Home / General / Did Democrats Unfairly “Demonize” Republicans Like John McCain and Mitt Romney? (SPOILER: No.)

Did Democrats Unfairly “Demonize” Republicans Like John McCain and Mitt Romney? (SPOILER: No.)

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For some reason, the thread on Beth’s short recent post is approaching 1,000. Rather than diving back in, and since the views Glenn expressed in the interview that Beth found objectionable aren’t particularly unusual, it’s worth explaining the two key problems with what he was arguing. Let’s go to the relevant quote:

I mean, the tactic of the Democratic Party in the last 25 years—they know that ever since they became the party of sort of corporatism and Wall Street, they don’t inspire anybody, so their tactic is to say the Republican Party is the epitome of evil.

Let’s stop here for a second, since this kind of ahistorical assertion — the Democratic Party used to be good but it’s now the party of evil neoliberalism — is a very common move. It is also a rather absurd fiction. Whatever its faults and limitations the Democratic Party of Obama/Pelosi/Reid is one of the most progressive iterations of the party’s nearly 190 year history. The overall trajectory of the party for the past decade is clearly to the left, not to the right. And this nostalgia for the mythical Golden Age of the Democratic Party is particularly strange coming from someone with Glenn’s priorities. What Democratic Party of the past are we supposed to be pining for — when LBJ and JFK were going to Vietnam and wiretapping Martin Luther King? When FDR was sending people of Japanese descent to concentration camps? When Truman was loading the Supreme Court with First Amendment-eviscerating poker buddies? When Jackson was cleansing Georgia of Native Americans? Help me out here. It’s true that the party has changed — in the New Deal era, the conservative Democrats that worked with Republicans to control Congress between 1938-1964 were more likely to be southern segregationists than Wall-Street influenced northerners. This was…not better.

As I’ve observed before, there is a reason for this imaginary history of the Democratic Party — namely, it allows people to avoid confrontation with the massive structural barriers that stand in the way of even left-liberal national coalitions: numerous veto points in a political system awash with money, electoral systems that privilege conservative rural areas, the preponderance of low-turnout midterm elections, etc. etc. The vast majority of major liberal federal legislation was passed in three brief periods under FDR, LBJ and Obama, and even in those cases it wasn’t so much that liberals controlled Congress as that there were political contexts that compelled moderate and conservative Democrats (and, in the case of LBJ, moderate and liberal Republicans) to go along with an unusually influential liberal minority. At some point, you have to consider the possibility that the Democratic Party isn’t suppressing a natural social democratic and staunchly civil libertarian governing majority.

There’s also another serious problem here. I, personally, find the idea that I should expect to be “inspired” by leaders of major national coalition parties very odd. But I also recognize that many Democratic voters are, in fact, inspired by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. If pundits don’t understand that it’s not a big deal, but the fact that some influential people within the Sanders campaign failed to understand that many Democrats are inspired by Obama and Clinton and why is in fact a potentially serious problem. You can’t build a majority coalition without understanding this.

To return to Glenn’s argument:

Even when they have conventional nominees like Mitt Romney or John McCain, they demonize them and say they’re this unparalleled threat to democracy. In this election, just by coincidence, it happens to be true.

As Glenn says in comments, he is not making the increasingly common and very dumb “crying wolf” argument — that is, that the Democratic Party somehow caused Trump by being unfair to reasonable, moderate, thinking person’s conservatives like McCain and Romney. But he nonetheless is arguing that Democrats “demonized” Romney and McCain. The problem is that this is also wrong. The Democratic argument against McCain and Romney was not that they were an “unparalleled threat to democracy” but that they were Republicans that would therefore enact or seek to enact various terrible policies. The election of Mitt Romney would have meant tens of millions of people stripped of their health insurance and those that retained insurance paying more while receiving less. It would have meant Antonin Scalia being replaced with someone probably to the right of Scalia, and if Romney were to win re-election it would probably mean a Supreme Court in firm Republican control for a generation or more, with countless horrible consequences. It would have meant huge tax cuts and major cuts to federal programs. It would have meant environmental deregulation as the climate change crisis accelerates. And so on and so on and so on. By erroneously claiming that Democrats “demonized” McCain and Romney, Glenn is minimizing the large and increasing differences between the two parties, which fully existed prior to Trump, and would also be true had the Republicans nominated Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

This “demonization” argument reminds me of Doug Henwood’s argument that it’s “blackmail” to point out how bad Republicans are, thus depriving him of his inalienable right to vote for vanity candidates without being criticized or something. Except that Henwood goes Glenn one better, arguing that it’s somehow dirty pool for Democrats to point out that Donald Trump would be a horrible president. I don’t share Henwood’s obsessive hatred of Hillary Clinton, but even if I did the imperative of keeping any contemporary Republican out of the White House — let alone one as unqualified and unconstrained by norms as Trump — is a perfectly good motive to vote for the Democratic candidate, and it’s not “blackmail” for the Democrats to seek the votes of people to the left of the typical congressional Democrat by being much better than the Republicans.

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