Monday, March 6, 2017

Part 2 (revised) of Political Intimidation & Violence, and the Democratic Party Response: A Brief History (1960-2017)

Part Two: Democratic Responses

Roddey Reid

Author’s note: This is the 2nd part of a 4-part series that attempts to take seriously the success of Donald Trump’s violent authoritarian politics that has mainstreamed white nationalism and far-right political agendas. The series builds on an earlier think piece on the rise of Donald Trump as capitalist folk hero and white political bully posted here last July and published in Black Renaissance Noire 16.2. (Fall 2016). I argue that Trump’s acts of intimidation and threats of violence are not occasional excesses but an integral part of his politics and policies and those of the Republican Party that are remaking U.S. political culture as we know it. It is therefore essential that we understand their power and nature as we mobilize to oppose the new regime. Part 1, “Today and Yesterday,” focuses on the current crisis and the long history of political intimidation and bullying since the 1960s up to the present including revolutions in the public media sphere. Part Two, “Democratic Responses,” reviews Democratic Party responses up through the Obama Administration. Part Three, “The 2016 Elections,” focuses on the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Hilary Clinton. Part 4, “Practices of Identity and Political Violence,” explores the identity and social composition of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as their cultures of loyalty and governing.

A Restructured Party and Its Cautious Strategies

Democratic leaders’ weak responses to the Republican theft of the 2000 Presidential elections and the smearing of Max Cleland and John Kerry hardly stand alone in the recent history of the party. Already in 1988 Republican operative Lee Atwater’s notoriously racist Willie Horton ad campaign (1988) caught the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis unawares and went largely without a response. It is as if the Democratic Party that had invented the political attack ad in 1960 (with the false claims of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union) and 1964 (with the anti-Goldwater “Daisy” ad warning of imminent nuclear war) by the end of the Reagan years had lost its knack for effective televised messaging and ceded to the opposing party the terrain of broadcast and cable media. Citing George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 anti-war presidential campaign, party leaders in 1984 established super delegates of elected officials to mitigate the power of discontented voters in presidential primaries, and after liberal Walter Mondale’s landslide loss to an aging Ronald Reagan that same year younger leaders like Bill Clinton (the so-called New Democrats or neoliberals) founded the centrist Democratic Leadership Council  that made its own the new Beltway consensus supporting conservative fiscal policies. In essence establishment Democrats largely abandoned the field of public discourse to the apologists of free-market solutions and small government with few opposing voices to make the case for public services. Arguably it was at that time Democratic leaders sought refuge in well-organized voter turnout initiatives and the backroom world of policymaking whose fact-based discourse expressing liberal good intentions presumably spoke for itself to voters. It was also at this time that centrist Democrats followed Bill Clinton’s lead in “triangulating” between liberal and conservative politics in the hopes of attracting moderate suburban voters and that the subsequent fetishization of “compromise” became party doctrine. As we shall see in Parts 3 and 4, this helped shape an entire political identity. One has the impression that the Democratic leadership somehow felt that the momentum of fifty years of Congressional domination Democrats enjoyed since the time of FDR would still carry the day in a more conservative political environment and protect the legacy of the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement and their underlying assumptions about government’s place in ordinary citizens’ lives. In this view even in the absence of charismatic candidates no further vigorous defense or even education of the public was required.

            Thanks to Bernie Sanders powerful 2016 Presidential bid, it is now clearer than ever that under the leadership of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the newly formed Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) by the late 1990s the Democratic Party centrist politics had dropped any meaningful mobilization of its liberal base in favor of a focus on punctual Presidential campaigns and a reliance on big corporate donors to finance them thereby initiating the long neglect of the nitty-gritty of local politics and citizen involvement in issues closest to home. Gone, too, were the strains of economic populism. The party’s various constituencies were taken for granted (later called “firewalls”) and called upon only every four years to take action in the voting booth. In the absence of other forms of sustained political organizing and education such as that afforded by trade unions (already in steep decline) this would prove to be catastrophic in the long run, especially in Congressional and local races. However, despite party leaders’ best efforts, the energy and the commitment of the base were still there, as Howard Dean’s and Barack Obama’s anti-Iraq war candidacies, their appeal to young voters, and their novel creation of small donor networks through the Internet made clear in 2004 and 2008.[1] A supreme irony was that despite their new reliance on policymaking, in general Democrats did not fare all that well in framing national issues, for ever since the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, conservative Republicans had been patiently building a new intellectual infrastructure of well-financed foundations and think-tanks that developed hundreds of new policy papers advocating libertarian and neo-conservative positions, sponsored workshops to recruit students and journalists, and fielded a new phalanx of spokesmen and women that began to populate TV news programs. The Republicans created a relentless drumbeat on talk shows and in the news media that outmatched whatever Democrats could muster on a daily basis and translated the arcane prose of conservative policy into memorable sound-bites, an art that to this day still escapes most Democratic Party leaders. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would prove to be the memorable exceptions that proved the rule: without a magnetic leader as their spokesperson, cautious, centrist politics remained quite vulnerable to spirited attacks. And in Obama’s case his considerable oratorical talents were used sparingly and couldn’t assuage accumulated voter anxiety during his two terms.

