The Confusion Candidate
The Democrats' central weakness comes from being a party of business but having to pretend otherwise.
- Interview by
- Katie Halper
Since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the president of the United States, things have been moving so quickly it’s hard to pause and take stock of our surroundings — let alone evaluate how we arrived at this nightmarish place.
And the liberal commentariat hasn’t helped, arguing that the autopsies on Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign do nothing but sabotage the “unity” needed to fight Trump. But if we don’t want round two against the Right to resemble round one, we need to know what went wrong and how to fix it.
Last month, Katie Halper of The Katie Halper Show interviewed Jacobin contributor Doug Henwood about the role of racism in November’s election, the practical side of solidarity, and how the Left can avoid replicating the Democratic Party’s most dangerous weaknesses. Listen to the episode here, or read the transcript below, edited for brevity.
So, I wanted to talk to you about blame. I was thinking the theme of this interview could be the “blame game” or “in defense of recriminations.”
Well, the people who deserve the blame never wanna play the blame game.
It’s actually way more entitled and perverse than that. The people who should be blamed play the blame game, but it’s a self-exonerating blame game.
Oh, yes. They’re always blaming someone else. I hear a lot of people also saying, “Well, it’s time to move on [from the election]. That we need to fight together.” Well, no, it’s actually not. You don’t really know what you’re doing unless you understand what happened.
A lot of Democrats and liberals want to blame bigots. It’s white male bigots. They’re responsible for everything. Okay, I’m not sure it’s empirically true. It’s partly true, at least. But, so what then? What do you do about that? Are they just incurably bigoted and you just wait for several decades until the demography changes? Or, do you try to do something that would distract from or heal the bigotry? I don’t hear any Democrats — mainstream Democrats, liberals ranging from Amanda Marcotte to Chuck Schumer — who have any constructive suggestions along those lines.
So there are two issues. One is a moral/ethical one. How to think about people who may have some bigoted ideas. When it comes to white working-class people, liberals often become conservatives and vindictive. And there’s no room for structural analysis. Liberals love using economic anxiety as a punchline.
But the other issue you’re referring to is: So, let’s say that they are bigots or they don’t deserve our empathy. Don’t we still need them to be voting for the non-racist candidate?
Yeah! And, they deserve health care too.
I agree, I’m so frustrated by the people who don’t think they deserve health care.
Yes. There’s that odious thing on the Daily Kos. “You Kentucky coal miners are losing your insurance? Good, you deserve it.” Not very constructive.
It’s pretty privileged to think that you think you can sacrifice this many people until we see a demographic shift in voters.
Decades we’re talking about.
It’s not how you politically organize.
You hear these heartwarming stories every now and then about alliances. For example, there was a story after George Michael’s death of an alliance between lesbians and gays and the striking coal miners in England in the 1980s. There are stories like this. It can happen. We could figure out how these things happen and try to reproduce them instead of jumping up and down on our soapbox and feeling superior to everyone else.
Let’s say I am one of those liberals who has no empathy for poor white people, and I only have empathy for POC, immigrants, LGBT, Muslims. I should realize that it’s in the best interest of these marginalized people for the bigots or would-be bigots to be convinced that it’s not in their best interest to vote for Trump.
Solidarity is both ethically demanded but also a practical thing to aspire to.
That’s a great line. Solidarity is not just ethical, but practical.
The Democratic elite ran on entitlement. It was my turn — her turn — and you should vote for us if you know what’s good for you. They never really felt the need to persuade. And, then the only exercise in persuasion was, “I’m not Trump. He’s terrifying. He’s a bad person.” What [did they] have to offer you positively? Not much.
The Hillary campaign was veering all over the place between running against social democracy — we need skin in the game, nobody gets anything for free in America — and then suddenly she has a college tuition program. But it was never anything coherent or powerful or easily summarized in a powerful slogan. You need good slogans. Then we thought at least they have the political skills to get out the vote. They understand data analysis. They didn’t even do that. So they blew it in every possible measure.
Has there been any evidence that anyone has taken stock of what happened and why the Democrats lost? Like, “OK, we made these mistakes. Let’s learn from this.”
