Trust and the DNC

I was in a cab headed to my friend’s birthday dinner this past spring. “I do think Bernie should have gotten out of the race sooner than he did,” one of the girls said as we were stepping out onto the street.

I do think Bernie should have gotten out of the race sooner than he did. 

She said it as if she was just being this humble, manners-abiding citizen. Like, “I do think he should have rsvp’d if he knew he was going to come to the party,” or, “I do think they should teach their kids to say ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ you when they talk to grown-ups.” And what’s so funny is what she was really requesting was that a wildly popular candidate with an agenda that was wildly different than his opponent’s drop out of an election—the thing we like to do from time to time to prove that we’re not a monarchy—because it’s the polite thing to do for his opponent and everyone who wanted her to win.

That wasn’t the excuse, of course—for her or for the chorus of mainstream Democratic officials, commentators, and New York Times columnists echoing behind her. Their excuse was, ‘Donald Trump is such an insane threat to our country and the future of our party that if Bernie Sanders cares about America at all, he’ll ‘stop dividing us’ and let the all-but-official candidate do her thing’.

What’s interesting is that we lost. Not only did the DNC lose the election to the most reviled and unpopular candidate in American history (his unpopularity rating was 60% on the day of the election!), not only did they lose the house and the senate, but they lost 69 out of the 99 state legislatures in spite of having a demographic advantage and a candidate whose campaign spent 1 billion dollars on consultants.

Now, as we retool for 2020, the operatives who were in charge of the 2016 campaign are miraculously warning us that we’d better abandon progressive populism and get behind a moderate, corporatist candidate in order to ensure we can defeat…you guessed it…Donald Trump.

Wait…didn’t we just try that plan? Didn’t it just fail miserably?

Once again, they’re holding the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency over our heads to fearmonger us into supporting corporatist Democrats who are going to keep them in power. The difference this time around is that their own massive failure is what brought Donald Trump into power. It’s the reason we have to worry about him seeking a second term. Now, they’re saying, ‘that Donald Trump guy’s pretty awful, huh? If you really don’t like him, you’d better do what we tell you to do in 2020.’  They’re selling us a solution to a problem they created. In business, that’s called ‘racketeering’, and you kind of go to jail for it.

Here’s how it all makes perfect sense to them: in their mind, Bernie Sanders was a big reason Hillary lost the election. So if they can eliminate (sorry—I mean “bring together”) the Bernie faction of the Party and everything will be dandy again.

Real talk: I get that not everyone on here is a Berniecrat, and there are some people reading this who basically agree that Bernie is in part to blame for Hillary’s loss. Maybe you’d genuinely rather we had a pragmatic leader over an idealistic one. So, yeah, you do resent Bernie for presenting these sweeping demands that made Hillary sound “less exciting” even though her ideas were likely to work and his weren’t.

I think that’s probably a fair criticism. Seriously. I don’t necessarily agree with it, and—again—in no way was it Bernie’s responsibility to duck out of the race just because he was making Hillary Clinton look bad, but I think it’s a fair criticism for anyone who would genuinely prefer a pragmatist over an idealist as President of the United States.

So let’s say that’s you: a pragmatic Democrat who genuinely thought that Hillary was the better choice. Well would it astonish you if I told you that Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker—among others—all expressedexplicit interest to the DNC in running for president, and the DNC told them that they wouldn’t support them under any circumstances? “It’s Hillary’s time,” they reportedly said to every other well-liked candidate before the primary: the thing where the voters presumably decide whose time it is. Hence, the only contenders who did run in the primary were some goofy guys named Webb and O’Malley, and a third candidate from Vermont who was so unknown, so out of the loop of the Party, and so…what some circles consider ‘impractical’…that he didn’t set off DNC alarm bells. The DNC deliberately went to the popular insiders that you actually stood the chance of liking and told them they’d better not run if they ever wanted to be the candidate in the future. And because they were pragmatic insiders…they listened. If you honestly believe that Bernie is to blame for the position we find ourselves in now, don’t get mad at him or his supporters—get mad at your own party for clearing out all of the highly popular candidates before we even got a chance to see them.

