AMERICA HAS REACHED the point of dark party politics. Party politics is “politics that relate to political parties rather than to the good of the general public.”1 Dark party politics, however, is politics that neglect the public good, sabotage the nation’s collective interests, and harm the planet’s fitness for humanity’s long-term survival.
In a democracy, political parties must win elections to achieve good things for the country. But there is a dividing line between responsible and irresponsible partisanship. Political parties cross that line when they lose respect for the outcome of elections and try to win at all costs. Casting large swaths of the population and/or the competing party as by definition unworthy, un-American, or undemocratic crosses over into destructive irresponsibility as well.2
The competition of party-driven politics should increase political participation and the public good, but if general intransigence takes hold, the country divides into hardened blocks and party politics veers off onto the dark side.
Normally, party politics is constrained by mutual acceptance of democratic procedures, principles, and norms. However, if partisan actors put their self-interests (in personal gains and power for the sake of power) above the common good, the exploration of alternative futures for the benefit of the whole country grinds to a halt and the body politic ossifies.
Dark US party politics is bad for both America and the stewardship of our warming planet. How can politicians unable to cooperate in their country’s best interest navigate the uncharted straits between national goals and humanity’s global future? We must invest in the global good to have a future on a temperate planet, but how can that happen if party politics cannot even find common local ground?
THREE DAYS BEFORE the 2016 election, the New York Times abandoned its measured ways criticizing both the Republican party and its candidate in remarkably stark terms. The venerable paper had waited for months before its Editorial Board called the hitherto unthinkable – a President Trump – a national peril.
No longer mincing its words, it associated the Republican party with “the alt-right, the Ku Klux Klan, the racists and misogynists and nut jobs, the guy who shouts ‘Jew-S.A.,’ the crowds that scream, ‘Lock her up’.” Furthermore, it described Trump as a candidate who
stands for torture, reckless war, unchecked greed, hatred of women, immigrants, refugees, people of color, people with disabilities. A sexual predator, a business fraud, a liar who runs on a promise to destroy millions of immigrant families and to jail his political opponent.3
Earlier, on the eve of the first presidential debate, the Editorial Board had merely taken issue with Trump’s egotism calling the Republican candidate “a man far more consumed with himself than with the nation’s well-being.”4 The Times’s final bluntness emerged only when its editors all of a sudden realized that Trump could actually be close to winning and becoming President of the United States, but then it was already too late.
But even then, “the rejection of Trump” was presented as “the simple part.” The hard part would come for Hillary Clinton in her new and clearly expected role as 45th president since she would have to deal with the empty promises, deep divisions, and hardened party politics the menacing Trump had spawned.
The day of reckoning arrived in the early hours of Trump’s upset win, after the fog of mainstream media ignorance had been blown away by the deadly winds that had gathered long before. Now the Times recognized its blindness and called Trump’s victory what it really was:
a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.5
WHAT HAD HAPPENED? Why did the combined savvy and ample means of top journalists, pollsters, and TV anchors not “get” it? What was the matter with the brilliant “limousine liberals”6 of the Democratic Party? How could they not see the white working class was desperate for a savior? Why did Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton lose to Trump?
Bush and Clinton were beholden to the elites of their parties, respectively patriarchal and cosmopolitan. Both left the lesser people to Trump who did not hesitate to embrace the “little man” and his grievances with reckless abandon.
Catering to wealthy families, highly educated professionals, and other well-traveled constituencies, Bush and Clinton drew all the hatred of an arrogant “Establishment” (comprised of people from both parties, the mainstream media, the urban and coastal elites, and the “swamp” of Washington, D.C.) upon themselves. Their behavior and the company they kept broadcast the message that poor, low-educated, provincial citizens were an embarrassment for them and their sophisticated friends.
