Category: Democratic Party

The Stubborn Rhetoric of Moderate Democrats

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory demonstrated the growing strength of leftists in the Democratic Party. Big ideas like socialism (however ill-defined) are no longer taboo and more specific policy goals like the abolition of ICE must be taken seriously.  The Democratic base is moving left, and this poses a problem for moderate Democrats who have traditionally defined the party’s identity. How should moderates relate to the rising left, and also vice versa?

Both factions have uncompromising positions. Moderate Democrats like Nancy Pelosi say that Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are valid only for NY14 and should otherwise be ignored. Hard leftists demand that all Democrats must toe their line or risk a primary challenge. If both factions hold to these positions, we’ll be unable to form a winning coalition across Congressional districts composed of various constituencies and win Congress. This is the worst of all outcomes because it guarantees that the Trump administration will have no institutional check on its authoritarian abuses of power for the next two years.

To avoid this, left-progressives who live in swing districts in which a hard left candidate would lose may have to accommodate moderates to win a single congressional seat, even though their policy positions might not perfectly line up.  In my mind, that’s worth it to get actual socialists from safe progressive districts like Ocasio-Cortez into a Congressional majority. If the party can be a big tent, moderates and left-progressives can both get what they want. But they have to agree to coexist.

Consider what this means for leftist demands to abolish ICE. Even if moderate Democrats disagree with this policy position, perhaps because they represent a district like NY19, they cannot bluntly say they are against abolishing ICE. If a moderate answers yes, they make progressives vulnerable to attack from the hard left and force them to question their commitment to the Democratic coalition, ultimately weakening it and potentially breaking it apart. And since weak coalitions usually don’t win elections, moderates can’t afford to do this.

As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post demonstrates, the entire question about ICE itself as a rhetorical trap created by Republicans that attempts to force a debate among Democrats that divides them. Moderate Democrats shouldn’t take the bait. They have to approach ICE in such a way that enables them to maintain a moderate-progressive coalition despite their contradictory policy positions. Here, rhetoric and framing is extremely important. Moderate Democrats have to engage in multivocal signaling, otherwise known as speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth. They must speak to multiple audiences at the same time and gain their support, despite the fact that those audiences understand their rhetorical statement in different ways that resonate with their different identities.

Now, some people might say that’s bullshit – politicians should mean what they say. That’s cute, but building a majority coalition always involves some degree of speaking to multiple audiences. Moderates have to say something like “ICE represents a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. It must end deportations immediately and be completely reorganized to ensure it no longer violates the human rights and due process of undocumented immigrants,” as opposed to “I don’t believe in abolishing ICE.” Something like this statement can appeal to progressives because it resonates with their defense of immigrants, although it doesn’t perfectly line up with their policy preferences. Let the media read between the lines and discern the policy meaning. Most people won’t catch the nuance. If moderate Democrats do this, they can broker a coalition that wins elections. It they don’t – perhaps because they stubbornly want to spite the left to recreate some mythical political center – then they will produce a fractured political coalition that will likely lose, much like Hillary Clinton in 2016.

We work in a coalition or not at all, rhetoric included.

 

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Democratic Foreign Policy Habits

Patrick Porter has a couple of strong pieces out currently. The first discusses the US foreign policy establishment’s adherence to a grand strategy of primacy, or the idea that the United States must possess more power than any other state in world politics and use that power to impose its own liberal rules on the entire world. Primacy is the grand strategy that we associate with the United States when it acts as a “global policeman”. Porter says that primacy is a habit that the United States can’t seem to shake. It’s a path dependent “common sense” about US foreign policy that persists despite changing conditions in the international system. The second piece questions if the liberal world order created by the United States actually lived up to its own promises. It suggests the order was never a singularly liberal one and consisted of multiple sets of governing arrangements, including those which relied on extensive US coercion. Both are worth reading, as are others in this genre (see Ashford and Shifrinson here, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper here, Acharya here, and Meaney and Wertheim here).

All together, these new perspectives on American foreign policy suggest that the Trump administration isn’t that different from its predecessors, including the Bush, Clinton, and to a lesser extent, the Obama administration. They also reinforce the conviction that the United States desperately needs to develop a new kind of grand strategy that can better adapt to a multipolar international system and limit the decline of US hegemony.

This work is important because it helps us make sense of the foreign policy conversation in the Democratic party, which is bereft of new thinking on foreign policy. Democrats rely on a liberal international version of primacy that softens the use of force by laundering it through international institutions or making it covert enough for no one to notice. The habit of primacy is why Democrats rely on bland slogans without any meaning when they describe international affairs. For example, take Ronan Farrow’s new book and his big idea regarding “demilitarizing foreign policy.” What does this mean? As Chase Madar show, it’s an empty soundbite unless the United States abandons its strategy of primacy for something else. Thinking of primacy in terms of habit helps us understand why Farrow can’t flesh out his ideas.

Yet primacy remains consistent with President Trump’s foreign policy, especially his  amoral realism and ethnonationalism. In fact, Democrats routinely echo the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Middle East allies and maximal demands on North Korea. If Trump were so bad (and he is), you would think Democrats would do everything they can to develop grand strategic alternatives, even if that meant discarding their old ideas for how to act in world politics which implicate themselves in the President’s excesses of power. But because of the habit of primacy, they can’t offer the American people a foreign policy alternative to Trump. If they did, they might actually win some elections.

