“Abolish ICE” is now taking flight as a Democratic rallying cry well beyond DSA and immigrants’ rights rallies. We have an on-going debate about “civility” among Democratic party activists and strategists. Through each of these developments and many others there is a recurrent refrain: If Democrats can’t avoid rhetorical excess and policy maximalism they’ll lose big time. There are even different flavors of the risk. Maybe it will just turn off Trump supporters. Maybe it will turn off moderate Democrats. You can’t win the Midwest with a platform that wins in the Bronx, etc. etc. etc. Any Democrat basically knows this conversation like mother’s milk. In The Washington Post, the headline of a column by a Never-Trump conservative reads “Outrage works for Trump. If Democrats abandon civility, it will backfire.”
Are Democrats really caught in this cosmic no-win situation?
I think the answer is clearly no. But let me start with a limited concession to the voices of caution. Some months ago, responding to the very distinct but still slightly analogous discussion of “Antifa” street violence, I argued that in addition to being wrong in principle it was foolish for people on the left to get drawn into contests of political street violence with skinheads and Nazis since fascists and reactionaries will always be able to employ violence in a more politically coherent fashion that those who oppose fascism and reaction. Always. Indeed, a world in which political contests are being settled by paramilitaries and street violence is a world inherently more friendly to fascists than those who believe in free societies and the rule of law. Once that battle is engaged, it’s half-lost for the good guys.
It’s also true that Trumpism itself is a movement driven by grievance and aggression, outrage. That is Trump’s hold on a big minority of the American electorate: despite being an unchurched, overclass New York libertine, his reflexive need for dominance and instinctive sense of grievance fits like a glove with the politics of revanchist Americans. Democrats’ tolerance for paranoia and extremism won’t ever match that of core Trump voters.
But it doesn’t need to match it.
Wipe away all the particulars of these arguments and you are left with a basic structure which many Democrats must be sadly familiar with. “We have to fight or we can’t win” but also “If we do fight, it will backfire and we also can’t win.” It’s a recipe for political impotence and frustration. No less important, it makes anyone caught in this trap an object of ridicule and contempt. We should treat it as a first principle that any time we find ourselves in this logical straightjacket of “we need to fight but fighting will only make it worse” there must be something fundamentally wrong with our reasoning because that cannot be right. Again, think of it as axiomatic: It’s not wrong because of any particular factual reasoning. It must be wrong because it leads to inaction and defeatism.
This isn’t just an important principle. It’s key to understanding the role of power and clarity in politics. Let’s take the “Abolish ICE” slogan. I’m agnostic on whether this is precisely the right tack. But I’m inclined to think it is since on the merits I really do think we should abolish ICE as currently constituted and create a new immigration service that is not structured around paramilitary enforcement and isn’t so prone to abuses. I hear a lot about it’s better to say “reform ICE” or “thoroughly change the way we enforce immigration laws.” No. Electoral politics is far less about particular policies than it is about meta-messages about clarity and power. Policy and policy literalism is the libretto; these deeper messages are the score. If your political language tip toes around what you think or shows you’re not quite sure what you think or shows that you know what you think but may not be willing to act on what you think, that has bad consequences. It signals weakness and irresolution. It shows you may not have the resoluteness to act. And that counts for far more than the specifics of the policies.
It is of course important to be strategic. For instance, it’s not at all clear to me that interrupting cabinet secretaries’ dinners accomplishes anything productive besides emotive satisfaction for protestors and diehard anti-Trump voters. Unlike “Abolish ICE” it doesn’t signal a clear policy goal. It’s mainly about emoting. It is important to evaluate every tactic and strategy for what it actually gains. What Democrats need now isn’t training sessions on civility or better ways to finesse language. They need to find the most effective ways to fight and then throw everything into it. Doing anything else is a recipe for constantly wrong-footing yourself, signaling an irresolution, uncertainty and fecklessness that is far more damaging than mere policy disagreement.
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