Democrats and contradiction

See updates through September 2, 2022, at end of post.



Fig. 1. Pope Francis and Joe Biden at the White House. Photograph by David Lienemann, September 23, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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.


Update, November 29, 2021: I am revising again my revised list of issues the Democrats have failed to deal with:

The new entry is gun nuttery.


Update, December 7, 2021: Barton Gellman’s article in the Atlantic is terrifying. It aligns perfectly with what I see around southwestern Pennsylvania. Donald Trump’s supporters are armed, dangerous, and committed; they exist in a burgeoning and unstoppable gun nuttery movement that has merged with a anti-abortion movement as part of an apparent merger of authoritarian populism, paleoconservatism, and social conservatism;[35] their participation in the militia movement is only barely the tip of the iceberg.[36]

Gellman pulls together a lot of strands showing how Trump’s supporters are increasingly well prepared to seize power, whether or not they actually win the election in 2024,[37] in a way that aligns with my own dire anticipation that this country is becoming an evangelical white nationalist country,[38] with only rhetorical opposition in a divided but functionally acquiescent Democratic Party that fails to earn people’s votes.[39]


Update, January 3, 2022: Some will recall that even though, in my dissertation defense, I forecast Donald Trump’s victory, I backpedaled from that forecast and even abandoned it altogether as Trump kept getting ever more outrageous in the pattern I would eventually describe as a “black hole,” where there is simply no limit to how deep he can sink.

I also thought there was no chance Trump would complete a four-year term. I didn’t know how it would—or, as it turned out, didn’t—happen, but I expected a stabilizing feedback of some sort that would toss him out. That didn’t happen.

On balance, I have pretty nearly consistently underestimated Trump’s support. It’s bad enough that I’ve generally stopped forecasting electoral outcomes.

But the Democrats’ prospects later this year seem decidedly bleak, and not just for the reasons in an excellent FiveThirtyEight analysis.[40] There is this spectacular failure to deliver on existential issues, a failure that cannot encourage voters to come out for an election they tend to view as less important anyway:

The Democrats’ hope lies, really, in revulsion towards Trump and Trumpism, a revulsion I’ve pretty consistently overestimated. It’s true that fissures are appearing in Trumpism, as Trumpists vie for power, influence, and money,[42] but I don’t see how any of this translates into diminished support for Republicans generally.

It is also true that Democrats plan another effort to pass voting rights legislation. It is still unlikely to succeed,[43] leaving me with a very strong impression that the Democrats really feel much more comfortable in opposition, where they can complain about the Republicans, than in power; when in power, they’re supposed to accomplish things and they fail at this miserably.

So yeah, by all means, take my forecasts with more than a grain of salt. But I’m just not seeing how the Democrats are headed for anything less than an absolute shellacking. And the prospect of Trumpists entrenched in power, one way or another,[44] scares the hell out of me.


Update, January 7, 2022: I’m still not seeing how Democrats can promise even now to pass voting rights legislation[45] when they need to change filibuster rules to do so and can’t get Joe Manchin to go along with such a change.[46] Lacking an explanation, I’m still left believing “the Democrats really feel much more comfortable in opposition, where they can complain about the Republicans, than in power; when in power, they’re supposed to accomplish things and they fail at this miserably.”[47]


Update, January 11, 2022: So Joe Biden went down to Georgia and did[48] just what activists warned him not to do, that being to give a speech without a solid plan.[49] Such a plan to pass voting rights legislation does not exist and cannot exist as long[50] as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema oppose changes to the filibuster, which they do.[51] So all of this is the Democrats’ specialty, hot air, and activists’ exasperation remains utterly justified.

Justified or not, however, these activists themselves need a solid plan. The Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated they are hopeless; a sensible approach on any number of issues[52] will blindingly obviously require something different.


Update, January 20, 2022: On the one hand, it’s a little remarkable how quickly the failure of the Democrats’ voting rights push[53] is disappearing from the headlines. On the other hand, the failure was widely expected and, to some degree, as such, it’s barely even news. It’s really just yet one more Democratic Party failure[54] in a long list of failures on issues that are existential for lots of folks:

It’s one thing for a political party to be so plainly more comfortable in opposition where it cannot be expected to actually accomplish anything and can simply take potshots at the governing party.[56] It’s another when the list of failures is so staggering and includes a sustained and significant threat to the ability of that party to ever again achieve power. We are not yet at a point where the Democrats have lost all credibility; the bipartisan paradigm likely ensures that they will continue to be taken seriously,[57] against all evidence, for some time yet to come.

But the lack of evidence for taking the Democrats seriously is now stark.


Update, June 24, 2022: This week, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down two egregious and catastrophic decisions, one granting greater rights to those who confuse their guns for their penises,[58] and one stripping women of the right to an abortion.[59]

People of conscience everywhere should be asking of the Democratic Party what it has actually done, not said, not performatively done, but actually done to prevent these outcomes. An honest answer will be that the Democratic Party has done absolutely nothing.


Update, July 2, 2022: It’s bullshit, entirely in line with Democratic Party standard operating procedure:

President Biden struck his most aggressive tone on abortion yesterday [June 30, 2022], calling for the Senate to suspend its long-standing filibuster rules in order to enshrine abortion rights into federal law.

