The following email exchange took place recently between me, a moderate, and Rob Crawford, a progressive. Rob is a retired humanities professor with the University of Washington/Tacoma and served as state chair of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). It was over the issue of torture — when the George W. Bush administration began engaging in torture in Iraq in 2004 — that Rob and I became acquainted. This exchange commenced after my recent commentary, “’Let’s Take Back Our Democracy — and Improve It While We’re At It’: Democrats’ Winning Strategy in 2020.” It opens with Rob protesting my failure to defend “the Squad” — Democratic freshman Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Ilhan Omar (MN). I have done minimal editing; Rob approves both editing and posting.
Excellent post. I was entirely with you until you called on the Squad to be more responsible. Name one thing you think is not responsible. As for challenging the Democratic centrist leadership, if not now, when? For the leadership to run scared of these voices is to court disaster, in my humble opinion. They should welcome the vigorous debate among Dems, not be intimidated by the slur of anti-Semitism, and stand up for the diversity of views — and most importantly four Congresswomen of color. That said, I personally do not know, and I don’t see how anyone can know, what will be most effective against Trump in 2020. I live in trepidation of his re-election.
Well, if I had you with me that deep into the commentary — almost to the end! — I’m happy.
About the Squad and what I thought was irresponsible on their part: Yes, the anti-Semitic tropes employed by Omar and AOC calling the border detention facilities “concentration camps” and Tlaib using the f-bomb to call for Trump’s impeachment — volatile terms that yielded nothing and by which now the R’s can smear ALL Dems as “extremist.” And AOC’s chief of staff calling Pelosi et al. racists — wayyyy out of bounds. N.B., please: Pelosi came to the Squad’s defense asap when Trump dumped his racist “Go back to there they came from” rant. Would the Squad do the same for Pelosi? (I wonder.)
A savvy politician knows the power of his/her rhetoric and, equally important, knows how one’s rhetoric can be used against one, and I am not sure the youngsters of the Squad know that yet. That’s why I said I “sincerely” hoped they comprehend the political gravity of this moment (this is beyond free speech). Because: Given the booming economy, and Trump’s showy actions on immigration (not coherent but showy), and two more conservative justices to the Supreme Court, and then, to boot, given the gift of labeling your Dem opponent “extreme” and “socialist” and “out of the mainstream,” thanks to being tagged with the Squad — Done: Trump is re-elected, easily.
You have “trepidation” re 2020? I’ll see that and raise you: I have dread, profound.
I am, yes, more moderate than progressive. If our nominee is a progressive, the R’s can say all Dems want “free stuff for illegals” — and, again, it’s Trump in a landslide. I feel I could “afford” to be a progressive IF Trump and Trumpism were defeated. I fully agree we need the economic restructuring that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders preach, but politically we need to regain power first, with a moderate, then pivot. Unless there is an FDR progressive on the horizon who has Trump’s props….
You say, “I don’t see how anyone can know what will be most effective against Trump in 2020.” Well, we’d better start figuring it out, Mr. Smith needs to get going to Washington, pronto. In my own behalf, I think there is something in my idea that saving our democracy should be part of the call to arms.
Thanks for writing, Rob. And thanks for the (otherwise) “Excellent post.” I hope you are writing, too. These scary times need illumination — Trump is mining our darkest corners — and we need all humanities persons on deck.
Thank you for such a detailed and careful response. Much appreciated.
Re the Squad, Omar has been not only viciously attacked by Trump for her so-called anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic position, but also attacked by too many Democrats, many fearful themselves of being labeled anti-Israel and therefore anti-Semitic, or “left,” etc. Democrat centrists (and pardon, Carla, if that includes you) have a choice: run scared, cave to the right (not only on this, but other issues as well, especially immigration), become fearful of making Trump’s racism a key issue for 2020, fearful of impeachment, fearful of alienating the fantasized swing suburban voter, fearful….
Or stand up for a Democratic party that can accommodate and even welcome a Left (which in the scheme of modern history and even U.S. history is not really that far to the left). There is a needed and long overdue debate that is now more open about the shift of the party to the center (and on various foreign policy/military issues even to the right; and in the past, re crime, busing, etc.). In my opinion, the Squad is a useful scapegoat for the centrist to stigmatize that full and much broader challenge from the Left in the party. Warren, after all, is running second to Joe Biden.
Trump attacks the Dems through race-baiting and identity politics that mixes white nationalist themes (refugees, asylum, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims) with a classic Cold War attack on “socialism,” “radicalism,” “the far left,” “they hate America,” etc. I appreciated the Dems reacted in unity against that [with the House resolution condemning Trump’s tweets against the Squad as racist], although I would have preferred a censure. Yet, they need to be consistent in defending these views as not only constitutionally protected but well within the boundaries of legitimate debate. As you say, the core struggle we find ourselves in is one of saving our democracy, as well as transforming it to a more just democracy. So let’s have full democracy in the Democratic Party. Both sides need to be heard.
This debate should include a range of issues, including matters of institutionalized racism and sexism, human rights violations in detention camps for migrants, including what to call them — and why a name like “concentration camp” makes sense to many and why it offends others. (Personally, I lean on the side of “concentration camp,” a term and an institution that preceded and followed the German use of it in the Holocaust. The case has been well argued by others.)
