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Sail Trimmers

The Atlantic imagines a re-branded Democratic Party

If the Atlantic magazine didn’t already exist, our neoliberal policy elite would have to invent it. No other periodical so perfectly captures the curious alpha policy swagger, the puzzled dining-club member’s approach to civic and political organizing, and the all-around obtuseness of elite discourse in the neoliberal age as does David Bradley’s lavishly sponsored, poorly paying, ideologically compromised organ of Beltway consensus.

And now, as the harsh conditions of American life in the Trump era are starting to settle into place, the Atlantic’s esteemed pundit roster has applied itself to the pressing task of how to steer the republic out of its present awful muddle. The just-released double Summer issue sports on its cover a holy-shit scenario of impending nuclear armageddon raining down from North Korea—part of the journal’s long and storied history of conjuring apocalyptic scenarios to terrify our financial and political power elites as well as the nation’s vast demoralized corps of women, at all stages of courtship, procreation, and career pursuit.

But don’t be distracted: The main event for the thought leaders marshaled under the Atlantic’s genteel-yet-fretful brand this time out is to burrow into all the messy contradictions, miscues, and flat-out failures of the imagination that have launched the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Franklin Foer, erstwhile New Republic editor, delivers what feels like the 400th postmortem on the Hillary-led Democratic Party’s failure to connect with the white working-class electorate. All the reliable notes of arm’s-length cultural puzzlement are struck soundly here, from the putative identity-politics-class-politics divide on the left to the neoliberal wonk class’s painfully absent common touch.

Foer’s long excursis lays out, in broad outline, some solid prescriptions for the Democrats’ malaise, such as a sharper focus on the Sanders-Warren assault on the country’s corporate oligarchy. Tellingly, however, he sees the path forward here dominated not so much by policy initiatives as by linguistic and cultural overtures. Democratic leaders, Foer writes,

would be well advised to change their rhetorical priorities and more directly address the country’s bastions of gloom. The party has been crushed—not just in the recent presidential election, but in countless down-ballot elections—by its failure to develop a message that can resonate with people beyond the core members of the Obama coalition, and by its unwillingness to blare its hostility to crony capitalism. Polling by the group Priorities USA Action shows that a stunning percentage of the voters who switched their allegiance from Obama to Trump believe that Democratic economic policies favor the rich—42 percent, nearly twice the number who consider that to be true of Trump’s agenda.

The Occam’s razor response to this dilemma would be to acknowledge the obvious truth that, after a full generation of labor-soaking appeasement of business prerogatives, from free trade to financial deregulation, the Democrats are, at a minimum, in the process of morphing into the party of the rich—at least the affluent cohort of credentialed professionals and symbolic analysts who fund and plot out the party’s agenda. And since that class’s policy preferences are often directly at odds with those who don’t benefit from the great rolling largess of globalized capital, something a good deal more serious than message development and rhetorical recalibration needs to occur before Democrats can claim any semblance of credibility as economic populists.

How far is Foer—who, I should stipulate, I published in the long-ago nineties back when I edited In These Times and he was helping lead the Columbia University DSA chapter, and also edited when we both made the mistake of signing on with Adam Moss’s New York magazine—from reckoning with that inconvenient truth? Well, there’s this, for starters: In handicapping the likelihood of the Democrats’ populist resurgence, he only interviews incumbent senators—Warren and Sanders, together with Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer. (Here, for your delectation, is Foer’s thumbnail portrait of Schumer in populist repose: “When I entered his office, Schumer was compressed into the corner of an antique sofa, his tie loosened and his feet resting on a coffee table.”)

That is to say, it’s by now a pundit-reflex at the Atlantic to assume that the most decisive power in the country’s would-be party of the people resides in members of the legislative branch most insulated from populist pressures. No one who helped organize Sanders’s surprise insurgent run at the presidency is canvassed on the party’s hope to reconnect with its casually jettisoned working-class base, nor do we hear from any front-line activists with Swing Left, Flip A District, or any other such groups that are trying to launch economic populist House candidates who won’t repeat the dismal saga of Jon Ossoff’s $30 million centrist-choreographed belly flop in Georgia’s sixth Congressional district special election this week.

This is more than a methodological cavil. In the world of neoliberal consensus, it’s a simple taken-for-granted axiom that senators—the lead fundraisers and media figures in both major parties—call the shots, and should be entrusted with charting an electoral comeback and an agenda for future majoritarian governance.

