Old Donkeys, New Tricks

Look beyond shallow time

Rendering of a renovation of Tammany Hall.

Ryan Grim. We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. Strong Arm Press, 2019.

It’s March 2009, and conservative Democrats want to go slow. Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Blanche Lincoln take to the Washington Post to advocate for “fiscally responsible solutions to put our debt-ridden nation on a sustainable path that protects and strengthens the American middle class.” Barack Obama, they warn, won the votes of “many independents” who “are wary of ideological solutions and are overwhelmingly pragmatic.”

In response, Bob Borosage and Roger Hickey of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future launch an effort called “Bird Dog the Blue Dogs,” to take the fight to the self-described pragmatists. Borosage, it’s worth noting, served two decades earlier as issues director for Jesse Jackson; Hickey’s time in in the movement traced back to the Southern Student Organizing Committee of the 1960s.

Hickey gets an MSNBC hit. Then the White House calls them in. Jim Messina, deputy to Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, tells them, “We want you stop this.”

“Well, we’re an outside group,” explains Borosage.

“We can fend off our own attack,” Messina replies.

“We’re allies, not footsoldiers,” Borosage bristles.

Messina turns to Hickey, as if it’s a jailhouse confessional. “Your friend doesn’t seem to get this.”

The denouement, long after Borosage and Hickey get the message to treat the Blue Dogs with kid gloves: Messina, having managed Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, opens The Messina Group. Keeping his toes in the political water, he consults for David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the UK—under the fig leaf that they had supported gay marriage—in 2015. Two years later, he repeats the trick for Theresa May. But the real money is elsewhere. His current clients include Uber, Google, Airbnb, and the private-equity giant, TPG.

Ryan Grim’s activists’-eye account of the Democrats over the last four decades is story after story like the Borosage and Hickey trip to the West Wing woodshed, all piled up together. Mainstream Democrats look like sell-outs, and then proceed to sell out; confrontational activists who know the score point to a different model for the Democrats, and the show rolls on. Our present discontents raise deep history: settler colonialism, racialized capitalism, the limits in the framers’ Constitution, the unfinished legacy of Reconstruction, the rise and fall of the New Deal order. The virtue of We’ve Got People is to peer, instead, into shallow time. In a sense, it’s two books in one. Book One traces disappointments and counter-organizing from the 1980s to the Obama era. Book Two chronicles activism since November 2016. The central but by no means only character in the first part is Grim’s arch-nemesis, Rahm Emanuel, a kind of Typhoid Mary for the modern Democratic Party. Rahm’s opposite number for the second half is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The style is that of a documentary film: linger for awhile on a scene, then jump-cut to the next one. The force comes from the cumulative power of anecdotes that point in the same direction, not from an argument carefully unfurled. Grim is a participant-observer here, writing punchy articles first for The Huffington Post and now for The Intercept—many form the basis for this book—that pull back the curtain on the Democrats’ internal spats. In his hands, the recent contretemps among freshman House members and the Democratic Congressional leadership appears as only the latest scene in a long-running drama.

The story begins in the dismal 1980s. The “Boll Weevils,” conservative white Democrats principally from the South, joined forces with Republicans to pass Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax-and-spending package, which slashed taxes and domestic spending, and built up the Pentagon. In 1985, many of them would form the Democratic Leadership Council, nerve center of the “New Democrats.” The ambitious Tony Coelho of California, in charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, mastered what the journalist Robert Kuttner termed “interest-group neoliberalism,” dunning everyone that had business before Congress for campaign cash. Among his apprentices: Terry McAuliffe and Rahm Emanuel. This period is background to establish Grim’s central, negative claim: that “today’s Democratic leaders, such as Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, or Rahm Emanuel, are scarred from the political wounds they suffered in the 1980s and ’90s.” With liberalism under attack, they assumed a perpetual defensive crouch, too beholden to Big Money and too willing to cut unsavory deals.

Another concurrent and very different model came from Jesse Jackson, in his 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. Jackson ran in the very best sense as a protest candidate, a fight not just against Ronald Reagan but, as he said on the twentieth anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, a fight “to ensure that the Democratic Party is the party of the people, the party of empowerment, the party of participation, the party of hope.” For the Democratic Leadership Council, Jackson was Intraparty Enemy Number One. When the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote the New Democrats’ manifesto, “The Politics of Evasion,” the following year for the DLC’s think tank, their attacks on “Liberal Fundamentalism” and “The Myth of Mobilization” made plain its goal: to stop Jackson and his dream of a mobilized biracial coalition of Reaganism’s losers.

