November 25, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Why the Democrats act like losers

We're all judging one party by the standards of another.

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When the pundit corps expressed worry, wrongly, about Bernie Sanders and the rise of quote-unquote socialism in the Democratic Party, Congressman Jim Clyburn said son, please. Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves. By the time the primaries are done with Iowa and New Hampshire, Black pragmatists in South Carolina are going to seal Joe Biden’s fate. Clyburn was right. First, Biden won the nomination. Then he won more votes than any candidate in US history.

Though we owe Clyburn a debt, no one’s perfect. Within a day or so of Election Day, the House Whip was out front again. Why did the Democrats lose seats in the House instead of gaining them, as expected? I think, more than anyone else, Clyburn can be blamed for the conventional wisdom that arose that day. The reason, he said, was quote-unquote socialism and all the messaging that arose from it. Largely thanks to Clyburn, the Democrats are now acting like losers, instead of the winners they are.

When Republicans disagree, that’s newsworthy. It signals weakness. When Democrats disagree, that’s newsworthy, too. But it’s not weakness that’s being signaled. It’s strength.

Then something peculiar happened. The same man who blamed quote-unquote socialism for the loss of House seats was talking up the champion of quote-unquote socialism. On CNN, Clyburn actually said that, “There are a lot of young people out there and some not-so-young people, like Bernie Sanders. I wish he would come into the administration. Bernie has a way of getting people to understand certain things.”

What’s going on here? On the one hand, you could say Clyburn meant it when he blamed quote-unquote socialism for the unexpected loss of House seats, but carved out an exception for an old friend even though he’s a quote-unquote socialist. On the other hand, maybe Clyburn didn’t mean it. Maybe he was searching for answers to hard questions like everyone does after an election. Maybe he was just being competitive. The party’s progressive wing is rising. An oldster like Clyburn might not get what all the youngsters are talking about, but recognizes rivals when he sees them. The apparent conflict between competing wings of the Democratic Party, then, is probably not over quote-unquote socialism. It is probably over normal intra-party politics.

Here’s the tip jar!

Remember that the Democrats were united against Donald Trump. It’s natural, then, for unity to loosen up after a giant is slain. (Republican incumbents are indeed giants.) It’s natural, moreover, for the various factions that united against a common foe to start jockeying for position postmortem, doing whatever they can, for as long as they can, to influence legislative affairs and achieve their respective goals. Sanders is not going to be in Biden’s administration, because his place in the Senate is too valuable. But it’s nonetheless normal for him to say, as he did last month, that he and his progressive supporters are going to hold the Biden administration “accountable.” It’s healthy for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others to say, as they did this week, that they oppose the appointment of “deficit hawks.” They are reminding the president-elect that he owes “the left,” and that “the left” has expectations.

Healthy intra-party politics can become unhealthy. The Democrats are, however, a long way from where the Republicans were a decade ago when billionaire donors really did build an “alt-right” hierarchy of power to primary conventional Republicans out of existence. They are a long way from where the GOP is now—when people like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accuse Georgia Democrats of voter fraud while worrying that such claims might deter Republican voters from turning out for that state’s runoff elections next month. (The outcomes will determine which party controls the Senate.) I’m not saying the Democrats won’t ever cannibalize themselves. I’m saying that reports of their self-cannibalization are, thus far, greatly exaggerated.

It probably won’t ever happen, though. Consider the different ways the parties handle disagreement. For the Democrats, disagreement is expected. Independence of thought is valued. The party is a big tent. Lots of competing opinions, lots of competing goals. The trick is finding ways to balance them and move all factions forward at the same time. For the Republicans, disagreement is unexpected. Independence of thought is suspect. It suggests disloyalty. Loyalty matters above all. When Republicans disagree publicly, that’s newsworthy. It signals weakness. When Democrats disagree publicly, that’s newsworthy, too. But it’s not weakness that’s being signaled. It’s strength. Republicans self-destruct at the sight of dissent. The Democrats, however, don’t.

The Washington press corps, alas, doesn’t quite get this. It doesn’t fit into its amoral and two dimensional view that the parties are equally bad and equally good. For this reason, lots of normal people, even liberals, end up accusing the Democrats of being terrible communicators. “Why can’t they get on message?” is a question I hear often. Even some Democrats appear to accept the charge as true, judging themselves not according to their considerable strength, but according to the Republicans’ weakness. The result is making something healthy and normal, like intra-party rivalries, seem unhealthy and dangerous, like the rise of quote-unquote socialism. After four years of nonstop lying, the least the Democrats can do is speak truthfully about themselves.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

9 Comments

  1. MIGriffin on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    All the pundits trying to “explain” Biden’s landslide forget that he was the best candidate to bring in moderate and disenchanted Republicans, as well as Republican-leading independents. One of the biggest shifts in 2020 vs. 2016 was the percent of college-educated white male voters who voted for Biden. It’s fair to assume that that segment, which is likely to be fairly well off, was Republican or Republican leaning in the past. As much as they hated Trump, never-Trumpers would have sat the election out rather than cast a vote for Bernie Sanders.