Doing so would be an attempt by Democrats to restore the federal abortion rights that were in place for the last half-century with a simple majority vote. Yet Democrats don’t even have enough members within their own caucus to support such an effort.[60]

Joe Biden is merely responding to other Democratic Party politicians who want desperately to sound more aggressive in their defense of abortion rights.[61] But as usual, “they don’t have the votes,” because they aren’t actually and never are actually a governing party, so they can engage in all the fiery rhetoric they like, perfectly confident that nothing will actually happen. Side note: Even the Republicans are surprised by the lack of Democratic Party pushback[62] on the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.[63]

Even [the Democrats] admit to being in disarray. “What the fuck are we doing?” a Democratic lobbyist fumed. “What the fuck is the D.N.C. doing? I’m on their listserv and I haven’t gotten a fucking thing, have you? Every woman I’ve seen on social media that’s so mad, I’ve seen no link to, hey, here’s where you vote. If this was the G.O.P. side, that whole apparatus would be mobilized. From the Koch brothers to the N.R.A. to big oil, they would be efficiently mobilizing their base right now.” Asked what they expected to see from fellow Democrats, the lobbyist responded, “I think we’re going to see a lot of hashtags, and some rallies, and a lot of useless shit.” . . .

It turns out that telling people to vote and vote and vote some more in a system designed for minority rule, and where gerrymandering requires the Democrats to produce bigger and bigger turnout for smaller and smaller margins in Washington, can start to ring a bit hollow. How can you vote and win—and yet still lose so badly? Through the din of rage on social media and spontaneous protest in the street, even the most dedicated Democrats could hear the unmistakable, echoing sound of defeat.[64]

Which is to say, rather loudly, that if you’re hoping the Democrats are the answer to the forthcoming white Christian nationalist autocracy,[65] even they know and are whispering that they aren’t.[66] Hell, they won’t even pass voting rights legislation that would keep them in the game;[67] how, seriously, can you imagine they’d codify Roe?


Update, July 29, 2022: I need to repeat here what I said late last night (Pacific Time) or early this morning (Eastern Time):

Y’all know I don’t trust surveys when response rates are in the single digits[68] (for the methodology to be valid, the response rate should be at least ninety percent and with the response rates pollsters are actually seeing, there is absolutely no validity whatsoever in extrapolating from respondents to non-respondents).[69]

That said, the Washington Post story is consistent with what I’ve been hearing: While some hope that the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade leads to a backlash supporting the Democratic Party in what otherwise looks very much to be a catastrophic (depending on your perspective) result this November, a lot of folks think that just isn’t gonna happen. The latter group can claim, if you accept it, survey evidence in support.[70]:

“Is the discontent with Democratic Party leadership and policies generally so deep that those most affected by the court decision … still plan to sit out this election?” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, who worked on the poll. “I struggle to wrap my head around this disconnect.”[71]

I can’t speak for others here. But there is some evidence that the answer is, indeed, yes.[72] Because, in essence, I think, if you want excuses, the Democrats are your party. If you want substantive action, they just aren’t. That the Democrats won’t even pass voting rights reform that would keep them in the game simply blows it all away for me: “the Democrats really feel much more comfortable in opposition, where they can complain about the Republicans, than in power; when in power, they’re supposed to accomplish things and they fail at this miserably.”[73] I’m just not even seeing the beginning of a refutation here.


Update, September 2, 2022: Either Joe Biden remains in denial[74] or he is lying. He “emphasized that not all, not even most, Republicans are ‘Maga extremists,’”[75] when in fact

[p]olls suggest that a majority of Republicans do not believe Biden is the legitimately elected president. Election deniers are running for office, securing the nominations for key posts with power over how future elections will be conducted.[76]

Yes, most, in fact, nearly all Republicans are white Christian nationalists in a now stunningly monolithic conservatism.[77] Rhetorically, this denial makes sense if he hopes to pry these people away from what he called “blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence,”[78] but I very strongly doubt they’re listening to him.

For the rest of us, this is simply more performative bullshit. The Democrats have repeatedly refused to pass voting rights reform such as would even keep them in the electoral game, passing at most a pale shadow of the agenda they were elected to pass, still failing at abortion rights, failing to increase the minimum wage[79] despite a dire need[80] and a profound injustice,[81] remaining in denial about student loans, and indeed failing in so many ways that they compel a conclusion that they prefer to be in opposition, where they can complain about the Republicans without being expected to actually accomplish much if anything at all.[82]

  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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  61. [61]Rachel Roubein, “Democrats don’t have the votes to scrap the filibuster for Roe,” Washington Post, July 1, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/01/democrats-dont-have-votes-scrap-filibuster-roe/
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  78. [78]Joe Biden, quoted in Lauren Gambino, “Biden warns US democracy imperiled by Trump and Maga extremists,” Guardian, September 1, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/sep/01/biden-speech-philadelphia-extremist-republicans-threaten-democracy
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  82. [82]David Benfell, “Democrats and contradiction,” Not Housebroken, July 29, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/11/18/democrats-and-contradiction/

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