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Leading with nerve benefited Democrats and it could benefit you, too
In the 2022 midterm elections, there was no red wave that so many predicted. In Pennsylvania, the punditry was wrong about John Fetterman’s apparent weakness after he suffered a stroke. The Democratic Party faired very well in the Senate and didn’t get slaughtered in the House (they lost, but not that badly). It’s a remarkable achievement, in fact, in an election where the Democratic president isn’t very popular. Though I am of the mind that redistricting (and the appointed judge who approved them) and weak campaigning is what cost the Democrats in Democratic strongholds like California and New York, some commentators are suggesting that in communities where abortion and democracy were on the line, Republicans lost. In other words, when abortion access (as in Michigan) and where Trump-backed candidates were on the ballot (as in Pennsylvania with Doug Mastriano), Democrats excelled. So the logical conclusion seems to be, when Democrats were plain about the existential threats of their opposition party, they did well.
So why does is Dean Phillips reporting that Democrats continue to have a “bias toward deference?” Despite their success, why are they not more assertive against the problems posed by Trumpist Republicans? The fact is that Democratic leadership lacks nerve. In general, I am sympathetic toward the moderate and mild approach of the Democrats, the party is largely composed of everyone who isn’t a fascist, and as a result, that rather wide coalition can’t message as clearly as it needs to. But when issues like abortion, democracy, and gun control, the party is very united, in fact. Yet, it still behaves in a passive way.
Conventional punditry says that a moderate approach is sensible; it’s a way to win “swing voters” to your side, since a more assertive approach could be polarizing. But when we look at what happened with the Democrats, it seems like complacency in blue strongholds harmed them more than a polarizing message would. My argument is that if Democrats didn’t defer and weren’t complacent in states they thought were secure, a lot could have changed, even in this election. Democrats were fearful of isolating swing voters, but in doing so, failed to motivate their own base in blue states, which cost them the House.
What voters see in Democrats is a weak-willed, indecisive party that sometimes talks about “semi-fascism” and sometimes seems to be interested in bipartisanship. The lack of clear messaging makes it seem like the threads Republicans pose aren’t that serious after all. For what it’s worth, Republicans are facing the consequences of their own split party, so they aren’t faring better.
Clarity in leading is essential for progress. In face, in the U.S., most reform came with decidedly partisan leadership. I wrote about this in Jesus Takes A Side:
Consensus-driven governments and decisions often uphold the worst parts of society, and while they are praised for how they appear, they simply maintain the status quo. They can hide corruption underneath the guise of peace. James Madison argued that bipartisanship risks tyrannical reins of power, which is ironic since proponents of bipartisanship and the filibuster argue tyranny will follow if we become led by a single party. In Federalist Paper No. 10, Madison argued that partisanship and sharp debates between parties actually lead to a free society. Not only did bipartisanship protect slavery, it “allowed racial segregation after the Civil War and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.” It made McCarthyism possible. And in 2002, the quagmire war in Iraq enjoyed bipartisan support. Whereas partisanship, which is often used as a pejorative, created the Bill of Rights, ended slavery, created trust-busting laws, and is why we have Social Security now. Bipartisanship is an impediment to progress, and partisanship, in fact, is what is needed to make real change that positively impacts the lives of the oppressed.
Trying to satisfy “both sides” or finding a moderate path leads to complacency and disinterest. For the most part, that describes the electorate in the U.S. Jamelle Bouie remarks that there hasn’t been a decisive victory for any political party for nearly a decade.
2022 is yet another cycle in which the overall electoral picture changed less than you might imagine. There was no landslide, no decisive victory for one side over the other. The same was true in 2020: Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump has to be balanced against significant defeats in the House. Even 2018 — an ostensible “wave” election — saw something of a split decision, with a Democratic victory in the House of Representatives and a Republican win in the Senate.
Go back to 2016, or 2012, and you’ll see the same: an almost evenly divided country, where no advance — and no retreat — moves farther than a few feet.
I think this reflects that Democrats haven’t expressed the manifest problems of the right-wing, nor have they nominated candidates that cast a vision beyond the status quo. Whereas the right is seeking to reform the country in regressive ways, the Democrats have become a status quo, establishment party, and have suffered some defeats as a result. Bouie argues that there won’t be a decisive political victory until there is a “shock” to the system. He writes:
But something will come; something — whether economic or environmental or constitutional — will shock the system and give one coalition or the other the chance to expand and attempt to win hegemony over the political system.
I think that the shock to the system has already come, but our leaders have just under-communicated it. And not just leaders, but the media, and also large portions of the citizenry itself. We're all responsible for underplaying the existential crisis we face. The overturning of Dobbs and the threats to democracy posed by election deniers and insurrectionists, in addition to the climate catastrophe that is looming, are all “shocks” to the system that could lead to a united opposition against creeping fascism in the U.S.
What this brings to mind, though, isn’t electoral and political for Democrats, but the importance of clear messaging for any leaders. Having a common mission and purpose and communicating it clearly is essential for any organization. The Democrats struggle to do this because they don’t want to dissatisfy anyone, so they end up satisfying no one. I think that this is common among leaders; we don’t communicate clearly because we fear division. But it is better to be divisive than indecisive.
Leaders must lead with clarity and conviction. They will attract people that want to follow them, even if they lose people that don’t. Trying to negotiate a middle path isn’t courageous leading, but rather, cowardly leading that leads to second-guessing, complacency, and the lack of urgency – which I think describes what our resistance to fascism looks like in this country and environment.