While habit is one part of the reason why Democrats can’t develop grand strategic alternatives, great power identity is another. The liberal internationalist version of primacy espoused by Democrats is rooted in an exceptionalist understanding of the United States as a great power. Exceptionalism is the notion that the United States has a historic mission to remake the world in own image, spreading free-market capitalism and democracy along the way while defending allies and defeating threats to the liberal world order without making concessions to them. The habit of primacy is intimately linked to the liberal version exceptionalism espoused by Democrats: if you believe that the United States must exercise leadership to protect its favored set of international governing arrangements, then you’ll reinforce the habit of primacy.

And like habits, identities are also hard to change. Jennifer Mitzen’s work on ontological security tells us why. Like human beings, states pursue a coherent and stable sense of who they are that allows them to resolve anxieties how they should organize and comport themselves in the world. Achieving ontological security requires routinizing relationships with social orders – if we treat each other in a consistent way over time, we reinforce our beliefs about ourselves and stabilize our very existence. Over time, states become attached to relationships that provide ontological security, even if those relationships are hostile and drive actual physical insecurity. During the Cold War, superpower competition with the Soviet Union reaffirmed an American liberal exceptional identity because enabled the United States to define itself in opposition to its adversary – if the Soviets were totalitarian communists bent on restricting human freedom, then Americans were everything they weren’t. And if those relationships deteriorate (like the US-Soviet one which collapsed along with the Cold War), states might even seek out new relationships or reactivate old ones that confirm an existing identity (like US hostility with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, etc.) Much like habits of grand strategy, attachment to identities persists even at the expense of a state’s long-term objective interests.

If we think about habit and identity as complementary concepts, then we can draw out some implications for the Democratic Party based on Porter’s conclusion in his International Security article. He argues that habits can be broken only when 1) external conditions change rapidly enough to force a reappraisal and 2) when someone comes along who can incur the costs of challenging an existing habit. For the Democratic Party, that means a leader who can mobilize a domestic coalition that will support new ideas about foreign policy that diverge from the establishment’s habit of primacy. We generally think about coalition formation in terms of the aggregation of interests, but they are just as much about the definition of an identity that can link those various groups together as a united movement engaged in collective action.

We know that the dominant Democratic party identity is collapsing, partially because Democrats are losing faith in free-market capitalism (witness the rise of Bernie Sanders and the revival of socialism) and because even liberalism enables the persistence of domination on the basis of race and gender (liberals have been willing participants in mass incarceration, perpetuate patriarchy, and tend to privilege white women at the expense of women of color). As left Democrats develop a new political identity to displace the old neoliberal one, they have a strategic opportunity to redefine the United States’ role in world politics – its great power identity – and then develop some new set of grand strategic habits.

It’s through that path – of party politics and identity formation – that Democrats abandon primacy and embrace great power concert, the preferred strategy of Porter and Acharya given the multipolar/multiplex context of world politics. It’s also the strategy that most compatible with an emergent Democratic party identity. As the movement politics of Black Lives Matter and The Poor People’s Campaign shift into national electoral politics, left Democratic leaders will need to redefine not just the party but also America’s role in the world, including how it relates to other great powers. Because great power concert prioritizes the consensual resolution of disputes and recognition of other social actors as autonomous equals whose rights must respected, it’s consistent with movements for social and economic justice. Both are grounded in what Chantal Mouffe calls agnostic pluralism, the radical democratic commitment to treat other social actors as legitimate enemies, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality.” Although we can disagree with others about how to implement those principles, we commit to treating others with respect and dignity while recognizing the legitimacy of  emancipatory struggles demanding the same.

Apply that habit of democracy to foreign affairs, and you get great power concert – the United States would treat its rivals as equals and joint partners in maintaining world order. A pluralist identity and strategic habits of concert-balancing would thus deescalate security competition in world politics and strengthen cooperation and peace in world politics. But it’s also consistent with a commitment to rules-based procedures and institutions as well as a relatively open international order governed at the global level. And in contrast with Trump’s authoritarian nationalism, a concert strategy will be more appealing to an increasingly polarized electorate no longer satisfied neoliberal primacy.

Bottom line: we should be optimistic about a strategic shift away from primacy because changes in the Democratic Party are making it possible.

Debate takeaways: Bernie needs a foreign policy vision

Takeaways from the debate:

Hillary won on the gun exchange. She crushed that, and otherwise her and Bernie sparred back and forth without either candidate scoring a real blow. There were moments where they both seemed a bit unsure of themselves as well. Lester Holt gets MVP for keeping O’Malley in check.

Most interesting was Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran over time. I don’t think any big-league politician has said that yet. It suggests that Sanders is actually more in tune with Obama on Iran than Clinton is, and based on the diplomatic breakthoughs in the past week, it’s a good play.

But he needs to expand on it because Sanders still has no vision on foreign policy. He needs a broad narrative to tie together his position against regime change and unilateral war alongside a preference for multilalteral diplomacy and engagement with Iran and Russia.

It’s not impossible to conceptualize either. Sanders can easily invoke FDR on foreign policy in the same way he invokes him on domestic policy. Recall that FDR too sought a great power concert strategy (what Sanders is really talking about), one that involves engagement with all major Eurasian powers against a single common enemy (or alliance). It easily leads into a renewed commitment to international law and institutions as a legitimate form of international politics, and one fully cemented by FDR as well as the basis for the post-war global order.

That could be Sanders’ foreign policy vision. If he can articulate it, he can open a new front against Clinton and undermine one of her supposed strengths.