I Haven’t Learned Anything and Don’t Know What to Do

Democratic stages of grief overlap, so the screaming at each other over who is the Best/Worst/Etc Democrat is overlapping with How to Save the Party.

Usually this is a proud tradition that is essentially a hook for a rewrite of your favorite hits. For example, I think Democrats should hire third party opposition researchers more often. SURPRISE! Every once in a while some silly thing happens that sets off cable news for a couple days, like James O’Keefe making things up about Planned Parenthood, and I say, huh, maybe a researcher could have helped you avoid that. Like we can look into that guy who wants a lunch meeting with you whom you’ve never heard of. We accept checks and sometimes even credit cards now!

Anyway, losing high stakes elections throws the whole process into overdrive, because What Should We Do About This is suddenly a much more pressing issue that drives an order of magnitude more clicks.

There is, for example, the money folks over at Third Way, who have forever been paid to say that if Democrats can just be slightly less liberal elections would go much better for us:

A Democratic rebirth will require a truly big tent: liberals and moderates, Democrats and Independents. The answer cannot be either 1990s centrism or 1920s populism. We need a new, aspirational, and bold politics for a new century.”

I’m not sure what this means, and they probably aren’t either, but they are (supposedly) going to spend $20 million to figure it out. Organizations send out press releases like this because they know it will annoy their detractors, causing a bunch of #hottakes on why they are the devil, which will in turn annoy donors who don’t like their detractors, who will then give them…well, probably not $20 million, but more than zero. We’ll check back in a 18 months and look at their 990 filing to see how much of this actually happens.

In the meantime, we have from the other side the hoary tradition of saying Democrats need to be more woke. Typically this comes from a rock thrower at Salon or Slate, but lately the New Republic has been making a grab for woke clicks, so a New Republic take it is. What say you, Sarah Jones?

The party must choose a direction. There is a persuasive argument that it should move further left, particularly on economic issues: Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton among young voters. Even though Clinton ran on the party’s most progressive platform in decades, her reputation was hurt above all by the sense that she came from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party — that she was perpetuating what anti-establishment voters on both the left and right felt was a rigged system. This was not a baseless assumption, either. But the Democratic establishment disagrees with that assessment, and has pushed back hard since Trump’s election.

Let’s set aside the conceit that if you ignore everything Hillary Clinton said and did, young people didn’t feel like she was liberal; re-litigating The Primary is a different stage of grief, to be discussed another time.

I am, after all, a professional Democrat who has been Democrating for a living for over a decade, and have worked in no small number of races, even the presidential election last year. I have never gone to a presidential convention because I’m usually busy and it seems like a silly waste of money to me. And the last time I got a national party contract was…2010, I think? But still, more people on the internet accuse me of being an establishment Democrat than some random asshole, and they’re basically correct.

So I am in many ways the theoretical audience for the demands to reorganize the entire Democratic Party in the next 18 months. Okay. I’m here to listen. Let’s consider:

Option A: We’re gonna spend a whole lot of money and don’t like the word “populism.”

This is not without its merits! After all, I like money. And I also do not like the word “populism.” It has literally always meant “racist anti-elitism,” Bernie enthusiasts’ attempts to redefine it notwithstanding. On the other hand…I have some bad news. The Blue Dog Caucus got vaporized from orbit in 2010. I should know: I worked for a lot of them. There aren’t any candidates to go work for right now even assuming your press release turns into real millions of dollars. I’m assuming this proposal comes down to recruiting “moderates” in Republican-leaning congressional districts, similar to the DCCC’s plan in 2006, led by then-chair Rahm Emanuel. Well…fine. You have your press release, Third Way. Lemme know if you’re ready to send some of that paper my way and we’ll talk, I guess.

Right now, though, I’m not sure what you even want me to do? Maybe your counterpart over at the New Republic has some more concrete thoughts.

Option B: Yell at moderate Democrats like crazy

This also is not without its merits! After all, I yell at Democrats like crazy too. It really bugs some of them! And even better, I love working in primaries. I don’t love it for any particular ideological cause; it’s just that there are numerically many more primary campaigns than competitive general election ones (thanks, gerrymandering/garbage Constitution/inexorable racist polarization!). So by a lucky confluence of events I am all about your plan of action, just add money-

Aw hell. The conclusion is that we need more people out on marches. Seriously:

Fight for 15, Occupy, Black Lives Matter: They point the way forward. So, too, did last Saturday’s Women’s March. In each instance, people rallied around a cause, not a person or a party. They did not turn out for politicians, they were not attracted by celebrities. They turned out because they wished to identify themselves with a specific values statement. Their actions teach us what it means to do politics — and warn us against defining politics in electoral terms alone.

Well. Okay?

I’m a huge fan of the Women’s March. My wife went to one in Chicago. I heroically watched my own kids, which the New York Times declared was a noble, difficult task for me, then apologized for their declaration, so maybe just don’t read the New York Times.

But I mean. I don’t define politics in electoral terms, I just do electoral terms for a living. My living is uniquely suited to helping this perspective, too! It’s just that I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this. March more? Watch my kids while my wife marches more? Only work for candidates who go marching?

As is typical among opposition researchers, I don’t much care how many clicks this gets. If you want to read it, fine. If not, I probably didn’t know you were alive anyway; no matter either way. So here is the truth of the matter:

I don’t have any goddamn idea what happened in 2016. The data are literally not yet available to even begin processing what happened at the national level, let alone statewide and granular levels that would tell us things. From a functional standpoint, my own profession did its job. We did more than our job; ask me sometime about the many, many scoops on Trump researchers fed to reporters that they simply ignored. A colleague of mine told me recently that when our target is at 70 percent unfavorability we’ve done our jobs.

He’s not wrong. And yet: 100,000 Rust Belters disagreed so here we are.

I don’t know why. It was not an unreasonable operating assumption that if one drives up one’s opponent’s unfavorability to unheard of levels with accurate, meticulous research that he will not win. However, one way or another that assumption was incorrect.

And that’s the problem with the #hottakes on Fixing The Democratic Party. The click bait about big ideas and the way forward is just that. Because the party is not an idea. It is thousands of people like me, people who are incidentally terrified and confused and watched all of what we thought we knew snapped in half by a lying rape enthusiast. If you want to change the party, tell people like me what we should do differently.

Seriously, tell me. Because I have no idea what I should do differently and I’m scared out of my mind I won’t find out in time.