  2. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    Please help me remember why the quote unquote Dixiecrat , um republican shouted at President Obama who was speaking at a joint session of Congress, “You lie”. Has anybody in congress ever stood up while the current potus was speaking to a joint session and shouted that at djt?

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      Never.

      • Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

        Maybe because they know he never tweets or opens his mouth with a word of truth

    • Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      Wikipedia: “On September 9, 2009, during a joint address to congress by President Barack Obama which was nationally televised, [Representative] Joe Wilson[R-SC] shouted ‘You lie!’ Obama was outlining his proposal for reforming health care and said: ” ‘There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false—the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.’ ”
      * * * * *
      “Wilson said later in a statement:

      This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President’s remarks regarding the coverage of undocumented immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.

      “Obama later accepted Wilson’s apology. ‘I’m a big believer that we all make mistakes’, he said. ‘He apologized quickly and without equivocation and I’m appreciative of that.’ ”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Wilson_(American_politician)
      .

    • Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      .
      PS: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acted it out at couple of SOTUAs — sarcastic clapping (5 Feb 19) and righteous ripping of Trump’s speech script (4 Feb 20).

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONtx9Q8bU2E

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR5Z6bKRp9A
      .
      .

  3. Caliban on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    As far as I can tell, a number of the seats we won in in 2018, we won because we turned out and they didn’t. This time around with trump atop the ticket the full trump army came out to play. It counteracted, to a larger degree, (compared to 2018), our gains in groups like the elderly and college educated whites. Combine that with what is likely split ticket never-trumpers and The end result is a loss of house seats. The blue wave happened (80 mil!) it just crashed into 72 million red tide.

    That being said dems suck at messaging, and we’ve been playing defense on GOP lies and propaganda. It really bothers me that mainstream dems wanna pin our woes on progressives. Somehow it doesn’t occur to them that if we let the right control the Overton window of acceptability we will get pulled further & further right. Perhaps it comes from many of their careers originating during Reagan’s ideological domination of American politics. Whatever the case, there is a huge ideological shift happening with the younger generation and democrats are fools to cling to their “played well in the 90s” sense of messaging and media. Imagine if we ran on a pro economic message of our own and didn’t let nonsense such as the “trump economy” stand. We have to get our own messaging out their and we have get it where people who are falling for GOP lies will see it. This means local TV, Facebook, YouTube, and Spanish language stuff, and that’s just the start of the list. I fear the party poo-bahs like Clyburn are far to rigid and afraid to meet this moment.

    • Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      .
      Hear, hear!

      Marjorie Cohn (23 Nov): “Ocasio-Cortez said she offered her help to ‘every single swing state Democrat’ and all but five refused her assistance. The five who accepted her offer were victorious or are on a path to victory. And every one who rejected her help is losing.

      “Moreover, every single Democrat who supported Medicare for All won reelection, Ocasio-Cortez noted. Progressive Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) were instrumental in delivering Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, for Biden. Candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America won 26 out of the 30 races they entered.”

      More at link

      https://zcomm.org/sendpress/eyJpZCI6MTA0MDYyOCwidmlldyI6ImVtYWlsIn0/
      .

  4. Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    .
    Stoehr: “Why did the Democrats lose seats in the House instead of gaining them, as expected? I think, more than anyone else, Clyburn can be blamed for the conventional wisdom that arose that day. The reason, he said, was quote-unquote socialism and all the messaging that arose from it. Largely thanks to Clyburn, the Democrats are now acting like losers, instead of the winners they are.”

    OTOH —

    Marjorie Cohn (23 Nov): “Ocasio-Cortez said she offered her help to ‘every single swing state Democrat’ and all but five refused her assistance. The five who accepted her offer were victorious or are on a path to victory. And every one who rejected her help is losing.

    “Moreover, every single Democrat who supported Medicare for All won reelection, Ocasio-Cortez noted. Progressive Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) were instrumental in delivering Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, for Biden. Candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America won 26 out of the 30 races they entered.”

    More at link

    https://zcomm.org/sendpress/eyJpZCI6MTA0MDYyOCwidmlldyI6ImVtYWlsIn0/
    .

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