Wayne O'Leary

Ultimate Distractions

Just when the political left was ideally positioned to stage a political comeback on the national scene, it seems on the verge of throwing its golden opportunity away. Not satisfied to react Pavlovian fashion to the endless mini-distractions offered up by Donald Trump to muddy the waters and draw attention away from his policy failures and outrages, progressives in general and Democrats in particular are creating their own distractions and running themselves off the rails with no help from the Donald.

First, it was the whole overblown controversy about Confederate memorials and the need to banish them from our consciousness, which occupied the early fall; this followed on the heels of several months of radical activism on the campuses to obliterate the memory of any historical figure with less than an impeccable record on slavery or civil rights.

Then, it was the full-bore feminist crusade against sexual harassment kicked off by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, which dominated the latter stages of the fall; this has monopolized the headlines and cancelled out all other news for several weeks — to the ultimate benefit of Trump and the Republicans, whose hard-core followers couldn’t care less about social niceties or seamy moral transgressions.

There are reasons why the left has tied itself up in knots over these issues. For one, its representative political party, the Democrats, is in essence a coalition of social interest groups, racially, ethnically or sexually based, whose needs and desires must be met; that’s the cause of the Democratic predilection (some would say weakness) for identity politics. When it comes to the party’s base support, component parts often seem more important than the whole — a cacophony of voices crying out for recognition and validation.

The GOP, bless its heart (assuming it has one), does not share this problem; it has one combined interest group: the rich and the corporations. Moreover, it does not need prompting as to what that interest group wants, indeed demands. Republicans just know; it’s in their DNA. And they respond single-mindedly, just as they’re responding now on taxes, unruffled by anything like the turmoil and chaos that’s afflicting the Democratic opposition.

The Republican attitude can be illustrated by the unapologetically cynical White House response to recent queries about whether it still supported accused predatory stalker and molester of teen-aged girls (and hypocritical theocrat) Roy Moore for election to the Senate from Alabama. Answering in the affirmative, presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway cited the need to generate continued party control of the Senate and, above all, to pass that high-end GOP tax cut. This ruthless tough-mindedness is what separates Republicans from Democrats; it’s why, more often than not, Republicans win.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, hand-wringing, self-flagellating Democrats are responding to one of their interest groups, organized feminism, by devouring their own — most notably by condemning and figuratively decapitating a talented and shrewd leader of their Senate caucus, Minnesota’s Al Franken, for behavior that, while tasteless at best, pales next to the proclivities of the aforementioned Mr. Moore.

But that’s the Democratic way. The party’s senior leader in Congress, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has been vociferous in her condemnation of both Confederate statues and sexual harassment, but (unless I’ve missed it) has had little to say about Republican tax cuts.

If anything, things have been worse in progressive circles outside Washington, where something approaching hysteria has developed. (Garrison Keillor? Really?) Hollywood is engaged in a witch hunt for male sex offenders, lopping off heads left and right, and in the media capital of New York, extremist opinion borders on the bizarre.

One guest on Democratic-leaning MSNBC, a female contributor to the Huffington Post, maintained that we live in a “rape culture” where “every woman” has been sexually harassed. Still another MSNBC commentator, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, allowed as how most liberal men were sexually piggish, their sole saving grace being they recognize it, whereas equally swinish conservative men don’t.

There’s a vaguely McCarthyite tone to a lot of the current Sturm und Drang. To date, there have been no trials or convictions, just allegations, but that’s proved sufficient for instant, career-ending dismissal. Differences in degree of offense are irrelevant in this environment. Off in the distance, you can almost hear the cries of “J’accuse!” emanating from a ghostly Madame Defarge. As in revolutionary France, there are no gray areas, and accusation equals guilt.

Perhaps Alec Baldwin, actor and progressive hero (he may not be one now) should get the last word on the frenzied distemper and gender politics of our time. According to The New Yorker (Nov. 21), he is said to have tweeted the following to one of Harvey Weinstein’s embittered victims: “If you paint every man with the same brush, you’re gonna run out of paint or men.”

So, how does the left’s circular firing squad regarding social issues play into the narrative of Trump and the Republicans? Let us count the ways. First, it reinforces the belief in conservative America that New York and Hollywood are dens of liberal iniquity, as bad as the mythical Washington swamp. Second, it draws attention away from economic issues (financial corruption, low wages, corporate tax cuts, threats to the entitlement programs), where Democratic and progressive attentions should be honed in like a laser. Third, it discourages the working class and white men in particular from ever returning to the Democratic party.

Trump and his Republicans should be an endangered species in 2018 and 2020, but Democrats and progressives, through their overreaction to the behavior of a handful of abusive men, seem intent on helping them to survive. Steve Bannon himself, eminence grise of the Trumpian right, sees a clear window of opportunity for his discredited ideology through Democratic political mismanagement. The more Democrats concentrate their emotional energies on identity politics, on racial and sexual issues, he is reputed to have said, the better for his side.

Democrats can send Bannon and company packing, but not with a narrowly focused agenda scripted by social media, nor by a moment-to-moment reaction to every provocative incident or headline that arouses one of their constituent interests. They need to stay as disciplined as their opponents, attuned to the core concerns of everyday Americans, or the GOP will simply run the table.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2018


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