Incrementalism For All Who Can Survive It

As massive catastrophes unfold, politicians, pundits, and voters are responding with demands for compromise and incrementalism.
Incrementalism For All Who Can Survive It
Photo credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Two things are happening in America that should not occur at the same time. Real, verifiable evidence from the terrestrial world is screaming warnings about existential environmental, health, economic, and political emergencies that require radical responses. And yet, politicians, media elites, and many voters inside the wonderland of politics have decided that now is the time we most need compromise, moderation, and incrementalism.

What explains this dissonance?

Scientists are warning of an accelerating climate cataclysm with mind-bogglingly disastrous consequences, and yet Democrats are responding by slashing climate spending, boosting fossil fuel subsidies and offering weak pollution standards — all in the name of moderate bipartisanship.

The pandemic is resurging as our dysfunctional corporate health care system has become a deterrent to vaccination, and yet Medicare for All is fully gone from the political conversation.

Millions could be thrown out of their homes during the pandemic, and yet Democrats missed the deadline for trying to extend the federal eviction moratorium, allowing it to expire right after the House went on vacation — and the Biden administration only belatedly extended it after a public shaming campaign.

Voting rights are under assault in states across the country, and Democratic lawmakers are on the verge of missing an imminent deadline next week to block Republican gerrymandering plans — a deadline the Biden administration just moved up by four days, after his Census Bureau finished crunching numbers a little early.

In effect, we are living inside of an asteroid disaster movie, and yet the response is a collective sigh and pious odes to caution — and it’s the same discordance outside the Beltway, as evidenced in this week’s Ohio’s special congressional election.

There, super PACs, Republican donors, and corporate lobbyists bankrolled Shontel Brown’s campaign to defeat former Democratic state Senator Nina Turner, who ran on a promise to push the Democratic Party to embrace Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and other policies that would at least give the country a fighting chance to halt this epoch’s existential crises. For the crime of pushing too stridently, Turner was voted down at the polls in favor of a candidate whose major promise to voters was a pledge of lockstep fealty to Democratic leaders in Washington.

One obvious takeaway from all this is that cash is still king. In Washington, donors and lobbyists use a system of legalized bribery to convince their patron politicians to prioritize short-term private profits over public-minded policy. In the electoral arena, big money coordinated by D.C. operatives can still flood congressional districts with ads that influence elections, especially low-turnout affairs in which more than 80 percent of voters don’t even bother to cast a ballot.

But the other takeaway is that even in the face of the crises, corporate-friendly incrementalist government is what many Democratic politicians and their voters actually want, or are at least willing to tolerate. Indeed, while there is now a cottage industry in Washington producing polls purporting to show majority support for progressive policies, Biden’s approval ratings among Democratic voters remains sky high, despite his capitulations and betrayals on many of those same policies.

Likewise, the Ohio election — and other similar progressive losses up and down the ballot — show that more Democratic voters than not have been voting for candidates who do not support a robust progressive agenda.

The question is: why?

Party Is Now Identity, And Democratic Voters Are Getting What They Want

One part of the answer has to do with segments of the Democratic primary electorate that are inherently more hostile to the idea of structural change.

Older voters, for instance, tend to be more change-averse. Affluent voters tend to be more conservative on economic initiatives that might ask them to forego a tiny shred of their wealth to help solve big, systemic problems. And the party’s legions of cable TV addicts are conditioned by a 24-7 multiplatform smorgasbord of corporate agitprop to oppose anything that millionaire pundits deem too lefty to be politically viable.

Taken together, it’s a simple truth even if it’s painful for many progressives (including me!) to acknowledge: A sizable portion of the Democratic primary electorate willingly and enthusiastically votes for incrementalism, regardless of how insufficient incrementalism may be in meeting the moment’s challenges.

That reality played out in microcosm in the Ohio special election, as Jacobin’s Matt Karp noted: “Turner won five of Cleveland’s nine black-majority wards and lost four (all of them narrowly, by less than two points). She won the city of Cleveland overall, as well as the black-majority city of Akron (but) the key difference came in the more affluent suburbs.”

