Are the Democrats Losing on Purpose?

It looks like Biden won a narrow victory. But when Democratic candidates lose elections, is there any accountability for the Democratic Party operatives responsible? They don’t lose their jobs; they don’t even seem to take a pay cut.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. (Senate Democrats / Flickr)

Mel Brooks’ 1967 directorial debut, The Producers, is the story of two con men trying to win by losing. In this arch satire of show business, the once-successful Broadway producer Max Bialystock (played brilliantly by blacklisted fellow traveler Zero Mostel), has fallen on hard times.

To make ends meet, the venal and sleazy Bialystock has resorted to exchanging sexual favors with an exhausting rotation of widows who are as wealthy as they are insatiable. The ladies, in turn, fund the plays that he never actually intends on making, instead pocketing the money. When Bialystock’s anxious accountant Leo Bloom (a maniacally tense Gene Wilder playing a man who carries around his baby blanket to soothe his erratic nerves) discovers a small but obvious discrepancy in the books, Bialystock persuades him to hide the fraud.

Bloom then off-handedly mentions that a flop could actually make Bialystock more money than a successful play; Bialystock could simply oversell shares. On a large enough scale, this kind of failure would allow him to keep investors’ money and hide it all from auditors, who wouldn’t think to investigate what appeared to be a disastrous loss. Bialystock runs with the idea, cutting in Bloom on the con, and they decide on the show they’re sure will bomb: Springtime for Hitler, a Busby Berkeley–style musical extravaganza written by an actual Nazi, a “love letter” to the Führer himself.

To celebrate a con that appears to make use of their only skill, Bialystock and Bloom make a toast: “Here’s to failure.” Of course, first they have to get investors onboard.

There Is No Difference Between Ineptitude and Intention

Have you ever had a friend who has gotten themselves into trouble, and called you up at 3 AM to beg for a “favor”? Maybe they need to make a last minute “purchase,” or maybe they owe money to some people to whom one does not want to owe money. Either way, the desperation and manipulative urgency in their attempts to extract funds from you is unmistakable.

October 24, 12:53 PM

Subject Line: i don’t like doing this

October 24, 9:09 PM

Subject Line: not the news I wanted to share

October 25, 4:40 AM

Subject Line: are you up amber?

October 25, 12:47 PM

Subject Line: embarrassing mistake

October 25th 8:12 PM

Subject Line: please read amber

October 25, 10:11 PM

Subject Line: amber, are you up?

October 27, 10:57 PM

Subject Line: unfortunately

It wasn’t uncommon for Jaime Harrison, the challenger for Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina Senate seat, to send e-mails literally naming himself as a bearer of bad news. At one point, his e-mails’ sender name was actually changed from “Jaime Harrison” to “bad news (Jaime Harrison).”

October 29, 2:43 PM

Subject Line: Mitch McConnell is CRUSHING Our Campaign

That one was sent from “game over [].”

Other little touches contributed to the histrionic juvenilia of his fundraising efforts — emojis in the subject lines, changing up fonts like a Vaporwave album, flash animations of Mitch McConnell being showered with money, etc. The last one is particularly ironic considering Harrison’s own fundraising success: as of October 11, he had cleared $57 million in a single quarter — the most money raised by any Senate campaign in US history, many millions more than the previous record holder Beto O’Rourke, who topped off at $38 million in his third quarter. (He lost too.)

To many observers, Harrison’s fundraising suggested that a successful campaign was at least possible. The polls, which put Harrison in fighting distance of Graham, also seemed to confirm this.

In the end, though, Graham crushed Harrison, winning by 265,000 votes — more than 10 percentage points.

Curiously, this devastating loss doesn’t appear to have dampened the spirits of Democratic optimists, many of whom have never been more proud of themselves. Take Adam Harris at the Atlantic, who wrote an article entitled “The South Has Already Changed: Jaime Harrison Lost to Lindsey Graham but Expanded Democrats’ Vision of What’s Possible In the Deep South.” What if losing is actually winning? Maybe the real Senate seats were the friends we made along the way.

Confoundingly, Harrison’s messaging calmed down after he lost, which does raise some skepticism about the authenticity of his frantic dread. In fact, his concession email is downright serene, overflowing with all the good sportsmanship of a Little League postgame handshake line. Harrison insists that although his campaign “fell short,” it “brought hope back to South Carolina in a monumental way.” He even claims that the “state is better off for having run this campaign.”

November 3, 9:43 PM

Subject Line: Thank you.

Tonight, Lindsey Graham won reelection to another term in the US Senate. I congratulate Senator Graham on his victory, and hope he brings the lessons he learned from this race back to Washington with him. But even in defeat, I’m so proud. I am proud of this movement that we’ve built, that allowed me, a round-headed boy from Orangeburg, to challenge Lindsey Graham and give him the fight of his political life.

How inspiring. Just a simple country lobbyist for the Podesta Group – where he represented such working-class heroes as Wells Fargo, Walmart, Bank of America, Google, and Nestlé, not to mention coal and pharmaceutical companies — a humble champion of America’s poor who spent months begging for money at 3 AM, his tone vacillating between the simpering pleas of a booty call and the terror of a man who woke up to a decapitated horse head in his bed. Then, he loses badly, something he probably could have accomplished without the $57 million dollars.

Campaigns like Harrison’s raise the question: When Democratic candidates lose elections, is there any accountability for the Democratic Party operatives responsible? They don’t lose their jobs; they remain in good standing in the larger Democratic firmament; they don’t even seem to take a pay cut.