Things get going in the 2000s as a political generation, now leading the progressive charge, came of age. It was a transitional moment, after the New Democrats’ glory years but before the resurgence of the capital-L Left. Email had become ubiquitous, but the smartphone lay in the future. Ari Rabin-Havt, now a top aide to Bernie Sanders after stops working for Harry Reid and Media Matters for America, described his unsentimental education to Grim: “Two years earlier, Rabin-Havt had realized that the leaders of the Democratic Party were soulless, when they decided to back an invasion they knew was the wrong thing to do. Now he realized they were hacks, too. ‘That was the moment,’ he said, ‘where you realized how fucking incompetent all these people were.’” (The moment was the Kerry campaign failing to respond to the Swift Boat attacks—though Kerry outperformed the quantitative models against a still-popular President.)

The pillars of what Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” reappear across the capsule biographies: the Dean campaign, MoveOn, the Daily Kos, Netroots Nation. So, critically, does their style: brash, digital (“extremely online” would come later), and, above all, tactical. If Republicans fought better and dirtier, then it would be up to our side to respond in kind. The leader who got that message best was Harry Reid, the Nevadan former boxer who led Senate Democrats from 2005 to 2017. A striking number of the figures Grim profiles made their way through the Reid operation, and it colors the gentler treatment of the Senate (where the filibuster rule served as the proximate obstacle in Obama’s consequential first two years) than of Nancy Pelosi’s House.

Without the grassroots Obama army, demobilized after 2008 and again after 2012, or the back-and-forth with outside movements to keep the pressure on (gay rights is a notable exception), those deals that got done got done on unfavorable terrain. Obama’s Deweyan equipoise masked a president who squandered great opportunities. As divided government after 2010 brought Washington to a standstill, social movements—Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock—fed into electoral activism and pushed the Democrats leftwards. In a stark contrast to battles against the World Trade Organization and the Iraq War, the contemporary left has embraced electoral politics.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives a storyline, and her voice a poignancy, to the book’s final sections. The trip to Standing Rock that inspired her to get serious about a run for Congress serves as a kind of emotional high point. There’s some dish—about the twists and turns of Justice Democrats, and the infighting inside Cynthia Nixon’s campaign for governor: haggling in union negotiations about time off in the precious weeks before the primary and debating maternity leave on a staff where nobody was pregnant. Still, Ocasio-Cortez stands out precisely as an anomaly. Justice Democrats, the group aiming to move the Democrats leftwards, made hers their marquee race—but, in less ideologically charged circumstances, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts was the other race where they toppled an incumbent, and they ousted zero Republicans. At times the insurgents and the less dogmatic grassroots found themselves united against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a bugbear of Grim’s for favoring candidates with Rolodexes at the ready over those with potential once given a push. The pragmatic Resistance, driven largely by college-educated, older white women, powered the Democrats to victory in the House in 2018, and it’s conspicuous here by its absence. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren each get their due, but the book concludes with a peroration against Joe Biden. If he wins the nomination and fails to deliver in the general, it will “open the door for a fascist who actually knows what he’s doing. Playing it safe is going to get us all killed.”

A headnote describes We’ve Got People as the “second draft” of history. Churlishly, one might suggest a third draft. This still-slapdash effort has no index, a grating omission in a book where so many figures reappear across time and space. The sourcing is inadequate, filled with footnotes like “C-SPAN caught most of this exchange. Google it.” There are factual errors. The Chicago machine was divided in 1983, which was how Harold Washington won the Democratic mayoral primary; Ted Kennedy endorsed the hapless incumbent, Jane Byrne, and not Richard M. Daley. A ruthless editor would have imposed a more disciplined, less baggy narrative. It’s easy to imagine two biographies or quasi-biographies, of Rahm and then of AOC, instead of a single book that aims for a synoptic view. Still, that’s what we have—and as a document to think through the Democratic Party, it offers plenty to ponder. With energy, not to mention media attention, shifting leftwards, Grim envisions a Democratic Party that at last jettisons its Reagan-scarred risk-aversion and embraces a bold agenda and the tactics to match. But it remains foggy—in the prose and, more importantly, in political strategy—whether this brand of pugilistic progressivism, taken to scale, offers a serious path to a durable majority.

