The Republicans Are Worse. That's Why Democrats Need To Be Criticized
This Isn't About School Spirit
If it’s anything I don’t like, it is constant and unnecessary criticism. Particularly when it comes from a position of bad faith, from a source who is actually not looking out for your best interests but really wants to pull you down, criticism is just a loud an unnecessary noise and distraction.
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On the other hand, if someone with the power to make things noticeably better is absolutely screwing up, you have a moral obligation to loudly point this out and to do your damndest to force a course correction.
This is the frequent tug-of-war I think liberals face with the Democratic Party, and for the last 20-plus years of writing about politics, its something I find myself in the middle of constantly.
By any objective measure on issue after issue, the Republican Party is a far worse option than the Democratic Party. Conservative ideas on issue after issue are an endless cascade of failure, be that foreign policy (Iraq), disaster response (Katrina), women’s rights (ending Roe), safety and security (guns), literally anything involving racial/ethnic/gender minorities (open hostility to Black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, Muslim, etc.). I have never argued that things are worse under Democrats, because I would be a very stupid person to do so.
But the very real danger of conservatism is number one on my list of reasons for why Democrats have to do a better job of fighting.
We don’t live in a world where people assess politics by making up quantitative lists of rights and wrongs, then choose to go with the options that are better for the country. Instead, the world we live in is media driven, pushed around by narratives and storylines that are shaped by leaders who call up their own plays instead of waiting around for events to happen.
The conservative movement is excellent at promoting narrative. The combination of craven conservative ideals, combined with a weak-kneed mainstream media and the right’s allies in right-wing media like Fox produce a potent combination. Certainly there are some downsides to this, because the insular circle-jerk can seal off the right from the public, leading them to produce their own bizarre language and obsessions (Drag shows! Attacking Mickey Mouse! Election denial!) but when this multi-headed monster has had success, we all suffer. Events over the last few years are a testament to this: The installation of George W. Bush in 2000 followed by his negligence on 9/11 and lies in Iraq, followed by mismanagement of Katrina and the global economic collapse. Donald Trump slipping into the White House in 2016, mismanaging COVID-19 and using the presidency as a force amplifier for white supremacy.
That is why operating from the assumption that Democratic leaders and liberalism in general has “got this” is a bad bet.
For a movement that has public support on issue after issue after issue (abortion, guns, racial and gender equity, climate change), Democrats repeatedly do not act like it. They more often than not operate from a position of weakness, not strength, as if even when in power there is the constant danger of utter rejection of liberal ideals in a repeat of Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1984.
It isn’t that Democrats don’t ever win elections, but the fact is far too many of those electoral wins have come about not because of liberal assertiveness but because the right was such a disaster the only sane option has been the Democrats. Contrast this dynamic to electoral seasons like 2004, when Democrats shied away from Iraq War criticism and George W. Bush got reelected anyway, or 2016 when hubris helped to hand over the most important job in the world to the host of Celebrity Apprentice.
Democrats don’t collaborate in the way they should on basic, simple talking points. They don’t have any sustained interest in crafting narratives - both in the media and on the floor of the legislature (forcing message votes and following them up, for instance). They too often embrace conservative narratives and phrasing (shut up about deficits). They use language that says “we're weak and powerless” instead of communicating solidarity with the public (almost everything said by Democrats in the Senate).
The offenses go on and on, never rising to the debased depravity of the right, but serial Democratic inadequacy gives aid and comfort to the GOP’s venomous impulses.
This dynamic isn’t corrected or combatted by pointing out that the right is worse. Brainless cheerleading and insisting that everybody has team spirit doesn’t even win high school athletics, but its even more out of place in American politics.
Democrats have to be criticized to be better at their jobs - advocating for liberal ideals and banishing conservatism to the basement full of cranks that it deserves to be in. The criticism has to be open and in the public eye, repeated until the problems are corrected.
The criticism must come from a place of good faith, because the argument that the Democratic Party is always wrong is as wrong as the absurd notion that the party always has the wind to its back. But the criticism should not stop. It is necessary and healthy.
The right is too much of a danger to allow for a culture of complacency about the Democratic Party or liberalism in general. Criticism is good, healthy, and necessary. Keep it coming.
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The rumors are true. I do have very powerful forces whispering in my ear.
Fully agree. It also feels like the Democrat calculation is often, "If you fight, you might lose and we don't want to appear to lose." This results in them preemptively ruling out tactics and often results in them doing nothing at all.
It's unlikely we can get Clarence Thomas out of the Supreme Court without a major fight, so we won't hold hearings or call for him to resign. We'll just ask John Roberts pretty please do to something.
Minting the trillion dollar coin or invoking the 14th amendment would be bold and radical and provoke challenges. That's too risky. So we have to negotiate with bad faith players on the debt ceiling. Neither of those options are as radical as letting the U.S. default on its debt. But it's not comfortable to think outside the box, so we won't do it. We'll play by the rules that Republicans have to vote for a thing even if it means giving up concessions that we don't have to give up.
I agree entirely. We need to speak out positively in favor of our values and our vision for this country. In a series of focus groups I did last year, the one refrain that I heard from everyone is that they need to see the fight. They can't know that we're fighting for them if we only see the wins. In that case, they don't know that the wins took a huge amount of work or that the losses were hard fought! Our recommendations to Democrats were to "Show your work!" Show the steps you are taking. Show the fights you win and the fights you lose, but most of all, show that you are fighting!