Demographics, though, are only one factor — the other was spotlighted in a recent Washington Post column by the paper’s national reporter James Hohmann. Epitomizing Beltway elites’ excitement about the triumph of Democratic incrementalism and corporatism, he writes:

Brown prevailed by embracing President Biden — and celebrating his brand of incrementalism. “This is about making progress, and sometimes that takes compromise,” she said during her victory speech in a Cleveland suburb. “Because when you demand all or nothing, usually you end up with nothing.”
The crowd of grassroots activists cheered the mention of compromise. Democrats who might be tempted to torpedo a scaled-back infrastructure package, on the grounds that it’s not sweeping enough, should listen.
Biden has to be attentive to the left, given Democrats’ slim House majority. But Tuesday’s results suggest he doesn’t need to contort himself to placate the party’s progressive wing — as he’s doing with the extension of the eviction moratorium — as much as they demand or he has often deemed necessary.

The fealty to Biden, the “celebrating his brand of incrementalism,” the vapid Veep-esque reference to “making progress” without mention of what that even means, the fetishization of compromise as an end unto itself, the idea that Biden shouldn’t have to “placate” those who don’t want to see millions of people thrown out into the street — all of this reflects how partisanship has become a powerful identity in the era of identity politics. How loyal one is to the party — how many party-signaling bumper stickers, yard signs, and social media avatars one can flaunt — is now for many the purest form of self-expression and self-identification.

In the context of primary campaigns, that means candidates’ perceived loyalty to Democratic leaders and the blue brand can be a more animating issue for voters than even fundamental differences on core issues.

“American politics, it has become plain, is driven less by ideological commitments than by partisan identities — less by what we think than by what we are,” wrote New York University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah in 2018. “Identity precedes ideology.”

In an alternate universe where party sycophancy wasn’t deemed so important, more primary voters may have seen Turner’s constructive critique of Democratic incrementalism as laudably prophetic, and they may have forgiven her occasionally colorful language — especially at a moment when incrementalism so obviously threatens to leave America unprepared for various apocalypses.

But that’s not the world we live in.

We live inside a corporate propaganda miasma immersing us in television ads, punditry, shitposts, glossy mailers, and 24-7 cable news programming – and all of it blasts political information through the prism of partisan reductionism. Today, a politician is first and foremost judged as either with the blue team or with the red team — nuance is not permitted.

Critical-thinking activists have been replaced by superfans whose color-coordinated pom-pom cheerleading is endlessly amplified by social media algorithms and roundtable chat shows on corporate television networks whose owners have an interest in skewing the discourse. Meanwhile, vast swaths of the population on information overload have accepted the supremacy of kleptocratic oligarchy — and either don’t turn out or just follow the party signals to fill in their ballot.

Inside this noisy sports stadium, earnest criticism is blasphemy, pressure is apostasy, and policy demands are seditious betrayals of the home team that will get virtual tomatoes and beer flung at you by mobs of hashtag-wielding rage tweeters. The result: The earth’s ecosystem is ablaze, right-wing authoritarians are on the march, oligarch landlords are preparing to turn millions out onto the street as soon as they can, the pandemic is medically bankrupting a generation — but what’s still most important to the Democratic establishment and many of its voters is being #TeamBlue.

In Washington, this blue test is a weapon only aimed leftward: You can be a conservative corporate Democrat from a Biden district and openly threaten to derail Biden’s infrastructure bill in defense of high-income tax cuts and still retain your MSNBC perch and remain in Good Standing among party elders. But progressives from Biden districts are cast as heretics if they threaten to withhold votes in defense of climate programs amid an ecological crisis that could cause a mass extinction.

In the context of primary elections, this nihilistic blue test translates into Democratic voter intolerance for those who commit to combating Democratic corruption, promise to improve the party, and pledge to muster “the courage to ask for more,” as Turner politely called it.

