Democrats' Trump-era quandary is familiar: Play offense or defense? It ought to be obvious by now

Democratic cowardice will not stop America's decline, or reverse Trump's damage. It's a time for true courage

Published July 28, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Joe Biden; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (AP/Getty/Salon)
Joe Biden; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (AP/Getty/Salon)

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Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
— Goethe

The job of an effective message isn't to say what is popular; it is to make popular what we need said.
— Anat Shenker-Osorio

Some of the most prominent recent political discussions — about impeachment, about Joe Biden's "electability,” about 2020 election strategy in general, about Nancy Pelosi vs. "the Squad," about how to respond to Trump — rarely touch on the most fundamental question: Whether to play offense or defense. 

There are exceptions, such as Brian Beutler at Crooked Media and cognitive linguist and communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio at The Hillbut not nearly enough. As long as Democrats play defense, their options will be severely limited — yet they stubbornly resist going on offense instead, thus giving up the opportunity to define the terms on which battles will be fought and won.

What’s most distinctive about the four congresswomen known as “the Squad,” for example, is simply their articulate outspokenness — which speaks to people across a much broader ideological spectrum than Beltway pundits realize. Ideology, after all, isn’t the way most Americans think about themselves politically, and policies so “far left” they’re rarely even addressed in opinion polls can turn out to have broad public support.) Plus, a lot of what the Squad have to say is as American as apple pie, pizza or tacos. Consider this, from Rep. Ilhan Omar: 

The America we arrived in was different from the one my grandfather had hoped to find….

But the beauty of this country is not that our democracy is perfect. It’s that embedded in our Constitution and democratic institutions are the tools to make it better.

We face a crisis on multiple fronts: on climate, the border, our core democratic institutions — and crisis demands action. A broad range of Americans know this is true, especially younger voters. The Squad speaks for them — urgently and out of necessity, as well as out of hope.

That’s not how the Democratic Party establishment sees things. Nor do most in the nation’s press, who still can’t figure out how to deal with Trump’s disinformation firehose. Nor do other elite institutions, all of which are more seriously threatened than they realize by the mounting global authoritarian threat, of which Trump is only one face.

That defensive crouch is most visible in the Democratic Party's handling of impeachment, in its continued narrow focus on Trump voters, and in Pelosi’s outmoded thinking about how to protect her swing-district freshman class. These are all interrelated problems, and a defensive fear of Republican attacks lies at the heart of all of them.  

On the media: An interlude

Before looking at those more closely, it’s helpful to take a bigger look around.  In the media, for example, the defensive crouch can be seen in how the Los Angeles Times recently framed the problem of covering Trump  — either one takes the bait by covering his mendacious attacks, or one or normalizes his behavior by ignoring them.

That framing ignores a whole set of options described by press critic Jay Rosen on Twitter, which include: Suspending normal relations (i.e., no longer giving him uncensored airtime), decentering Trump’s role as the central character (as in Vice News' immigration coverage), framing his lies in a "Truth Sandwich" (as explained by linguist George Lakoff), treating gaslighting as an issue or beat in itself, and grounding coverage in "a transparent and public agenda.” 

That list of options shows just how vast a range of choices journalists actually have — if they are willing to go on offense, and define the terms of engagement for themselves. There’s nothing unprofessional about it. all the options maintain classic journalistic values but find new ways of living up to them, appropriate to the challenge that Trump represents. 

The overwhelming failure to do so results in de facto passive collaboration with Trump — an extension of CNN’s role in helping elect him, epitomized in its coverage of Robert Mueller's congressional testimony last week. As Adam Serwer wrote

[T]he coverage of the Mueller hearing illustrates the extent to which much of the mainstream press has internalized Trump’s own reality-show standards for what counts as a significant political development. All the world is trashy television, and the president and his opposition are merely producers. After three seasons, Russiagate just got old, and the critics got bored with it.

The defensive passivity of press both feeds off and nourishes the defensive passivity of the Democrats. The more measured Democrats are in their investigation, the more bored the media becomes, the more it needs something explosive to pay attention. 