The Advent of Obama
The invasion of Iraq that provoked new liberal and progressive mobilization also opened cracks in the media’s conservative consensus in the form of Jonathan Stewart’s late-night “Daily Show” on Comedy Central and Keith Olbermann’s evening news program, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” on MSNBC. The new energy helped drive Obama’s insurgent candidacy that started outside the orbit of the DNC and ran on the themes of “hope” and national reconciliation that explicitly rejected the divisive, fear-based politics that had dominated the United States for many decades, especially during the Bush Administration era. The charismatic black candidate’s speeches set off an enthusiastic response among young voters baffling established political commentators, and in the eyes of many observers Obama seemed to herald a turning point in recent U.S. political history. However, Obama’s victory in 2008 did not mark a reprieve in the harsher tone of public discourse nor did his call for a politics of respect turn back the tide of political intimidation, especially that of Democrats by Republicans. On the contrary, with the election of the first black president political intimidation reached to new heights as Republican opponents and media celebrities such as Fox News host Glenn Beck and CNN’s Lou Dobbs launched campaigns targeting not only the new president’s policies but also his person from questioning his place of birth to claiming Obama would take citizens’ guns away from them to calling for armed resistance against the new administration. The Tea Party, financed by the Koch Brothers, went so far as to hold rallies close by official town hall meetings hosted by Obama on the Affordable Care Act in which radical right members showed up with loaded weapons in a reminder that—if ever needed—that many of the accumulated 300 million guns in the U.S.—twice as many as in 1968--had a purpose other than personal enjoyment, one that was profoundly political and served as a silent—and not so silent--form of intimidation of political opponents. [2]

            Two years later in January 2011 the threat of armed violence culminated in the mass shooting by a gunman who targeted a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson) at an outdoor meeting with constituents, and left her severely wounded and six other people dead. The assassination attempt came after a hard-fought electoral campaign in which her opponent, an ex-Marine and Tea Party member, featured flyers calling for voters to come out to a meeting and shoot an assault rifle to support him in defeating Giffords (“Get on Target for Victory in November- Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from Office, Shoot a Fully-automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly”). During the same elections Sarah Palin had even featured an electoral map of Congressional districts of Democratic members of Congress including Giffords who had voted for the Affordable Care Act with crosshairs of a gunsight superimposed on each district. After the shooting Palin remained defiantly unapologetic. Democrats responded as did Republicans by denouncing the attack as a national tragedy and issuing calls for the cooling of political rhetoric as if both parties were equally culpable. Bipartisanship won the day at the expense of clear-eyed analysis.[3] As it continues to be the case to this very day, the political shooting by a white perpetrator was not classified as an act of violence with political consequences, let alone as an act of domestic terrorism.

Demobilizing Democrats

Election eve and Inauguration Day witnessed the largest public assemblies in recent U.S. election history—250,000 in Chicago’s Hyde Park to greet the victorious Obama and 1.8 million on the Washington Mall to watch him take the oath of office. One would think that would have constituted a unique political advantage over Republicans demoralized and panicked by their electoral losses. What’s more, Obama named as his chief of staff fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emmanuel, a fierce Democratic partisan and political brawler. Emmanuel’s appointment was taken by many as a warning shot to the opposing party as if to say, “Don’t fuck with me” and a sign that Obama was preparing to do battle. But that was not to be. Perhaps thrown or even frightened by political pressure represented by the huge outpouring of public enthusiasm his very campaign elicited and received and the high expectations it raised, once in office Obama busily worked to return to politics as usual behind closed doors and away from the streets demobilizing his massive number of supporters. And far from applying his hard-ball tactics to fend off the Republican onslaught and obstructionism, Emmanuel instead targeted liberal Democratic members of Congress and devoted his energies to blocking their demands for a implementing a progressive agenda that would address voter discontent: winding down rapidly the Iraq War, curtailing the excesses of the Patriot Act, rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, assisting millions of homeowners victims of mortgage fraud, prosecuting those responsible for illegal measures of exception in the War on Terror or those implicated in the great financial scandals (from Enron and Iraq to the post-Katrina clean-up in New Orleans, Wall Street, etc.), and restoring financial regulation in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Not only did Wall Street malfeasance go unpunished but many top bankers and CEOs enjoyed a seat at Obama’s table from which representatives of traditional Democratic constituencies were conspicuously absent.[4] Insurgent candidate from outside the DNC though he was, the inexperienced Obama contending with the financial crisis and the daily demands of governing soon underwent what sociologists call “institutional capture” by the Beltway establishment and its priorities.[5]

