Democrats have a bright future — but only if they can fight on multiple fronts and avoid distraction

The Democrats have new energy, and rising stars like Kamala Harris and Adam Schiff. But there are pitfalls ahead

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 10, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

Kamala Harris; Adam Schiff   (AP/Damian Dovarganes/Alex Brandon)
Kamala Harris; Adam Schiff (AP/Damian Dovarganes/Alex Brandon)

If there’s one thing Democrats need to learn to do right now, it’s multitask. In effect, to claw its way back to power, the opposition party must walk and chew gum at the same time. President Donald Trump and the Republican leadership have offered Democrats such a target-rich environment, the only way they can lose is by shooting themselves in the foot in all the excitement. That, however, remains all too likely. Too many voices are still echoing past battles, but it's both possible and necessary to pursue more than one strategy at the same time, build a unified resistance — both within the party and beyond it -- and win in 2018.  

It's possible to be critical of Russia and Vladimir Putin, for example -- and committed to finding the truth about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia -- without demonizing them the way conservatives demonized the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It's possible to do all that without overlooking serious problems with our own intelligence agencies, or losing sight of other issues that hit ordinary Americans closer to home.

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It’s possible to defend Hillary Clinton — and female political figures in general — against misogynist attacks without ignoring other factors in her defeat. It's possible to rebrand and reshape the Democratic Party without needless attacks on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Those are a few of the false dichotomies we’re routinely asked to accept. We need to develop the habit of rejecting them.

Take my first example: My critical views of Putin's regime are fully engaged, simply based on his kleptocratic, authoritarian behavior. But there’s more to the story than that. I wrote about the role of neo-Nazis in Ukraine back in 2014, for example — reflecting a decades-long history of U.S. involvement with them — as well as role of neoliberalism in laying the groundwork for Putin's rise more recently. (That global tendency produced an “extreme re-concentration of wealth" that "coincided with nothing less than a full-scale 1930s-type depressionfor the vast majority of Russians.)

Putin’s rise, in short, reflected a tremendous experience of loss, and many who oppose him are no angels, either. None of that lessens the fact that Putin poses a threat to our democracy — it just calls for a more sophisticated response.

It's also possible to pay close attention to the Trump-Russia affair without turning a blind eye to problematic aspects of our own intelligence community. After the Washington Post broke its story about Jared Kushner supposedly asking Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to set up a secret communication channel, historian Kathleen Frydl (author of "The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973") wrote perceptively about both sides of the threat involved.  

It serves “no democratic purpose to receive intelligence leaks, and reprint them,” Frydl wrote, “without also raising the dilemma raised by Roman poet Juvenal: who will guard the guardians?”

Frydl points out that two serious narratives are involved: The story of the Trump campaign's relations to Russia, which is gradually coming to light, and the story about that story.

On the first narrative, she contends that it’s a grave mistake to argue over criminal intent and go looking for a smoking gun:

Instead the story and basic culpability of the Trump campaign begins well before the election, even before Russian hacking, and extends beyond the election’s result. It is a story of an incompetent and uncaring campaign, allowing for all manner of interlopers, even some bent on infiltration.

She draws an analogy to the theory of the case against Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, which convinced the company to seek a settlement:

The theory being: you can sell highly addictive drugs (in this case, opioids), but you can’t market them aggressively; and if you choose to market them aggressively, you damn well better market them accurately.

There was no smoking-gun document saying, “We plan to kill tens of thousands of people,” and there didn’t need to be. Reckless disregard was quite enough. So too with the Trump campaign. The president has repeatedly claimed there was no collusion with Russia. Well, there didn’t need to be:

In the analogy drawn, the theory would be: you can be incredibly careless in handling the operations of your campaign, but you can’t then engage in policy discussions with Russians; and if you engage in policy discussions with them, you damn well better not accept help from them at the same time.

So the Trump-Russia story, properly understood, is a damning indictment of Trump. But the second narrative, the story about the story, puts the shoe on the other foot. Leaking intelligence is not like other leaks — from the EPA, for example. Intelligence is a monopoly by necessity, Frydl writes, “but the implicit contract inherent in tolerating this incredible concentration of power is that this universe of information is not then selectively revealed in such a way so as to influence politics.” We might be happy to see Trump brought down by the forces of the so-called deep state, but who would be next? Who will guard the guardians? Frydl concludes:

Two forces endanger a democratic republic; neither one new, but both newly emboldened. One is a political apparatus that has lent itself to profiteering at the expense of the public interest; the other, a “secret government” that operates beyond the purview of democratic accountability. The Trump “story” is the catastrophic culmination of one; and the “story about the story” suggests that we have much to worry about regarding the other.

