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Alabama, Shaken

How can Democrats “scale” last night's victory into a national wave?

The old saying is that success has many fathers. In the case of the glorious defeat of the Neanderthal Republican Roy Moore in simply-red Alabama, several aspiring parents are already staking a claim to paternity. The most prominent such claim comes from the followers of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Their story is that the election result affirms the Clintonian, neoliberal notion of the Democratic coalition—the young, minorities, well-to-do suburbanites, and the college-educated. The same conclusion was justifiably drawn from the victory of the very moderate Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia.

There are any number of flaws in this case, chief among them that I, a Bernie Bro before there was a Bernie, don’t like the implications. But let’s try to be objective here. What are the strengths of this argument?

There are any number of flaws in this case, chief among them that I, a Bernie Bro before there was a Bernie, don’t like the implications.

Without doubt, Moore commanded strong majorities of the white working class. White rural districts, those with less than college educations, white evangelicals—in short, nearly all of the current base constituencies of the Republican Party. Why waste time appealing to these people, if they see fit to vote for the likes of Moore?

It was also proven possible to reap Obama-level turnouts of African American voters, and in a state that does not bend over backward to make voting easy for them.

Moore was a uniquely flawed candidate, but the overall swing in polled favorability, against Trump, and not least in Alabama, suggests huge potential for Democrats.

One neglected aspect of gerrymandering is that it leaves the benefitting party vulnerable to a generalized, “wave” election. The idea is that if, by hook or crook, you distribute all of your voters efficiently across districts, you also minimize your majorities in every such district. If some national event overtakes one majority, such as a discredited, notoriously unsuitable national party leader, it can engulf your entire crew of electeds. The Republicans have underperformed in most elections since 2016, even though they won some of them, and now they have lost in Alabama. The tsunami gong is starting to vibrate.

Before the voting, some were grousing that if Jones had been critical of reproductive rights, he would win more easily, if not avoid defeat. In the actual event, he got a solid victory by contemporary standards. Pro-choice may not be as much as an electoral handicap for Democrats in so-called red states as the conventional wisdom held.

These results uphold the view persuasively advanced by Hillary Clinton in her book, to the effect that, but for the anomalies of the FBI and scandalously biased press coverage, she shoulda won. There was nothing wrong with her message, whatever you thought of it.

What are the problems with this argument? They are political, economic, and political-economic.

Circularity. Yes, if you run a campaign along the lines of the Clinton campaign, you will get what you sought after, and sometimes it will be enough to win, as Clinton did in enough states in 2016 to come achingly close to total victory. But suppose you ran a different campaign?

I am not suggesting a Southern-fried Bernie Sanders would have won in Alabama yesterday, but we are talking now about the generalizability of the Democrats’ victory. In modern lingo, how might it “scale”? In some places, a Clinton/Jones type of campaign could be the only pragmatic option. My guess is that in Alabama, it was. For increasingly blue Virginia, where I live, maybe not.

It turns out that some Alabama Democrats may have a broader view of the party’s mission than some neoliberal, Clintonian die-hards.

The take on this race as an affirmation of “identity politics” is highly problematic. Describing “pro-choice” or civil rights as identity politics demeans both causes. It reinforces the mistaken, immoral notion that their beneficiaries are narrow, isolated constituencies, rather than coincident with the general welfare. Analyses of the white working class to the effect that their economic well-being is best served by racism are destructive, not least to the struggle against racism itself.

A coalition of federated groups is more fragile than one unified in identity and program, that is to say, around class. There were some hints of this in Jones’s victory speech, as well as some wisdom dispensed by former NBA star and Alabama native Charles Barkley.

The principal programmatic item in Jones’s election-night speech was the need for the Congress to reauthorize the State Childrens Health Insurance Program, a.k.a. SCHIP. This is a class demand that just happens to disproportionately benefit minorities because, duh.

Barkley, meanwhile, said that Democrats needed to direct their focus to the material needs of minorities and poor whites. So it turns out that some Alabama Democrats may have a broader view of the party’s mission than some neoliberal, Clintonian die-hards.

At its worst, the Clinton/Obama-style coalition is joined with neoliberal economic commitments that parade under misleading banners like fiscal responsibility, entitlement reform, free trade, labor market flexibility, technological innovation, and public-private partnerships. The political dilemma here is that a Clinton-type coalition might return to power over the carcass of a Republican Party discredited and destroyed by Donald Trump, but it might implement anti-working-class policies that pave the way for a resuscitation of the GOP. We would remain stuck in a downward spiral, as the planet bakes.

If we heed the Jones victory more broadly, it’s a klaxon to all political factions.

As we speak, the Republicans, like bank robbers who can hear the police sirens, are rushing to enact a large tax cut. Recovering Republican Bruce Bartlett has observed that absent some evidence of enlightenment on the economics front, a revived Democratic administration is apt to exhaust its hard-won goodwill by implementing austerity measures to reduce the deficit, much like Bill Clinton did in 1993-1994.

But if we heed the Jones victory more broadly, it’s a klaxon to all political factions. For the Steve Bannon/Trumpie extremists, it warns of political destruction and provides impetus to further violent agitation—the wounded bear’s impulse to attack, in other words.

For the Mitch McConnell Republican establishment, it’s a signal to cash out fast. And that means, first and foremost, to pass the awful tax bill and land it on President Trump’s desk before Jones is sworn in and takes his seat at the end of the month.

For the Democratic caucuses in Congress, it should buck up party unity and the merits of running out the clock on all legislation pending the congressional mid-terms next year.

For the Clinton/Obama Democratic establishment, which was reportedly crucial to the Jones campaign without making themselves too obvious about it, their victory has to encourage them to be all that they have been ideologically, but better in the area of political messaging and mobilization.

For the Bernie progressives, there could be something of a quandary. There are places that Democrats can win, but not necessarily with the usual menu of Bernie demands. Fight for 15, for instance, would probably be bad news for a place like Alabama, where the median hourly wage in 2016 was $15.43. Purity can illuminate worthwhile aspirations but can cripple actual campaigns. Some exercise in judgment will be required.

Democrats of all stripes ought to be enthused about the possibilities of a coming wave and the benefits of competing everywhere, for every vote. The spectacle of President Trump opens up heretofore unthinkable possibilities. The Mueller machine is starting to gear up.

Audacity has become pragmatic.