2010: The Thrill Is Gone

The political fallout was swift and immediate: in the fall 2010 midterm elections disappointed Democrats and Independents stayed home, and radicalized Republicans won a record sixty additional seats in the House and four governorships in Pennsylvania and the old industrial Midwest—a warning of things to come—that gave them the unparalleled opportunity to gerrymander in their favor dozens of Congressional districts thanks to the 2010 Census. The liberal political momentum of 2008 was broken, and Republicans redoubled their campaign of intimidation and obstruction. Obama’s response was that typical of leaders of his party before: largely to ignore them. Committed to the public strategy of bipartisanship and compromise, a weakened Obama was even less unprepared for renewed attacks and continued to achieve few results for his efforts (the Affordable Care Act was passed without Republican support in 2010 by Democratic majorities). Matters soon reached such a pass that his serene and unflappable demeanor that had served him so well in 2008 during the financial crisis and the debates with John McCain to reassure worried voters in the midst of the financial crisis now worked against Obama and his allies: however calm and reasonable he was in demeanor, he was now seen as detached and indifferent, and even viewed as the aggressor and the bully in the eyes of the aggrieved crowds and their right-wing sponsors. This is a good example of “felt” or affective politics at its most powerful, something which, unfortunately, escaped most Democratic politicians and liberal commentators who contented themselves with pointing out the obvious lies and misrepresentations. What they failed to realize is that what was at hand was an open-ended preemptive campaign of verbal and physical aggression whose real goal was less to convince people of “facts” than to seize control of public discourse, and sow doubt and confusion in the minds of a fearful public. It seems that it was simply a matter of time before a Donald Trump would make his entry on the national stage and make intimidation and bullying an integral part of the content of his campaign.

[1] To be fair, Dean went on the become chair of the Democratic Party ‘s governing body, the Democratic National Committee, where he launched an innovative fifty-state strategy that won additional Congressional seats for the party in 2006 and 2008. This renewed commitment to more local politics would not last the advent of Obama’s presidency, however. For more on Obama’s 2008 campaign and first administration, see below.
[3] Jonathan Raban, ”Gabrielle Giffords is the victim of a debased political culture,” The Independent, 21 Jan. 2011. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017. The local sheriff overseeing the investigation, Clarence W. Dupnik, had no such qualms and demonstrated an understanding of how political intimidation can work to incite unstable citizens: “There's reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences." "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." Sandhya Somashekhar,  “Sheriff Dupniks Criticism of Political ‘Vitriol’ Resonates with the Public,” Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2011. Accessed 2 March 2017.
When in the wake of massive public protests against the new Trump Administration, the vast majority of Republicans refused to hold the traditional town halls with constituents during the February Congressional recess, former Congresswoman Giffords issued a press release mocking them for their cowardice, she whose office continued to hold public meetings after the attack: Accessed 3 March 2017.
[4]  On Obama's campaign as also a burgeoning political movement that Obama extinguished see Jeffrey WInter's early column, "Obama the President Defeats Obama the Movement, Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2010. Accessed 30 March 2017. Micah L. Sivry summarizes Obama's unprecedented electoral mobilization as follows: "By Election Day, Obama’s campaign would have 13 million email addresses, three million donors, and two million active members of MyBO, including 70,000 people with their own fund-raising pages." Micah L. Sivry, "Obama's Lost Army," The New Republic, 9 Feb. 2017. Accessed 30 March 2017; see also Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Overlooked by many Obama supporters during the campaign was the fact that Obama had called for escalating the Afghan War and that his biggest campaign donors came from Wall Street; their money dwarfed the record contributions of his many small donors; see David Dayen, The Most Important WikiLeaks Revelation Isn’t About Hillary Clinton. What John Podesta’s emails from 2008 reveal about the way power works in the Democratic Party," The New Republic, 14 Oct. 2016: "Michael Froman, who is now U.S. trade representative but at the time was an executive at Citigroup, wrote an email to Podesta on October 6, 2008, with the subject “Lists.” Froman used a Citigroup email address. He attached three documents: a list of women for top administration jobs, a list of non-white candidates, and a sample outline of 31 cabinet-level positions and who would fill them. “The lists will continue to grow,” Froman wrote to Podesta, “but these are the names to date that seem to be coming up as recommended by various sources for senior level jobs.” The cabinet list ended up being almost entirely on the money. It correctly identified Eric Holder for the Justice Department, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Robert Gates for Defense, Rahm Emanuel forchief of staff, Peter Orszag for the Office of Management and Budget, Arne Duncan for Education, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs, Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services, Melody Barnes for the
Domestic Policy Council, and more. For the Treasury, three possibilities were on the list: Robert Rubin,
Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner." Accessed 3 March 2017.
[5] According to David Bromwich, this constituted a recurring pattern in the course of Obama’s career: he quickly adapted his views and goals to the institutions and organizations that he joined: “The Character of Barack Obama,” Huffington Post, 4 Sept. 2009 Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.See also “What Went Wrong: Assessing Obama’s Legacy,” Harper’s Magazine, June 2015. Accessed 3 March 2017.

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