But things were not ever thus. In the not-so-distant past, Democrats did credibly represent the checkbook interests of the country’s working majority, and as a result they held a firm four-decades-long grip on the House. Much of the party’s governing and electoral strength resided in that advantage. To fail to grasp the importance of that majoritarian base, at the very moment when reform activists are fighting the Democratic establishment to put it back in play during the critical 2018 midterms, is to repeat many of the errors that landed the Democrats at this dismal pass in the first place. It is, to begin with, to treat the party as a machine to elect presidents, and always to recur prayerfully to the determinism of the census map to one day conjure an effortless, Borg-like Democratic majority on paper.

Just imagine a 1930s pundit saying that FDR’s one-hundred-days agenda was motivated by an irrational “phobia” or a spasm of “anger.”

This same myopia comes through in Foer’s recap of recent Democratic election cycles. He notes, for example, that Obama polled quite robustly among rural and white working-class voters in the upper Midwest in 2012—so much so that the mythology of that region’s “blue firewall” took root among party sachems. What he fails to note anywhere in his sprawling 8,000-word opus is that there was a straightforward economic basis for Obama’s appeal to such voters that had nothing to do with the president’s nuanced message or shape-shifting rhetorical appeals to generic white working-class ressentiment: After the 2008 meltdown, the president bailed out the flailing auto industry, over the loud protests of conservative critics like Mitt Romney, his eventual 2012 opponent. That meant not only that the fabled white working-class voters of Michigan’s Macomb County—whom Foer, in grand pundit tradition, dilates lovingly on here—had a sound material reason to vote for an African-American incumbent. It also meant that the vast regional supply chain for the auto industry in the upper Midwest had cause to believe, however briefly, that the Democratic Party might be counted on to look out for its well being, and the fortunes of its workers. Obama’s 2012 appeal to wage-earning upper Midwestern white voters, in other words, stemmed largely from something that looks an awful lot like Bernie-style socialism.

But that’s exactly why Foer’s analysis has no room for such a narrative: the salience of the actual livelihoods of actual voters will always count for less, in David Bradley’s Atlantic, than the impression-management challenges facing the Democratic Party’s professional managerial class. Just consider, in this regard, Foer’s own rhetoric in characterizing the appeal of Warren’s more confrontational populist politics: “At the core of Warren’s populism is a phobia of concentrated economic power, an anger over how big banks and big businesses exploit Washington to further their own interests at the expense of ordinary people.” (Emphasis added.)

We are again in the world of political commentator as clinical onlooker, in much the same fashion that past detractors of populism such as Richard Hofstadter sought to stigmatize any specter of egalitarian politics as a pathological outgrowth of small-town Protestant “status anxiety” or merely bigoted expressions of the “paranoid style” of economic revenge-fantasizing. (As for the far-from-subtle gender subtext of this analysis, just imagine a 1930s pundit saying that FDR’s one-hundred-days agenda was motivated by an irrational “phobia” or a spasm of “anger” at the forces of economic concentration and regulatory capture.) Better by far to modulate the forces of populist anger to realize maximum strategic advantage: “Empathy with economic disappointment, and even anger over the status quo, might reduce the sense that Democrats are perpetrators of the status quo,” Foer writes.

Not the reality that Democrats have perpetrated the status quo, mind you; just the sense that they may have. For Foer, the challenge facing Democrats is not so much to give downwardly mobile or culturally scorned working-class voters something to vote for, as Obama managed to in 2012. No, it’s to render the mystic portrait of Chuck Schumer, populist tribune, a plausible thing for the pliable Macomb County electorate: “Insufficient fidelity to populist ideals, [Schumer] argued, had cost Democrats the election: ‘We didn’t have a strong, bold—populist, if you will—economic message.’” Anyone familiar with Schumer’s actual legislative record can’t greet this kind of diagnosis with anything other than a spit take—just as it’s beyond laughable that a party leadership that spent more than year crushing the candidacy of Sanders, who had energized an Obama-style mustering of a youth and reform-minded populism, would look back at the abysmal failures of the Hillary campaign and wistfully remark—now—“if only she’d tried populism.”