I’ve seen absolutely none of that. I see a lot of finger pointing elsewhere. I don’t quite understand why. Presumably these people want to win elections. They want power. Yet they’re not showing any signs of wanting to look inward.
The Democratic Party does have a structural problem. It’s a party of business that has to pretend otherwise for electoral reasons. So that’s what produces all the weakness and confusion of their message. But if you look in purely partisan terms at the Republican Party, these people know how to play hardball. They want to win and they will stop at nothing. They really do have that instinct to fight. Democrats don’t. And there is that structural issue where the loyalties are so divided it’s hard for them to speak with one voice.
On the other hand, just in purely partisan terms, and in personal ambition terms, why are they not trying to figure out what went wrong and do something serious to address it? Look at this fight now over who’s going to head the DNC. Who will succeed Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile at the head of the DNC?
You’ve got Keith Ellison, [who] in many ways is a very promising figure. He has an idea of remaking the party from the ground up and registering people to vote. Rebuilding the party at the base. Ellison is being challenged by Tom Perez, the secretary of labor under Obama — soon to be replaced by a fast-food executive. It’s all so grim. Perez is a guy who wanted to race-bait Bernie Sanders, but now is running against the black Muslim guy on some kind of white identitarian grounds — it makes no sense at all.
The Democratic Party’s in dreadful shape. They’re doing dismally awful at the local and state level aside from a few big cities which are just going to be Democratic until the end of the world. They’ve lost state legislature and governorships like crazy. The Republicans are very close to controlling enough states that they could pass constitutional amendments at will. That’s how dire it is. There’s a serious rot from the bottom of this party.
At least something’s bottom up for the Democrats, and it’s the rot.
Right! It’s like termites eating the house from within. It’s about to collapse. Democrats were very complacent about it during the campaign. They were convinced that the Republican party was a “dumpster fire,” a party in meltdown. No, the party meltdown is their own. Ellison has at least a strategy for building from the bottom up. Perez is a top-down kind of guy. Very Clintonite. He pretends to be very pro-labor, but not really. We now just parenthetically see the SEIU, which has been a very important part of the Democratic coalition, about to cut its budget by a third.
I think they want to save their money for more electoral campaigns. All the efforts to rebuild any kind of movements — the Fight for 15, which had its problems, but it was something — they seem to be pulling back from that. They just cannot organize any kind of base, any kind of foundation for rebuilding this party. I think the problem is that they see there’s a real deep ideological contradiction. To do this they have to pursue various kinds of social-democratic or populist policies that the leadership of the party and its funders want no part of.
So, here we are: the Democrats are caught in that fundamental contradiction of their existence. They have to be a business party that pretends not to be. They’ve been playing this con game for the last several decades, during which they became a neoliberal party. And I think this con game has run out and they really don’t know what to do.
It’s enough to make you believe that Freud had a point when he talked about the death wish. There seems to be some kind of almost deep fundamental suicidal impulse that has taken over the party. If you just stand back and look at it, they are not equipped to fight Trump. They underestimated him consistently. He destroyed the establishments of two parties. He is simple-minded, brutal, revolting. I’m not going to deny any of those things, but he is clever in a way and he knows what he is doing. He appointed an administration that is frightfully competent.
These people know what they’re doing, they have an agenda, they’re very well connected, for the most part, and they want to do terrible things. It’s hard to see where any opposition to them is going to come from. It’s going to take radicals in the streets to present any kind of challenge to these people because the mainstream of the Democratic Party are just not up to the task.
So let’s say you’re working for the DNC, or let’s say you’re an organizer. What would you say are the important takeaways from this election for going forward? And what are the things that are dangerous takeaways that you see people making that would be destructive in terms of organizing and winning elections?
I think the destructive thing would be to continue on the same course of raising lots of money from rich people and Wall Street. Hillary did that. She spent the month of August talking to billionaires instead of going to Wisconsin. It’s very funny to watch Obama trolling her now about what a miserable campaign she ran.
