Bernie Sanders. Flickr photo

The Democrats Need a 12-Step Program to Kick Their Addiction to Sucking

Your heard me right


We are now less than three weeks away from Pres. Donald Trump’s 100th day in office. In that time he has wreaked some serious havoc, but some of our worst fears about his presidency have proven to be overblown — at least for the time being.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is no political institution capable of taking advantage of this weakness and defeating him. The Democrats would seem to be the default beneficiary of Trump’s failures, but they have so poorly positioned themselves that they have fucked even this up.

At the core of this failure is the Democrats total and inexcusable refusal to take responsibility for their loss in last year’s presidential election. The party is ruled by denial, and it threatens to deepen and extend the national catastrophe consuming our country.

Perhaps what the Democrats need is something millions of people who once lived lives of self-destructive denial and harmful compulsions have used to change — the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The steps have been adapted for a variety of addictions over the years, and the Democrats are addicted to losing. If losing to Trump isn’t the political equivalent to pissing yourself at the office Christmas party or whatever else it takes to hit bottom, then we are in some serious trouble.

It’s time for the Democrats to think about working the steps.

The first step is the one everyone thinks they know — you have to admit you have a problem. That would certainly be some forward progress for the Democratic Party’s leadership, but that’s not what the first step actually says. Its precise wording is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or whatever) and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

This is an important distinction because not a few addicts and alcoholics knew they had a problem long before they were ready to clean up, they just thought they had it under control. It was only when they admitted that they had no solutions of their own any more that change could begin.

The Democrats aren’t even really meeting that lower bar of recognizing their problem, of course, and as for unmanageability, one veteran 12-stepper told me once that you can tell when you are stuck in it because you keep having “a better idea.”

As in, “I know rent is due on the first, but I got a better idea, I’ll dodge the landlady and blow that money on dope instead.” It’s the presumption that you can “figure out” a way to cheat the consequences of your actions.

Donald Trump. Flickr photo

This is definitely where the Democrats are on the elections right now. They know that they should take a long hard look at their loss and change, but they have a better idea — they’ll just blame the left and Russia and see if they can skate through the next elections without having to fix any of their problems.

Those “better ideas” sometimes work briefly, but in the long run they only delay reaping what we’ve sown.

Having surrendered though, you come to the second step: “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” By now everyone knows the A.A. folk definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

There are a lot of behaviors the Democrats have pursued that fit this characterization, but the most pervasive and significant has to be their investment in political consultants whose incentives are to spend campaign money and not to win elections.

In fact, when we compare the findings of political science to the economics of political consulting we find that the most remunerative tactics for consultants are actually among the least effective for actually winning elections. These consultants make big money off of T.V. advertisements and direct mail.

The most effective means of mobilizing voters are face-to-face canvassing and live telephone conversations. The consultants want high profile expenditures with little to no overhead; science teaches us that what works is low profile, expensive and challenging.

The sane decision would be to give up on the consultants and start doing some old-fashioned organizing. This was the choice presented in the most recent DNC chair race and the party’s leadership pulled out all the stops to make sure the candidate pledged to the consultant-ocracy won.

A number of these consultants actually sit on the national committee itself, a truly insane conflict of interests that the Democrats would give up on if they had any desire to recover. It appears, unfortunately, that they don’t yet.

Hillary Clinton. Flickr photo

The third step says that we “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” Set aside that G-word, the important part for the Democrats here is to “make a decision.”

The decision before them is whether they are more interested in winning or in protecting the present ruling class. As of right now this is an easy decision — the party exists to protect the ruling order in this country, and while winning elections has traditionally been the best strategy for achieving that goal, now winning is at best irrelevant for them.

If they change their minds and decide to win again they will need to back this up with action on the fourth step — taking a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” This would be the clearest, most significant sign that the Democrats are really serious about winning and not just running interference with the working class on behalf of corporate elites.

The A.A. “Big Book” says that when it comes to this inventory “the only thing that counts is thoroughness and honesty.” Refusing to acknowledge something that should be on there in the hopes that you won’t have to face it is a surefire way to relapse. Any Democratic Party review that doesn’t have Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton critics in a prominent role lacks thoroughness and honesty — it’s half-ass bullshit.

This goes also to the fifth step of course, which acknowledges that an inventory must be reviewed by “God, ourselves and another human being.” I’m not sure how much the Democrats want to deal with God’s judgment on all their wrongdoing, but the point here is that taking the turn towards a more honest and healthy way of life requires an openness to outside criticism.

Not just tolerance for dissenting views and sharp, well-placed criticism but an embrace of it — that’s the sign that the party is really seeking to change.

The sixth and seventh steps are treated only briefly in most 12-step literature, but they are where these changes really come into fruition. The sixth step — being “entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character” — can really only be completed once the addict understands why it is that they have these defects in the first place. They have served some purpose, or else they wouldn’t be there, right?

If the Democrats did assess their defects it would be easy to see that the root desire driving them all is a craving for the spoils of capitalism and imperialism. The aggressively nationalist, militarist campaign that Clinton ran last year and her full-throat rejection of even minimally social democratic reforms made bankers and billionaires happy and they rewarded the party with big contributions.

If the party could ever acknowledge this fact publicly the resulting grassroots pressure might be enough to drive them towards the next step — a humble willingness to have this defect removed. The most popular 12-step definition of humility is being “right sized,” acknowledging that we aren’t very good judges of what’s good for us.

A huge part of the Democrats’ problem is that they were wrong sized, they lacked humility. They were convinced that Clinton was the best candidate they’d ever run and that all they had to do was let Trump be Trump and they were guaranteed to score a big win.

This was wrong, and they were much smaller in the minds of the American people than they had estimated. They need to acknowledge the poverty of their brand and the mistrust they’ve cultivated over many years to begin the road to recovery.

The eighth and ninth steps are familiar to a lot of non-12-step folks who have been on the receiving end of an amends from someone in recovery. Step eight — ”made a list of all people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all” — is about cultivating willingness, a sincere desire to heal and change.

This is probably the key thing the Democrats and their leadership are lacking right now, and the clearest sign of this lack of willingness is the way that they practice the precise antithesis of step nine, which is all about setting aside the wrongs others have done and taking responsibility for their part alone.

This is to say that it’s true that Bernie bros are real and obnoxious. Trump probably really did collaborate with Russian intelligence to undermine Clinton’s credibility. But they did this by just publishing what her campaign was saying and doing in secret, and the campaign did little or nothing to actually serve or win over the core of Bernie’s support.

Blaming everything on Russia or the Left accomplishes nothing but perpetuating bitterness. Surrendering their cynicism and embracing real democracy would open the door to the healing necessary to save the country from Trump.

Now this is where the extraordinary work of the steps transitions into a sustained new way of life. That’s the basic message of the 10th step — ”continued to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admitted it” — and the 11th step — ”sought through prayer and meditation to improve our constant contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry it out.”

It’s all about a willingness to grow and change and continue learning.

The last thing the party needs is a blue-ribbon panel that leads to some sort of structural changes and a few mea culpas and then everyone goes back to business as usual. They need a persistent self-examination and push for improvement. They need constant contact with what ought to be their Higher Power — the working people and marginalized classes of this country.

Finally comes the 12th step, which is all about carrying the message to others. Twelve-step programs typically encourage a system of “attraction, not promotion,” but among the party’s biggest problems is that they have failed to reach out in a proactive way to their most potent potential base — the unrepresented working class — and instead tried to attract elements already committed to the other party.

They need to ask people for their votes, in places they haven’t gone in a long time, and they need to back these requests up with authentic democracy and service to these communities.

If the Democrats were to pursue anything like this path it might not lead to the “spiritual awakening” promised by the 12 steps, but it would certainly undo a lot of the compulsions that have wrecked them in recent years. The bad news is that many — maybe even most — people that come into 12-step fellowships never actually work the steps and they never recover.

Part of what drives this failure is that for many of them they just haven’t lost enough yet to prompt the total surrender the whole program implies. This may be where the Democrats are now. They think they are still doing fine, and they think they are on pace for a big default victory in 2018.

This is a dangerous delusion. As long as they are unwilling to give up on their current management of things, to uproot the power structures that reproduce their failures or to reach out to the communities they have neglected they will continue to get what they’ve gotten — defeat and devastation for the communities counting on them.

What’s truly distressing is that we, the people, are the spouses getting run around on. We are the creditors getting dodged. We are the motorists getting mowed down by their careening vehicle of failure. The final lesson to embrace here is that we need to show the party some tough love and cut them off until they change or die.

We have to draw those boundaries and enforce them or else we are enabling their failure and share responsibility for all the harms that follow.

We have to stay the course — and stay defiant.

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