The shutdown is over, and the consensus is emerging. The Democrats lost. They capitulated after getting little more than carefully worded promises from Mitch McConnell. The progressive blame game is under way, complete with accusations of cowardice that read very much like the recriminations following the GOP’s last shutdown in 2013.
But there’s one explanation I’d like to discuss — not because it’s necessarily the consensus view but because it echoes sentiments I hear all the time. Believe it or not, there are those on the left who tell themselves that they lose because they’re just too darn nice.
One of my favorite Washington Post writers, James Hohmann, writes the Daily 202 newsletter, and I find it consistently interesting and informative. He tries to be fair to both sides, and I’ve found his analysis insightful. So I was surprised to see his commentary about the Democrats’ failure in the government shutdown. Speaking of the Democratic effort to mimic Republican tactics, he says this:
The doomed-to-fail strategy was reminiscent of Air America, the radio channel that was created by the left during the George W. Bush era to try to out-Rush-Limbaugh Rush Limbaugh. Not only can that not be done, it wasn’t really what the base wanted. They hated Bush, but lefties also temperamentally yearn for inclusion, civility and dialogue.
One of the reasons that the Obama alumni who host Pod Save America have become so popular in the progressive world is that they did not try to mimic Fox or Breitbart when they launched their show. They came up with a new model. [Emphasis added.]
As soon as I read these words, I was transported back to a moment during my one appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. Joy Behar and Maher lamented that Democrats were “too nice.” They’re echoing a common (though certainly not universal) refrain on the left. Progressives see themselves as tolerant, open-minded, and eager to engage with critics.
Yet this is precisely the opposite of the way conservatives experience and perceive progressive culture. Yes, of course there are progressives who “yearn for inclusion, civility, and dialogue,” but there are also progressives who despise conservatives, attempt to silence conservative voices, and systematically exclude conservatives from the “dialogue” they allegedly crave.
Observe the campus free-speech wars. Is the academy evidence for proposition that lefties temperamentally yearn for civility? Observe late-night television. The cheering, hooting progressive crowds clamoring for more mockery and more derision are hardly yearning for dialogue. Observe progressive political arguments. The doomsday rhetoric directed against policies such as tax cuts or net-neutrality repeal is comically over-the-top. Dianne Feinstein even used the now-tiresome “people die” rhetoric in the government-shutdown debate. Her side lost anyway.
And while there are many progressive pundits who are eager for civil debate, I just spent part of last week fending off a completely false and obscene allegation from an MSNBC host with an immense social-media following; she made the wild claim that I was “in favor of risking nuclear war” because it would “only kill Democrats and minorities.” She later retracted her comments — but notably without an apology.
Air America didn’t fail because it was too mean. It failed because liberal audiences like a different kind of mean than the conservative talk-radio style. Let’s look at Hohmann’s example of counter-programming, Pod Save America. I’m a frequent listener, and it’s certainly an engaging podcast, but when the hosts fix a target, they bring it down with profane ferocity. The tone is a cross between the lacerating wit of Stephen Colbert and the in-the-weeds wonkery of Ezra Klein. They supplement their F-bombs with quotations from Government Accountability Office studies.
There is still deep rage at the way in which lefties who allegedly yearn for civility painted Romney as a greedy, racist monster who was indifferent to cancer deaths and sought to put African Americans ‘back in chains.’
We’re still endlessly debating how we “got Trump” in 2016. But one of the chief reasons is that many Republicans — down to the very marrow of their bones — believed that the GOP had been “too nice,” and that nominating gentlemen like Mitt Romney meant that the party was unilaterally disarming in a no-holds-barred political war. There is still deep rage at the way in which lefties who allegedly yearn for civility painted Romney as a greedy, racist monster who was indifferent to cancer deaths and sought to put African Americans “back in chains.”
No, Democrats aren’t losing because they’re “too nice” or because they yearn for dialogue. The better explanation is that they’re losing in part because their own incivility and rage drive millions of Americans to the polls to vote in perceived self-defense. Their own incivility and rage falsely escalate too many political disputes to matters of life and death. What’s the argument after claiming that Republicans are intentionally killing people? Is there a rhetorical step beyond that?
Our nation is locked in a grim partisan battle. There are reasons that each side wins and each side loses, but for now, excessive civility is neither party’s problem. Rage is our nation’s political fuel, and the Left bears more than it’s share of blame.