Ohio’s election exemplified the dynamic. The groups backing Turner’s opponent blanketed the Cleveland area with ads spotlighting Turner’s past criticism of Democratic incrementalism, depicting her as not sufficiently loyal to the blue brand identity. Despite Turner’s credentials as a former Democratic elected official and two-time Barack Obama delegate, the corporate front group Third Way actually claimed that “Nina Turner is running as a Democrat, but really is not a Democrat” because she had allegedly committed the most unforgivable crime of all: She violated the blue omerta and criticized the party’s intransigence on the most pressing issues of the day.

In response, a majority of the 17 percent of Democratic primary voters who turned out predictably responded by voting for the candidate perceived to be the most loyal to the blue team.

This same thing happened to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary. DMFI PAC, the pro-Israel super PAC that spent more than $1.9 million against Turner, ran a similar campaign against Sanders with messaging meant for partisan cable TV viewers.

The Revenge Of Corporate Politics

To be sure, both Democratic and Republican voters have always tended to support their party leaders — but that solidarity has intensified in recent years, especially among Democrats. In the past, there was some sizable Democratic dissatisfaction with Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter by the end of their terms. By contrast, Barack Obama had near universal Democratic voter approval after a tenure in which he enriched his Wall Street donors while letting millions get thrown out of their homes, and then publicly boasted “that was me, people!” to brag about boosting the fossil fuel industry that is creating the climate disaster.

Now, the trend has gone further: It seems many Democratic voters will judge politicians solely on their perceived fealty to the party’s Dear Leaders. In a neck-and-neck campaign, candidates’ willingness to support a $15 minimum wage or universal health care can matter less than them passing the blue-no-matter-who test — and if you fail the latter because you demanded more than incrementalism, you are likely to fail at the primary polls.

After 20 years in and out of politics working on both losing and winning campaigns, I personally find this reality depressing. But it is important to recognize it, and understand it as an enormous victory for both Democratic powerbrokers and the corporate interests bankrolling them. In stripping policy out of primary election combat, they’ve taken the idea of the party being a servant of voters and turned it on its head — voting for many rank-and-file Democrats is now a populist act of party servitude.

In practice, this new Democratic ethos is a bizzaro version of the old Barry Goldwater line: Incrementalism in defense of party is no vice, progressivism in pursuit of justice is no virtue.

That miraculous transformation is a huge accomplishment for party bosses, and exactly why they are now spiking the football in celebration after the Ohio election.

Of course, internal Democratic politics that prioritized incrementalism during the Obama era delivered Democrats the largest general election shellackings in modern history, culminating in the Trump presidency. For a short interregnum following that collapse, it seemed there might be a corrective shift when a few progressive upstarts managed to eke out surprise primary victories against the party apparatus.

But since the defeat of Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the establishment has rebuilt and fortified a business-friendly politics defined by issue-free appeals to the blue brand. And those powerbrokers now boast the quiet part out loud.

Democratic Rep. Greg Meeks of New York — infamously labeled one of Washington’s most corrupt lawmakers — boosted Brown by saying she wouldn’t “come in and try to break up that unity.” House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., lauded Turner’s opponent for showing “basic, good respect” of the system. He later admitted he intervened against Turner in the Ohio primary not over some honest policy dispute, but because he had a personal grudge over her surrogate, Killer Mike, calling him "stupid" for not demanding more of Biden in exchange for his presidential primary endorsement.

Though one special election shouldn’t be overinterpreted, the results are just another proof point illustrating how Clyburn, his fellow conservative Democrats, and their industry paymasters have deftly constructed a powerful machine well calibrated to preserve the status quo. While this insipid corporatism is still better than Trumpism, it is also true that today’s Democratic politics helps make sure Biden fulfills his promise to his donors that nothing will fundamentally change for them.

But the cataclysms will make sure everything changes for the rest of us. The pandemic and health care catastrophes will not be stopped by appeals to party loyalty. The housing crisis will not be fixed through compromise with Republican politicians, Wall Street executives, and real estate vipers. Democracy will not be protected with paeans to moderation. Climate change most certainly will not be halted by incrementalism.

On the contrary, all of the emergencies were created and enabled by this pathological worship of comity.

The problem is, if you are a candidate who dares to demand the Democratic Party get more serious about any of these comets speeding toward us, then you will be punished.

If that dynamic persists, we all better brace for impact.


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