Intentionally Forgetting What Words Mean
People are mad. They are madly mad. Mad mad maddy mad mad maddity mad. Some Democrats are “blue dog,” and “centrist,” and Hillary Clinton said a thing and Obama said another thing AND IT’S DEFINITELY TRUE LOOK AT THIS ARTICLE I DIDN’T READ PAST THE TITLE!1!!1
I’ve been fighting this battle on social media for the past *checks watch* ever and it’s time we talked about what words mean and what it’s going to mean for the 2020 election. I’ve written a bit before on how misleading the way we talk about political ideology really is.
When we say “far left,” it’s sort of a toss-up for what we actually mean. The term “far left” can include or exclude ideologies that are economically liberal or conservative, racially and sexually inclusive or discriminatory, and foreign policy positions that are isolationist or cooperative. What I’m saying is that we are not using this ideological terminology in a dialectic manner, we’re using it for rhetoric.
As my Ethnomusicology Professor used to say, ‘we’re using our powers for evil rather than good.’ Actually, he didn’t say that at all. He admonished all of us to use our powers for good rather than evil. And then played gagaku at 8am. There is a time and place for gagaku and I can assure you, that wasn’t it.
What got me on this diatribe was two articles one about Hillary Clinton and the other about Barrack Obama. I’m not going to link the former because it is so misleading it actually does a lot of damage, but I will talk about it and I will link the Obama one below.
Sec. Clinton was recently asked about her position on trans rights in a BBC 4 interview which you can look up for yourself. Here’s her quote:
“I do think there is a legitimate concern about women’s lived experience and the importance of recognizing that, and also the importance of recognizing the self-identification [of transgender people],” she said. “This is all relatively new. People are still trying to find the language for it.”
She went onto explain that older people have a harder time with this sort of thing. That’s it. That was her whole thing. Basically she said ‘we should respect people and give everyone time and information to understand one another.’ Revolutionary. So naturally the titles that have come out of this interview have painted Sec. Clinton as a homophobe and put women’s and trans’ rights in diametric opposition despite the fact that not only are they not, but Clinton didn’t even suggest they were. Again, if you want to hate Clinton, weird, but you do you, but don’t misquote her and if you MUST misquote her at least do it in a way that doesn’t gin up hate speech.
But now that we’ve handled how people are misquoting the nice, smart, powerful, woman let’s talk about how people are misquoting the nice, smart, powerful, black man. And yes. I do think if Clinton and Obama were white men this wouldn’t be happening to them.
Soooooo Obama, being a former President and more or less the leader of the Democratic Party made comments regarding the Democratic Party Presidential Primaries. This was at the Democratic Alliance in Washington, D.C. on 15 November 2019. (And yes, I know I Europeaned my dates. I always European my dates. I have since I learned how to write. The American system for giving dates is stupid and requires an abundance of commas. I also use the metric system, say “autumn” rather than “fall,” and pronounce the word “paprika,” correctly. Deal with it.)
Now, Obama said a lot because he was speaking rather than being interviewed and Obama is nothing if not verbose, but I think that the quote making everyone lose their minds is this one:
“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality. The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
So, naturally the article that I lifted that from was entitled “Obama warns Democrats against going too far left.” Now, in fairness he did mention “ certain left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party,” meaning that this title isn’t a complete fabrication. But in effect it really is. And the result has already been damaging.
In the article itself the author, Newburger, interprets Obama’s comments as an indictment of some of Warren’s and Sanders’ policy proposals. And that I think is actually a fair assessment. This is a really short piece so I can’t really hold Newburger’s feet to the fire on this one and I suspect that it was the editor that chose this clickbaity title. Not the author’s fault is what I’m saying.
But there are several problems with this.
- Warren’s and Sanders’ policy proposals particularly Medicare for All do not really fall under an ideological umbrella.
- The bigger issue at hand is that push-back against and very real concerns about Warren’s and Sanders’ proposals has been ignored and even suppressed by the candidates and their supporters.
- There is already a movement on Twitter to disregard Obama’s comments because Obama is now rich.
So I’ll explain all of these.
Let’s actually go back to Obama’s own words for a moment. He specifically said that we “do not need to tear down the system and remake it.”
I’ve long had a problem with Sanders of all people advocating for “Revolution,” because I know what a revolution actually is. Revolution is chaos. The only time you want to go for a revolution is if you have lost a family member, another is imprisoned and your only chance of fleeing involves a minefield, bicycles, and prayer. Revolution is a suicide mission and you have to be utterly backed into a corner with no way out to take that over normal democratic political involvement.
