MEMBERS ONLY: The Left Needs to ‘Grow a Backbone’ and Prioritize Winning Again

by Bob Cesca

“Somebody came along and said liberal means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on Communism, soft on defense. And we’re going to tax you back to the stone age because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to. And instead of saying ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun Leave it to Beaver trip back to the 50s,’ we cowered in the corner and said, ‘Please don’t hurt me.'” –Bruno Gianelli, The West Wing  

Ever since Election Day 2016, we’ve been trapped in an alternative timeline in which a creepy comic book supervillain became president with the help of Russia. In Back to the Future Part 2, Doc Brown described it like so: “Obviously, the time continuum has been disrupted creating this new temporal event sequence resulting in this alternate reality.” And now, Biff Tannen is president.

Consequently, nothing is as it should be. We’re faced with an almost impossible situation in which literally every aspect of government has been shoved to the front burner. All at once we’re dealing with a blindingly incompetent, destructive, embarrassing, cruel president who knows essentially nothing about how Washington works; we’re dealing with an existential crisis of sovereignty in which Russia, with the cooperation of the White House, is in the process of completely commandeering our democracy; we’re dealing with Republican majorities at nearly every level, including more than two-dozen state governments completely controlled by the GOP; we’re dealing with a Republican Party that’s rejected regular order in Congress with the same gusto by which they’ve rejected facts, reason and rationality; and we’re dealing with how best to repair the catastrophic damage being created to our institutions and the presidency itself. 

That’s just off the top of my head.

On a personal level, I’ve been a student of politics since the 1980s, and I’ve exclusively covered politics for a living since 2012. Despite my experiences and my higher education, I’ve found it nearly impossible to keep up with the constant tennis-ball machine of insanity spewing forth from both the 2016 campaign cycle and, naturally, the Trump presidency. While desperately trying to remain informed about every atrocity that drops, I’ve missed deadlines, forgotten about meetings, delivered podcasts hours later than normal and general felt more scattered and disorganized than I’ve ever been. I’ve written many words in this space about the exhausting intensity of my job lately, despite the fact that I love my work and I love American politics.

So, yes, I get it. I understand the temptation to walk away. I’ll never do it myself, but I understand the desire to. My best friend and business partner, Chez Pazienza, likely died because of the overwhelming stress of the Trump era, and even though he would’ve disagreed with me about this, Chez was a machine. Even during my one vacation week since the election, it was impossible to divorce myself from my Twitter feed as the tennis-balls kept launching.

That said, I’ve noticed a distressing trend online among liberals. Without naming names, I’ve noticed more than a few people expressing apathy toward fighting against the latest nightmare to occupy the news: the Graham-Cassidy repeal of Obamacare. For the past week or so, much of the dire reports about the bill have been met with sighs rather than yalps. Liberals who might’ve otherwise fought hard to save Obamacare (again) seem to be demurring. They’re having trouble mustering the energy to — I guess — like, share and retweet articles and opinions on social media. They’ve also hesitated to make phone calls or to send emails to their members of Congress. At least a few liberals told me they wouldn’t mind if Graham-Cassidy passed, effectively repealing Obamacare’s key provisions.

One of the reasons they’ve taken this counter-intuitive posture is, from what I can tell, they believe that repealing Obamacare would trigger a broadly-supported movement to secure single-payer healthcare, also known as Medicare For All. Not unimportantly, the left is also screwing itself by shortening “Medicare For All” to the acronym “M4A.” Yes, because healthcare isn’t complicated enough, we need an incomprehensible series of three characters to represent the goal of the single-payer movement. Jesus, we’re so self-defeating, it literally makes me nauseous. The Republicans are playing for keeps without any facts or reality backing them up, and even though we have all the facts and all the creative people, we continue to insist upon obtuse political frames. 

Next time you grab a burger at a drive-thru, ask the employee at the window if he or she knows what the “Death Tax” is. Then ask him or her if they known what “DAPL” means. Chances are, they’ll be able to say something about the Death Tax. At the very least they’ll know that it’s a tax and it’s apparently bad because of, you know, the “death” part. “DAPL” on the other hand is — what is it again? Likewise, try “DACA” or “ACA” or “ANWR.” Try “M4A.”

This is all to suggest that the left has to start prioritizing victory. The left has to start winning again. In order to do that, the left needs to actually want to win. Yes, issues and policy are important, but they’re useless if the we can’t win anything. 

There’s a trend on the left right now that places issue-based purity as a higher priority than winning. This theory also suggests that we can lose and still win. I’ve described this theory as the left’s version of the Underpants Gnome business model from South Park

1) Defeat impure Democrats. 
2) ????
3) Progressivism!

The question marks in item #2 include much of what we’re witnessing now, with environmental protections being rolled back, healthcare being rolled back, possible war with North Korea, proposed military parades, Nazis committing terror attacks with the tacit approval of the president and so on. But we’re only beginning to experience the repercussions of the left allowing itself to lose. The potential for catastrophic destruction is still very much alive in this era of disruption and chaos.

The irony is that we’re experiencing the #2 question marks right now, but swaths of the left are exhausted by the commensurate chaos. We know that tens of thousands of liberals voted against Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016. These voters, be they voters who wrote-in Bernie Sanders or voters who cast ballots for Jill Stein, made enough of an impact to allow Trump to win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And now, just nine months into the regime of the Mad King, they’re pussying out, telling us they’re exhausted and apathetic about saving health insurance for more than 30 million Americans. 

I’m smelling hints of 2010, when Ed Schultz told his MSNBC viewers that they should stay home from the midterms because Obamacare wasn’t pure enough for him. Much of the clusterfuck we’re facing now is a direct result of the tea party out-hustling the left in 2010, and in down-ballot races since then. This is why more voter ID laws were passed and voter purges executed in secret, not to mention how down-ballot losses handed Donald Trump a rubber-stamp Congress. The left decided to stay home while the right powered through, winning back Congress and subsequently consolidating its control of the states. With the GOP’s streak of state victories, by the way, we’ve seen further anti-choice TRAP laws passed and our education system is being slowly dismantled by radical far-right school boards. 

Quick question while we’re here: Have you noticed any liberalsdiscussing the state and local races in this November’s election? Thought so. Incidentally, I’m just as guilty of focusing too much on the presidency and not enough on down-ballot races. Again, I get it.

Sorry to be the bearer of shitty news, but we still have three years and several months remaining in Trump’s first term. There’s still a chance he’ll avoid the wrath of Robert Mueller and, hell, he might even be re-elected given the perniciousness of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and Russia’s ongoing attacks. There’s a lot of work to be done for both activists and citizens alike to fend off the unstoppable tenacity of the Trumpers and the modern conservative movement. Along those lines, I don’t have any magical solution for regaining a sense of energy and optimism on our side of the aisle. I’ve always believed winning is its own reward, tending to energize everyone who participated in would-be victories. 

As former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick said during his 2008 address to the Democratic National Convention: “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and start winning again.” That was more than nine years ago. What the hell are we waiting for?