Since the rise of Bernie Sanders and the Left, the Democratic Party elite has been condescendingly reprimanding some of the most popular and beloved progressives in the party for questioning the poor voting records of allegedly “liberal” politicians. Pelosi and the party establishment argue that fomenting dissent within the ranks will only hurt the Democrat brand among the general public and foster unnecessary divisions contributing to the re-election of Donald Trump. This is known as the party unity argument, a duplicitous tool that ingratiates the power of Democratic elites through disingenuous electability concerns that allegedly come from critically examining and questioning the political tactics and policies ideas of the neoliberal party establishment.
We have seen it work time and time again. Progressives attack Democratic elites for selling out the liberal ideals the party allegedly values. Elites respond by playing the victim card. Pelosi and friends are just trying to stand up to Trump when all of a sudden these juvenile progressives who don’t know how government works start stirring up trouble and attacking allies when their focus should be on the white nationalist in the White House. The establishment isn’t attacking the progressives, so why are the progressives attacking them?
Of course, this is a two-faced rhetorical operation. Pelosi doesn’t need to attack anyone because she and her political operatives run things. They already have all the power, and they have used it to silence progressives for decades from removing a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act to voting for Mitch McConnell’s bill to fund ICE concentration camps and mass deportation efforts. You can bet she will fight Representative Al Green’s efforts to file articles of impeachment against Trump in the following days.
Progressives have to be on the offensive. They have to make waves. Under Obama, party leadership cheered as the former President deported far more undocumented immigrants in his first term than Trump. Obama was the one who built the cages. Pelosi’s poor voting record speaks for itself. She voted for the mass incarceration of African Americans during the Clinton years, the Patriot Act twice violating the privacy rights of Americans and increasing the power of the surveillance state, and the deregulation of Wall Street by abolishing Glass Steagall setting the stage for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. “The Squad” has to stir up trouble because the hypocritical Democratic establishment has spent decades betraying working-class families. They aren’t valiant social justice warriors standing up against Trump who are suddenly victimized by their more puerile radical members.
Once you get by the victimhood gimmick, it is easier to see the duplicitous function of the party unity argument. It promotes Orwellian groupthink purging any critical examination of the mainstream Democrat ideas in the name of electability. Its proponents state that ugly public PR scuffles between the ideological wings hurt the Democratic Party’s reputation as the more professional grownup party alienating swing voters. Critical thinking also heightens the ideological fissures between party members generating unnecessary animosity disenchanting base voters who no longer think the party represents their interests. Of course, this is utter nonsense and completely ignores what has been going on in conservative circles since Obama’s first inauguration.
Over the past decade, the Republican Party dealt with arguably the most fractious moment in its history with the Tea Party insurgency and the rise of Trump. While publicly ridiculing and attacking each other in brutal and heinous ways, they simultaneously won over 1000 seats nationwide during Obama’s presidency and complete control over the entire federal government. People don’t want fake smiles and vague superficial woefully detached answers to solve the nation’s very difficult and messy problems.
One of the biggest reasons Trump won was because he possessed an authenticity that Hillary Clinton, with her stolid manufactured stump speeches and media appearances, didn’t have. Infighting is a good thing if it means coming up with proven solutions to fight society’s worst problems. It is an electoral winner if it addresses these problems. It also shows that lawmakers are real people, not polished poll-tested mannequins that reek of business as usual Washington insiders.
Trump won because he branded himself as the change candidate and political outsider. The party unity argument helped him craft that image by justifying the actions of the party elite to turn the 2016 primaries into Clinton’s coronation. Even though Sanders posed a tough challenge, the lack of debates, Clinton’s massive superdelegate lead before the voting even got started, and the DNC’s underhanded actions to hand her the nomination played into Trump’s “drain the swamp” narrative. If the primaries were more fair, like they are now (kind of), the Democrats would have avoided a scandal that hurt the party’s public image and started the general election campaign with a sharper more battle-tested candidate.
So far the 2020 primaries have been much better. Notwithstanding the obnoxious amount of privileged white male candidates with stale ideas and lackluster resumes who appear basically interchangeable, the primary’s inclusivity has been refreshing. Its all-embracing nature has led to a diversity of viewpoints from Sanders to Delaney as well as a policy wonkathon between the candidates, most notably Warren and Sanders trying to out-Left each other. However, the most important contribution of a more inclusive primary is increased candidate competition and media attention. More debates with capable opponents and media cycles highlighting the horse race will ensure the best candidate rises to the top with potentially billions of dollars in more media attention drawn to the eventual nominee. The debates are generating record amounts of buzz and viewership compared to the abysmally received ones four years ago.
This shows that the party unity parlor trick does not prioritize winning elections. The cold truth is that it functions as a devilish rhetorical tactic the Democratic establishment uses to sabotage the momentum of the Left. It has little to do with getting Trump out of the White House, and everything to do with keeping Pelosi, Hoyer, and their friends in power.
