Parts of the Democratic left are threatening to burn down the house because they don’t get to sleep in the master bedroom

They should reconsider.

In my prior post, I noted that some progressives seem to be blaming their fellow Democrats for not doing more to protect abortion rights.  This “blame the Democrats” strategy may generate clicks, but it’s hard to see what else it will accomplish, other than demotivating Democratic voters.

Unfortunately, the “blame the Democrats” strategy is very popular in some quarters of the progressive left.  It recently reached its fullest expression – the perfect earthly embodiment of its true Platonic Form – in a recent article by David Sirota in Jacobin.  Sirota attributes consummate bad faith to Biden and the Democrats, ignores the real challenges of governing in a two-party political system with polarized voters and multiple veto points, and plays fast and loose with facts to bolster his “blame Democrats” narrative.  Let’s take a look at this masterwork of dissembling and self-sabotage.

Here’s the lede:

By making big promises and then steadfastly refusing to deliver on them, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s power brokers are helping Republicans convince the country that government and politics can’t make life better for average people.

OK, so right off the bat we are told that Biden and Democratic “power brokers” are in cahoots with Republicans to persuade people that government cannot accomplish anything worthwhile and they just need to suck it up and live with it.

I’m going to become the Joker” is some of the Internet’s most poignant shorthand. Referencing Todd Phillips’s 2019 film noir, the phrase describes becoming so thoroughly disillusioned that one loses faith in everything. . . . both parties’ leaders have accepted Jokerfication as the new permanent normal, and the Biden White House is actively convincing a generation to believe nothing will fundamentally change.

The timing of this tailspin couldn’t be worse: an America still reeling from the meltdown of the early Obama years, the Trump presidency, and the pandemic seemed ready to hope against hope that Democrats’ unexpected Washington trifecta would provide one last opportunity to put the country back on track. For a brief moment, Democrats would have the lawmaking power to mitigate at least one of the myriad stresses — health care, housing, education, retirement, and climate survival — that working-class Americans must worry about every day.

This is a misleading replay of history.  In 2020, Democrats did not score an “unexpected trifecta” that provided “hope against hope”.  Instead, they ran on a fairly progressive platform and were expected to win a slim majority in the Senate and a significant majority in the House.  Then Democrats underperformed the polls.  The result was that while they nominally controlled Congress after eking out two victories in Georgia Senate runoffs, they clearly lacked the ability to fulfill most of their progressive campaign promises.

With the government barely in their control, Democrats had two basic strategies to choose from:  they could embrace bipartisanship and try to notch some very modest victories, or they could try to pass a more expansive agenda through reconciliation.  They chose reconciliation, and then refused to acknowledge the obvious reality that Manchin and Sinema had all the bargaining power.  This led to months of haggling and gridlock, which got blamed on Democrats, since they were nominally in charge and the media spent hours and hours covering internal Democratic bickering.  Once Biden’s approval fell due a combination of Afghanistan, COVID, inflation, and gridlock, the prospects for reform dimmed further.  Inflation was a particular problem for the progressive agenda because it strengthened the hand of those opposed to increased spending. 

President Joe Biden started out in a much different direction. Right after being sworn in, he signed an American Rescue Plan that rejected President Barack Obama’s top-down bailouts for bankers, and rightly provided direct economic aid to millions of non-rich people. As poverty subsequently dropped, Biden’s poll numbers temporarily skyrocketed, seemingly halting the ascent of Republicans’ authoritarian mob.

This is a fairy tale.  Biden’s poll numbers did not “skyrocket” due to passage of the American Rescue Plan.  It’s not clear that they changed at all.  You can see Biden’s approval numbers here; the ARP passed on March 11, 2021.

But now less than seven months before the midterm elections, things have stalled, and Biden seems intent on accelerating — rather than combating — a rising tide of disillusionment.

Tossing the GOP a lifeline, he has reverted to his familiar formula that some warned about during the Democratic presidential primaries: amid intensifying crises, he promises big changes that could help the working class — and then prevents those changes from actually happening.

. . .

The baiting and switching is a feature, not a bug — a deliberate strategy predicated on a corporate media ecosystem that ignores the gap between White House rhetoric and action.

Ensconced in a bubble of blue-wave emojis, Team Blue hashtags, and genuflecting punditry, Biden and his staff likely assume they can rhetorically placate voters and yet enrich the Biden campaign donors crushing those voters — and they expect nobody will catch on to the ruse. They appear to assume that as a pile of unsigned executive orders sit in the Oval Office, voters will believe his media loyalists’ claims that “there’s just not much President Joe Biden can do” about anything.