Clinton committed the additional mistake not to “feel the Bern.”7 She missed the opportunity to invite the Senator from Vermont, Bernard Sanders, as her running mate. Grassroots enthusiasm for “Bernie” was palpable and the outsider appeal of his campaign profound. However, Clinton’s vice-presidential pick was Tim Kaine, the “safe” and proudly “boring” senator from Virginia.8 That choice put Bernie’s “political revolution” on hold and squandered the energy of millions of young, new Democrats. Many who had been rooting and organizing for the fiery, self-described “democratic socialist” from Vermont were thus incentivized not to vote.9
The Sanders campaign did not accept big money donations from corporations, super PACs, Wall Street, and the financial industry, nevertheless, it raised more money through small, individual contributions than any campaign in US history before. Sensing Sanders’s populist potential for gathering a competitive Left, Trump happily criticized the political arrangement Sanders had grudgingly made in the end with the Clinton Democrats as a bad deal.10
The hubris before the fall of the Democratic Party candidate surfaced two months before Election Day. On September 9, 2016, Clinton gave a speech at a private fundraiser in New York dubbed the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender for Hillary Gala Dinner.” Expressing her “special commitment” to the LGBT community, Clinton mirrored the worldview of her woke audience by saying:
You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he [Trump] has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.11
Following Cinderella’s advice the good into the pot, the bad into the crop, Clinton put the other half of Trump’s mixed bag of “deplorable” supporters into the pot of redeemable folks, that is, people “we have to understand and empathize with.” Yet there was no reaching out, no effort to win anyone over, no discernible empathy, just a vaguely Marxian accounting of the “false consciousness” of those
who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he [Trump] says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different.
After this analysis of the hopeless followers of Trump, Clinton turned to the performer of the evening, “Please welcome – Barbra!” Barbra Streisand did a 40-minute gig for Clinton’s well-heeled LGBT friends at the grand venue of Cipriani Wall Street.12 Ticket prices ranged from $1,200 to $250,000.
Trump supporters proudly declared right away on t-shirts, buttons, hats, mugs, car decals, and tote bags: “I’m Deplorable.” Three days after the gala, a white man responded to Clinton’s speech and the Black Lives Matter movement by holding up a handmade placard at the entrance to a Trump rally reading “Deplorable Lives Matter” (Figure 1). An image tweet of his counterpunch went viral on Twitter and “Trumpreneurs” sold the new political combat line again on t-shirts etc.
CLINTON’S ANALYSIS OF the Alt Right was correct. But giving up on quite a few of “some of those folks” as “irredeemable” was wrong, not because the notion of an offensive Right was flawed, but because the division into worthy and unworthy Americans was equally offensive, counterproductive, and, above all, dark party politics.
People do not like to be thrown into containers and they hate to be labelled. Nobody wants to be classified as an “irredeemable deplorable” or a “frustrated redeemable.” Sure enough, the pigeonholed Americans flocked to the other side. Even Clinton’s “redeemable” folks jumped from their basket into Trump’s arms.
Sadly, the “deplorables” faux pas had been utterly unnecessary. Clinton had tackled Trump’s unacceptable encouragement of the Alt Right just two weeks earlier in a strong speech in Reno, Nevada.13 There, she frontally attacked Trump’s mainstreaming of hate groups as well as the “prejudice and paranoia” of his campaign, but did not disparage the supporters of her opponent.
In Reno, Clinton noted, “A man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far, dark reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military.” There, her rebuff of dark words on race, women, Muslims, and immigration was to the point, including her critique of Trump’s embrace of Farage and Putin (“the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism”).
Furthermore, Clinton had pointedly asked, “if he [Trump] doesn’t respect all Americans, how can he serve all Americans?” And yet, two weeks later, she contradicted her pledge to “be a president for all Americans” by excluding millions of Americans who are “not America.” Two weeks earlier she had said, “I don’t think we have a person to waste. We want to build an America where every person has a place.” Right – Clinton could and should have cast “deplorability” as a temporary and not an essential condition.
A presidential candidate for all Americans should oppose, indeed must fight, hard-core Alt Right figures like David Duke. Plutocratic interference, religious scapegoating, and white supremacy must be fought. The Mercers, the Trumps, and their enablers, such as Bannon, will destroy American democracy if not fought back and their base kept small. However, the American President must stand up for all Americans. Clinton’s fatal dinner talk failed this test, whereas the properly targeted, hard-hitting Reno speech passed it.