But far be it for the Atlantic to leave its readers clinging to a fairy tale of rejuvenated Senate populism; no, in the spirit of robust exchanges of opinion, this special Summer issue also features a call to rethink Democratic immigration politics from another former editor of the New Republic, Peter Beinart. As was the case with Foer’s critique of Democratic messaging, Beinart highlights some uncomfortable truths for party leaders—that immigrant labor can, in fact, drive down working-class wages, and that Silicon Valley’s pet guest-worker visa programs work to heighten already steep inequalities of income. But rather than weigh economic countermeasures to this dynamic, such as cross-border unionization or trade and industrial policies that don’t actually soak the working class, Beinart follows the accepted Atlantic pundit playbook, and fashions a stern cultural parable out of stark material inequalities. The immigration divide in our politics, you see, comes down to the misguided elite liberal romance with multiculturalism and a refusal to endorse basic assimilationist outlooks on matters of citizenship and national identity:

Liberals must take seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion. To promote both mass immigration and greater economic redistribution, they must convince more native-born white Americans that immigrants will not weaken the bonds of national identity. This means dusting off a concept many on the left hate: assimilation.

Like Foer’s laundry list of broadly populist-sounding rhetoric, this call to assimilationist arms is revealing mostly in what it omits. The main assimilationist policy Beinart urges on Democrats, it turns out, is a set of self-dramatizing feints to promote English-first usages in our schools and workplaces. And he ends with this fantasia:

In 2014, the University of California listed melting pot as a term it considered a “microaggression.” What if Hillary Clinton had traveled to one of its campuses and called that absurd? What if she had challenged elite universities to celebrate not merely multiculturalism and globalization but Americanness? What if she had said more boldly that the slowing rate of English-language acquisition was a problem she was determined to solve? What if she had acknowledged the challenges that mass immigration brings, and then insisted that Americans could overcome those challenges by focusing not on what makes them different but on what makes them the same?

Some on the left would have howled. But I suspect that Clinton would be president today.

Riiight. Because what the economically polarized electorate of 2016 demanded was a series of Sister Souljah–style provocations of the multicultural academy from a candidate who endorsed virtually every social prerogative of globalized capital—including those Silicon Valley guest worker programs. Beinart’s clinching set piece at least has the arguable virtue of making Foer’s portrayal of pitchfork-wielding populist Chuck Schumer seem marginally less ludicrous.

Actual political agency, it seems, is a lesser virtue than the civic jolt proffered by a “mediating function.”

Meanwhile, for American workers qua workers, the Atlantic has enlisted Jonathan Rauch—recently spied in these same pages arguing that the United States suffers from a grievous oversupply of democracy—making (wait for it) the conservative case for unions. By now, the rote call-and-response formulation of Atlantic-style economy-to-culture alchemy is wearily familiar. Yes, Rauch allows, the precipitous decline of private-sector union membership is a central cause of escalating wealth and income inequality, and foments all sorts of associated ills, such as career insecurity, retirement losses, and consumer indebtedness. But the real hidden toll here, of course, is cultural:

Perhaps most important, [unions] offer workers a way to be heard. ‘Unions provide a mediating function,’ Matthew Dimick, a labor-law expert at SUNY-Buffalo’s Law School, told me. ‘Their social-capital function creates ties that reduce anomie and the sense of being abandoned and forgotten.’ No other social institution, or at least none yet discovered, can serve that mediating function for workers.

So yes, here we go again: Once more we hear only muffled testimony of actual working class experience—not from a senator this time, but from a bona fide labor-law expert. And in a dumbfoundingly perverse transport, the benefits of unionism are described in terms of “their social-capital function”—i.e. via a classic neoliberal buzzword that in its very diction seeks to align the institutional arrangements of public life in line with the central economic formation opposed to the material interests of labor. And once more, we get a generous dose of the diagnostic feelspeak that, even in a quoted expert source, lets fretful neoliberal pundits convey to their discomfited readers that we’re discussing all this on the same credentialed plane of elite discourse: Workers need not only “a way to be heard,” it turns out, but also to dial down their anomic tendencies and to no longer feel “abandoned” and “forgotten.” Actual political agency, it seems, is a lesser virtue than the civic jolt proffered by a “mediating function.”

Thus will the good ship Atlantic sail confidently onward into the heart of Trumpism—with every socioeconomic divide calmly parsed into a manageable cultural parable of one provenance or another, and the future firmly in the hands of our impression-massaging pundit class. And if that doesn’t work, well, the magazine’s editors have also thoughtfully supplied a feature about a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, whose research suggests that pursuing and possessing power creates brain damage.[*] In other words: caveat lector.


[*] Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced an article about a McMaster University neuroscientist, stating that the researcher worked at the University of Ontario. There is no University of Ontario.