Friday, November 05, 2021

Omari Hardy is the Future of BDS in the Democratic Party

In the sprawling field vying to replace deceased Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, there were no less than five current elected officials running in the Democratic primary that occurred this week. One of these five was State Rep. Omari Hardy.

Initially, all of these candidates avowed positions on Israel that fell roughly in the mainstream of contemporary Democratic politics. About a month before election day, however, Hardy abruptly changed his position on Israel -- announcing his support for the BDS movement (he had only several weeks earlier claimed to be opposed) as well as opposition to the U.S. funding Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. Upon announcing this change, I suddenly started seeing him a lot more on my Twitter feed, loudly proclaiming about how he wouldn't be intimidated into changing his position and basking in the adoration of a certain wing of commentators who lauded his rare courage and bold commitment to principle, and who presented him as a harbinger of change in Democratic politics. This was not something Hardy did quietly -- his switch to becoming overtly anti-Israel and pro-BDS was a critical part of his closing argument to try and win the race and become the next Democratic Representative from Florida.

On election day, in a sprawling field that contained five current elected officials, Omari Hardy ended up placing sixth. He received less than 6% of the vote -- behind all of his fellow politicos, as well as a wealthy self-funding businesswoman named Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (the ultimate winner has not yet been called; Cherfilus-McCormick and Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness are currently separated by a whopping twelve votes).

Sixth place finishing, 6% winning Omari Hardy is the future of BDS in the Democratic Party.

If that sounds a bit snarky, I don't -- well, okay, I do mean it to be a little snarky. But believe it or not, the snark is not actually my main thesis.

Omari Hardy was competing in a sprawling, wide open field for an open congressional seat. If you're going to stand out from the pack, you need to do something that clearly marks you as different from the pack. Adopting a generic pro-Israel position in the same vein as all the other candidates wouldn't give anyone a reason to vote for him. Or against him, to be sure. But in politics, the saying "second place is first loser" is especially apt. Announcing support for BDS and pivoting towards intense pronounced hostility to Israel was a calculated risk; it at least offered him a chance to win, even if the more likely result was that he'd just lose by a wider margin (before he announced his pro-BDS turn, Hardy was polling at 10%, so if anything he slipped in performance).

It is a myth that the only route to political power is to take broadly popular positions, even within your own party. That's probably necessary if you want to become the national leader -- as Bernie Sanders found out, if you want to become the Democratic nominee for President, you have to be supported by most Democrats. But becoming the leader is not what everyone wants. You can amass a great deal of power by becoming the standard-bearer for a smaller but intensely passionate faction of the party. And the nice thing about these smaller factions is that they are smaller, and so it's easier to become their "the guy" than it is to become the national "the guy". In particular, in a sprawling primary that's wide open and conducted under first past the post rules, consolidating the small but intense faction is an at least plausible path to victory. It's no accident that Sanders performed best against a divided Democratic field -- a high floor, low ceiling candidate is well-positioned in wide-open, sharply fractured races.

Omari Hardy represents the future of BDS not (just) because he shows that BDS remains whatever the opposite of a selling point is for most Democrats. That is certainly an important lesson to learn. But just as importantly, he's the future because he perceived -- and I think not incorrectly -- that endorsing BDS is a way of standing out from other Democrats and potentially consolidating the backing of a small but intense wing of the progressive movement, some of whom border on being single-issue (anti-)Israel voters (the seething hatred many on the left have for Ritchie Torres, who is on the left edge of the party on virtually every issue but Israel, is one manifestation of this. The comical attempt by some lefty activists to expel Jamaal Bowman from the Democratic Socialist of America because he didn't vote against Iron Dome is another). 

A sprawling primary where a small cadre of passionate supporters can plausibly carry a candidate to victory is a good place to try and leverage becoming the consensus choice of a small wing of Democrats who feel very intensely about one issue. An even better place to run this play may be after one has already won the primary to hold a safe seat and one can feel confident in one's ability to hold onto it indefinitely (Ilhan Omar, too, flipped on BDS only after she had secured a victory in a Democratic primary), when a politician's eye can drift away from local challengers and towards the national spotlight. To be clear, this path is not the route to become President, it's not even the route to become leader of the Democratic congressional caucus (neither one of these is in Ilhan Omar's future). But it is a route to securing a not-insubstantial amount of power. And that's going to be very tempting to a certain type of ambitious politico.

I'm not accusing Hardy of being purely opportunistic in his sudden embrace of BDS. I don't think he's lying; I believe he believes BDS is a reasonable and non-pernicious campaign. But I also don't think it's wrong to look a little archly at his rapid about-face, just a month before election day -- one that was loudly trumpeted and promoted by his campaign, one that he quickly tried to make a centerpiece of his campaign and his boundless courage -- and think that political calculations were playing a rather sizeable role here. Most likely, I suspect that Hardy didn't really care that much about BDS or Israel at the start of this race, and doesn't care too much about it now. He took the anti-BDS position at the start of the race not because he had strong feelings against it but because it was the easiest, default option and didn't seem patently offensive, and he swapped positions at the end of the race not because he developed strong feelings for it but because it was a plausible Hail Mary play that also didn't patently offend him. And if this sounds very cynical, I suspect this is how most politicians deal with most issues that are not especially central to their identity -- it's not that they don't believe what they're saying, but for the 90% of issues that aren't "their" issues, there's plenty of room for beliefs to accommodate a more bloodless calculation of political interest. Hardy is no different from any other politico save for the particular lane his bloodless calculation of political interest ended up placing him in.

And so, despite the fact that the result for Hardy was finishing in sixth place with less than 6% of the vote, plays like Hardy's are something I think we'll be seeing a lot more of. Most Democrats will continue to oppose BDS, and oppose extreme anti-Israel policies (while -- hopefully -- become more open to practical and sorely needed policy shifts designed to actually promote Palestinian rights, such as backing the Two State Solution Act). But more and more frequently, we'll see cases like Omari Hardy: candidates who are laboring at the back of a crowded field and are looking to stand out and get a burst of cash and volunteers, or safe seat backbenchers yearning to garner a national profile and internet likes, will view BDS as a promising avenue for rising for obscurity. It won't win them national or competitive races; it often won't even succeed in fragmented contests amongst Democrats. But if you're going to lose the race anyway, it's a cost-free gamble. And if you don't care that much about the issue to begin with, plenty of people will be happy to roll those dice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Blindness or Short-Sighted Caution: Memmi on the Jew-of-the-Right

 "How can a man be a Rightist when he is a Jew?," Albert Memmi asked in A Portrait of the Jew.

The alliance of Jewry with Right wing movements can never be anything but temporary . . . To preserve the existing order, the Right has to stiffen and emphasize differences while at the same time having no respect for what is different. To preserve itself as a privileged group, it must repulse, restrict and repress other groups. Now it may be that a Jew may desire the survival of a given social order in which, by chance, he is not too unhappy. But in addition, he wants the differences between himself and the non-Jews in that class to be forgotten or at least minimized. The Right, either openly or covertly, drives the Jew back to his Jewishness and can only condemn and burden his Jewishness. Not to speak of times of crisis when the Rightist doctrine, whipped to a frenzy, is driven to violent solutions, to the use of sentiments and methods that debase the lives of Jews (218-19).

In his next book, The Liberation of the Jew, Memmi reiterated the point more bluntly: "[A] Jew is conservative only out of blindness of some short-sighted caution" (228). If you are a Jew and you find right-wing movements appealing, it's because you're not paying attention, or because you aren't looking more than six inches in front of your own feet. The end of the story is all too predictable, only an idiot could not see it coming. And this is an observation Memmi makes in the midst of a searing critique of the left and its treatment of the Jews. That critique notwithstanding, Memmi still wants to be crystal clear that the Jew-of-the-right is a fool.

