The clearest evidence that Democratic leaders don’t know how to fight for the party came recently in a segment about impeachment on Samantha Bee’s show Full Frontal. A host of Democratic leaders were featured trashing the campaign among some activists to impeach Trump saying the evidence doesn’t yet support impeachment and suggesting that Democrats should stop talking about the subject.
That’s a response to the issue that feeds right wing narratives. The Right argues that there’s no evidence at all of collusion and that the investigation is a partisan attempt to unseat a legitimately elected president. Democratic leaders saying that there isn’t enough evidence for impeachment sounds like agreement with the first point. Telling Democrats to shut up about impeachment as some have done sounds like agreement with the second. At a minimum both responses without any other context keep the focus of the national conversation on the right’s talking points instead of on the accusations against Trump.
I actually agree that it’s too early to bring impeachment charges. But Democratic leaders can take that position without slamming those in the party who disagree and without giving support to the GOP.
Every time the subject of impeachment comes up, it’s an opportunity to talk about why so many people already believe Donald Trump colluded with and is working for the Russians. It’s an opportunity to talk about the evidence that is out there on collusion to counter the Right’s narrative. Only then should Democratic leaders talk about it being too early to consider impeachment. Here’s an example of how that might work:
Interviewer: “There’s a lot of talk in your party about impeachment. Where do you stand?”
Skeptical Democratic Leader: “You have to understand, the evidence so far shows that Trump appointed a lot of people to his campaign who had extensive interactions with the Russians, some of which they seemed to try to hide, and the President himself has seemed extraordinarily deferential to Putin. That has fueled suspicion and some in my party have already concluded he’s guilty. That may seem extreme but frankly, there was a lot of talk in Republican circles about impeachment during the Obama administration on the basis of far less. So I understand why some are talking about it even though I think it’s too early in the investigation to be drawing conclusions like that.”
Notice how this formulation starts by defending the position of impeachment advocates as legitimate or at least understandable and only then disagrees with it. The first job of the Democratic leadership is to explain and defend the Democratic Party and its membership to the rest of the public. Politics isn’t just about issues it’s about people and community and the people who make up the community of Democrats have a right to expect their leaders to defend them as people even if they disagree with their opinions. They also have a right to have their views fairly represented in the public debate. But too often and for too long, the moderates who generally have controlled the party have followed a strategy of trying to distance themselves from the Left wing of the party while simultaneously drawing on their activism and significant pool of voters for support. That’s no way to treat people you want to call allies. It also doesn’t work very well because no one outside the Democratic Party buys it. The Democratic brand is progressive and the Left is associated with that progressivism. Individual candidates can style themselves as more moderate but they cannot escape the association entirely. They cannot pass as conservative or even fully moderate, and in most places they can’t win without attracting the progressive vote. That’s become a lot more true since the Clinton presidency as politics has been nationalized and polarized. It’s also borne out by recent special elections in which moderate candidates won by taking conservative stances on some issues but were also respectful toward progressive views and supported some key progressive stances.
Some, like Markos Moulitsas, in the Samantha Bee segment, argue that Democrats should stop talking about impeachment because it rallies the Republican base.
But the fortunes of the Democratic Party depend on building the strength of the Democratic Party not on assuaging the fears of Republicans in the fanciful hope that maybe then they won’t use their strength to crush us. What Republicans will do or think is the thing Democrats have the least control of and if they are going to try to influence their thinking, they need to make an argument not respond to a prominent issue with an evasiveness that will only fuel paranoia. The thing that really kills enthusiasm for any group is doubt. Hammering in the reasons for believing Trump is guilty is a more effective means of reducing GOP enthusiasm.
Democratic leaders should focus on what they can more likely control — attracting and enabling Democratic voters — rather than on trying to get the other side to stay home. As pointed out by Slate’s William Saletan, recent polling shows that one way to do that, at least nationally, is for candidates to indicate that they will stand up to Trump. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/06/polls-show-donald-trump-is-an-albatross-on-his-party-heading-into-november.html Telling Democrats to back off on impeachment is the opposite of standing up to Trump.
