Why Democrats act like they lost

Why Democrats act like they lost

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC).

Screencap courtesy of CNN.

When the pundit corps expressed worry, wrongly, about Bernie Sanders and the rise of quote-unquote socialism in the Democratic Party, Congressman Jim Clyburn said son, please. Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves. By the time the primaries are done with Iowa and New Hampshire, Black pragmatists in South Carolina are going to seal Joe Biden's fate. Clyburn was right. First, Biden won the nomination. Then he won more votes than any candidate in US history.

Though we owe Clyburn a debt, no one's perfect. Within a day or so of Election Day, the House Whip was out front again. Why did the Democrats lose seats in the House instead of gaining them, as expected? I think, more than anyone else, Clyburn can be blamed for the conventional wisdom that arose that day. The reason, he said, was quote-unquote socialism and all the messaging that arose from it. Largely thanks to Clyburn, the Democrats are now acting like losers, instead of the winners they are.

Then something peculiar happened. The same man who blamed quote-unquote socialism for the loss of House seats was talking up the champion of quote-unquote socialism. On CNN, Clyburn actually said that, "There are a lot of young people out there and some not-so-young people, like Bernie Sanders. I wish he would come into the administration. Bernie has a way of getting people to understand certain things."

What's going on here? On the one hand, you could say Clyburn meant it when he blamed quote-unquote socialism for the unexpected loss of House seats, but carved out an exception for an old friend even though he's a quote-unquote socialist. On the other hand, maybe Clyburn didn't mean it. Maybe he was searching for answers to hard questions like everyone does after an election. Maybe he was just being competitive. The party's progressive wing is rising. An oldster like Clyburn might not get what all the youngsters are talking about, but recognizes rivals when he sees them. The apparent conflict between competing wings of the Democratic Party, then, is probably not over quote-unquote socialism. It is probably over normal intra-party politics.

Remember that the Democrats were united against Donald Trump. It's natural, then, for unity to loosen up after a giant is slain. (Republican incumbents are indeed giants.) It's natural, moreover, for the various factions that united against a common foe to start jockeying for position postmortem, doing whatever they can, for as long as they can, to influence legislative affairs and achieve their respective goals. Sanders is not going to be in Biden's administration, because his place in the Senate is too valuable. But it's nonetheless normal for him to say, as he did last month, that he and his progressive supporters are going to hold the Biden administration "accountable." It's healthy for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others to say, as they did this week, that they oppose the appointment of "deficit hawks." They are reminding the president-elect that he owes "the left," and that "the left" has expectations.

Healthy intra-party politics can become unhealthy. The Democrats are, however, a long way from where the Republicans were a decade ago when billionaire donors really did build an "alt-right" hierarchy of power to primary conventional Republicans out of existence. They are a long way from where the GOP is now—when people like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accuse Georgia Democrats of voter fraud while worrying that such claims might deter Republican voters from turning out for that state's runoff elections next month. (The outcomes will determine which party controls the Senate.) I'm not saying the Democrats won't ever cannibalize themselves. I'm saying that reports of their self-cannibalization are, thus far, greatly exaggerated.

It probably won't ever happen, though. Consider the different ways the parties handle disagreement. For the Democrats, disagreement is expected. Independence of thought is valued. The party is a big tent. Lots of competing opinions, lots of competing goals. The trick is finding ways to balance them and move all factions forward at the same time. For the Republicans, disagreement is unexpected. Independence of thought is suspect. It suggests disloyalty. Loyalty matters above all. When Republicans disagree publicly, that's newsworthy. It signals weakness. When Democrats disagree publicly, that's newsworthy, too. But it's not weakness that's being signaled. It's strength. Republicans self-destruct at the sight of dissent. The Democrats, however, don't.

The Washington press corps, alas, doesn't quite get this. It doesn't fit into its amoral and two dimensional view that the parties are equally bad and equally good. For this reason, lots of normal people, even liberals, end up accusing the Democrats of being terrible communicators. "Why can't they get on message?" is a question I hear often. Even some Democrats appear to accept the charge as true, judging themselves not according to their considerable strength, but according to the Republicans' weakness. The result is making something healthy and normal, like intra-party rivalries, seem unhealthy and dangerous, like the rise of quote-unquote socialism. After four years of nonstop lying, the least the Democrats can do is speak truthfully about themselves.

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