Much has been made over the way in which the anti-CRT frenzy, first confined to local offices like school boards, may have accounted for major conservative victories in the elections yesterday. Juxtapose that account with this story, also from this week, about how that rhetoric is playing out in one such school board meeting in Arizona:

During the public comment portion of the meeting of the Chandler Unified School District board, a woman who identified herself as Melanie Rettler spoke for over a minute about critical race theory and vaccines — topics not listed on the meeting agenda but at the center of heated public debate nationwide.

Her comment crescendoed with an antisemitic claim drenched in the language of right-wing conspiracy theories.

“Every one of these things, the deep state, the cabal, the swamp, the elite — you can’t mention it, but I will — there is one race that owns all the pharmaceutical companies and these vaccines aren’t safe, they aren’t effective and they aren’t free,” Rettler said. “You know that you’re paying for it through the increase in gas prices, the increase in food prices — you’re paying for this and it’s being taken from your money and being given to these pharmaceutical companies and if you want to bring race into this: It’s the Jews.”

If you think for a second that this anti-CRT hysteria is even going to slow down, let alone reverse course, insofar as it predictably breeds rank hatred like this (not to mention both-sidesing the Holocaust, and banning books on the Holocaust, and blocking an antisemitism envoy for the crime of opposing antisemitism ...) you are out to lunch. Whatever faint concern some conservatives might have for Jews and Jewish safety won't even be a speed bump in their race to power by way of right-wing authoritarianism. To cozy up to this darkness out of blindness or short-sighted fear -- well, fortunately most Jews know better. But every group has its idiots and its fools, and I suppose we are no different.

A Question for Journalists: What If White Racism Causes GOP Wins?

Shortly after the 2016 election, I posted something on Facebook observing that Trump's victory proved that White racism was alive and well in America and remained a winning electoral force. My most all-in MAGA classmate from law school replied with a half-enraged, half-taunting rant to the effect of "calling White Americans racist is why Trump won, and that you're still doing it now is why we're going to keep on winning."

Spit-flecks aside, I recognized an interesting puzzle. It is entirely plausible for both of the following to be true: (1) That White racism is an important causal factor in contemporary Republican success, and (2) That saying that aloud makes Republican success even more likely. In other words, there's a potential disjuncture between how the social scientist and the political strategist should characterize "why Republicans are winning." It could be that, in terms of public discourse, accurately describing the political lay of the land is antipathic to changing it.

With GOP victories across the country yesterday, most prominently in Virginia, it is a plausible hypothesis that White racism is a significant part of the explanation for GOP success. Some of you think "plausible hypothesis" is far too gentle, others think the very idea is outrageous. I frame it as a "plausible hypothesis" to bracket that debate, for while I think the hypothesis is very strongly supported by the evidence, to the persons who are more skeptical I merely want them to concede that it surely is not outlandish, beyond the realm of what one could reasonably investigate, to think racism played a sizeable role in GOP successes yesterday or indeed over the past decade. Glenn Youngkin, the incoming GOP Governor of Virginia, ran an explicitly race-baiting campaign centered on ginned-up fears of "Critical Race Theory". I hardly need repeat the well-worn notion that "Critical Race Theory", in this context, has no analytical content other than "discussions about race or racism that I don't like"; this of course emphasizes that the anti-CRT push really is nothing more than White resentment politics at fever pitch. By the end of the campaign, Youngkin supporters were a half-step away from calling Terry McAuliffe's call to diversify the ranks of K-12 teachers a form of White genocide. There are reasons to think that the "CRT" narrative didn't really have much purchase beyond the already partisan, and other factors explained the GOP's victory. But again, it is plausible to think otherwise -- clearly plausible, in fact, such that fair-minded and independent journalists should at least think about what the implications are for Democrats, if it is true.

Yet I'm not sure I've ever seen a mainstream journalist grapple with that question. Which is strange, since journalists love nothing more than taking a few off-cycle election results and saying "this is what this means for Democrats" or "here's what Democrats have to do to win." They'll give various answers to that question tailored to the various explanations they have on tap for why Republicans succeeded -- do this if the reason Republicans won is "economic anxiety", do that if it is that Democrats are "out of touch with the heartland", do this other thing if GOP victories stem from "progressives going too far" (boy they love that one). So in that line of thought, we could also ask: what should Democrats do if the reason Republicans won in 2021 is "because White racism is a powerful electoral force"?