Although Frydl doesn’t say this, there’s a bit of a silver lining here: A more accurate framing of Trump’s culpability significantly reduces the need for leaks. One could even argue that, properly understood, a case for impeachment already exists in plain sight. We may not always escape such a dire dilemma, but this time we surely should be able to — if we are willing to face it rather than spend so much energy in denial, blame-shifting or other forms of evasion.

Nor do we need to ritualistically refight past fights, rather than learning from them and synthesizing multiple truths. Supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have fallen into this trap, in both straightforward and convoluted ways. We can all do better, without abandoning what matters most to us.

A case in point was the more-heat-than-light response to former Salon writer Rebecca Traister's recent New York magazine feature on Hillary Clinton. To keep things manageable, I’ll choose a single sane response, which is not meant to be exhaustive.

Collins is a political scientist who went on to write: "Yes, sexism was a real factor in the election,” citing research by Brian Schaffner and colleagues [chart]. “And in an election decided by narrow margins in a few states, that's enough to flip an election. But that's different from saying that sexism is an insurmountable barrier …. So yes: sexism real factor in 2016 election, but also yes, women who run can win, since sexism not sole or even central factor.”

Collins also raises a number of other complicating points. On one hand, he notes that “the effect of gender attitudes on vote choice are far smaller than other factors, like party. See Kathleen Dolan [link].” If that seems to minimize the importance of sexism, Collins also notes that when the percentage of women in our national legislature lags behind that found in Saudi Arabia, "America needs many more women to take the plunge and run."

There was a similar but unrelated freakout over Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is regarded as a Bernie Sanders surrogate. Two days after the story about Jared Kushner's dubious contacts with Kislyak broke, Turner appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union" and observed that the Trump-Russia scandal was not American’s top concern. "How's this playing in Ohio?" asked guest host Dana Bash. Turner responded at length:

No one in Ohio is asking about Russia. I mean, we have to deal with this. We definitely have to deal with this. It's on the minds of the American people. But if you want to know about people in Ohio — they want to know about jobs. They want to know about their children.

I was just in California, where California folks, especially the national nurses, are pushing for Healthy California, a single-payer, Medicare-for-all kind of thing. I talked to ... [an] African-American baby boomer who lives right here in D.C. Russia is not in his top five [concerns]. He believes that both parties are failing. I talked to a Gen-Xer white male who is in a union; he wants a third party. We are losing.

The president should be concerned about this, all Americans should be concerned about this. But if we were to go to Flint, they wouldn't ask you about Russia and Jared Kushner. They want to know how they are gonna get some clean water and why some 8,000 people are about to lose their homes.

We are preoccupied with this. It's not that this is not important, but every day Americans are being left behind because it's Russia, Russia, Russia. Do we need all 535 members of the Congress to deal with Russia? Can some of them deal with some domestic issues?

Turner wasn’t simply offering her opinion. Just a few days before, results of the latest HuffPost/YouGov poll were announced, showing that 47 percent of Americans saw health care as a top concern, followed by 38 percent for the economy and 20 percent for immigration. In contrast, “The relationship between the Trump administration and Russia, which has dominated headlines in recent weeks, scores far below, with just 12 percent naming it as a top issue.” What’s more, health care topped Russia among Hillary Clinton's voters by a huge margin, 55 to 31 percent, as well as among non-voters and third-party voters.

But the response to Turner, at least in some quarters, quickly went from critical to unhinged.

"I question why Turner, a Democratic rep and prominent Sanders surrogate, would run interference on the Russia investigation. So should you," tweeted  Melissa McEwen, editor of Shakesville.

“Nina Turner is poison for democrats. The future is Kamala Harris, Ted Lieu, Maxine Waters, Adam Schiff ... they are fighting back,” read another heavily retweeted comment. "Get that witch outta our party!!" a since-deleted tweet added.

Those Twitter users probably didn't know that Rep. Maxine Waters, perhaps the most outspoken Russia investigation advocate in the House and a close Clinton ally, agreed with Turner. A day after the March for Truth, MSNBC host Joy Reid asked Waters whether Democrats were "making a mistake by focusing so much on Russia, when most Americans would rather hear about jobs and the economy." Waters responded:

Well, we do both. Absolutely. Democrats are talking about jobs and the economy, and we're pushing back on this president's budget that's undermining all of our cities and towns, our seniors. ... And so we talk about the budget, we talk about job creation. Where is [Trump's] infrastructure item that he promised in the budget? He doesn't have any infrastructure program. Obama presented an infrastructure program that created a lot of jobs. We want that, but we also are going to continue to talk about how this president and his allies — I believe, and others believe — colluded with the Russians to undermine our democracy. And we're not going to stop talking about it, because this is extremely important to the future of this country. And so we do both.