Paying attention to historical precedent would also have avoided Clinton’s basket blunder. She could have remembered that Mitt Romney tripped up under similar conditions four years earlier. In May 2012, running against Barack Obama, Romney spoke to fellow Republicans in Florida at another exclusive dinner. Organized as an intimate fundraiser for wealthy donors who had contributed $50,000 apiece to attend the event, Romney characterized some 76 million Americans as follows:
There are 47 percent of the people who … are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name-it. … And they will vote for this president no matter what. …These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.14
Four months later, in September 2012, just before the presidential debates in October, those words rose up against Romney. A bartender had surreptitiously videotaped his talk and given it to Mother Jones.15 The magazine’s scoop created a firestorm of negative commentary, helped Obama’s re-election, and put Romney on the defensive as a rich guy who cares about nobody but his own kind. Romney got stuck with the narrative of the 47 percent, i.e. the dark party politics of abandoning “half of America.”16 How could Clinton not be mindful of Romney’s debacle? When Americans have no answer, they call it a good question, and this is one of those questions without a good answer.
In 2016, Republicans and Democrats converged in practically neglecting the US working class, aging and feeble as it had become. Mutual bipartisan neglect of working-class voters seemed to be a negligible problem – until Trump rallied his “voters and supporters.”
Republicans catered to prosperous top-ten percenters and Democrats to comfortable urban professionals. Neither of them expected Trump to mobilize the forlorn masses against all established norms and traditions. Clinton, as Romney before her, had no real interest in, or deeply felt words for, the impoverished parts of the American electorate – an expansive constituency. Relaxing in their preferred socio-political contexts, both revealed their hand and lost.
TWO CRUCIAL DIFFERENCES in American party politics remain. Democrats have a fairly healthy respect for facts, whereas Republicans do not. True to form, Clinton’s points about right-wing racism and nationalism were sound, while Romney’s claims about freeloaders in the range of 47 percent was a combination of semi-true statements and false assumptions.
Wrongful dependence upon government is an old Republican theme. The revelation of such a large group of moochers was shocking but sounded right to Republican ears. Romney’s narrative did not trigger the image of a poor white grandmother living modestly on low Social Security benefits – a sizable number of the 47 percenters are retirees and seniors – but of myriads of Mexican immigrants, blacks, and other minorities living on social welfare and demanding government handouts.
Romney’s allegation was misleading in many respects. Paying no income tax, does not eliminate other taxes, such as payroll taxes, excise taxes, state, and local taxes as well as property taxes if applicable. But the insinuation that all those who are not paying income tax vote Democratic “no matter what” was plain wrong. First, Romney was supported by some 40 percent of the people who did not earn enough to pay federal income tax; second, the states with the highest rate of non-income-tax filers were also those with the highest Republican votes; and third, the states with the lowest number of non-filers were the ones chiefly voting Democratic.17
Republicans seldom outmaneuver Democrats in orderly contests over facts, but often in freestyle wrestling matches over fictions where anything goes. And irony of ironies: Trump beat Clinton with the votes of Romney’s imagined solid bloc of government-dependent people.
The other key difference between the two parties is gender-based and embodied in the image of the white American workingman. The Democratic Party had owned this iconic category of man two generations ago, before the discovery of gender. Now, Republicans represent and conserve this imagined tradition of masculinity.
David Paul Kuhn has told the story of the alienation, progressive neglect, and eventual realignment of white lower and middle-class males – the Democrats’ most loyal constituency from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson.18
Kuhn found that the voters who left the Democratic Party for good between the failed candidacies of George McGovern (1968/72) and John Kerry (2004) “were not merely white; they were also overwhelmingly men.” He noted the “White Male Gap,” that is, “the margin between the strong majority of white men who support Republicans in presidential elections, in comparison to the minority who vote Democratic.”
Concerned about the diminishing prospects for Democratic presidents, Kuhn worried that when Obama and Clinton campaigned for the Democratic nomination in 2007, they were “significantly closer to the Democrats who led the party [away from white men] since 1972 than to those of the days of JFK or FDR.”19
Since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, the Republican Party has consolidated its stronghold on aggrieved white males. Trump has put this fact in sharp relief. His voter base resents to be blamed for all racist and sexist ills in American history and society.
