Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Interesting Prospective Aftermath of Jamaal Bowman and the DSA

While I don't actually harbor ill-will towards Rep. Jamaal Bowman, I admit to feeling just a bit of schadenfreude when I heard he was facing expulsion from the DSA for the mortal sin of ... voting for Iron Dome and visiting Israel and Palestine. "I never thought the insignificant gnats would nip at my face ....!" indeed. Anyway, the DSA's national political committee is now saying that addressing Bowman's misconduct is its "highest priority" (a revealing choice of prioritization, to be sure), but it will seek to meet with Bowman's office before deciding on any sanctions.

I do admit to being intrigued at how this will play out. First thing's first: Bowman does not need (if he ever did) the DSA. He's safe in his district without them, they don't do much for him politically (indeed, I suspect that of all squad members, Bowman is the one whose base is least DSA-tied, with the possible exception of Ayanna Pressley). So the extent to which he decides to placate them is not going to be significantly dictated by political calculations -- it will be fairly thought of as reflective of his own beliefs, residual loyalty, affinity, and so on. In other words, while that doesn't mean that any response to DSA other than "f--- off" is inappropriate, if he decides to placate the DSA, it's not because he's been backed into a political corner.

In any event, there are broadly speaking three types of responses Bowman could give to DSA's demands here (albeit these are more a spectrum than hard-and-fast divides). He could fully give in, admitting error and committing to holding the DSA's hard line in the future, choosing the DSA and effectively jettisoning any relationship he'd have with the bulk of Jewish constituents and national Jewish organizations. He could try to walk some middle line -- throwing some placating bones towards DSA while not committing to shifting tangible positions on Israel in the future -- in an attempt to straddle both sides. Or he could stand his ground, defending his position and holding his own line about what the right progressive stance towards Israel and Palestine is, without much regard to making DSA happy.

The first move would be the most straightforward: the DSA would claim victory, Jewish organizations would be infuriated. It'd definitely be news, and it'd show the DSA has the ability to flex, but I'm not sure there'd be much interesting to say about this other than that it would communicate to any future politician who is DSA-curious that they will not be permitted to take anything but the most uncompromising position on Israel if they want to stay in the tent. Again, that'd be a serious development, but not one I have much to say about. I think it is fair to say that taking this step would permanently sabotage Bowman's relationship with the bulk of mainstream Jewish organizations, so there isn't a lot of use of gaming out potential responses here. The response would be "you're dead to us."

The second move is always the politician's temptation, but I doubt it would work here. Trying to stand in the middle will most likely satisfy neither side; he'd just make everyone angry at him. It's possible that DSA is looking for a face-saving way of keeping Bowman in the tent, but more likely than not any resolution that'd be seen as acceptable to them would be viewed as betrayal by the mainstream Jewish community, and vice versa.

So to some extent, I merge the second and third move together, insofar as I expect both would result in Bowman taking serious fire from the DSA (up to and including expulsion). Maybe he can form a support group with Liz Cheney. Again, I don't think Bowman needs the DSA to be politically successful, so this is not going to threaten his career in any way. But what I'm most interested in is how the rest of the "squad" would respond if the DSA turns its guns on Bowman. Do they stand up for him? Do they take public steps to affirm him as a valuable comrade? Or do they let him twist? It's never been fully clear the degree to which Squad members' relationship with the uncompromising left vanguard embodied by the contemporary DSA is one of true believers; this would give us an interesting glimpse into their headspace. Defending Bowman would suggest that they find DSA's antics to be obnoxious purity politics that is less ideologically helpful than it is a thorn in their side (it would also demonstrate loyalty to a friend); it wouldn't necessarily entail breaking with the DSA but it might prompt the DSA to take that step itself (or back down). If they stay silent, it would suggest they either are tacitly okay with this sort of hardball play from the left, and/or that they fear the backlash they'd endure from their far-left base for whom anti-Israel politics are ride-or-die issues.

It is often asserted that those inside these sorts of highly-regimented, orthodox political movements secretly hate the sense of compulsion -- the knowledge that if they step a toe out of line the penalty is ostracism and expulsion -- but they tolerate it out of fear that if they criticize, well, they'll be targeted for ostracism and expulsion. Sometimes that's true, though there are plenty of people who are probably fine with the constant hunt for heretics (at least until the gnats come for their face). In any event, right now the Squad is independently powerful enough that it could survive -- and survive without too much trouble -- attempts by the DSA to enforce this sort of iron-fisted discipline around Israel. The big question is whether they want to -- and that aftermath is one I'm interested in watching play out.

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