What does a Democrat want?

In the wake of Trump’s Electoral College technicality, I wrote this post about the Democrats’ decision to treat Trump as a normal president as much as possible. My basic point was that they want to preserve institutional continuity for its own sake and are willing to pay a very high substantive price to avoid outright collapse. I have found this argument to be of continuing relevance over the last several years, as the fundamental deadlock of American political culture has not changed. But more recent events have left even the most cynical side of myself wondering what Democrats believe they’re doing.

When I am most in touch with my rational mind, I realize that the competition between the two parties is largely a sideshow. Both parties represent variations on the same neoliberal theme, and regardless of who is in power or what public opinion says, it is the Republicans, reinforced by conservative Democrats, who set the terms of debate and the limits of what is “realistic.” In practice, Democrats since Clinton have tried to put forth what we might call “neoliberalism with a human face” — emphasizing opportunity, inclusion, etc., and occasionally trying to make the ongoing nightmare of constant market competition more liveable. They have also tended to be the clean-up crew for Republican excesses, with Clinton “fixing” Reagan’s deficits and Obama handling the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.

I have joked in the past that the position of the Democrats under the neoliberal dispensation is like the opposition parties in North Korea, which officially “exist” in some sense but are required to pledge fealty to the Kim regime. That is obviously an exaggeration, but it threatens to become much closer to reality if Republicans get their way on gerrymandering and state legislatures’ power over the Electoral College. Democrats are facing the prospect of becoming a permanent minority party, shut out from power at the federal level and throughout most of the country (geographically if not by population) — despite consistently enjoying more public support for decades. And they are not only failing to do anything about it, they are actively refusing to even create the conditions for potentially doing something about it, such as abolishing the fillibuster and expanding the Supreme Court.

Under Clinton and Obama, it was easy to craft a cynical interpretation of events where they presented themselves as more progressive than they really were and their apparent “failures” were actually 11-dimensional chess to achieve their true, evil goals. This narrative was plausible in part because Clinton and Obama were both clearly smart and capable people, and because they did actually achieve things that, at least in their view, were worth bragging about. Since Trump’s inauguration, that narrative has completely fallen apart. None of the Democratic leadership appears to be smart or capable. They are achieving no significant successes, even within the constricted terms of neoliberal policymaking. The Republicans just won the greatest possible victory, on what is supposed to be the Democrats’ signature issue, and despite having nearly two months’ advance notice, the Democratic leadership is only now looking into the possibility of perhaps doing something. Viewing the two-party horse-race as “real” is of course naïve, but I do expect them to at least keep up the charade.

I believe the secret is found in Nancy Pelosi’s repeated claims that we need a strong Republican Party. I think it’s pretty clear that “we” need no such thing, but they definitely do. They’ve spent their career trailing after the Republicans, thinking of themselves as the Pepsi to the GOP’s Coke, and now that the Republicans have decided they won’t take yes for an answer, they don’t know what to do. They’re bereft, confused, listless, rudderless.

Aside from extending the Trump stimulus package and the bipartisan infrastructure plan (a major victory, getting a minority of Republicans to agree to finance a basic state function!), the closest they can get to aping the Republican platform of “Democrats should not exist” is “Democrats should not be able to legislate without Republican approval” — hence the charade that two stubborn senators are somehow able to singlehandedly preserve the fillibuster rule. If Manchin and Sinema didn’t exist, they would have to be invented. If we do “vote hard” and deliver the magical two extra senators, I’m sure someone else will suddenly develop misgivings. The alternative would be to actually govern as though they have democratic legitimacy, to set the terms of debate themselves, to concede that the Republicans are not their valued colleagues but their increasingly dangerous foes — to take seriously the responsibility that they have been playing at taking on for a generation, without training wheels and without excuses.

Within our corrupt and anti-democratic system, the Democrats are the only people who are in a position to fulfill that important duty, and I think we all know that they will not because they cannot. Instead, they will use their considerable institutional power and financial backing to guarantee that no alternative will arise in time to do what needs to be done — because it’s better to hand the keys over to outright fascists than to pursue a policy mix to the left of the Heritage Foundation. And they’ll almost certainly be “successful” in this nihilistic pursuit because they have spent the last several decades ensuring, even at the cost of destroying their own political base, that no effective counterweight to the neoliberal order could take root.

This is the kind of thing that loses me Twitter followers.