NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

Book Review: “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump” by Mike Lux is a suspiciously good read

You always ought to be wary of any point of view you con­sume at length where you find your­self agree­ing with it com­plete­ly, where it antic­i­pates every ques­tion that pops in your head and answers it, to the point that at the end you can iden­ti­fy no day­light between your thoughts and its own.

The effect is some­thing like rid­ing to the air­port after you’ve dou­ble-checked every­thing you meant to pack and find­ing it was actu­al­ly all already there. There’s no ratio­nal rea­son for you to be unset­tled rather than com­fort­ed, but some­how you are.

Mike Lux has a writ­ten just such a book: How to Demo­c­rat in the Age of Trump, and it’s wor­thy of being rec­om­mend­ed to any­one on the Left try­ing to find a way for­ward.

A Bill Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion staffer and founder of the nation­al con­sult­ing firm Democ­ra­cy Part­ners, Lux describes him­self simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as a D.C. insid­er and grass­roots orga­niz­er — with the impli­ca­tion that any crit­ic who wants to can attack him for being the wrong one.

How­ev­er, the argu­ment he makes should be just as com­pelling to the vast pool of cyn­i­cal cam­paign vet­er­ans as it is to com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers con­cerned about inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and pro­noun-val­i­da­tion.

The left needs both sorts of peo­ple to be suc­cess­ful right now, and, reas­sur­ing­ly, peo­ple on the Left are increas­ing­ly both sorts.

“Broad­en­ing appeal” ver­sus “unapolo­getic pro­gres­sivism” is a false bina­ry. Rather, the lat­ter accom­plish­es the for­mer.

Mark Twain accretes quote attri­bu­tions like an ocean pier does bar­na­cles, and one of the bet­ter of these to encrust on him is, “If you have to eat a frog, do it first thing in the morn­ing. If you have to eat more than one, eat the biggest one first.”

In the con­text of polit­i­cal activism, it turns out that ignor­ing a sub­ject you don’t want to talk about does­n’t mean it’ll be ignored, just that some­one else will be con­trol­ling the con­ver­sa­tion instead. Lux gives the spe­cif­ic exam­ple of Al Gore in 2000, let­ting the NRA be the ones defin­ing his posi­tion on gun safe­ty for him across the South, which they did not do sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly.

He argues it applies more gen­er­al­ly, too.

In the pro­logue, Lux dis­cuss­es a study that exam­ined how to counter a stan­dard dog-whis­tle racist mes­sage with a race-agnos­tic, class-focused mes­sage in con­trast with one that’s explic­it about the need for ensur­ing every­day folks “whether white black or brown, whether 5th gen­er­a­tion or new­com­er” stick togeth­er against the cor­rupt politi­cians and rich donors who bought them.

Turns out, it’s more effec­tive to lay all your cards on the table and talk about issues instead of hid­ing what you think will make some­one uncom­fort­able even among whites. We need to con­vince our peo­ple that we’re worth show­ing up for, but it’s con­vinc­ing also to per­suad­able swing vot­ers that we aren’t mealy-mouthed or try­ing to get one over on them.

A lot of the peo­ple who sup­port Don­ald Trump do so because they are enrap­tured by naked big­otry and author­i­tar­i­an­ism.

But Ted Cruz was also in the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry, and part of Trump’s pop­u­lar­i­ty-above-replace­ment was that he was def­i­nite­ly not mealy-mouthed. Peo­ple don’t have to agree with a can­di­date about every­thing if they agree with and believe in a can­di­date on what’s most impor­tant to them.

Some late Bush-era apol­o­gists in favor of inter­ven­tion­ism abroad tried to argue we should fight them over there so we don’t have to over here, which is a bad strat­e­gy for lit­er­al war, but a good one for rhetor­i­cal posi­tion­ing.

We’re accus­tomed to con­ser­v­a­tives doing this in bad faith, using ter­mi­nol­o­gy we agree with like “pro­tect­ing wom­en’s health” as a strat­e­gy to restrict repro­duc­tive auton­o­my. But we aren’t will­ing to accu­rate­ly frame our own pri­or­i­ties in, for exam­ple, the lan­guage of free­dom. We’ve ced­ed that ide­al entire­ly to Repub­li­cans who have re-defined that to be the “free­dom to be jerk”, in Lux’s words, some­thing only tru­ly open to cis white men with mon­ey.

If you’ve ever seen a Lib­er­tar­i­an meet­up in per­son, this cor­re­la­tion is very clear.

The left has allowed con­ser­v­a­tives unchal­lenged dom­i­nance over con­cepts like “free­dom” and “lib­er­ty” instead of talk­ing about the much more direct eman­ci­pa­tion of being able to change jobs with­out los­ing your health cov­er­age or the free­dom of send­ing your kids off to ele­men­tary school with­out wor­ry­ing they’ll be gunned down by a com­plete­ly legal bat­tle­field-appro­pri­ate weapon pur­chased by a domes­tic abuser with­out any back­ground check.

Again, we turn out more vot­ers when we give them plat­forms worth car­ing about and fight­ing for rather than just remind­ing them how bad the alter­na­tive is. “Once upon a time” is a more effec­tive tool than “thou shalt not”.

So an impor­tant part of that, Lux says, is remind­ing peo­ple how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has come through for them in the past.