Broader constitutional rot

Before turning to the Democrats' set of problems, it’s useful to take a step further back and consider the context in which both politicians and the press function: that of our constitutional political culture as a whole. Early in Trump’s tenure, Yale Law School’s Jack Balkin described the American situation writ large as “Constitutional Rot,” which he described as “decay in the features of our system that maintain it as a healthy republic,” which had been ongoing for some time: 

There are four interlocking features, which we might call the Four Horsemen of Constitutional Rot: (1) political polarization; (2) loss of trust in government; (3) increasing economic inequality; and (4) policy disasters, a term coined by Stephen Griffin to describe important failures in decision making by our representatives, like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis.

These are all symptomatic of the disintegrative phase America’s socio-political system has been going through since around 1970, as described by Peter Turchin in “Ages of Discord." (Salon review here). The breakdown of cooperative norms and values is another aspect of this process, along with the emergence of “counter-elites” who may push that breakdown to the point of violence or even full-blown civil war, as seen in previous historical examples examined in Turchin's earlier book “Secular Cycles.” 

While Balkin describes the larger framework of problems facing us, he does not provide anything like Rosen’s set of proactive suggestions about how to deal with them.  If anything, he glosses over the problem of interlocking passivity noted above when he writes, “Even so, the United States still has many other republican defenses. We still have an independent judiciary, regular elections, and a free press.”

In fact, all three have begun to failing in significant ways. The Supreme Court approved Muslim ban 3.0, partisan gerrymandering and Trump's border wall. Republicans' use of lame-duck power grabs are becoming routine, with the most notable success in Wisconsin. As noted above, the press has become bored by Trump’s criminality.

Balkin predicts "a big showdown in electoral politics over the next several election cycles," which is pretty obvious. "One of the two parties will have to find a way to restore trust in government and renounce oligarchical politics," he concludes.

Democrats have the potential to be that party. Republicans do not. The Republican Party's future, in fact, is tied to furthering constitutional rot — if not enabling the outright overthrow of American constitutional government. Democrats alone have the potential to restore American democracy. But to do that, they will have to face their fears. 

The partisan fear face-off

Republicans live in fear. “Fear of a Black Planet,” fear of strong women, fear of people with different faiths (or the “wrong” version of their own) — those three fears were the cornerstones of “The Long Southern Strategy” (Salon interview with co-author Angie Maxwell here.)

But Democrats live in fear, as well: Fear that Republicans will say mean things about them — and won’t vote for them.

Indeed, actual Republicans almost certainly won't vote for them. But there are plenty of other folks out there. Not just independents and "swing voters," but large numbers of non-voters and only-sometimes voters, as well as the Democratic base. Non-voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, as shown in this graphic from last year's "Future of the Party" report from Data for Progress and Justice Democrats:

Furthermore, a broad range of progressive policies have majority support — sometimes supermajority support:

For decades, Democrats have been obsessed with winning the votes of people they’re unlikely to win, while mostly neglecting, and sometimes actively attacking, those whose votes are much more easily within reach. Republican attacks on Democrats are aimed at energizing the GOP base and depressing the Democrats', both psychologically and operationally: Depressing activism, engagement and turnout.

Democrats’ attempts to placate Republicans, or win them over, not only fail to counter the GOP’s strategy but actively support it. By striking a defensive stance they implicitly validate Republican attacks, always acting as if they’ve got something to apologize for. No wonder the Democrats have so many more non-voters on their side: they’ve given them so much less reason to vote.

The power of affirmative thinking

This was one of Shenker-Osorio’s main points in her Hill op-ed: “[T]he professional centrists seem stubbornly stuck in the belief that pissing off our opponents — an unavoidable side effect of telling the truth — undermines our cause,” she wrote. “[I]t's a recipe for failure baked into the Democratic Party.” 

This is reflected in the very different ways the two parties approach public opinion research. “Republicans look for messages that engage their base and alienate the opposition,” Shenker-Osorio notes, while Democrats are overly concerned about backlash. 

The problem with a message that attempts to turn no one off is that it cannot fire up the most enthusiastic believers. Messaging based on mitigating backlash must pull punches. The base may nod along. But they won't be parroting your words to others.

She calls this the “hot-dog vendor approach — believing you get the most takers by positioning yourself closest to the most people.” But it “only works if there's a fixed set of ideas and values that make up a middle.” And there isn't. Indeed, the whole strategic orientation of conservative think tanks — based on the “Overton Window” — is focused on systematically shifting the range of acceptable ideas constantly to the right. 