On the near-term possibilities of meaningful compromise with the McConnell-Trump party, Grim is right that they’re nil. But as for where the Democrats should go, his view has its limits. We’ve Got People reads better as an intervention than a roadmap. All the attention to failures of particular people and at particular junctures arouses readers’ anger, but risks mistaking tactics for strategy.

In the world of We’ve Got People, politicians need to get pushed to do the right thing, and the way to push them is not to ask gently but to confront them. The book is full of tense scenes at offices and at town hall meetings. At just the right moment, it’s a brilliant tactic. The young activists from the Sunrise Movement were right to occupy Nancy Pelosi’s office last November to demand a Green New Deal, and AOC was right to join them. But for all the praise of creative new interventions, the effect can feel like the opposite, moving the same dials from analog to digital. Tactics like these mobilize loyalists more than they organize new constituencies, especially ones outside the ambit of the already committed. They work better to build enthusiasm than to stitch together majorities or to go beyond dramatic moments to build sustained linkages between ordinary citizens and movements who can then broker with politicians on behalf of electoral blocs over which they have influence. Those are long, sustained processes, and they’re also how party transformation happens: control a bloc of votes, cultivate influence, negotiate with party leaders. Grim recounts moments with verve and drama, but these too often feel like instant gratification: an MSNBC hit, a viral episode. Buzz, of course, shouldn’t be the goal, only a way to get there.

Grim’s is a cohort story, about a political generation still timid after the assaults of Reaganism, and the young crusaders who won’t flinch. Look beyond shallow time, however, and the story is about contrasting political traditions more than just the sequence of cohorts. Groups like the Justice Democrats, one might say, are inheritors to a particular, pugnacious strand in American left-liberalism, one that is happy to make all the right enemies, and to rankle friends when justice demands. None of its exemplars has ever held real power at the top. They did their best work as prophets, crying out against an unjust order. Leading lights, most of whom Grim name-checks at some point, include Robert La Follette, Eugene McCarthy, Bella Abzug, Phil Burton, Jesse Jackson, Paul Wellstone, and the Howard Dean of 2004. These not-always-happy warriors took profound moral stands grounded in principle—and they knew how to hit where it hurts. The nicknames tell: Fighting Bob, Battling Bella. When others flinched, they stepped into the breach: McCarthy against the Vietnam War, Jackson to mount, as he said, “a national campaign growing out of the Black experience and seen through the eyes of the Black perspective.” As shrewd as many of them were about the system—Grim touches on Burton, and as far as sheer political brains, there was nobody better—crusaders fall victim to the characteristic pathologies of self-involvement, self-regard, and self-righteousness. To a one, profiles could call them their own worst enemies.

For the big-hearted coalition-builders in a different strand of liberalism, success has come through finding allies, however unsavory, to build up a government that helps people live together in good times and bad. This lineage, back to the more public-spirited bosses in the early years of the last century, includes Robert F. Wagner, the Hubert Humphrey of 1948, Mike Mansfield, Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and Nancy Pelosi. They teach rather different lessons. Professionals may have conflicts of interest, but they do know how to play the game. Deals in backrooms sometimes make sense. Joe Biden to the contrary, personal relationships as lubricants of politics need not lead to building prisons and slinging credit cards.

Some context is useful. Underlying trends point to a more progressive party. Polarization continues to weaken the Democrats’ conservative flank. The failures of neoliberalism have dented its élan. Moderate Democrats have little on offer besides what the left wants, but less. Movement energy has flowed into electoral campaigns, and candidates have started to win. Labor, the slumbering and necessary beast, little explored in We’ve Got People, has awoken, through a wave of teacher strikes across the land. (Hemmed in by the building trades, the AFL-CIO has moved less.) Since the Great Recession, political economy has returned to party politics with a vengeance; witness the substance of Sanders and Warren.

At the same time, geography hurts. In general, single-member electoral systems hurt parties of the left, which concentrate their votes with massive margins in cities. In the United States right now, the problem is particularly acute. With the median Senate seat to the right of the median House seat to the right of the median electoral vote for the presidency to the right of the median voter in the popular vote, winning a national majority means cobbling together seats in hostile territory. Though Democrats’ individual policy planks are popular, their narrow House majority in 2019—seventeen seats—empowers skittish moderates from tough districts. Leadership has tried to protect them. This year’s bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour passed only after moderates dragged out the phase-in until 2025. As of this writing, they’ve still bottled up legislation to go after drug companies. There’s a cohort story in the electorate as a whole. As long as the Silents, socialized under Eisenhower and moved rightwards with age, are still alive and voting, the millennial left faces an uphill electoral battle.