The Repub­li­cans are going to be out there swing­ing the stick, but we have to talk about the car­rots of our move­men­t’s accom­plish­ments, too.

There was a gen­er­a­tion for which Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, rur­al elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, the GI Bill, and the Civ­il Rights Act were syn­ony­mous with Democ­rats.

Why did­n’t we tell that sto­ry?

We haven’t both­ered to remind peo­ple what good Democ­rats can do once we get in office, or been brave about pur­su­ing our ideals at the state and munic­i­pal lev­el the way con­ser­v­a­tives have every time they’ve got­ten a state gov­ern­ment tri­fec­ta. That’s part of why, right now, Repub­li­cans have 26 of them and we have 8.

There’s no rea­son that the par­ty’s full-throat­ed embrace of the Patient Pro­tec­tion Act (the sig­na­ture achieve­ment of the Oba­ma era) should have required Repub­li­cans threat­en­ing to take it away for Democ­rats to care about it and stand up for it, but that’s par­tial­ly on Democ­rats for not being will­ing to tell its sto­ry with more pride.

As Lux says, we have to be will­ing to go into rur­al areas so that we can con­nect with our peo­ple, inspire our peo­ple to show up. Low qual­i­ty, expen­sive health­care and under­fund­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion are issues for rur­al white peo­ple, too.

Yaki­ma Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton, is a Repub­li­can strong­hold and also plu­ral­i­ty Lat­inx. Out­side the oil booms of North Dako­ta and West Texas, women are half the pop­u­la­tion every­where. Can­di­dates have to iden­ti­fy with their con­stituents, whether that’s Brook­lyn or Kansas, but they ought to be doing it proud­ly every­where.

It’s worth mak­ing the oth­er side have to show up even if you only have a 10 per­cent chance of win­ning because if you do that 10 times, you ought to get one of them. Fight­ing is worth­while even when we don’t win if it ensures we don’t ever lose.

Lux’s rad­i­cal prag­ma­tism is supreme­ly moti­vat­ing because he acknowl­edges the chal­lenges in front of us are real but still sur­mount­able.

That is, yes, clear­ly the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment attacked the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and Hillary Clin­ton cam­paign in the 2016 elec­tion.

Yes, Repub­li­cans were com­plic­it in that attack and took the Roberts Court’s gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act as the go-ahead to dis­en­fran­chise as many minori­ties and like­ly-Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers as pos­si­ble.

Yes, ger­ry­man­der­ing and small-state, rur­al bias mean the GOP as cur­rent­ly con­sti­tut­ed has an inher­ent advan­tage lead­ing to over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Yes, the game is rigged, but it’s the only game in town, and even with all this, Democ­rats ought to be win­ning or press­ing our issues so effec­tive­ly there’s not even a fight to be had, like Nixon being the one to cre­ate the EPA.

I would like to find some­thing to crit­i­cize about the book, and I may have to make do with dis­agree­ing with the valid­i­ty of trac­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s roots and cen­tral prin­ci­ples back to Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic-Repub­li­cans.

I don’t think that holds up as his­toric­i­ty or is worth­while as mythol­o­gy. The pro­logue also ends up being about a fifth of the total, which is a bit much. And Lux is a Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren stan in a very notice­able way. But that’s lit­er­al­ly all, so despite my para­noia at some­thing being sus­pi­cious­ly this lauda­to­ry, this is def­i­nite­ly one of those “get a few copies to hand out to friends” sort of rec­om­men­da­tions.

How­ev­er, I want to loop back around to false bina­ries because Lux’s avoids anoth­er in an espe­cial­ly refresh­ing way, and it sur­prised me.

He acknowl­edges the legit­i­mate sources of white griev­ance with­out legit­imiz­ing or excus­ing their choice of expres­sion in xeno­pho­bia and oth­er racism. Lux makes a point of talk­ing about “the work­ing class” holis­ti­cal­ly rather than as code.

One of the most frus­trat­ing aspects of the Bernie Sanders-iden­ti­fied fac­tion of the left is the ten­den­cy to see racism or repro­duc­tive auton­o­my as mere dis­trac­tions from the real eco­nom­ic and class issues rather than wed­ded to them.

In pure, eco­nom­ic terms, noth­ing has a greater effect inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly than racism. The capac­i­ty for preg­nan­cy is a pre-exist­ing con­di­tion that affects a per­son­’s abil­i­ty to pur­sue a career, man­age their health, or keep a fam­i­ly at a size they can finan­cial­ly sup­port. No one should have to choose between hav­ing health cov­er­age and going some­where every day where their boss sex­u­al­ly harass­es them.

If you’re a stereo­typ­i­cal Bernie Bro, sure, the stuff that can’t affect you cer­tain­ly is a dis­trac­tion from stuff that does. But I think a nec­es­sary con­di­tion of being a Demo­c­rat — as opposed to an inde­pen­dent who cau­cus­es with them — has to be empa­thy for peo­ple whose suf­fer­ing you won’t expe­ri­ence, either.

Moral­ly, as well as strate­gi­cal­ly, it’s good to care about the well-being of oth­ers, and we have a lot of work still to do all across the coun­try to make sure some more of our bet­ter angels rule can the day than are just now.

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