This argument is about so much more than getting mainstream Dems off Bernie’s back (though, yeah, that would be awesome, and it might be strategically wise of you to get behind the most popular candidate in America). But the bigger point is that the DNC has failed us no matter who we supported in the primary, no matter how ideologically aligned with them we happen to be. Our own party has pacified us. They’re in the front seat, but they’ve attached a toy steering wheel to our booster seat so we feel like we’re driving the car. They’ve decided that we can’t be trusted to—you know—do the one major thing that makes us not North Korea, it backfired in their face, and now they have the nerve to demand that we line up behind them so they can do the same thing again with a new person. It doesn’t take a team of elite political consultants to point out that clearly, crossing your fingers and praying we end up liking who you already chose is a dangerous strategy…which is exactly what we’ll be saying to the folks at ABC when viewership for the next season of The Bachelorplummets to record lows (we said we wanted Peter….maybe Dean…we’re not saying we don’t want a prematurely graying racecar driver who retired in 2010, we’re just saying, it seems like you could have shown us who else was available).

If our own party doesn’t trust us, we shouldn’t trust them, and to me it’s as simple as that.

Time to go to the basement

Here are some words and phrases from the progressive lexicon we’re hearing a lot these days:

Black folks
Brown folks
Working class and poor

Here are some related concepts that I almost never hear:


-Selectively enforcing the law (and acting like they’re merely responding to what’s coming up)
-Manufacturing public opinion (and presenting it as their base’s organic opinion)
-Guilty of negligence through omission (because there’s no way you could ‘happen’ to not protect under your laws the precise people you have a problem with)
-Rigging the deck (and telling anyone who loses that they’re lazy)

We are so good at pinpointing who we’re defending, and so bad at describing the layout of the activities and systems that make them in need of defense in the first place.

When I fail to do this or don’t feel like doing this, there are a couple of reasons why:

  1. When I catch a really hot potato, my first instinct is to fling it. If I’m riled up about something and need the world to know, the call to step back, hone in on exactly what it is about the issue that ticks me off, figure out why, and find a way to describe that phenomenon with laser precision to everyone else sounds too slow and too hard. Much easier to simply post an article and say “this is so screwed up, and if you don’t understand why, then you’re part of the problem.”
  2. No joke: it makes my brain hurt. It’s hard to describe things I haven’t described before.
  3. Because of reasons 1 and 2, I tell myself that everyone already gets why this is a problem and let myself off the hook.

Here’s the deal, team: since we’ve managed to do a very effective job at saturating the world with all of our buzzwords, we’re going to need to dig a little deeper if we want new people to care as much as we care. We’re going to need to go down into the broken system on our lunch break, learn how the piping works, and figure out how to describe it in layman’s terms to the people waiting in the lobby. We won’t feel like doing it, but we can make it fun. You bring the flashlights. I’ll bring the beer.

No one’s going to insist we do this extra work. But every time we pull it off, we get to make our audience righteously mad—in real time. Which is ten times more effective than paying lip service to the disenfranchised by naming their groups, saying we stand with them, and assuming our people already feel what we want them to feel.

The thing about empathy

All radical Islamic extremists (as opposed to every other member of the faith) share a worldview that is threatened by the progressive culture and lifestyle of the West. They pretty solidly hate us. But only some become terrorists.

The ones who do are the ones who have the enabling means to carry out an attack (of course). But almost always, they share something else in common:

They’re living in a culture of despair. They’re living in places where unemployment is high, morale is low, nothing’s getting better, and the officials in power don’t give a shit. So when they’re weighing the pros and cons of whether or not they want to attack us (and kill themselves in the process), the ones who decide to go for it are frequently the ones who also brim with angst about the sense of decline that surrounds them, feel like they have nothing to lose, and long for a sense of purpose to fill the vacuum.

