Saturday, August 07, 2021

It's Not the Positions, It's the Atmosphere: On What To Learn from the OH-11

I feel a bit sheepish even writing a post on the proper takeaways from the OH-11 race, where Shontel Brown upset insurgent darling Nina Turner to win a Democratic primary and (in effect) a House seat. It seems everyone and their mother is doing a bit on this, and there's no especial reason to listen to mine.

But whatever -- either you read me or you don't. The obvious lesson to learn from the OH-11, which I endorse but which you hardly need me to tell you, is "if you're running as a Democrat, don't compare voting for the Democrats to eating shit." Democrats tend to like Democrats! You can't win a Democratic primary running against the Democratic Party.

In addition, I do think there are some naïve views on whether "Establishment : insurgent :: moderate : progressive." Turner is certainly a flag-bearer of the insurgent wing of the party, and there's no doubt Nina Turner's policy views are on the left side of the Democratic Party. But it's not altogether clear to me that Shontel Brown, though definitely favored by the establishment, is a "moderate" in any normal sense of the term. Just how far apart are they on policy? The establishment/insurgent divide very often is more about affective disposition to the Democratic Party as a brand than it is about major policy divides. You can trace it back at least to the Howard Dean campaign -- Dean was considerably more conservative than most of his competitors on most issues, but his campaign surged on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq War, an issue where he effectively was railing against the party apparatus selling out. His base wasn't attracted to him because he was more progressive, they liked him because he channeled their own feelings of frustration that the Democratic Party circa 2003 was failing at its job.

One thing I might suggest, then, is that Democratic voters are entirely willing to vote for candidates with strong progressive policy agendas -- so long as they aren't actively antagonistic to the Democratic Party as an institution. Even as the race slipped away from Turner, there was little evidence that Cleveland voters were turning against Medicare for All.

This, I think, also has some resonance for some Jewish-specific takeaways. David Klion did a fascinating interview Daniel Marans on this subject (this post also had an interesting perspective, though it's anonymous so I can't verify the content), but I'll add a few more thoughts.

The main one will surprise you: Nina Turner actually opened the campaign with perfectly reasonable and acceptable views on Israel. Seriously -- read the questionnaire she filled out on the subject. Everything she wrote was entirely in-bounds for your typical Jewish Democrat. So how did it become so widely assumed that she was and would be in Congress an anti-Israel zealot?

The answer is it's less about her, and more about those around her. Turner might have had perfectly fine views on the subject, but the people who most enthusiastically supported Turner were people who it was clear were itching for a fight with Israel and, often, with the Jewish community in general. It's not the positions, it's the atmosphere -- so much of what surrounds Turner is toxic. When an unremarkable picture of Shontel Brown with a Rabbi is boosted throughout the pro-Turner social media space as proof that Brown is "pro-apartheid", Jews definitely noticed. There was a distinctive swath of pro-Turner backers who seemed to delight in sidling up to Jews and smirking -- "when we win, your reign is over." A vote against Turner wasn't really a vote against her policies, even on Israel; it was a vote against empowering the political coalition that was rallying behind Turner.

This isn't, to be clear, just guilt-by-association. It is fair to think that Turner will be most susceptible to influence by her most enthusiastic supporters -- to the extent many of these supporters seemed to enjoy antagonizing the Jewish community, Jews are entitled to waylay that at the pass. But the disjuncture where perfectly acceptable policy positions become irrelevant in the face of broader coalitional associations is something seen this on several other occasions. How many times has Ayanna Pressley been lumped in with the rest of the squad as an anti-Israel fanatic, even though her positions on Israel are manifestly different and more mainstream than even AOC's, let alone Omar or Tlaib? Hell, look at Sanders himself -- he wrote a very, very good piece for Jewish Currents that I think clearly fell within the Jewish Democratic mainstream, but he's demonized because of who supports him.

In many ways, I view this Jewish-specific angle as a subspecies of the broader "don't hate the Democratic Party if you want to win a Democratic Party primary" takeaway. While in 2016 Sanders could perhaps be accused of being a less-than-enthusiastic team player once he lost the primary, few could argue that he didn't go all out for Joe Biden in 2020. The reality is that Sanders largely doesn't share the "burn the party to the ground" outlook that many of his most zealous supporters do. But the fact is Sanders still surrounded himself with those people and became the standard-bearer for those people, and so it was understood that a Sanders victory would represent a victory for those people and an empowerment of those people. Those people are the atmosphere, and they're choking the underlying political positions' chances at flourishing.

As Marans put it:

Over the past five years, Turner developed an intense following among left-wing activists while saying a lot of things that alienated rank-and-file Democrats. That gave her a false sense of confidence.... There’s a hanger-on problem in the left political subculture—you have a lot of Bernieworld people who end up filling not just volunteer positions, but consulting gigs and major campaign roles. When left-wing candidates aren’t willing to confront uncomfortable truths about the things they’ve said and done in the past, because the people around them keep them insulated, then they’re going to keep losing.

As far as I'm concerned, there's good news and bad news here for the Democratic Party left. The good news is that it remains very possible to elect more candidates with squad-like views into Congress. Democratic voters aren't necessarily averse to the policy per se; they're averse to the affective hostility towards other Democrats. So keep the policies -- run fifty candidates who respond to the Jewish Insider's Israel questionnaire exactly as Nina Turner did -- just don't run candidates who have histories of publicly declaring how much they loathe Democrats who are broadly popular with most Democrats. What could be simpler? Nowhere was this more evident than in the Markey/Kennedy race, where Markey managed to do the not-actually-impossible and straddle the "establishment/insurgent" divide by enthusiastically promoting progressive policy priorities without ever suggesting broader antipathy to the Democratic Party. I absolutely endorse Max Berger's suggestion that progressive Democrats should present themselves as more-Democratic-than-thou.

But that underscores the bad news, which is that squad-like candidates are likely to find their early and enthusiastic support from persons who want nothing more than to be tossed some red meat about how corrupt the Democratic Party establishment is. And when that's your base, it's really hard to shake them off, even though their presence is a huge thorn in the side of most Democrats. The anti-Democratic Party Democrat message can get a very committed base of support, but it isn't scalable.

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