David Atkins at Washington Monthly has a point about what progressives, Democrats and anyone else who is dismayed by the current political situation in the United States has to do.
It’s entirely possible that at a grassroots level in many parts of the country, the advice is unnecessary because it’s long since been taken. It’s hard for me and maybe many to tell whether online sniping between pundits, Twitter feeds, Tumblr blogs and so on has anything at all to do with how most people live and inhabit their political choices.
Assuming for a moment that there’s either some resemblance between the tensions expressed in the public sphere and those felt on the ground, or that the public sphere has the potential to eventually impose its discourse on others, then there is a basic understanding of coalition politics that is being entirely sidestepped by many people. I’ve complained before about a version of this point, that the discourse about “allies” in identity politics doesn’t really recognize what an alliance is. You don’t expect allies to be identical to your own party or movement–and you only are interested in allies when you have to be, because there’s no other way to realize your own political aspirations.
In the context of the current debate, if we can call it that, between mainstream Democrats and left progressives, well, the problem is that both sides (or maybe there’s more than two) tend to think that “alliance” or “coalition” means, “I’m going to tell the other guys all the ways in which they suck, I’m going to accuse them of being racists/sexists/corporate shills/almost Republicans/cowards/delusional and then I’m going to demand that they join the coalition, which means shutting up and obeying everything we tell them to do.”
If anyone wants to make the point about working together in a helpful way that actually leads to a coalition, here’s how to start: through a generous acknowledgement of the legitimate grievances and helpful contributions of the faction or group that you do not identify with. You outline the sustaining terms and common ground for a coalition. You bracket off the issues that your side is prepared to push off to the margins and identify some of the issues that you believe the other factions will have to push off to the margins. You figure out strategically which seats or offices the other side(s) has the best chance to win, and which seats and offices your side has the best chance to win, and you offer to support all of those races equally. You acknowledge the cases where the other faction has a far better candidate in basic terms (say, in the last Pennsylvania Senate race, John Fetterman was simply a more charismatic, engaging, interesting candidate by far than Katie McGinty, period–she had no chance to beat a very beatable opponent) and you agree that you’ll try to acknowledge that kind of difference when you see it and go with the winning chance regardless.
You parsimoniously identify the two or three essential issues where candidates and spokespeople from any faction just have to satisfy you; you hope the other guys do the same.
And so on. It’s time to stop saying, “We have to work together, you whiny BernieBro crazy purist impractical nonsense faux-socialist millennial brats!” and “We have to work together, you corporate stooge neoliberal basically-Republican money-chasing scumbags!” In those cases, just skip the “have to work together” part, since it really means, “You must bend the knee to us and submit in every way”.
That, by the way, is the privilege of every political actor, from individuals all the way up to movements: to insist that they want it all, exactly as they want it. But you know what, that means one more thing: you have the power, or a plan for having the power, to make those unyielding demands meaningful. If you have the power or a plan for having the power, stop talking *to* the political factions you intend to compel or coerce into submission to your own agenda. If that’s the way it is, stop whining about Kamala Harris or Cory Booker to the mainstream Democratic Party, because you do not expect them to care. If that’s the way it is, stop whining to Sanders supporters about how they’re sexist or immature or unrealistic, because you do not expect them to listen.
Right now I don’t think that either mainstream Democrats or Sanders-aligned progressives have a plan for compelling or coercing their opposing faction, and neither do they have an awareness of the necessity of coalition and the necessary requirements for coalition. As far as I can tell, the plan on both sides is “We’ll lose again! And lose even more seats in state legislatures and Congress! And then you’ll be sorry! Then you’ll listen!”
The Tea Party had a plan that actually worked for compelling the mainstream Republican Party to obey them. I think maybe even some in the Tea Party are now regretting that. In an earlier era, the mainstream Republican Party from 1968-2000 had a plan for giving the ancestors of the Tea Party enough of what they wanted to keep them happy and in coalition. Thinking of that kind is more or less absent among Democrats, progressives and radicals. More’s the pity.