As for fascism, I personally steer away from it, although at cost of intense arguments with people close to me. I’m a historian, so I’m careful here. Nonetheless, I increasingly agree that many of Trump’s tactics and the far-right movement behind him are fascist-like in several respects. So the analogy, for me, is worthwhile — keeping in mind that an analogy is both similarities and differences.
Other matters you raise need ongoing discussion and discernment, e.g., whether the Dems should put aside the progressive positions until after Trump is defeated — including on immigration. A morally courageous and at the same time a “practical” Dem position on immigration will not be easy. I am not one to defer being open about progressive positions until after….. That does not prevent me from believing in certain political matters, advocating for a “common front,” e.g., like Bernie, in the 2016 primary; get behind the winner (even if….); no third-party runs.
These are indeed scary times. I deeply appreciate your being in the fight. Personally, I have become deeply involved in migration/immigration matters, as reflected in this recent op-ed I published.
Thanks for all this thoughtful response to a subject we clearly are both intensely engaged with — the survival of American democracy.
Your various points about what the Democratic party should be ideally and what it should be doing to get there, promoting “positive change”: I worry that we are now in such a “hot” political moment — let’s call it a maelstrom — that such considerations are wasted motion, as against the overpowering forces of the maelstrom. You know me (our shared protest of torture): I am the first to make the moral argument, but in a maelstrom? (I keep thinking of Melville’s description of the Pequod, destroyed by Moby Dick: like “chips in the vortex.”) That’s why I suggest, respectfully, that such engineering wait until we have secured the fort. (And that’s why I tried, in my commentary, to “go big” and appeal to Dems to enlarge the presidential campaign.)
The “overpowering forces” I refer to, of course, are the Republicans and their perennial ability to agree on a message and unify — even around a corrupt and even dangerous leader — and never break rank. Note how they vilified Robert Mueller in their questions at his hearing — and he’s a registered Republican — but his whole investigation came to be seen by the R’s as an existential threat to their Anointed Leader, corrupt and even dangerous as he is. It is stunning: The R’s cannot see the peril we are all in. Chips in the vortex….
Meanwhile, the Dems wander the wilderness. Rob, I so wish a positive message could get through, but I am not sure even the early Barack Obama could (maybe Michelle Obama could — now there’s a thought!). Elizabeth Warren, bless her, keeps coming up with plans — a strategy that could pierce through to Independents still open to persuasion (though did you see the recent poll showing the I’s actually moving to Trump since his racist tweet-storm?) Someone who I do think has sufficient muscle with the working and middle classes, is sharp on his feet, and could articulate the mission to save our democracy is Senator Sherrod Brown. No, I would not be “fearful” about “making Trump’s racism a key issue in 2020”: That would be a powerful way to go, but the Squad has implied centrist Dems are insufficiently anti-racist. (As to moderates being overly “fearful,” I prefer the word “prudent.”)
Good on you for your op-ed and, better yet, good action. Which brings me to another point: How goodness and decency have always, since Time Immemorial, had a hard time prevailing. I think again of Melville — Captain Ahab gloating he has checkmated first mate Starbuck and his “soft humanity.” But, we persist — yes!
3 August, after the second set of Democratic debates
Quick reply as I am rushing to get ready for a backpack tomorrow.
I have mixed feelings about the recent debates. The sharpening of teeth and snarling toward each other cannot help Dems. Debate format is about something else than good and needed discussion about real policy choices. Quick preferences: I did like how both Sanders and Warren performed. Biden is looking more than insipid. Kamala Harris not impressive. I did like Cory Booker.
We might disagree on decriminalization of the border, but I thought that the few who argued for it did well in explaining why it is so important. I think a distinction can be made between decriminalization and the charge of open borders (e.g., “order at the border”). If we are going to fight for democracy, it must include human rights. What Trump is doing involved massive violations of human rights, citing an arguable rise in crime. There is deep humanitarian sentiment in this country that can be aroused against Trump’s cruel, inhuman policies.
I actually liked what David Brooks wrote (a rare appreciation for me) recently — lauding Marianne Williamson’s identification of dark forces and the need to name them as evil and the need for Dems to be much more out-front united in talking about the threat to democracy — back to your op-ed.
Thankfully, I will not have to read news for the coming week. I hope we don’t go to war with Iran. My friend who follows this closely believes there is a 90% chance we are headed for war. A columnist recently described the Middle East and global players as an August 1914-like force field.
Before you head out into deepest Nature, I think I spy….consensus.
I love what you said — “There is deep humanitarian sentiment in this country that can be aroused against Trump’s cruel, inhuman policies”: Yes! That humanitarian campaign, aspirational in tone, anti-racist and pro-equal justice for all in thrust, could, one), unite all Dems while appealing to Independents and heartsick Republicans, and, two), send Trump to the dustbin of History. Apart from saving us from more “snarling” about healthcare (no small thing), such a campaign would help repair our democracy and achieve, finally, our ideals and restore our best selves, from whom we are so terribly alienated now.
But: So far, we have not heard that higher, humanitarian call, have we? I would argue that either a moderate or a progressive could campaign under that banner. The question of all questions becomes: Who will sound that humanitarian call?
Enjoy the Great Outdoors, Rob. I will be minding the fort.
Yours in the struggle,