When we as progressives bring up the ‘culture of despair’ part, are we exonerating terrorists? Are we saying that makes it okay? Sweeping their hatred under the rug? No way. What we’re saying is, eliminate the poverty, expand the local opportunity, and you eliminate the breeding ground for a whole lot of terrorists.

So why is it that when we’re talking about Trump’s election, 90 percent of the progressives I know refuse to even engage with the suggestion that the unraveling of white working class America had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in now? Why is it that almost every Democrat around me proudly refuses to develop any sort of deeper understanding of Trump voters beyond the idea that they’re a bunch of sexist, racist assholes? That’s it. That’s the only reason anyone voted for him. And to make any additional suggestion is to make excuses for them.

I was speaking with a woman over 40 who “just couldn’t understand” how Trump voters could be so full of hate for Hillary. This was a few months ago. And I sensed she was the category of liberal I just described.

So I—heavy-handedly—mentioned how we also had a political status quo that hadn’t served or paid attention to the decades-long decline of the working class, and a candidate who seemed to epitomize that.

“I think it has more to do with their refusal to vote for a woman. I think it has a lot more to do with that.”

When a conversation with a friend was going in a similar direction, I suggested she read a book about the rapid deterioration of the white middle class. “I’m so sick of people telling me to have empathy for the white male middle class American,” she said. “What about a book about what it’s like to be trans in America? Or a person of color?”

The question isn’t whether or not Trump voters need to develop empathy for minorities (they obviously do) or whether bigotry and xenophobia led many of them to the ballot box (it obviously did). The question is why we use these facts as a shield to protect ourselves from any additional information that poses the threat of making us care for them.

I think we’re scared that empathy is a risky gateway drug. As if by allowing ourselves to feel and care about any legitimate aspect of their pain, we run the risk of becoming more racist and intolerant, too.

Luckily for us, that’s not how empathy works. I promise. All we’re doing is neutralizing the breeding ground. Not only is it the strategically responsible thing to do—it’s our spiritual responsibility, as well. “Have empathy, but only for these people” isn’t really how God wanted the whole empathy thing to work.

Means-to-an-end activism

Friday, Sept. 29, 2017

If you’re canvassing door-to-door trying to get people to vote for your candidate or sign your petition, it’s probably because you believe in what you’re fighting for enough to do that type of thing. But it doesn’t matter. 9 times out of 10, you’re regurgitating lines off a script fed to you by your campaign headquarters.

Countless variations of this script have been tested by paid-by-the-hour cold callers and there, in the calling center, they have found that these precise words in this precise arrangement have produced the highest volume of signatures, donations, or whatever it is you need.

If you were to really press the decision-makers on why it’s done this way—why reduce the people who care the most into automated eco-drones?—they would tell you that sure, while the script may make you sound dry,  it’s been proven time and time again to produce the best results. So if you care enough about increasing funds for clean energy, you’ll find a way to bear coming off as a bit of a robot to all these strangers in exchange for the warm glow of knowing you’re maximizing the physical results that drive change.

Is it any wonder that people—at best—politely wait for the canvasser to stop talking so they can sign the form and shut the door? And those are the ones who do agree, who do sign their names. What a missed connection. What a fantastic waste of an opportunity to make someone new care.

And what a fantastic waste of an opportunity, sanitizing the intrinsic passion of a person who already cares enough to sacrifice their time and dignity in order to spread the word to a bunch of strangers. Is it any wonder that the majority of environmentally minded college graduates (especially the interesting ones) go to work for a start-up instead of Environment America? The start-up is the place that trusts them enough to let them be themselves.

We may have found the most efficient way to get 50,000 signatures to stop the power plant, but the casualty is a public culture of disengagement, a cloud of mild irritation… around the causes that matter the most.

Maybe the key lies in creating the conditions where breadth matters less and depth matters more.