25, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/17/income-a-single-person-needs-to-get-by-in-every-us-state.html
  22. [22]Dean Baker, “The $26 an Hour Minimum Wage,” Center for Economic Policy and Research, August 19, 2021, https://cepr.net/the-26-an-hour-minimum-wage/; Rachel Pannett, “Minimum-wage lessons for the U.S. from the other side of the world,” Washington Post, July 26, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/minimum-wage-australia-biden/2021/07/26/e681cac8-de42-11eb-a27f-8b294930e95b_story.html
  23. [23]Ryan Grim, “It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters of All Races,” Intercept, November 15, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/11/15/democrats-voters-virginia-glenn-youngkin/
  24. [24]Kimberley A. Strassel, “On Reconciliation Bill, Senate Moderates Hide Behind Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/reconciliation-bill-moderates-let-joe-manchin-kyrsten-sinema-hassan-kelly-build-back-better-11637276328
  25. [25]Tony Romm, “House passes roughly $2 trillion spending package that would expand social benefits and fight climate change,” Washington Post, November 19, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/11/19/house-spending-reconciliation-bill/
  26. [26]Robert Kuttner to Today on TAP list, “Time to Salute Pramila Jayapal,” American Prospect, November 17, 2021, https://americanprospect.activehosted.com/index.php?action=social&chash=208e43f0e45c4c78cafadb83d2888cb6.1194&s=1e9c8da033986e0d1f0baa630b5bb784
  27. [27]Alistair Dawber, “Voters think we’re out of touch, finds Democrat report,” Times, November 25, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/voters-think-were-out-of-touch-finds-democrat-report-zzt8q52xj
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  29. [29]David Benfell, “The right to survive,” Not Housebroken, October 17, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/10/17/the-right-to-survive/
  30. [30]Hanna Ziady, “The perfect storm making everything you need more expensive,” CNN, June 9, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/09/business/rising-prices-inventories-post-pandemic/index.html
  31. [31]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); David Fickling, “The Gig Economy Compromised Our Immune System,” Yahoo!, July 25, 2020, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/gig-economy-compromised-immune-system-000048670.html; Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/03/fiscal-conservative-social-services-austerity-save-money; Jason Hickel, “Progress and its discontents,” New Internationalist, August 7, 2019, https://newint.org/features/2019/07/01/long-read-progress-and-its-discontents; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Stephanie Kelton, The Deficit Myth (New York: Public Affairs, 2021); Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/austerity_never_works_deficit_hawks_are_amoral_and_wrong/; Eric Levitz, “Neoliberalism Died of COVID. Long Live Neoliberalism!” Review of Shutdown, by Adam Tooze, New York, October 14, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/10/neoliberalism-died-of-covid-long-live-neoliberalism.html; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011); Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik and Simon Wren-Lewis, “Austerity Has Failed: An Open Letter From Thomas Piketty to Angela Merkel,” Nation, July 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/austerity-has-failed-an-open-letter-from-thomas-piketty-to-angela-merkel/; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Austerity-Has-Been-Tested-and/139255/; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/
  32. [32]Alistair Dawber, “Voters think we’re out of touch, finds Democrat report,” Times, November 25, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/voters-think-were-out-of-touch-finds-democrat-report-zzt8q52xj
  33. [33]Chris Arnold, “Evictions rising even as rental help from Congress reaches millions of people,” National Public Radio, November 11, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/11/11/1053540080/evictions-rising-even-as-rental-help-from-congress-reaches-millions-of-people

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