Journalists don't have an answer to that -- or at least, not one they are willing to express. In part, they don't ask the question because they refuse to even accept the premise -- calling GOP voters "racist" is rude, it is mean, it is Not Done (none of this has any relation to whether it is true). There may be nobody more fragile on the planet than the White GOP-leaning voter asked to reckon with racism as a partial feature of their life. Certainly, the anti-CRT campaign provides ample evidence of this: parents who saw Connor was a bit sad upon learning about U.S. history and concluded that totalitarianism had been reborn (or just read David Bernstein's origin story for how he became an anti-CRT zealot -- somehow, he thinks that he isn't the obvious villain of this tale). If you're going to give Connor that medicine, by golly he better get ten scoops of sugar to help it go down -- and hey, wouldn't he be even happier if we just skipped the medicine altogether and only ate the sugar?

But to some extent, I think part of why they refuse to ask the question is that they are just constitutionally incapable of coming up with an acceptable answer. For one, at the most basic level, if it is true that the GOP wins insofar as White racism is powerful, the "correct" response is that there is something diseased in America that needs to be cured. Yet framing the problem in this way -- as Republicans doing something wrong they need to fix -- is a clear violation of Murc's Law (that Democrats are the only agential actors in American politics). 

If there is any defense of refusing to go with the obvious answer, it is that an explanation for what Democrats should do can't really rely on problematizing what voters want, let alone asking Republicans to leave off a winning strategy ("because it's hideously immoral? Hah -- good one!"). Politics is partially about persuasion, but for the most part one takes the electorate you have, not the one you wished you had. "I would have won if I had better voters" is a pretty pathetic excuse. So the other obvious, if bloodless, response to any explanation of the form "voters want X" is "Democrats should provide, or at least accommodate, X." Of course, that's far easier to say aloud when X is "more restrictive trade policies" or "focusing on bread-and-butter issues" than when X is "racism". Put simply, under the prevailing way political journalists talk about politics, once you admit that racism is what the electorate wants, the only way to complete that story is to advise Democrats to "be more accommodating to racism".

This is why journalists are insistent, to the point of franticness, to recharacterize "racism" as something legitimate that it is fair to ask Democrats to be responsive to. It's not "racism", it's "economic anxiety" or "extreme theories being taught at Berkeley" or "cancel culture gone haywire". At one level, these are just more PC ways of saying "Democrats need to be more accommodating of White racism". But the reason we bother with the altered frame is that, on face at least, it is reasonable to ask Democrats to be responsive to those concerns, in a way one can't just baldly state "Democrats should come to terms with racism". They are more convenient explanations; they allow the standard political story -- voters want X, Democrats should be responsive to X -- to be completed. But convenience aside, whether or not "economic anxiety" versus racism is actually the explanation for GOP electoral successes is an empirical question; "racism" does not fail as an explanation simply because it'd be an awkward one for journalists to explore.

Yet the dismissal of "racism" as an explanation on grounds of convenience is the reality of contemporary political journalism. And it's a problem, for a host of reasons, not the least of which being the puzzle I identified at the outset. If White racism remains an exceedingly powerful political force, what should Democrats do, as a matter of political strategy, in order to win elections? This is a genuinely hard question, and I don't have a clear answer -- I wish I had a silver bullet to make racism less appealing, but I don't and I don't pretend to. Which is all the more reason why it'd be nice if thoughtful political journalists started asking this question. Yet they don't, and they won't, no matter how much evidence piles up suggesting that racism is a viable explanation for our current state of political affairs.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

White Jews: An Intersectional Approach -- Presenting to the Germans

Tomorrow (well, I suppose later today -- Nov. 2, at any rate) at 11:30 AM (Pacific), I'll be presenting "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach" before the Alliance Against Antisemitism -- Cologne. I believe I'm just one of two English-language speakers on their event list this season, so this is quite an honor.

A link to the livestream is here. It'll be in English, of course, so feel free to tune in!