But despite the dearth of accountability journalism, the public seems to sense the gaslighting: Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting and anti-government sentiment has spiked as his strategy Joker-pills the country.

Got that?  Biden makes promises and then deliberately sabotages progress to enrich donors who are “crushing” voters.  It’s this deliberate “baiting and switching” or “gaslighting”, rather than Afghanistan, COVID, inflation, and gridlock that is driving down Biden’s approval ratings.  I’m not saying disappointment in the gap between campaign promises and legislative accomplishments is completely irrelevant.  But it’s not the most important problem facing the Democrats right now, and it’s absurd and self-defeating to attribute the gap between campaign promises and legislative accomplishments to deliberate “gaslighting” rather than the real difficulties of getting anything through a closely divided Congress. 

Sirota goes on to give a list of “bold promises and even bolder betrayals” by Biden.  My favorite is Sirota’s attack on Biden for “using his executive authority to ramp up methane-emitting natural gas exports” which links to this:

The Biden administration said Tuesday that it would issue orders that expand the amount of liquified natural gas (LNG) that it exports as Europe seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian gas.

Biden is doing his best to hold the NATO alliance together in the face of Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression.  Meanwhile, Sirota thinks it is intolerable that Americans are getting “pulverized” by inflation, but our European allies should be forced to freeze in their homes and have their factories shut down if the Russians decide to cut off gas exports in response to European support for Ukraine.  Clearly a brilliant moral and strategic thinker is at work.

Sirota also criticizes Democrats for abandoning their plan to raise the minimum wage:

Biden promised to enact a $15 minimum wage, and then he and his party promptly abandoned that initiative, never to be heard from again.

This makes it seem like Democrats simply decided to break a campaign promise.  But a minimum wage increase could not gain 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, and the Senate Parliamentarian had ruled that an increase in the minimum wage could not be included in a bill passed through reconciliation.  Wyden and Sanders had floated a plan to use tax incentives to force large corporations to implement a higher minimum wage, but they dropped it amid uncertainty about whether it would pass muster with the Parliamentarian and concern about using a poorly vetted Rube Goldberg tax plan that would have left workers in smaller businesses disappointed and might well have been gamed by larger businesses with their clever tax lawyers.  I suppose we can debate whether this was the right decision all things considered, but it is hardly evidence of nefarious motives.

Of course, in Sirota’s telling it’s not just Biden who is selling voters down the river.  It’s also Manchin and Sinema, Pelosi (Congressional stock trading), Democratic house members representing affluent suburbs (demanding SALT deductions), Democratic governors (giving up on single payer health care), and even the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Senator Bernie Sanders (too deferential to Biden).  One gets the impression that Sirota will charge Democrats with corruption unless they somehow manage to do exactly what he in his infinite wisdom regards as best.

Sirota is not wrong about everything.  The failure of Democrats to enact most of their agenda is demoralizing.  He believes that the only way forward for the Democrats is to “start delivering for the working class.”  Sure, that would be great, but if “delivering for the working class” means eliminating SALT deductions that some Democrats in a closely divided Congress will not support, telling Europeans to freeze to death in the dark while Biden is trying to unify NATO against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or fighting like hell for a half-baked plan to raise the minimum wage that might not pass muster with the Senate Parliamentarian and might well have worked poorly if it passed, maybe “delivering for the working class” is not as easy as writing a clever essay about “jokerfication”. 

The simple fact is that Democrats lack the votes to deliver much of anything, in part because of the filibuster, and in part because they are internally divided.  But instead of explaining this to his readers, Sirota attributes Congressional stalemate to the corrupt motives of all elected Democrat and suggests that Democrats are deliberately playing their voters for suckers.  If there is a better way for a pundit to demoralize voters and depress Democratic turnout, I haven’t heard it.

The simple truth is that Democrats can’t deliver unless they win larger majorities, a daunting task with our highly polarized electorate and a political system that strongly favors Republican constituencies.   Sirota could help to figure out how Democrats can enlarge their coalition.  He could educate his readers about the real difficulties of making policy in our broken democratic system and prepare Democrats for a prolonged struggle for economic and social justice, a war of attrition with hard-won incremental progress rather than a “revolution”.  He could focus on Republican intransigence and obstruction rather than attributing stalemate to the corruption of Democrats.  Instead he seems intent on persuading Democratic voters that there is no reason to go to the polls.

With progressives hearing from strategic masterminds like Sirota, the Republican disinformation apparatus can take this cycle off.