They’re Not Even Trying

Rep. Chris Collins of New York is a pretty unremarkable looking guy, but he said something pretty remarkable following the passage of the revised AHCA.

Wolf Blitzer: This legislation affects one-fifth of the US economy, and millions of millions of Americans. Don’t you think it was important to sit down and read the language of this bill?
Collins: I have to rely on my staff. And I can probably tell you that I read every word, and I wouldn’t be telling you the truth, nor would any other member. We rely on our staff and we rely on our committees. I’m comfortable that I understand this bill in its entirety, Wolf, without poring through every word. I’m being quite honest, that’s the way it is.

I hadn’t heard of Chris Collins before seeing this video, but boy am I glad I know about him now. He was elected in 2013, unseating Democrat Brian Higgins. Like most Republicans, he looks like an onion that fell behind the refrigerator as you were moving in and are only now discovering after packing up your stuff.

I’m keeping that picture enormous not because I just copied a picture that was too big and don’t want to change it, but because I think it’s good to take a good hard look at the big bad American Right that asserted itself after the 2008 election.

Collins was elected for his business savvy, and he has accumulated quite a dystopian investment portfolio: Oxygen Generating Systems Intl., Easom Automation, and–I swear I’m not making this up–the ZeptoMetrix Corporation, which manufacturers viruses and parasites.

It’s not surprising that someone who has taken over $280,000 in campaign donations from the health care industry would support a bill that basically gets rid of any of the things that made health care companies make less money since the Affordable Care Act was passed. However, the grim spectacle of a man who owns a company that synthesizes viruses, bacteria, and parasites voting on a bill he hasn’t even read that, if enacted, would help pharmaceutical companies have money to buy more of his viruses is something straight out of a Phillip K. Dick story.

While the effects of gerrymandering probably explain some of the success that the GOP had in re-taking the House from Dems in 2010 and beyond, the willingness of the national DNC to abandon winnable districts to people who are not even smart enough to lie and say they had read a bill that they haven’t shows how worthless a lot of the strategists in the Democratic Party are.

After the election, looking at the maps of state legislators controlled by the GOP and reading the statements of the loons in the House Freedom Caucus sent shivers down my spine. The thought of these people having a unified government is terrifying, as the revised AHCA shows pretty conclusively. But these people are in office because the Democratic party is run by people who don’t actually like political work. Despite claiming to represent the interest of marginalized people, their base, as has become abundantly clear, is urban professionals, who often share the Dem leadership’s distaste for the painstaking and often messy work of grassroots organizing: planning and executing protests, sitting in often interminable meetings and panels, following the ins and outs of local government.

A politics limited to planning national media strategy and coordinating events with celebrities is no doubt a lot more exciting than spending all day going door-to-door talking to people or calling them on the phone so you can convince them to put you and your party in power. Many of the people you talk to are going to say the same things: rent is too expensive, my paychecks are too small, my kid’s school is getting worse, and I don’t know how to make my life better now, let alone prepare for the future.

The Dems could use a lesson from the retail world where so many of their voters are employed. Working in customer service, if I don’t want people to blow up at me, I have to respond to each person’s question or concern like it’s the first time I’m hearing it, even if I have just given the same answer to somebody else. The data-heavy campaign laid out in the book Shattered suggests the Clinton campaign had basically the exact opposite approach: since people want the same thing, why should we spend resources to hear people say the same things over and over again when we can just predict their responses and plan accordingly?

This is pure, uncut, neo-liberal corporate thinking. Is it effective? It certainly hasn’t been for the Democrats. But boy is it efficient. And in this worldview effective and efficient are treated as synonymous.

Of course it is easier to see strategic errors in hindsight, but the fact that people behind this strategy haven’t been taken out of leadership roles entirely betrays how uncommitted the Democratic Party is to meaningful progress. At the level of personal catharsis, I’ll admit it would be satisfying to watch smug D.C. liberals be thrown out like yesterday’s garbage. But the main reason that they should be tossed is not because I would find it personally satisfying, but because you can’t create a movement towards more just and equal world if you are unwilling to admit when your plans and strategies are not effective.

I will admit that I have been frustrated in more than one meeting where there was endless discussion of something which I silently regarded as either a non-issue or a settled manner. In those moments, it’s tempting to want to just tell other people: “This is the way it’s going to be, get used to it. We can’t talk about this anymore.”

But the thing about wanting to create movements for justice and equality is that they won’t develop unless we treat the input of other people as a strength rather than a nuisance.

The Right has it much easier. After all, they believe hierarchy is the natural order, so it is simply a matter of connecting the people on top with dupes in suits like Collins who will do whoever their financial (and, under capitalism, natural) superiors tell them to. But if we want to oppose them, really oppose them, the tactics can’t just be different. They have to be the exact opposite.

Where they take orders from above, we must develop strategies together. Where they treat difference as a source of unnecessary tension, we must see it as an essential strength. Where they tell people the way things have to be, we offer people a chance to help imagine how things could be better.

Maybe there are people in state or local or even the national Democratic party who believe this to be true as well. If that’s the case, they should be the ones calling the shots. But those that don’t should get out of the way. By electing people like Collins, the Right isn’t even trying to convince us they’ve earned power. But that doesn’t mean we win by default. Unless the Democratic party and other progressive organizations start remembering how politics works, we’re going to keep losing to even more pathetic people than Chris “The Parasite Baron” Collins.