A few weeks ago the new president of the Florida Democratic Party, Sally Boynton Brown, caught some flak when she told a group of progressives that changes in store for the party include messaging that makes a conscious appeal to emotion, and rigorous script testing, likely through soft polling and focus groups.
The problem as many progressives see it is that after losing so much ground, message resurfacing is not the change we need. There is an urgent need to transform the party, to regain relevancy—and that doesn’t come with message tweaks more commonly associated with failed Centrist strategizing.
Lucky for us, someone has articulated what transformative change within the Democratic would actually look like.
Zach Carter, Huffington Post’s political economy senior editor, laid out a recent tweet storm around this basic thesis: “The Democratic Party can be the party of the Good Aristocrats, or it can be the Anti-authoritarian Party. But it has to pick one.” By all rights this idea needs to be expanded into a book-length meditation. It’s that pertinent.
Anyone on Twitter is likely aware of the bizarre war against progressives waged by aristocratic media personalities such as MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid and Yamiche Alcindor of the New York Times. Reid detonated one of her patented, swiftly deleted Twitter stink bombs this week, waxing at length about how progressives are in her view a bunch of freeloaders who remind her of roommates who don’t help with the bills. Alcindor, in an act of incomprehensible irresponsibility, tried to indict Bernie Sanders for the horrific shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. The new culture war is being waged by Democrats against progressives.
Carter’s analysis targeting the tension between aristocrats and authoritarians couldn’t be more timely, as party elites frantically divide Democrats along lines of class and ideology.
The struggle in front of us is to define the identity of the party: Do we serve the aristocratic elite, or do we fight authoritarianism?
was the tipping point that launched this new era of authoritarianism. Financial crises create authoritarianism when the response (here and in Europe) is austerity which promotes wage deflation and economic insecurity. Donald Trump’s revolting emotional appeal to xenophobia and racism in his anti-immigrant rhetoric plays off the fear of having too few jobs, unsafe neighborhoods and worthwhile public schools to go around. These are issues of community investment, not race. So, pushing back on racism is necessary but not sufficient to win.
Carter rightfully points to the Labour Party’s win in the UK elections as a victory for the kind of anti-aristocratic, anti-authoritarian politics that could transform the American political landscape. Reformers like Corbyn win because they address the root of authoritarian movements: the economic instability that animates racism and xenophobia.
Two camps of voters were left in the wake of the financial crisis. Authoritarians on one side are those who seek the promise of “certainty, stability and safety after an outbreak of pain and uncertainty.” They respond to sentiments such as, “I Will Crush Your Enemies and Restore Your Glory.”
The other side are Progressive Reformers such as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. These leaders combine the messages, “I’m on your team. I will take care of you,” and “I will break the cheating Aristocrats who did this to you.” The first appeal is to equity and the second is to justice. The first appeal can also be considered a liberal message, while the second is an example of progressive accountability politics.
With Trump the Authoritarian movement has merged with Aristocratic Conservatism, making Centrism an even sillier weapon. Clintonian Third Way-ism may have played in the 90s, but few in 2017 believe Centrist elites possess the desire or ability to inspire transformation. The pro-austerity, pro-free trade, pro-monopoly policies of Bill Clinton led directly to the financial crisis. All the highest-paid political consultants in the world could furiously polish centrism’s turd between now and the 2018 elections. Still, no one will buy it.
Centrism as practiced by the Democratic Party’s donor class is uniquely maladapted to fight Aristocratic Authoritarianism, and that’s by design because it serves the interests of elites. Centrism promises neither equity nor justice. Carter describes Hillary Clinton’s pitch as “Countrymen! I meet the qualifications of The Old Order, and am eminently reasonable.” Sanders, in contrast, thrilled packed arenas by saying essentially, “I promise a new-New Deal, and will stand in the way of billionaires looting our system.”
This is perhaps why Joy Ann Reid’s comparison of the Bernie Sanders coalition to a deadbeat roommate was so quickly scorned and rejected. The activists she likened to loathsome roommates are the very people in the party right now who are fighting Aristocratic Authoritarianism through dozens of different progressive initiatives, candidacies, and personal journeys. Reid’s Twitter tantrum illustrates how Democratic Party elites are appallingly oblivious to the basic rhythm of the zeitgeist.
Unconsciously though, Reid highlighted how the struggle now is between the haves and have-nots. She has shelter in the party and you don’t (neener neener). To the millions of regular people who donated and volunteered during Sanders’ primary, You people who merely reignited interest in the Democratic party can visit; maybe bring Joy some wine, but don’t get comfortable. This isn’t YOUR place.
Joy Ann Reid is naturally on the side of the Aristocrats who pay her salary at MSNBC, which is known for demanding their stars toe the line. Just ask Melissa Harris Perry how that works. This rhetoric might secure her future at the cable network, but it’s ruining the country.
If the party continues to follow this insanity into 2018 and 2020, it will ensure a longer and nastier reign of Trumpism because, as Carter’s analysis suggests, the best way to counter Aristocratic Authoritarianism is to offer authentic reform that promises a better future—hold billionaires accountable, work for economic security in the form of a living wage, healthcare, and a level political playing field.
Returning to Sally Boynton Brown’s gaffe of a few weeks ago, one could make the argument that she was invoking George Lakoff, who is the cognitive scientist famous for explaining why rationality often doesn’t win in politics. Lakoff’s work is helpful in understanding how to fight Aristocratic Authoritarianism, as his analysis goes far beyond “Be more emotional in your messaging,” and identifies two political orientations that help to explain why Zach Carter is so on point in his analysis.
According to Lakoff, people generally have authoritarian or nurturing mindsets. These cognitive styles are rooted in the most primitive part of our brain which developed when we were very young, in response to how we were raised—in homes with either strict or nurturing parents. Therefore, he argues, our style of political engagement is determined by hardwired father archetypes.
This makes political thinking far less rational, hence the simplification that FDP President Sally Boynton Brown offered—that we appeal to emotions. Yes, emotions bypass the pre-frontal cortex and open direct communication with the hindbrain. But if the message you’re communicating is vastly off-base, it won’t matter if you make people laugh or cry. Your audience can be emotionally moved and simultaneously view your political agenda as irrelevant.
If the Democratic Party must choose between being Good Aristocrats or being anti-Authoritarian, then we have to figure out this whole “unity” business in order to move forward. But the sense that progressives get is that the party’s aristocrats are damn sick and tired of grassroots resisting their hegemony (or hogging their apartments, or something). That’s why elites like Joy Ann Reid launched a preemptive attack on Bernie Sanders during the People’s Summit last week, even before her apartment rant.
It’s a safe bet that party elites will burn giant piles of money on soft polls, focus groups and “script testing” in 2018. They appear poised to cling to the aristocracy until someone pries it out of their manicured little fists. The upshot is that it’s beginning to be evident that our system doesn’t have the carrying capacity for all the aristocrats’ dead weight. The choice between Anti-Authoritarianism and Aristocracy might soon be made for them … as the grassroots gather at the door, demanding fair wages, healthcare for all, no more war, and decent education.
Once we’re inside, we’ll need to resist the urge to put our feet up and act like we own the place, because the truth is that in a Democracy no one gets to rule the apartment like a Chardonnay-sodden dictator.
Here’s the Zach Carter tweet storm in full: