How Democrats can win the war — despite losing some battles

How Democrats can win the war — despite losing some battles

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the July Jobs report, Friday, August 6, 2021, in the East Room of the White House.

(Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

I had the great good fortune of having a wise Black woman as my supervising editor back when I was a beat reporter for a southern daily newspaper. We lost touch over time, but reconnected thanks to social media. She has since become an enthusiastic supporter of the Editorial Board and a counselor of sorts. Politics has a center of gravity, but it's often hard to see. If there's anyone who sees it frequently, it's Miss C.

So I'm taking her critique of yesterday's post seriously. The post was about the long-held view among Democrats and liberals (including me) who believed big, bold action by the congressional Democrats would yield victory on Election Day. The results in Virginia, however, pour ice-water all over that presumption, and raise a troubling question: "What if respectable white people believe the advantages of white supremacy are more important than trillions spent in their name?"

This is what Miss C said:

This analysis is doing what most of the current analysis of the Virginia election and the Biden administration is doing: centering whiteness. Biden is a politician, but I sincerely hope he isn't getting up every morning, wondering: "What can I do to get the white vote today?"
White people are going to do what they've always done. Vote for themselves. Take the good and cry about what is good for the other.
We have a snapshot in time when an administration can do something to enrich the lives of people who are not white.
I'm sure white supremacists and a lot of plain old white people don't like it.
Fuck it. Pass Biden's agenda.

I'm not going to defend myself for centering whiteness. I am going to say Miss C's perspective is something I had in mind as I was writing the piece. On the one hand, I thought, the president could be saying his legislative agenda will dampen the white-power blowback against his presidency. On the other hand, I thought, he could be saying that as mere cover for doing what Miss C's says: delivering for the party.

This is the flipside of understanding recent history. I had said Thursday that Barack Obama was punished after saving the economy and enacting the Affordable Care Act. Voters turned the House over to the GOP, making him a lame duck two years into his full eight in office. I had said that if the results from Virginia were any indication, Joe Biden might be on track for similar punishment. Voters might turn one or both chambers of the Congress over to the GOP in spite of the president and his party making everyone's lives materially better.

But as Miss C suggests, flip the whole thing over. "White supremacists and a lot of plain old white people" are going to be what they have always been despite the many good and perhaps naive efforts by liberal white people like me to bring them around to being what they have yet to be. Given that constant, the Democrats should get cold-blooded and use the power they have while they have it. Think less about future winning. Think more about delivering. Right now.

This kind of pragmatism is more far-sighted than it may seem. Consider Obamacare. Sure, the Republicans hated it back then. They probably hate it now. But they've moved on to other so-called moral panics. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act is still law. It's still helping Americans materially, especially the base of the Democratic Party, but also everyone, even if they always vote for Republicans. From the point of view of Americans most often cheated, robbed, assaulted or jailed, Obama won even after losing the House (2010) and Senate (2014).

Maybe it's always been this way. Since the 1930s, conservatives have fought tooth and nail against the expansion of the safety net. Yet after it's expanded, they don't do much to contract it, knowing their own constituents benefit, but also knowing the existence of a safety net can be pegged rhetorically to the out-group for the purpose of inflaming white race hatreds in the run-up to Election Day. The worst thing the Republicans have done is try privatizing it. Whenever they tried, their own people revolted. Once expanded, the social safety net tends to stay that way. The Democrats win the war despite losing battles.

There is one more thing to say — that respectable white people are not monolithic. They can't be. They're too fickle. One day, they might feel bad about a white cop murdering an unarmed Black man. They might feel bad enough to support soul-searching in other respectable white people. The next day, though, they're done. We're seeing that now. Respectable white people seem finished with soul-searching. They were open-minded long enough to be part of the greatest voting coalition the country has ever seen to end a fascist presidency.

Perhaps the Democrats are once again, right now, playing the long game — creating economic conditions that will prevent the emergence of another transparently fascist president. That's how Pramila Jayapal put it to Michelle Goldberg. The head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and author of Use the Power You Have, said Trump was a result "of Democrats abandoning economic populism. Speaking of the Build Back Better agenda, she said, 'I would argue that had Democrats done some of these things 10 years ago, we would have a lot of the working-class voters that are white in Republican districts.'"

As I said, what if that's not true? But even it is, as my former editor, old friend and wise counselor said, fuck it. Pass Biden's agenda anyway.

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