But what they would have to do — and I doubt that they would do this, given the structure of American politics and the Democratic Party, specifically — is wean themselves from elite funding and adopt a Sanders model of small contributions. He raised a ton of money in a short amount of time. He came out of nowhere and ended up running a very credible campaign based on grassroots funding because he was very appealing. He was saying things that people wanted to hear. So, that’s one thing. You need to break away from the elite funders and recast the funding — something like a membership organization — a real political party in the sense that it is in other parts of the world.
Then you have to have a message that appeals to people. Some very basic social-democratic things that will make people’s lives better. A single-payer health-care system. Free college tuition. All the kinds of things that Sanders harped on. I think simplicity of that message is really important too. Sanders had four or five points he’d make over and over again. Some people made fun of him for it, but that is really how you win in politics. Most people are not intellectuals. They don’t follow political campaigns that carefully, or political issues that carefully. But, if you hammer away at several things that you’re convinced will make their lives better, and excite them emotionally, then you can win elections.
I think that very simple social democratic platform — higher minimum wage, better labor law, anti-discrimination measures — is a winner, but it’s also really important to emphasize the universal. We’re all in this together.
Then there’s what a lot of people criticize as identitarian politics. Some of it is about ending discrimination and bigotry, and that’s a very good thing. But some of it comes out of marketing. We’re micro-targeting certain populations and certain demographics. That’s not really what we need in politics. We need some sense that we’re all in this together and that an injury to one is an injury to all. All of these classical ideas that came out of the labor movement and left-wing politics seem very relevant to the present. A lot of people say “all that old stuff just doesn’t fit this world.” I don’t really understand that at all. We need it more than ever.
People are frightened. We have a climate crisis. We have all kinds of things that should make us want to huddle together and fight together instead of fighting each other. The agenda and financing model that Sanders was so successful with is precisely what we need on a large scale. From city council races in every city of the country, all the way up to the office of the president. It just seems absolutely imperative to shift to that kind of model, and away from the consultant-driven, money-driven politics that the Hillary campaign embodied.
And, although she lost the election, we should remember that she did win the popular vote. There is no mandate for Trumpism. But because of our electoral college, because of the idiocy of the American political system, she didn’t take the oath of office.
One of the myths that I hear a lot is that Sanders was like a snake oil salesman. Not enough details in his programs. But your background is in economics and finance and you’re smart about that stuff. What’s your response to the claim that [Bernie’s ideas were] impossible financially?
Well, that’s not the thing that political campaigns are about. Political campaigns are about broad principles, and assembling coalitions. The details can be handled later. The details of financing single-payer are not that complicated. Plenty of countries have done it. Canada, a country very similar to ours, has done it. The same thing with free college.
People who want details are just trying to cause trouble, and sow doubt. But campaigns are not for position papers. Hillary had position papers. She had no principles. And, if you have a choice between principles and position papers, you should always go with principles.
What do you say to the claim that the “communism” or “socialism” stuff made Bernie unelectable?
Who knows? It seems very likely he could have carried the demographic or a substantial portion of the demographic that Hillary had such a problem with. Working-class white people liked him. Maybe not as many as would have liked Trump, but enough to have made a difference perhaps. He certainly did awfully well in the primaries. Better than anybody could have imagined. And, it would have been a fascinating campaign to see him fighting with Trump. It would have been about something. There would have been some real issues raised there, instead of the painfully stupid campaign we had instead.
What do you say to the people who say that now is not the time to “re-litigate” what happened in the primaries and the presidential election? That we have to put it behind us and paper over these differences to fight Trump?
I think we really need to get serious about how we’re going to fight the viciousness that’s about to descend upon us. And we can’t fight that unless we understand how we got here.
There’s just so many people who are going to get mistreated — and, not just by the government. If you’re a woman, if you’re a gay person, if you’re transgender, if you’re an immigrant, if you’re Muslim, you’re facing the really frightful prospects of a Donald Trump presidency. Not just because of state action, but by all these private and bigoted lunatics who feel now licensed to commit hate crimes and harass people in petty ways in the street, it’s bad news.
If you care about those people, and you should, then you should really try to understand why Donald Trump won the election. If you want to shield Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and the Democratic Party as an institution, from that kind of scrutiny, you’re not doing any favors to the people you claim to be representing. You’re really just hurting them in the long run.