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After the Norms
The Norms aren’t working. In their place we must embrace the dreaded “i” word.
The political philosophy of Demanding To Speak To The Manager that has long-defined modern liberalism has reached its terminal limit, and a refusal to acknowledge this basic fact—and acknowledge it quickly—is going to destroy what remains of the liberal state.
The final boss of Demanding To Speak To The Manager, the Supreme Court, has fully revealed itself to be a brute enforcer of austerity, Christian supremacy, worker discipline, and corporate protectionism—reverse engineering the pretext of legal philosophy to carry out the aims of the monied and bigoted classes. Such has been the case for many years, like when the Supreme Court ruled in 1918 to overturn a law limiting the hours of child laborers. But the fragile liberal compromise that maintained the pretense of neutrality that made up the post-Cold War social contract is officially over, stamped out these past weeks by a string of nakedly partisan and devastating wins for the right. After overturning federal abortion rights, six Supreme Court justices (five of whom were appointed by presidents who did not win the majority vote) have now gutted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate, a move that threatens the survival of human society. The Court has thrown out what limited autonomy indigenous nations had and, earlier today decided to take up a cause next term that would allow state legislatures to gerrymander federal congressional districts, even after their own state courts have rejected those gerrymanders. Put simply: a complete a total coup for American conservatives.
And, as even mainline liberals have noted, Democratic leadership has had absolutely no answer. Looking increasingly bumfuzzled and aloof:
Many culprits have been offered up as to why Democratic counter messaging has been DOA. The most superficially appealing of them is that Democratic leaders are simply too old. This is the Pepsi Marketing genre of political analysis that assumes if we get Generation Next™ in charge, this will help ignite a political flight in liberals. And while it’s true that a younger cohort would almost certainly be more in touch in an intellectual way, which is to say, they’d be more aware of the groundswell of frustration and probably be better at faking like they’re doing something, there’s little reason to think they actually would. Indeed, even more clueless than President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the squarely Gen X Vice President Kamala Harris who, when pressed on these existential and urgent issues, appears—at best—annoyed she has to talk about it at all.
The problem, unfortunately, is much deeper, more intractable, and more material in nature that simply The Lame Olds Have Been In Charge Too Long. Unleashing a younger cohort of dead-eyed Buttigieges beholden to the same rich donors will do nothing to address the central problem at hand.
Another common refrain on the disillusioned left is that Democrats are “paid to lose”: that they’re funded by the marginally more liberal wing of the capital class to lose to the right, suck up oxygen, and redirect outrage, energy, and money into a largely fictional opposition. While I understand the frustration that would make this analysis appealing, I think it arrives at the vaguely right place but through the wrong path. Corporate Democrats who make up the leadership, the funding apparatus, and the media organs absolutely want to win, and they want to win with every fabric of their being. They just—based on the nature of funding, their proximity to power, and the revolving door of the consulting class that makes up the Party—can only win within a very narrow ideological framework. They’re not the Washington Generals, as many like to call them: They’re more like an NBA team that only has five players on the roster because the owners think paying for a bench would undermine their bottom line. Those in charge of running campaigns and messaging very much want to win, but they're operating within an inherently debilitating, sliver of an ideological framework that can never, due to how it’s funded and operated, meaningfully address inequality, poverty, systemic racism, or war—or provide a coherent moral vision of the world.
Absent this coherent moral vision of the world, the right offers its own version. It’s sinister, cruel, and racist, but it’s some type of worldview. There’s good guys and bad guys, and little need to ask for the manager.
As we often say on Citations Needed, ideology is simply pragmatism over a longer timetable. The right understands this. Clearly they are, by definition, much better funded, so a one-to-one comparison isn’t entirely fair. But they invested in long-term ideological projects, and their Party leaders don’t spend all their time Sister Souljah-ing, as Democrats do on a weekly basis. Absent any coherent worldview, and a pathological obsession with throwing activists under the bus to score points with the New York Times editorial board and a fictional moderate Republican, all that’s left is norms. Which is another word for rules—something that matters most when politics is not a life-and-death battle against the forces of reaction, but a game. Because games, above all, have rules, and so long as those rules are respected by the opponent, if you're smarter, more talented, work harder in law school, have more clever messaging, deliver a sassier comeback, speak the right rhetoric, and use the best logic, the game can be won.
But it’s not a game, and the other side has understood this for some time, openly flaunting the rulebook and using it to wipe their ass.
But Democratic leadership refuses to see this, because it’s how they’ve defined politics for decades and, also, it’s how their bread is buttered. The highest calling remains The Norms, the informal and understood status quo, protecting the system as such, no matter how much it’s failed working people. It’s not as if they didn’t vaguely understand this. Democrats proposed a massive multi-trillion-dollar aid package in early 2021 to fend off the reactionary backlash “post-Covid.” But they never really fought for it. They ran through the motions then pivoted to boiler-plate left punching and austerity politics that define the true ideological purpose of the neoliberal consensus that, despite musings about its demise, is still very much dominant and in charge.
As I’ve noted before, Norm Solomon’s definition of neoliberalism as “a worldview with victims but no victimizers” remains the core problem of our time. People are suffering, they're scared, they're worried—but no enemy is ever presented by Democrats, only process and norm-violations. Other than the occasional Republican (but not the good ones we need and want?), no bad guy outside of petty partisan name-calling is ever identified. The January 6 hearings are perfectly good and fine because, despite some centrist rhetoric, they’re not about norms but principles. Namely, the principle that Fascist coup attempts are bad, and violate a core leftist principle of democracy that has nothing to do with process for process’s sake. The person with the most votes should win, and right-wing thugs who attempt to intimidate and use violence to undermine this system should be identified and sanctioned. But this has become the Great Cause of the Party and its media organs in the run up to the midterms and, while worth obviously pursuing, it’s unclear if it should be the central moral stage on which liberals’ counter to the right plays out in the era of brutal post-covid austerity and inflation. You snuff out the MAGA anti-norm extreme, and then what exactly? What comes after that? Does anyone have any idea?