Just as an especially egregious example, take Robby Mook, the former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 campaign, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a CBS contributor, and president of the House Majority PAC. Given Mook’s stellar record, it’s no surprise that, at the time of writing, the Democrats appear to have lost House seats. Why don’t absolutely titanic electoral losses ever seem to sink the careers of the people responsible?

It seems that the raison d’être of the Democratic Party is not to win power, but to sustain itself as a make-work program for progressive apparatchiks, the remaining representatives of the party’s upper middle class, and dwindling, base.

In the last seventy-five years, the Democratic Party has actually lost its base twice. In the middle of the twentieth century, as the United States became, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words, an “affluent society,” the party transformed: gone were the labor leaders who had previously shaped it, replaced with a new wave of middle-class professionals. As time went on, this latter class became the party’s core.

But over the past twenty years, as globalization has hollowed out the middle class, this new base declined in numbers, power, and influence, which has left the party to be operated by a shrinking, ever more insular group of out-of-touch professionals.

So, first a declining working class was displaced by ascendant professionals in a process of embourgeoisement, and then the downwardly mobile children of those same professionals succumbed to proletarianization. Nonetheless, the postwar professionals still hold the purse strings and steer the ship of the Democratic Party, which prevents it from moving left.

Indeed, in an inspiring display of middle-class solidarity, party apparatchiks have continued to turn their backs on workers as they attempt to woo conservative suburbanites with the promise of a civilized party, but one that would never dream of subjecting them to redistribution.

As Biden informed wealthy donors in 2019, under his presidency “nothing would fundamentally change.” This statement advertises what we’ve all come to assume: as victims of their own success, Democrats no longer have a political project. Having won the major battles of the culture wars, all they have to offer potential converts is a vague feeling of moral superiority: “vote Blue, because you’re not a cretin or an ingrate.” It’s a presumptuous and sanctimonious argument, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that Democrats are big fat losers.

In contrast to the Democrats, the Republicans are very successful: they win elections and they’ve established themselves as the party of capital, with a proven record of enriching their base. Why would wealthy suburbanites switch to a losing brand when the only thing it offers is the same performance as your reliable old stand-by, which gets the job done without being smug about it? They might do so for one election, perhaps because they find Trump distasteful, but that’s not a plan for long-term success.

So why do Democrats pursue this strategy, even as it continually fails? Insofar as the party now “functions,” it does so with the purpose of justifying its own existence, mostly in the grand tradition of “job security.” Ironically, the party has returned to its nineteenth-century roots as a party of patronage, but the recipients of this patronage are no longer impoverished Irish immigrants, they are educated would-be professional managers now adrift in the era of hyperglobalization.

The Democratic Party is now little more than a benevolent society, a make-work program for the fail-children of those Post-War professionals, who did not anticipate their inability to reproduce their class.

One might assume that the party’s justification of its own existence would require some electoral success. Otherwise, wouldn’t donations dry up? Over a long enough period of time, without at least minor victories here and there, this might be true. But assuming a product or service has to be “good” to survive falls prey to the same misconceptions of those who believe in the Darwinian natural selections of the free market.

There are two reasons why the Democratic Party persists in spite of itself. First, donations are a form of wealth transfer in an era of extreme inequality. The money that sustains the party doesn’t come from the people who suffer when it fails them; it comes from the sort of very wealthy people whose lives remain largely comfortable no matter which party is in power.

Second, many Democrats believe that the party can’t fail them; they can only fail the party. That’s why, despite defeat after defeat after defeat, so many true believers return to their pocketbooks with renewed ardor, almost Millenarian in their absolute faith that the party’s failure only proves that they need to be more deeply committed to it. That’s also why failure can be very, very good for business.

So … what if Democrats were losing on purpose?

In The Producers, Bialystock and Bloom’s con backfires when Springtime for Hitler is an accidental hit. “How could this happen?” Bialystock wails. “I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?” Caught and convicted, the pair, as well as the Nazi playwright, are sent to prison, where they attempt to repeat their success (on purpose this time) by staging an actually good play: Prisoners of Love. Of course, it’s utterly awful. It seems Bialystock and Bloom can succeed only when they’re failing at failure.

Many Americans can easily imagine a situation where a candidate wins office by accident; manifold observers have speculated that Donald Trump never wanted to be president, especially considering how many opportunities he’s fashioned for himself out of “losses” in the past. As his tax returns have shown, Trump has profited time and again from filing for bankruptcy, which is common practice for investors who avoid paying taxes by declaring their fiscal year a net loss. (Student loans, however, can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.)

Could the top brass at the Democratic Party be capable of this kind of cynicism?

Like most conspiracy theories, questions like these are more entertaining than they are pressing. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter if the Democrats are trying to lose; what’s important is that their political strategy is indistinguishable from that of a party trying to lose.

Maybe, like Harrison’s concession e-mail suggests, Democrats believe that running candidates is more important than building or — god forbid — wielding power. Maybe they’re taking the hits now to build up a war chest for the future. Maybe they just suck at their jobs.

Or maybe, the Jaime Harrison campaign was a big, fat “Springtime for Hitler.”

The idea of it makes for great comedy, but ultimately it’s not worth twisting your brain into knots trying to figure out the Democrats’ motives. In the end, for the people who need political solutions to live dignified lives, ineptitude and intention are a distinction without a difference: the most important takeaway is that Democrats are losers, whether they’re throwing the fight or getting KO’d in the first round.

And no one likes a loser.

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Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

Amber A’Lee Frost is a writer and co-host of the Chapo Trap House podcast. She is currently completing her first book, on the rise of social-democratic politics post-2008 financial crisis.

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