I’m not talking out of my butt here. My grandfather and grandmother were in exactly this position in Hungary. Until he died my grandfather stressed that he wanted me to vote in every election I was eligible for. He never told me how he wanted me to vote, he just told me to be politically involved. This is a man who was willing to wreck things if things needed wrecking, but once in America, he did not see that need. And we ARE in trouble with the Trump Presidency, we’re about 8 of 10 on the fascist scale, but the answer to this is to impeach Trump and elect a Democratic Congress and President … it’s not to destroy the Democratic Party.
But the policy proposals brought up by Warren and Sanders are basically about destroying progress made by the Democratic Party and taking a stab at remaking it. There’s not really an ideological identification there. I don’t know that there needs to be but really what Warren and Sanders are proposing in most cases is to scrap whatever is currently in place completely and then do something else entirely. That’s not good governance.
Sanders hasn’t really released a plan for all this, but Warren has and conservative newspapers had a field day because just in the health industry and before we even talk about taxes her plan eliminates 2 million jobs both skilled and unskilled. I’m not going to link the conservative takes because they are … well let’s just say they’re needlessly harsh. Instead I’ll link a WaPo Opinion piece on it.
Ultimately though, these massive “plans” that Sanders and Warren say they have either don’t appear for public scrutiny or have massive and largely unnecessary downsides. In the case of Medicare for All I appreciate that the stated goal is Universal Healthcare, but the ACA could actually still be saved and would get us further towards that goal with fewer issues. So there’s no reason not to do that. This is not ideological, it just comes down to the fact that the ACA is associated with Obama and not with either Warren or Sanders. Which brings us to our next point.
The Populist Need to Silence Dissent
In the previous section I pointed out a few things that I’m going to come back to. Firstly, Sanders — as he did in the previous primary as well — has these wonderful sounding big ideas that he never manages to explain and secondly, I did kinda mislead about the entire point of the previous section. It is true that Sanders’ and Warren’s positions are not ideologically aligned in a politically constructive or modern sense but if we’re using the late 19th-early 20th c. definition for progressivism or if we’re talking about populism then actually, it all fits perfectly right down to the baked in racism and misogyny.
It’s a bit of a slog to read up on Populism, but if you do you’ll notice two really frightening things. One: populism is closely associated with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism and two: the authors all really try to differentiate populism on the left and right. There’s an idea which is hotly contested in political science that leftist populism is not as damaging as populism on the right. I’m of the opinion that it is and the only reason we have a debate on this is that most political scientists tend ‘leftwards.’
Populism was named for a early 20th c. American political party called the Populist Party. And it is a really good thing that it died a relatively quick death. The Populist Party arose basically in response to the Industrial Revolution and extreme economic disparity, but there were a number of troubling addendums to it which persist in modern populism. In places, the initial populist movement supported women’s suffrage. But not always. Because the idea was that women in the workplace meant that they were taking the jobs of men. Populism had a similar relationship to the African-American population. For the time none of this is really surprising because women and African-Americans were barely considered actual people by any political party, so it’s not like their social justice position was in opposition to anyone else’s.
But one of the things that’s remained worryingly consistent about populist movements is they are virtually always pro-white man and anti-everyone else. Some authors try to say that leftist populist movements do not include a silencing and othering aspect to them, but this is simply not true. It’s just generally a bit more subtle.
The idea of populism is that there are three groups. There are the undeserving elites, the deserving but bereft white male workforce, and the lazy women and minorities who are unfairly coddled and given extra rights and benefits by the elites. I’m being just super direct in all this: populist leaders usually use dog-whistles. Trump is kind of a bad example of this because he came straight out and said basically this, but Sanders did refer to black voters as “low-information voters” and women’s rights as “distractions.” In both cases these populist leaders were telling their white male followers that the real problem is this “other” that the “elites” favor who is taking something of value be it political attention or actual money and jobs.
Anyone who can read a chart on mortality, employment, remuneration, education, housing, or whatever your issue du jour may be can tell you that both Sanders and Trump and their followers are wrong in classifying minorities as the “undeserving other” aligned with the “elites,” or “establishment.” But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is getting the thing and maintaining power at all cost. So it doesn’t matter that Sanders or Warren have bad plans or no plans, it just matters that no significant challenge to them is heard.
Obama worked his butt off his entire life. His wife worked her butt off her entire life. Their parents all worked their collective butts off their entire lives. Every time I go jogging I think about how Obama would run longer than me more often than I do. (I’m kind of spectacularly poor at running. As in it’s comical in a sort of sad and embarrassing way. But that’s not the point.) Obama’s one and only concession to laziness is his apparently erstwhile addiction to nicotine. I will admit that in 2008 during the primary I was a Clinton supporter, but Obama proceeded to earn my vote after that. And he didn’t even have to.
