The Dems Don’t Get It

Politics is about conflict. Assuming otherwise only empowers our political enemies.

New York senator Chuck Schumer meets with Judge Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, in March 2016. Senate Democrats / Flickr

Six months since Donald Trump took office, the Democrats still didn’t have a compelling oppositional message.

At first, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee floated the slogan, “I mean, have you seen the other guys?” The title of the party’s new agenda, “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages,” is barely an improvement. A Washington Post-ABC poll found that only 37 percent of people think the Democratic Party “stands for something.”

Even when they’re opposing the most heinous of Republican plans, Democratic elites can’t seem to muster a combative tone. When John McCain rushed to the Senate to help advance a bill that would strip millions of people of their health insurance, Democrats greeted him with a standing ovation, mistaking Beltway comity for genuine compassion.

So much for the opposition.

Recent debates between liberals and leftists about the best way out of the current mess have focused mostly on style (specifically, on the relative merits of civility and vulgarity — Jeet Heer versus Chapo Trap House) and on the meaning of words like neoliberalism. But while important, these debates have largely avoided the deeper question of how politics should be done — and here, too, liberals and leftists differ significantly.

The liberal faith that, as Heer puts it, “politics is about persuasion and coalition-building” instead of “domination politics” has hobbled the Democrats for decades. With Trump in office and the Republicans in control of thirty-two state legislatures, the stakes are too high to double down on what’s been a failed strategy. Indeed, the GOP would have already passed its monstrous health care bill if ordinary people had followed Democratic elites’ emollient lead instead of doggedly protesting.

As the Democratic Party continues to stumble through the political wilderness, promising tax breaks to small businesses, the Left has a unique opportunity to articulate a clear alternative to both Trumpism and the Democratic mainstream. To do so, we should look to the work of the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe — in particular, her book The Democratic Paradox — as a guide.

For Mouffe — whose ideas have inspired the rising populist left across Europe — the liberal conception of politics is inadequate because it shies away from conflict. In The Democratic Paradox, she makes the case for an unabashedly confrontational (or in her terms, “agonistic”) left-wing politics to defeat the populist right.

In practice, this means telling a convincing “us-versus-them” story, naming political opponents clearly and without hesitation. It means rejecting the terms of debate set by the Right while also jettisoning language that no longer resonates with ordinary people. Doing so won’t often be polite, but the fight for a more just world is more important than the ruling class’s feelings.

Politics, Mouffe reminds us, is inherently conflictual. “Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity,” she writes. “It is always concerned with the creation of an ‘us’ by the determination of a ‘them.’” Mouffe calls this the drawing of the “political frontier.” Put more simply, it entails asking the old labor question, “which side are you on?”

Contemporary liberals reduce politics to the establishment of consensus through rational debate and the negotiation of compromises. They fail to grasp that politics is the struggle between intractable opponents, between an “us” and a “them.” In the process, they jeopardize the very things they ostensibly hold dear.

It’s no secret that the rich are engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle what little remains of the welfare state and disenfranchise millions of people. Yet most Democrats would never dream of publicly singling out the “malefactors of great wealth.” They wouldn’t want to offend the bankers, CEOs, and real-estate developers — all potential members of the Democrats’ grand coalition. They wouldn’t want to be accused of fomenting class warfare, so they side with the business elite in the class war instead. As Mouffe writes, “to believe that one can accommodate the aims of the big corporations with those of the weaker sectors is to already have capitulated to their power.”

By shying away from confrontation, liberals have allowed the Right, which has no qualms about naming its political enemies, to define the terrain. For the last few decades, many liberals have simply accepted the “political frontiers” set out by Reagan and Thatcher. The entire project of Third Way centrism — typified by the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair — was premised on the belief that there was no other way to win elections.

The dirty truth was that this mode of politics simply turned off a wide swath of voters. As center-left parties became proud creatures of the center and discarded historic attachments to the Left, many poor and working-class voters — the prime constituency for a left-wing, egalitarian politics — stayed home. Some of the disillusioned — especially white voters without a college education — looked for alternatives in places other than the Left.

“The ‘consensus at the centre’ form of politics,” Mouffe writes,

allows populist parties to appear as the only anti-establishment forces representing the will of the people. Thanks to a clever populist rhetoric, they are able to articulate many demands of the popular sectors scorned as retrograde by the modernizing elites and to present themselves as the only guarantors of the sovereignty of the people.

While published in 1998, Mouffe’s words could’ve easily been penned in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.

Harnessing widespread discontent with the country’s economic system and political establishment, Trump managed to spin a compelling “us-versus-them” story with clear opponents: federal bureaucrats; Muslims; immigrants; journalists; those seen as disrespecting “our troops” and the police. For each of these categories, there was a corresponding demand.

Against this, Clintonite liberals offered depoliticized tolerance and declarations that “America is already great.”

But for the millions who stayed at home on Election Night — and for the Trump voters attracted to his (faux) economic populism — this rung hollow.

Acknowledging the inescapability of conflict is the first step toward constructing a left-wing alternative to the Trumpian “political frontier.” And telling a new “us-versus-them” narrative requires doing precisely what liberals warn against: placing corporate Democrats and Clintonites in the same camp as Republicans and the business elite.

As Mouffe points out, the quiet consensus that so many liberals prefer to a forceful left-wing politics hides the violent power relations that make that consensus possible: mass incarceration, capitalist exploitation, racism, patriarchy. Those who oppose policies that would make the lives of poor and working-class people better are our political enemies, regardless of their party affiliation.

Putting an agonistic left-wing politics into practice requires getting into the streets and into unorganized workplaces, where poor and working people are beset by exploitative bosses, callous corporations, and violent police. Already there are thousands of people involved in concrete struggles, working to harness a left-wing “us-versus-them” narrative to achieve electoral — and material — gains.

The Democrats should take note.