There’s nothing remarkable about how Waters responded — aside from the fact that it’s become remarkable to respond that way over the past couple of decades. Waters was talking the way most Democrats did in the years before Bill Clinton and NAFTA. She and Nina Turner both want Democrats to get back to their roots.

So does former MSNBC host Krystal Ball, founder of the new People’s House Project, who appeared on Joy Reid's show the day before Waters. The host asked Ball whether her new organization was “sort of controversially trying to de-Pelosi" the Democratic Party.” Ball rejected that forcefully: 

What we're trying to do is restore the brand of the Democratic Party in the heartland and specifically in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. And that means running candidates who are connected to their communities more than to the donor class. And that's been interpreted as de-Nancy Pelosi-ing the party. But I think we've really got to work to restore that credibility with voters there, and also to add to our very strong civil rights plank having an economic message, that's strong and connects to voters in that region.

The idea, more precisely, is to find candidates who already resonate with their communities, and then interest donors in them, rather than the other way around. The logic of Ball's strategy is as as sound as Turner’s. In 1993, the Democrats representing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in the House voted against NAFTA almost unanimously, 33-2, while Republicans from those same states supported it, 24-4.

As I wrote about those votes just after the November election, “It could not possibly have been more clear whose interests each party represented in these key states. Heedless of their House members, the neoliberal Democratic establishment abandoned the party’s base. Democrats have been paying the price ever since, but never as painfully as on Election Day 2016."

In 1993, Democrats held a majority of House members from those four states. Today, 40 of the 56 House members from those states are Republicans, even though Democratic presidential candidates (at least before Trump) have typically carried all four of them. That’s largely due to gerrymandering, as former Salon editor David Daley explained in his book "Ratfucked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy," but the NAFTA vote played a huge role in getting the ball rolling. To start rolling it back again, Democrats will need candidates like the ones who voted overwhelmingly against NAFTA. Candidates like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, for example. Or like Nina Turner.

Ball’s concern about Democrats returning to their New Deal/Great Society roots is nothing new. Although she supported Hillary Clinton in 2008, in February 2014 she made a controversial on-air plea for Clinton not to run again:

It is clear now that we have two economies: one for a thin slice of educated elite and one for everyone else. That is the moment we are in now. So I ask you, does Hillary Clinton sound to you like the right person for this moment? ... Is someone who recently took $400,000 to give two speeches at Goldman Sachs the person we need to wrest control of the asylum back from the banking inmates? … In a time when we badly need to be inspired, rallied, and made to believe that America can once again be true to the American dream, we desperately need someone who is mission driven. We need someone who is clearly passionate, who is living and breathing and feeling in their bones the plight of the worker and the middle class, and who is unafraid to stand up to the Wall Street titans. That person is not Hillary Clinton.

That was not a widely shared view at the time, but it seems quite compelling in retrospect. My point, however, is not to recycle old arguments but to glean something forward-looking from them. That something is this: Democrats represent a diverse constituency, whose views will always be imperfectly integrated. There is no one right way to bring this about.

The more useful question is, “Which way is better?” And the answer to that should help improve the quality of all the options. The economic populist argument is a powerful one, and attempts to deflect or distract from it do not produce better options.

Similarly, it isn’t helpful to ignore the ways the Trump-Russia scandal can distort our politics. On the contrary, the more conscious we are of potential pitfalls — as discussed above — the more likely we are to succeed, without creating a whole new round of future problems.

Forty years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- national security adviser under Jimmy Carter -- thought it was a brilliant response to the Vietnam War to give the Soviets their own Vietnam. So began the wars in Afghanistan -- wars that have mutated and multiplied and now have tentacles on every continent save Antarctica. Possibilities that must have seemed remote, if not unimaginable, turned out to dwarf the immediate goals in the long run, with no conceivable end in sight. Do we really want another success like that? Or do we want to welcome the most wide-ranging, disciplined and critical examination of what we’re getting ourselves into before it's too late?

Whether puzzling out how to deal with Trump-Russia, how to prioritize progressive issues or how to structure our arguments, our greatest strength will come from developing a multitude of options and then testing out ways of connecting them. Polarizing, single-issue politics are well-suited to conservatives. When progressives fall into that kind of dichotomous thinking, we become our own worst enemies. There is no one true right way forward — except together.



By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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