Democrats and their allies rarely take this approach, but it’s powerful when they do, as with the minimum-wage campaign known as the Fight for $15. Shenker-Osorio notes that the messaging around a $15 wage accomplished "two critical things”:

First, it widened the scope of possible wage increases.

Second, in demanding more than double the current rate of $7.25 nationally, the Fight for $15 provoked listeners to ponder the present minimum wage with a cognitive anchor set that made it seem unacceptably low.

That’s what going on offense looks like.

The power of progressive ideas is thus fourfold. First, as Data for Progress shows, they’re popular — more popular than pundits can possibly imagine. Second, putting them out there can shift the Overton Window to the left. Third, they energize the base and draw non-voters into the political process. Fourth, they work! (Unlike conservative ideas such as trickle-down economics, abstinence-only education, mass incarceration, climate denial, etc.) 

Impeachment defensiveness: Five reasons it's wrong

From the very beginning, mainstream Democrats’ defensiveness about impeaching has been misguided on at least five points:

  1. Of course Senate Republicans aren’t going to throw Trump out of office. That’s obvious, and it's not the point: Holding them accountable is.  Rather than being afraid that impeachment might hurt House swing-district freshmen, going on offense would build the strongest case possible, and then use GOP Senate votes to help flip that chamber decisively. 
  2. Trump's criminality is not a static problem. Trump didn’t just do one impeachable thing in the past. He’s on an endless crime spree. The more passive and defensive Democrats are, the more bold and aggressive Trump’s lawlessness becomes, and the more it is normalized as a result.
  3. Refusing to impeach endorses Trump’s lawlessness. You can’t simultaneously tell the truth about what Trump is doing while saying it doesn’t warrant impeachment. Each side undermines the other.
  4. Impeachment vs. other options is a false dichotomy. Relying on the 2020 election instead ignores the fact that impeaching Trump can significantly depress his approval rating, and create a much more negative campaign environment for Republicans up and down the ballot. Saying that Democrats should focus on their own positive agenda instead ignores the superior efficacy of doing both in tandem. Besides, what could be more positive and broadly popular than restoring the rule of law?
  5. Robert Mueller is not the gold standard. While Mueller’s investigation was vital, there is other impeachable activity to investigate — Trump's endless emoluments violations and financial corruption, for example — and there were serious problems with Mueller’s investigation as well as his later actions. Narrowly focusing on Mueller — first by waiting for his report, then by waiting for his testimony, needlessly narrowed Democrats’ field of vision, leading them to neglect the larger landscape on which Trump's ongoing crimes continued to play out.

This last point deserves further amplification. "Robert Mueller made a significant legal error,” argues Fordham law professor Jed Shugerman. He failed to get the law of coordination right, overlooking a 2002 statute "directing that campaign finance regulations 'shall not require agreement or formal collaboration to establish coordination.'” Hence, Shugerman says, “based on the facts [Mueller] found, he should have identified Trump campaign felonies.” 

There were more general problems as well, Sarah Kendzior noted:

His two-year probe was marked by witness interviews that were never held, probable criminals who were never prosecuted, and troubling questions that were never answered – and may never be, if Wednesday’s testimony is any indication.

These flaws were almost completely ignored, for reasons she puts succinctly: "As institutions crumbled, many Americans embraced deus ex Mueller" — the belief the Mueller and his team would save American democracy.  No prosecutor could ever do this alone, of course. But the belief grew ever stronger the more other avenues seemed to fail. That belief has blinded us to Mueller’s shortcomings, one of which is his misconceived sense of duty, so committed to the role of scrupulous, by-the-book prosecutor that he failed to grasp his fundamental duty as a citizen to willingly and fully testify before Congress. He even refused to read from his own report

Nancy Pelosi and the problem of asymmetrical attack

Mueller’s baffling conduct is but one example of the more general problem Jay Rosen identified

An institutionalist who cannot accept that the institution is under asymmetrical attack will wind up assisting in that attack innocently— that is, by keeping faith with the values of the institution. ...