Grim adduces an argument from examples, pointing to triumphs for Democrats who have not followed the cookie-cutter mold, and then urging the party to follow in their footsteps. The estimable Jon Tester of Montana, now in his third Senate term, shows that it’s possible to win a red state with a people-against-the-interests message and a generally reliable liberal voting record. The failure of old-time Democratic compromisers—Evan Bayh of Indiana, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee—to win Senate seats suggests the limits of moderation. Still, to “find massively talented progressive candidates who connect with their states” is easier said than done—and furthers a fantasy of an easy majority there for the taking. Especially for candidacies that fail, the counterfactuals spun out can border on the fanciful, as if the wily and resilient American right would not have extracted its pound of flesh eventually. Justice Democrats hasn’t cracked the swing-district code and, to their credit, has begun to focus on taking out incumbents well to the right of their districts. For now Joe Manchin in West Virginia and John Bel Edwards in Louisiana offer the unhappy, if not unchallengeable, lesson that those who want to move the party leftwards must swallow serious apostasy to win in deep-red states.

The theory of change that emerges from all Grim’s stories at times feels pat. The thin version of that theory is a defense of robust primaries—contrary to the wishes of the DCCC and most incumbents, notably including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, defenders of a seniority system they have used to their favor and wary of challenges from the left. Primary elections air differences that ought not be swept under the rug, and allow new blood.

For the thick version, however, asking what happens after the primary victories, the direction is clearer than the destination: What, under present circumstances, new leadership or a motivated progressive bloc can actually deliver. The system is larger than the folks who have learned how to play it. As long as members of Congress get elected district-by-district, they will want particularized benefits for which they can claim credit, so horse-trading isn’t going anywhere. While small-dollar fundraising can elevate a wider array of candidates, until we get a new Supreme Court, big money will remain. Get a larger Squad, and they’ll be able to exert influence inside the House but without anything close to a majority. What that means for the republic, beyond blocking some bad deals, is less clear. The right-wing Freedom Caucus is the inevitable model, also a cautionary tale.

There’s a kind of funhouse mirror effect: more than their actual stakes, the internecine fights, followed by the protestations of unity, reflect the deep anxieties of so many factions at a tense moment for the party and the republic. The clearest lesson from the last few weeks is just how embittered and resentful so many factions inside the Democratic Party feel. With everybody on edge, any squabble is a match on dry kindling. The moderates feel like the rising left aims straight at them. Progressives have had it with moderates’ cowardice, especially when it comes wrapped in smarmy appeals to common sense. The old guard worries about a bubbling volcano. Youngsters feel, very justifiably, like the geriatric leadership has its best days behind it. The elaborate kabuki dances of unity belie real differences—but they have their basic truth, which is that we all have to roll up our sleeves to win.

The Democrats’ challenge of wielding power as a party only begins with, and then extends far beyond, cleansing the Augean stables in the primaries. For postwar liberals, the answer came though party responsibility: parties would offer clear positions, then carry them out. In a febrile climate for party activism, labor and civil rights groups across the Northern states worked with coteries of activists to take over state parties, displacing the hacks (and, it’s worth noting, Reds) to elect fighting liberals who would implement their vision of a New Deal party. Now, it’s less clear how to channel all the energy. Party organization is an empty shell, yet without it, how to decide whose priorities to advance, or how to knit together disparate factions? Follow the Justice Democrats’ model, rather than the coalition-builders’ model, and some stodgy Democrats will lose their primaries, and rightly so—but the path to a majority seems far away. The Pelosi model has the great virtue of being exquisitely aware of the necessity to keep a party together, but its project, its defining purpose, seems frustratingly out of reach—and when it cannot keep the party together, there goes its raison d’être.

As the battling strand of left-liberalism meets the fissiparous Democratic Party, the mantra to do everything and fight harder serves more as rallying cry than strategic advice. Somehow, we have to reach for a synthesis between the twin impulses to “keep the party together” and to “primary the fuckers.” Amid ecological disaster and the specter of fascism, victory means breaking through the institutional blockages that constrain popular majorities. Still harder, it means massive organizing, far beyond the rumblings of the 2010s, not simply to change the leadership but the structural basis of American politics. That is the mighty task before us.

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