The Montana election, the Democratic Party failure and the progressive success; and some social movement history

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Partisanship at an election rally, with body-slamming and more. A campaign rally in Middlesex, England, 1768. For notes on the image and some social movement (and art)  history, click here.

It seemed impossible to win the Montana special election, and so the Democratic Party leadership chose not to fund Rob Quist’s campaign. But then he came close to beating multi-millionaire, right-wing nutter Greg Gianforte, who won by only 6 points in a state Trump won by 20. The money came in too late. So did Gianforte’s assault on the Guardian reporter who had the nerve to ask his position on the Republican health care bill; 69% of the voters had already cast their ballots.

Gianforte won by a margin small enough to suggest Democrats can win the house in 2018, or come close, according to FiveThirtyEight. You can see this as a Democratic Party loss, but also as a victory for progressives, who once again showed that without serious party backing they can mount a credible challenge in the most Republican states.

Here are a few angles from which people have been evaluating the results — some that may be familiar, but then one that interests me more and that I think needs more attention.

  1. The Democratic leadership, choosing winners and losers carefully to conserve resources, saw Quist as a loser and didn’t fund him. But Sanders and Move-On supported him, and his funding came almost all from the grass-roots.
  2. Bernie Sanders came to Montana to support Quist.

    The election reflects the split in the party between the corporate and progressive wings. Quist identified as a progressive and was supported enthusiastically by Sanders, “Our Revolution,” Move-On, and Democracy for America.

  3. The Democrats are divided in other ways also. Leadership thinks it can win the 24 seats needed for a House majority by targeting Republican incumbents in suburban districts packed with college-educated voters. But this neglects white working class and rural voters, it isn’t the 50-state strategy progressives want and Democratic leadership claims it has adopted, and it could also lose Senate races.
  4. The Democratic Party still is not united behind a “populist” economic message. Quist had it, but was otherwise a problematic candidate and without serious party support. Ossoff in Georgia doesn’t have progressive credentials, and the party leadership is fully behind him, with many progressives coming late to support him. Ossoff’s message is, basically, “I’m not Trump.” If he doesn’t win, his party may have to decide that attacking Trump doesn’t offer voters enough of an alternative.

The broader cultural failure of Democratic strategy

There is another angle that interests me more: the culture war or, if you like, the “two countries” angle. The 2016 presidential campaign led to a flurry of articles describing the US as two countries, deeply divided politically, culturally, morally. Media covered a widespread preoccupation with the apparent impossibility of communicating across the gap between conservatives and liberals. Voters are two populations who look at different news programs, different websites and social media, and see different realities.

We hear a lot of explanations — political, cultural, economic. Here’s one I don’t see talked about, or not in this context: The Democratic Party’s refusal to put campaign resources into Republican-held regions doesn’t just ensure that they will lose a House seat. It has a broader and deeper cultural impact because it concedes the battle of ideas and values to the Republicans as well.

Election campaigning vs. movement organizing

Here we also see the difference between conventional party politics and mass movement organizing. Movement activists don’t just want to change Congress; they want to build a movement that can change the country and the culture — and that means organizing in Republican-dominated areas also. Republican operatives and their billionaire donors have understood the need for a 50-state strategy for 50 years — since they rebuilt their party after their disastrous defeat  in 1964. Over decades the right ploughed huge sums into developing think tanks, media, political and religious networks in the red and battleground states, and even in the suburbs and rural areas of liberal states. You can see Fox News and hear Rush Limbaugh nationwide, and Republicans can win governorships and legislative seats in Democratic states.

Let’s not just blame billionaire dollars, corporate news or the vast right-wing media and institutional networks. Liberals should look at the failures of the party they vote for and contribute to, and the limits of party politics.

For some social movement history and background on the feature illustration (the 1768 campaign rally) see my notes here. Explaining its context brings you a bit of art history — even Hogarth’s uncharacteristic entry into political commentary — but also the English popular radicalism which influenced the American revolutionaries and which shows the precursors of both the modern social movement and the modern political party.

Reply to a reader: Does the right have a “50-state strategy”?

A reader emailed a criticism of this post to me that made me think i should clarify my comment about the difference between the Republican right and the Democrats.

My reader’s comment:

I don’t think the Republicans have a 50-state strategy. They have written off the left and east coasts along with Illinois.  The DNC is writing off most of the south and west.  Proportional Electoral College votes would radically change elections.

What your article doesn’t mention is another strategic focus. Bring back the Obama black vote and mobilize Latinos with lots of black and Latino candidates.  The fastest growing population in many key red states are blacks and Mexicans.  Montana was a white election and race was not very important. But in nearly all swing states race is crucial. If Milwaukee African Americans voted for Hillary at the same % as Obama, she wins Wisconsin hands down.  My guess is the same was true of Michigan and Pennsylvania.  Those who want a  “win over the rural Trump voters” strategy almost always downplay race.  In some things, that is good: healthcare has become a right and Republicans have to argue within that frame, à la Lakoff. A big victory.  This is Bill Wilson’s race neutral approach but it doesn’t always work and at times harms black people — the elimination of farm workers and tenant farmers from social security. Class should not be conflated with race.
I agree with my reader that in elections the Republican Party strategy in the end comes down to conceding some states and targeting swing states needed for an electoral college victory. But I was making a different point, I’m afraid not clearly enough, with my wording, which made the subject not the Republican Party, but the right more generally: “Republican operatives and their billionaire donors have understood the need for a 50-state strategy for 50 years. … Over decades the right ploughed huge sums into developing think tanks, media, political and religious networks in the red and battleground states, and even in the suburbs and rural areas of liberal states.”
My focus was on the right in general  — fairly coextensive with the Republican Party because the party is their vehicle, the vehicle of the “billionaire donors” and right-wing activists to gain control of the state to carry out their various and even sometimes contradictory agendas. To do this, their strategy is not only an electoral strategy, aiming at majorities in Congress, the presidency, and therefore the federal judiciary; and it is not only the federal government and also every state and many local governments. Their strategy is not only political, but also cultural — and cultural in the broad sense. They are not just going after political offices, they want to capture the whole cultural and institutional terrain, and that is why their media networks are so important and why the culture war targets the schools, for instance.
Left of center there is also a fairly developed political identity with defining values, activist networks, donors and media, but nothing approaching the right’s level of organization and influence, together with ability to translate it into political action (voting and more). The right has long been on the offensive in the culture wars and has been increasingly successful in capturing the cultural terrain and weaponizing values to detach working class and middle class voters from the Democratic Party. Of course — the right is engaged not only in a political battle, but in a counter-revolution, rolling back the major progressive gains of the 20th century. That takes a lot more than an electoral strategy and electoral organization.
I write about the Democratic Party a lot — but almost always with a view to differentiating Democratic Party activism from mass movement activism, Democratic Party strategy from mass movement strategy. The right does broad movement and not just electoral strategizing. Of course, there’s a division of labor between the personnel in the electoral apparatus and the people in the many different kinds of right-wing networks, but there is also consensus and coherence between them that is unmatched in the center and the left.

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