The two-faced character of their argument is easy to see once you realize that there never has been and never will be a good time to criticize the establishment’s backward policy ideas. Right now, we have to stand strong against Trump, the Sauron of politics. When liberals win back the White House in 2020, the elites will castigate leftist outsiders who find the party’s severely compromised “solutions” to address the climate crisis or healthcare (again) lacking. They will probably claim that the juvenile progressives raising their voices to speak on behalf of society’s most vulnerable groups are harming the limited political capital liberals have to make “big” policy changes before their own inevitable midterm comeuppance. If you are wondering where I dreamed up of this “hypothetical,” take a look at the first two years of Obama’s presidency when the party failed to prosecute any bankers, break up “too big to fail” financial institutions, and provide affordable health care to the American people.
Well-paid centrist pundits will argue that Democrats only have a limited window to pass legislation and voicing concerns hurts public opinion and political momentum for a “pragmatic fix” to the issue at hand. Furthermore, this is the only solution that is viable. Anything more progressive is just a “green dream.” The establishment will make sure its the only viable option with a heavily funded PR campaign funded by special interests disparaging more transformative legislation as utopian. They’ll also keep progressives out of the room when they write the bill and put it on the floor for a vote before progressive advocacy organizations can get their hands on it and mobilize. Can you feel the disappointment pacifying you into abandoning any form of political and social justice advocacy? Of course, this is just what political elites want, a disenchanted passive electorate they can spoon-feed the right politics.
Instead of criticizing the establishment’s past duplicitous actions and hypothesizing future betrayals, let’s take a look at an ongoing example of the party unity argument at work. A few days ago the twitter handle for the House Democratic Caucus dishonestly assailed AOC’s Chief of Staff Saikat Chakrabarti for criticizing moderate Democrats who voted for $4.5 billion in emergency border funding with no stipulations on how to allocate the money. Pelosi was afraid not voting for McConnel’s bill would make the party seem cruel and callous. So, she caved. Trump could use the money to provide humane conditions for undocumented migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum and safety from threats in their home countries, or fund SS like mass internal deportations of undocumented families who have lived in America for years. Now, can you guess which one he’ll choose? ICE started carrying out mass internal deportations last Sunday. Chakrabarti was criticizing this disgusting vote and targeted specific congressmen. This was a step too far.
So, the twitter handle for the House Democratic Caucus started posting duplicitous out of context screenshots of Chakrabarti’s critical tweets insinuating that he was racist. The handle declared that he was racially insensitive because he stated a Native American representative who voted for a bill effectively giving ICE billions in mass deportation funds was defending a racist system. It is hard to find a more disingenuous argument that spits in the face of true victims of racism. See if you can follow the logic. Apparently, it’s racist to call out members of a historically oppressed minority group when they literally perpetuate the continued oppression of another similarly oppressed group. Witness the duplicitous nature of the victim card in action. Pelosi and friends don’t really care about identity politics. If they did, they wouldn’t make a mockery of it.
Multiple congressional representatives and staffers also called for Chakrabarti’s job with Pelosi’s Deputy Chief of Staff also retweeting the mendacious racism charge. By the way, this all happened just days after Pelosi demanded a moratorium on using Twitter to publicly attack other party members. I guess she only meant the progressives because “party unity” means nothing if the Democratic establishment doesn’t get to set the party agenda or craft the electoral narrative. Luckily, Trump came to the rescue with his incredibly racist “go back to your own country” comments condemning AOC and the squad. This provided Pelosi with the opportunity to sweep the whole spat under the rug and retake the moral high ground by defending the squad against the President. She could gallantly defend AOC, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley even though they criticized her. What a selfless leader folks.
The illusion of the party unity argument and its real-world function epitomizes the corruption at the heart of the Democratic Party establishment. They feign togetherness while clandestinely doing anything to defend the powerful and political status quo. As this term has shown, Pelosi seems to prioritize winning elections for their own sake fearing that if she fights for any liberal initiatives it will hurt the party’s chances in 2020.
Democrats seem to miss the point that voters elect them to do things besides fundraise to build the campaign war chests and craft stump speeches for the next election. This reveals that the Democratic Party is less a party of ideas and more a professional organization that wants all their members to keep their jobs and or secure a corporate-funded lecture series once they are tossed out of office by alienated voters.
Maybe Pelosi’s timidity, which contributes to the Democrat reputation of cowardice and inactivity, is the result of the trauma of living through the Reagan years when the Republicans replaced the Democrats as the hegemonic party. After one landslide presidential election loss after another, the Democrats thought the only way to survive was by becoming ideological nihilists deserting the working class for whatever political position was deemed “moderate” or “centrist.”
Liberals have to ask themselves, why does their party routinely struggle to pass widely popular policies while conservatives routinely pass unpopular ones? Whether it’s a generational thing or being in power for too long, Pelosi’s time in power should end. Progressives have a duty to fight to change the debate within the party, to move the Overton Window and increase the likelihood that Democratic President signs transformative legislation that saves lives next time they are in the Oval office. Forget civility. Forget party unity.