Democracy or the Environment? The Hippie-Punchers Have Chosen Democracy, for All the Wrong Reasons

by Neil H. Buchanan

The fad of the moment is to fault Democrats for being "out of touch" with the presumed concerns of regular folks, who are supposedly turned off by "wokeness" and other right-wing tropes that the political media has uncritically adopted.  Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin calls these dire warnings to Democrats "tough love," saying that "[p]ollsters, analysts and campaign leaders are telling them they have overreached and ignored the legitimate cultural concerns of voters."
Although Rubin does not buy into the framing as much as others do, she is still amplifying a false narrative.  The idea that Democrats might lose in November's midterms because of "cultural concerns of voters" is both nonfalsifiable and an attempt to move the party away from what are in fact popular and easily defended positions.
But no, say the grim "facts don't lie" scolds, most recently evidenced in a study from the reliably "Democrats must be Republican-lite" Brookings Institution's political shop.  The tale they tell is that Democrats are refusing "to confront the unyielding arithmetic of electoral success."  This supposedly hard-nosed analysis, however, merely re-asserts the "What's the Matter with Kansas?" narrative as if it is somehow interesting or novel to note that some people vote on non-economic issues.

And how can Democrats win?  By running away from cultural issues, we are told, rather than taking a stand on them.  Ironically, what these quintessential Democratic insiders are peddling as they warn against "a new politics of evasion" -- in which the party has supposedly lost ground with voters by avoiding thinking about their cultural concerns -- is a strategy in which Democrats become completely evasive about cultural issues.
"Stop pretending that cultural issues aren't divisive" could, after all, mean that Democrats should make an affirmative case for their stands on cultural issues.  Instead, even though the scolds would not go so far as to say that Democrats should adopt Republicans' reactionary positions wholesale, the advice is to run away from defending people who are culturally vulnerable.  Why?  Because they are culturally vulnerable.
What is most interesting about all of this is that it is done in the name of saving democracy.  The impending death of democracy is a problem that I have been analyzing for years now, and it is real.  Notwithstanding my deep (and angry) disagreement with the self-styled moderates' repeated decisions to "punch the hippies" -- that is, to prove one's mainstream bona fides by finding this year's Sister Souljah or Lani Guinier to attack -- the new anti-progressive position is in its own way interesting, because it purports to be a strategy to save democracy.  Unfortunately, that strategy will in the end doom democracy, anyway.

Future generations -- today's young people, and the generations that have not yet been born -- have reason to be worried about many things.  The two issues with the most profound long-term consequences, however, are climate change and the death of constitutional democracy.  In 2019, I argued that there are likely to be situations in which generations currently in power will have to choose to address one of those problems at the expense of the other.  Where both could be addressed simultaneously, then obviously there is no tradeoff.  Where there are either-or situations, however, a choice would be unavoidable.

Summarizing my previous writings in a 2020 column, I wrote that I had "surprised myself by concluding that, because the threat of climate change is pressing but not literally a matter of being able to continue breathing in the immediate moment, the threats that Donald Trump (as well as the political toxicities that led to Brexit and the emergence of Viktor Orban in Hungary and other dictators) present to the world should be our top concern," or more bluntly that "we owe [future generations] self-determination and the rule of law even more than we owe them a less-degraded planet."
So where does the recent hippie-punching come in?  I am hardly the first to notice that the insta-consensus about a recent San Francisco recall election had it all wrong.  There, three school board members in a very liberal city were defeated by huge margins because they had taken unpopular positions (the most ready-for-media-outrage being their decision to remove Abraham Lincoln's name from a school, due to his mixed record on racial justice).  Again, these candidates were extreme even by San Francisco standards, and San Francisco Democrats dumped them.  Sanity reigns, right?  No.  Somehow, this is taken a proof that the loony left is in charge, even though the supposed loons are clearly not in charge.
More broadly, as Alex Shephard put it acidly in a piece in The New Republic: "The Democrats Are Doomed, and Somehow It’s All the Squad’s Fault?"  Shephard points out that it is
"the consensus among a large swath of the commentariat [that] Democrats have lost control of their messaging, which has been taken over by radicals and junior staffers, who have promptly driven the party off a cliff.  It is a neat and convenient explanation, and one that Democrats have been returning to for decades: Whenever their electoral prospects dip, it must be the fault of the party’s left flank."
There are many problems with this lazy habit, but perhaps the most pernicious is that it does not matter how much the Democrats follow this strategy, because it is never enough.  So-called centrists in the party blamed the left for Democrats' losing House seats in 2020 by pointing at the Defund the Police slogan.  Rather than stating clearly what that phrase did (and did not) mean, Democrats ran from it, and Republicans pounced.  More to the current point, Democratic insiders are still blaming progressives by pointing to that supposedly anti-police slogan, even though no one in any position of power has embraced it.  It is in the same category as John Kerry's supposed 2004 gaffe -- "I was for it before I was against it" -- because it does not matter how many times it is debunked or rejected.

Indeed, supposedly neutral journalists admiringly describe Republicans' culture war attacks, a recent example being an explainer in which two reporters offered what was otherwise a smart point:
While slogans like “Abolish ICE” and calls to renounce Lincoln were never representative of the broader Democratic Party, Republicans have deftly weaponized them, tagging all of their opponents with attacks that have resonated in part because Democrats have often been reluctant to respond directly lest they highlight their own divisions, party strategists said.
Excuse me, but "deftly"?  If mindless swings of a sledgehammer are "deft," then sure, Republicans have deftly weaponized lies.  The Republicans' strategy works because, as the writers point out, Democrats do not fight back (and, I would add, because reporters lionize Republican liars).