The progressive liberal Left has won major post-war fights such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet in pioneering multiculturalism and political correctness it has also fought many splintered identity battles at the cost of losing the political war with American conservatism. Bravely reaching out to women, blacks, gays, immigrants, everybody but white men, it has driven the latter into Republican exile. Rebuilding the Democratic Party for the future will require tolerance for all American minorities including white men and women. Kuhn saw this clearly:
The Democratic revival cannot occur without reaching out to those they lost. But white men will only respect the outreach when they believe the reasons they left the party are respected. Until that day, American conservatives will continue to win the majority of workingmen.20
Politicians and parties are intertwined. Both are agents of change. They can provide or withhold solutions to the problems of irresponsible, self-serving partisanship. But dark party politics are difficult to loosen up once they have hardened.
The democratic antidote is not the power of a strongman who is likely to aggravate the problems, but rather a statesman or stateswoman who can lead competing factions toward the general good, the best of the country, and a common future for humankind. This is a very difficult task under normal political conditions. It seems to have become almost impossible for the contemporary US – unless America makes Trumpism small again.
- Lexico, “party politics.”
- The Republican use of “Democrat Party” is a subtle example. Democrat is a noun and democratic an adjective, hence proper English requires “Democratic Party.” Yet many Republicans make the purposeful mistake of putting the noun in the place of the adjective and saying “Democrat Party” to disassociate the rival party from the positive aura surrounding democracy.
- The Editorial Board, “Imagining America on Nov. 9.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2016.
- The Editorial Board, “Why Donald Trump Should Not Be President.” The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2016.
- Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro, “Donald Trump is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment.” The New York Times, 9 Nov. 2016.
- Beverly Gage, “‘Listen, Liberal’ and ‘The Limousine Liberal’.” The New York Times, 26 April 2016.
- Feel the Bern was a pro-Bernie Sanders hashtag. A wordplay on the aerobic expression “feel the burn” by Jane Fonda, it was coined in a Facebook discussion about pro-Sanders proclamations that would “carry his name all across the Internet.” The earliest tweet using the hashtag was posted on May 6, 2015. A website for Bernie Sanders used the slogan too.
- See Jeff Zeleny, Ryan Nobles, and MJ Lee, “Hillary Clinton selects Tim Kaine as her running mate.” CNN, 23 July 2016.
- See Bill Scher, “The Left’s Beef With Tim Kaine.” POLITICO Magazine, 29 June 2016; Harry Enten, “Registered Voters Who Stayed Home Probably Cost Clinton The Election.” FiveThirtyEight, 5 Jan. 2017.
- See Tim Hains, “Trump: Bernie Sanders Could Have Been A ‘Legend’ If He Hadn’t Made a Deal with Hillary.” Real Clear Politics, 28 Sept. 2016.
- Angie Drobnic Holan, “In Context: Hillary Clinton and the ‘basket of deplorables’.” PolitiFact, 11 Sept. 2016.
- See “LGBT for Hillary Gala Dinner.” Barbra Streisand Archives, 9 Sept. 2016.
- See Abby Ohlheiser and Caitlin Dewey, “Hillary Clinton’s alt-right speech, annotated.” The Washington Post, 25 Aug. 2016.
- See “Full Transcript of the Mitt Romney Secret Video.” Mother Jones, 19 Sept. 2012.
- See “Man who secretly videotaped Mitt Romney’s ‘47 Percent’ remarks comes forward.” CBS News, 14 March 2013.
- David Corn, “SECRET VIDEO: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters. When He Doesn’t Know a Camera’s Rolling, the GOP Candidate Shows His Disdain for Half of America.” Mother Jones, 17 Sept. 2012.
- See Robert Farley, “Dependency and Romney’s 47 Percenters.” FactCheck.Org, 18 Sept. 2012.
- See David Paul Kuhn, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Ibid., pp. 4 and 233.
- Ibid., p. 243.