Now, yes, there exist people in this world who work about as hard as Obama and are not ex-Presidents with healthy bank accounts. Those people are Michelle’s parents and my mom. I’m kidding. There’s quite a few more than that. Basically all women in Africa. So yeah, Obama really got lucky and there are quite a few really deserving individuals who did not get lucky. But him managing to hit the jackpot of hard work and luck does not nullify his point or his position. Yeah, he does have a platform none of his peers have, but he’s using it responsibly.
Other ex-Presidents have healthy bank accounts and are relatively publicly involved. Past and present Senators often have healthy bank accounts and can be quite vocal. Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Flake, Jimmy Carter, John McCain, George W. Bush, and quite a few more have enjoyed reasonable levels of public respect whilst talking along with very healthy bank accounts. Barrack Obama has not.
Yeah, what I’m saying is the reason besides populist silencing that Obama’s comments have received so much criticism is not actually because Obama is rich and influential but because he’s black. The basis of Sanders’ and Warren’s campaigns is status threat for white men so a black man saying something even remotely critical of them is going to be met with great angst.
This is something that we can actually cast a wider net to see. Obama’s a pretty great example of how society is collectively uncomfortable with a black man’s success, but we see the same kind of push-back for any woman or person of color who speaks up. I have basically no platform and certainly no money, but I am routinely called an “elitist.” So … Cool. Cool.
What does it mean for 2020, tho’?
In looking towards 2020 the most important thing is to not forget or misunderstand the lessons of 2016. People get after me for my long articles but intellectual laziness is what brought us Trump. Well, intellectual laziness paired with populism, misogyny, racism, and flat out lies. And I will protect the media to my dying day, but when they push a given candidate or publish another candidate’s conspiracy theories about how the media doesn’t like him or put a clickbaity title on an article they are part of the problem.
In 2016 Trump and Sanders both got a ton of free and ultimately positive coverage simply because the media wanted to create a fight where there wasn’t one. Neither Sanders nor Trump came up with meaningful policy proposals while Clinton published 100,000 words of just that on her website. In spite of this Clinton was regularly accused of not being transparent about her proposed policy and sometimes not even having it. We’ve got a similar thing going on in this primary. Sanders has said he doesn’t need to tell anyone about his policy for various reasons, but other candidates particularly Harris and Klobuchar have been voluminous and articulate in their proposals. And yet while Warren does little and Sanders does less those two are getting tons of positive coverage while the harder working more minority candidates are being ignored or even openly misrepresented.
A great example of this is the dichotomy of articles representing Kamala Harris’ and Pete Buttigieg’s respective campaigns in Iowa. Keep in mind Harris is a black female Senator with years of experience including time as a DA whereas Buttigieg is a white male mayor of a small city. These articles fail to mention Harris’ continued and growing support among women and people of color, Buttigieg’s numerous and recent missteps in his characterization of the Obama administration and his behaviour towards minorities, the makeup of the Democratic Party being primarily or heavily black and female, and the fact that Iowa is more than 90% white and therefore a poor representative of the Democratic Party’s base. It is true that Obama was in a similar position as Kamala Harris at this point in the race and that he turned himself around in Iowa, but this is not being mentioned at all.
The problem here is that much of this is intentional confirmation bias, it stokes status threat among Democrats giving white Democrats a reason to ignore the largely black and female Democratic majority, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. This sort of selective and biased reporting is having a dampening effect on several of the more promising campaigns. And just as in 2016 where selective and sometimes even outright false material was used to damage Hillary Clinton and create a fight where there really hadn’t been one ultimately letting Trump have the Presidency, this media bias against all but the whitest and most male candidates is going to lead us to either another Trump Presidency as we field another boring white guy who the majority of Democrats just don’t believe in, or we might actually elect a boring white guy who exacerbates the discriminatory and undemocratic policies Trump’s already enacted.
All in all, this is quite bad. White Democrats are trying to leverage the Trump Presidency to silence actual debate within our party and demand fealty to their own candidates. Honestly, that’s really not any better than what Trump is doing. There needs to be more media recognition of the diversity of the Democratic Party and how the real leaders in the Democratic Party are not male and are not white. And we as voters need to read past the title because yeah, a lot of this is the fault of bad reporting. But the media is trying to get us to “like and share.” They don’t actually need us to sit down and read their article.
I’m calling for consciousness and intellectual rigour. Really, our democracy is a precious and fragile thing. So for the sake of the Constitution, read past the title.