What world are we building?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done an impressive job trying to bridge the gap between the ruling Norms regime and those on the ideological left. On Stephen Colbert last night she made a norm argument (the Supreme Court had violated the spirit of the constitution by growing too powerful and arbitrary) while vaguely hinting at a more ideological objection on the substance of the cases themselves (ignore the rote rightwing commentary, just watch the video):
This is what makes this whole back and forth so tedious. Of course, to any moral or rational person, discussing how the Court's rulings fit into some high-minded originalist interpretation, or appealing to the precedent of so-and-so versus so-and-so, is irrelevant. It’s basically 11th century theology at this point, trying to parse the nature of the Trinity. Really smart people can get themselves all worked up over it, and debate back and forth for decades—as theologians did over the nature of Christ for centuries. But ultimately, it's a fake thing. It’s very smart people arguing over a fake thing that is important only because we say it is and have built an internal, elaborate logic and lore around it. But it’s fake. What Ocasio-Cortez wants to say, what so many liberals and leftists want to say, is that repealing Roe is bad because it’s an assault on bodily autonomy and the poor, and gutting the EPA is bad because climate change is of urgent moral importance since we need human society to survive. The substance is bad—the process is not only bad, but goofy, an arbitrary and minoritarian force of reaction based on mind-reading guys with powdered wigs.
But Going There is out of bounds, so we have no coherent or moral response. As Assistant Professor at Harvard Law Niko Bowie explained on Twitter:
This past week has seen a repudiation of the court-based theory of change that has defined legal liberalism for several decades in the US: a theory that elite lawyers will always be able to use elite reasoning to persuade elite judges not to let things get out of hand. Our government is dominated by graduates of law schools—where they learn how liberal victories since 1954 have been won not by organizing, movement building, or legislating, but by arguing so persuasively that no judge can resist bending the arc of history toward justice. This week reveals one obvious downside of legal liberalism: judges can ignore it. It’s terrific when the people in charge agree with you that everyone should have contraception, healthcare, or a livable environment. But what are you supposed to do when they don’t? More importantly, legal liberalism has also displaced the US left’s infrastructure & vocabulary of popular power. For decades, liberals have confidently responded to injustice with “see you in court.” But the same voices are famished for alternatives when courts are the problem.
The whole brilliant thread is worth reading in its own right. Put another way: A Party that, for decades, has been run by lawyers and P.R. flacks cannot lawyer or message its way out of an existential crisis. The Democratic Party has sidelined unions, socialists, black activists, immigration activists, non-corporate feminists, and queer activists. And to the extent it even acknowledges those with firm political commitments outside of bourgeois process causes, it uses its billionaire donors to try and shove them into the insipid, GOTV sausage machine of Move On-type liberal activism. George Floyd protests, after inspiring the world and opening up new possibilities of public welfare and safety, were harnessed by Party apparatchiks and directed into the 2020 midterms. After they helped bring out young and black voters and boosted an otherwise lethargic Party, the pretense of Democratic leaders caring about reform was dropped, and President Biden now can’t go a week without performatively condemning “defund” and proudly doubling President Trump’s federal funding for police.
The Norm regime is doubling down so much on its approach to Simply Be The Most Reasonable Option Available, it’s funding ads for pro-Trump primary candidates to try and drive the GOP further right, an extremely dangerous (and blatantly hypocritical stance) that blew up in Hillary Clinton’s face when she tried this approach in 2016 against the actual Trump. When there’s nothing to offer, being all there is is the only play.
We’re told this is because Democrats must appeal to an ever-present and all-menacing “moderate voter,” which is really just a proxy for the monied classes. Purple county swing voters in Virginia and Pennsylvania are always looming, in perpetuity, but really they’re just a stand-in for wealthy donors. But talking about wealthy donors is tacky, so instead every pundit on earth ventriloquizes Joe Suburb in Fairfax County who just so happens to want the exact same things wealthy donors do: namely police, war, and austerity. Biden is bleeding young voters and voters of color due to his nonstop left-punching and inability to deliver any progressive wins, but for some reason these voters are simply not seen by our media class, and their loss doesn’t really register. Their vote is to be taken for granted, and if they deny it to Democrats, it’s petulance and cynicism. If our Wall Street stand-in voter in the suburbs flips Republican or stays home, it’s not their fault, but the fault of—you guessed it—the progressive left. Like the dopey ESPN pundit who insists “defense wins the game,” when scoring 7 points counts the same as preventing 7 points, no one can explain why Biden shedding young, progressive, and people of color voters should matter less than him losing suburb “moderates.” It’s just a truism, meant to elevate the political priorities of the rich at the expense of the struggling and poor.
This is, of course, a problem that has plagued the Party for years. But this week, with the stripping of abortion rights, the EPA ability to combat climate change, indigenous rights, black voting rights and a bloodbath almost certain in November, it becomes far more acute; pulled into sharper focus. The Norms aren’t working—manifestly, clearly, to even their longtime defenders. In their place must step the dreaded “i” word: ideology. But to do this, to proffer a coherent and inspiring moral worldview with good guys and bad guys, a world with victims and victimizers, with classes that have, by definition, class conflict, the Democrats would have to take on some of those victimizers; they’d have to name the rich and lay out their war on the poor and working class. But this is very difficult to do when these victimizers, to a great extent, are the ones funding and shaping the Party.