Building a political coalition is about finding shared goals and values that can bring together a large enough group of people to be effective and inspire them to work together toward achieving those goals. The difficulty of that is that disagreement about goals and values is inevitable and even healthy. No group within a large coalition can expect the goals of the larger whole to align perfectly with theirs. Such is the nature of people. What matters is that each group within the coalition feels that there is enough alignment to make it worth their continued support. Maintaining enough alignment of goals to keep the coalition together over both the short term and long term when the coalition is as diverse and varied as the Democratic Party is a tricky business. That’s the inevitable cost of a “big tent” strategy.
It’s nearly impossible when the leadership of the party uses their position as party leaders and the apparatus of the party, which belongs to all of its members, to try to shut down some members or groups or some specific set of opinions. If it is the intent of the leadership to narrow the size of the tent that can make sense. Ultimately every party needs some minimum criteria for membership in order for that membership to have meaning, for the party to establish any kind of brand and for it to be possible to have any kind of alignment of goals at all. It can make sense as a strategy to sacrifice some small number of members or groups whose goals or values create too much dissension with other groups and the whole party in order to have greater cohesion and unity.
However, the support for impeachment is large and there’s no evidence that Democratic leaders are pursing anything so carefully thought out. Instead they just seem to be using their position and the party apparatus to force acceptance of the opinions of the faction of the party they belong to in the arrogant belief that only their ideas can win an election. That is risking the coalition with no plan to make up the voters it stands to lose from such actions. That’s especially true when the tone of leadership’s statements on an issue like impeachment are dismissive and disrespectful.
Granted, impeachment is just one issue and members shouldn’t bolt the party because they don’t get their way on one issue. But this is also a big issue, one that touches on issues of corruption, the rule of law and national security. And it’s of a piece with the behavior of party leaders in other areas — the use of the party apparatus against Leftist candidates in primaries, the deal between the Clinton campaign and the DNC in the last election and the historic tendency of Democratic leaders to try to avoid the liberal label as if it were toxic. There’s a question of respect in all of this that can take even a minor issue and turn it into a deal breaker for some in an election where we can’t afford to lose any.
I consider myself a moderate liberal. I actually agree more with leadership on the issues and have many problems with far Left tactics and ideas. But I also recognize that the Democratic Party belongs as much to people to the left of me as it does to moderates and that ultimately moderates in the party need progressive support as much as progressives need moderate support. And in a party that styles itself as democratic, goals and candidates should be arrived at through consensus and fair elections not by strong arm tactics. If that leads to far Left candidates that might be unelectable or economic policies that fail and make the party look bad, then we must accept that because it was the will of the party’s people. To take any other stance is to stand against democracy itself and concede that we don’t really oppose concentrated power and strongmen like Trump, we just want that power to be in the hands of our particular tribe of people. Making those kind of mistakes is also the only way a Democratic electorate learns.
One of the things that has led to a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters over the last several decades is the failure of the party to represent its people. The majority of Democrats opposed the Iraq war but most Democratic politicians dismissed that opinion and voted for it. Labor has long supported protectionism while the vast majority of Democratic politicians have dismissed that and advocated the position I agree with — support for free trade. Currently, polls show that as much as 70 percent of Democrats think impeachment should be considered and leaders are being dismissive of that. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/22/politics/impeach-trump-nixon-support-bill-clinton-poll/index.html Given such a history, it’s understandable, if self-defeating, that many Democrats and Democratic leaning independents think voting for Democrats doesn’t matter.
Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions held by different groups in the Democratic Party, they all deserve to have their opinions and ideas fairly and respectfully represented in public debate, especially by Democratic leaders. And if elected officials plan to go against party opinion because of the majority opinion of the public at large, then those officials owe Democratic Party members an explanation. They also must find a way to go against the majority party opinion that still fairly and respectfully represents that opinion to the public and doesn’t feed GOP narratives about Democrats being stupid or unreasonable. Most of all, no Democrat should be told by Democratic Leaders to shut up.