Notably, this is not a US-only phenomenon, with British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer apparently now having "taken to emphasizing his anti-woke and pro-Brexit credentials" to win back the UK's equivalent of Reagan Democrats.  There is no fight from supposedly leftish politicians who think that "regular people" are beyond reach.  Rather than looking to mobilize other voters, they pander to people’s lowest impulses.

The anti-progressive Democrats, then, are never going to forgive progressives for being progressive -- and they certainly will not let go of any supposed overreach or messaging error, no matter how much time passes.  And this is great for the anti-progressives, because even when their chosen candidates -- most obviously Joe Biden -- are in trouble politically, it is always the hippies' fault.  Again, all of this is in the context of progressive policies being extremely popular -- which now supposedly does not matter because, the Brookings people tell us, Democrats are fooling themselves if they think that being in favor of popular things is what matters in a democracy.

As I noted above, however, this is only the first part of the story.  It is hardly surprising that the Democratic insiders would be frantically trying to pre-blame the least powerful people in their caucus for an electoral outcome that is all but historically ordained in the best of circumstances.  That Democrats' fortunes began to wane last year when their two most conservative senators dragged out the legislative effort to create a very popular bill -- but remember, popular is an "evasion" -- before killing it does not stop the insiders from blaming it all on random people holding signs at George Floyd rallies in mid-2020.  This is, as noted above, not at all new.  It is, indeed, depressingly familiar.

The second part of the story is interesting precisely because it springs from the very important fact that Democrats need to win elections for far larger reasons than that they have better policies than Republicans.  (In many areas, in fact, it is more a matter of Democrats having policy ideas at all, while Republicans have none.)  An article from a few years ago in Vox offers a particularly clear example of how easy it is to misunderstand this distinction:
[I]f you are a Democrat, you might now be thinking something like this: "Of course Democrats had to oppose Trump. He is anathema to everything Democrats stand for." And this takes us to the second reason why Republicans are not going to suddenly work with Democrats. Republicans and Democrats represent very different constituencies, with different values.
This plainly gets it wrong.  The key point, the scary reality that threatens the ground under our feet, is not that Republicans are against everything that Democrats stand for but that they and Trump want to end partisan competition permanently.  This is not about, say, using the tax system to reduce inequality (Democrats) or supercharge it (Republicans).  We know that when Republicans retake power, they will further intensify their efforts to make it impossible for the "wrong people" to vote, while turning vote-counting into a partisan exercise, and so on.

To their credit, the hippie-punchers at least recognize that reality, and they make the point with bracing clarity. The Post's Dan Balz quotes from the Brookings scolds and summarizes their (completely valid) overarching concern:
"A Democratic loss in the 2024 presidential election may well have catastrophic consequences for the country," they write, arguing that the Trump-led Republican Party presents the most serious threat to American democracy in modern times. The Democrats’ first duty, they argue, should be to protect democracy by winning in 2024; everything else should be subordinated to that objective.
And this means everything else, apparently.  Concerns about police killings of unarmed non-White people?  No, swing voters have been convinced (with no resistance from mainstream Democrats) that increases in crime are all because the police are scared of doing their jobs -- which carries an implicit definition of "doing their jobs" that ought to be insulting to the police themselves, but I digress.  Pushing to re-fund the child tax credit, which was one of the most successful antipoverty programs in history?  No, too expensive.

What about doing something about the environment?  That motivates a lot of young people who might not otherwise vote, and it connects with the "suburban moms" stereotypes about being concerned with quality of life issues and their kids' well-being.  No, that is also out, say the sages of the Democratic establishment, because Republicans will start screaming "Green New Deal" and saying that gas prices are too high.

All of which is to say that establishment-tied Democrats have gone a step further than anyone ever should.  Whereas I reluctantly argued that sometimes we truly cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, making it necessary to work on the highest priority of saving democracy at the expense of saving the environment, the new argument is that anything that AOC favors must be loudly and angrily denounced, lest Republicans "deftly weaponize" it in a House race.

To be clear, this might in fact be true.  When this defensive-crouch strategy began to emerge in the Reagan years (most prominently when the Democratic presidential nominee refused to defend the word "liberal" after George H.W. Bush sneered about "the L-word" in 1988), there was always a case to be made that some swing voters would reject Democrats who stood for anything even mildly non-conservative.  Even back then, however, it was clear that this was a strategy without an exit, because it involved constantly ceding ground to Republicans.

Now, we have the money-men and the guardians of the Democratic status quo once again sounding the alarm that we have to -- oh so grudgingly -- abandon progressive principles, but this time it is to save democracy itself.  They have, as I noted, ended up agreeing with me that the highest priority is to stop Republicans from taking over the country.

The difference is that the cautious approach leaves us in a situation where Democrats will never in fact wield power in a way that the people support, because there will always be a reason to trim one's sails.  Should Washington, D.C., be a state?  Nope, too likely to stoke racial panic in suburban districts.  Should the Supreme Court's radical right wing be neutralized?  Can't, because court packing.  Should we in fact deal with the environment, which was one of the main reasons to keep the political system responsive to the people?  Wish we could, but ... you know.

The 1982 song by The Clash, "Know Your Rights," is brilliant on all counts, including these lyrics:
You have the right to free speech
As long as you're not
Dumb enough to actually try it
The hippie-punching Democrats have the same message, but with a twist.  Progressives are right to want to elect Democrats, because Republicans would do bad things, including ending democracy.  But if progressives are actually dumb enough to expect Democrats to act like Democrats, they lose the right to be heard.  Saving democracy but not using it is hardly worth the effort.