[I]n their minds they will be holding to the value of the institution. This is will be their mantra as they wind up assisting in the attack. The alternative is to recognize you are under asymmetrical attack and adapt the institution's core values in order to respond.

The same can be said about Nancy Pelosi. I’ve long believed that she’s been the most effective legislative leader of the last 40 or 50 years. But she’s lived her whole political life in the disintegrative phase of our political system, adroitly pushing back against disintegrative forces. She has excelled at that. 

But the game becomes fundamentally different as the disintegrative phase peaks into an “age of discord,” where open political violence — up to and including open civil war — becomes historically likely to break out. Asymmetrical attacks become more frequent as the disintegrative phase progresses, and become the defining feature during an “age of discord.”

How should Pelosi respond to adapt (but not to abandon) the core institutional values she serves — those of the Democratic Party, the House of Representatives, and the Constitution? She must become bolder. She must go on offense, 24/7. 

This entails a fundamentally different approach to thinking about the bugaboo of Trump voters and the best way of sustaining the Democrats' newly-won House majority. Let’s take the bugaboo first: the Beltway obsession with winning over Trump voters (especially "Obama-Trump voters") in the key swing states Trump narrowly carried in 2016 and the swing districts Democrats won in 2018. This obsession is the thread on which Joe Biden's dubious "electability" narrative hangs. It also melds with an obsession over clinging to “never Trump” conservatives and repentant Republicans, who constantly warn Democrats against doing anything their base might want.  

The biggest problem with Trump voter obsession and the never-Trumper mindset isn't simply that it reflects a vanishingly small sliver of voters, or that — as noted above — there’s a much larger pool of potential voters awaiting a more exciting reason to vote Democratic. Both are important, but what's even more important is that this narrow, defensive view inhibits the kind of thinking and action that's needed to meet the challenges of 2020: Not just winning the White House, but the Senate and the state-level state races that will be key to redistricting in the decade ahead. Going on offense is the key to fighting on all these fronts synergistically. 

This is already the focus of Swing Left’s Super State Strategy, which I wrote about here. Last year thousands of Swing Left volunteers turned out to help elect Democrats, regardless of intra-party political differences. The same will surely happen again in the 2020 cycle. But this I guarantee: More people will show up the more Democrats play offense. And that matters most in the swing districts Pelosi obsesses about.

Bitecofer has a record to stand on here: She predicted a 42-seat "blue wave" in July 2018, within one or two seats of the actual result. One is well-advised to heed her words.

Above all, an offensive stance means setting the agenda — defining both the terms and the subject of debate. On the day of the California Democratic primary last year, I wrote about a powerful example of this in which Shenker-Osorio was involved, along with Ian Haney López and Demos: the development of race-class narratives:

The central finding from a year of research, Shenker-Osorio explained, is the unexpected effectiveness of a suite of race-class narratives that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good.

Both base voters and "persuadables," researchers found, responded positively to these messages, “with a willingness to share them with others.” Furthermore, this kind of messaging “increased support for the entire progressive policy agenda — including taxing big corporations, rent control, criminal justice and immigration reform, and maintaining clean air programs paid for by a gasoline tax — the last of which showed the greatest gain in support.” 

I mention this last for a very simple reason: this powerful race-class framing comes as second nature to the Squad, which offers an important signal as to how important they are to the future of the Democratic Party. This is from Ilhan Omar’s op-ed, quoted above: 

Racial fear prevents Americans from building community with one another — and community is the lifeblood of a functioning democratic society. Throughout our history, racist language has been used to turn American against American in order to benefit the wealthy elite. Every time Mr. Trump attacks refugees is a time that could be spent discussing the president’s unwillingness to raise the federal minimum wage for up to 33 million Americans. Every racist attack on four members of Congress is a moment he doesn’t have to address why his choice for labor secretary has spent his career defending Wall Street banks and Walmart at the expense of workers.

For a cowardly, racist bully like Trump to pick on a group of four progressive congresswomen of color, and try to make them the scary face of the Democratic Party — that’s a no-brainer. But for the Democratic Party to say, “Yeah, that’s our face. What are you really afraid of, anyway?” That would take understanding, and great courage. It’s the key to winning — not just in 2020, but in terms of America's future.

By Paul Rosenberg

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

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