Political analyst Jeff Greenfield asks us to imagine a future in which the Democrats lose a couple of seats in the Senate and fail to take a majority in the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterms. He then suggests a cause for this fiasco.
But should that Democratic disaster come to pass, a good deal of the explanation would lie in an aphorism often misattributed to Voltaire: “I can take care of my enemies, but Lord protect me from my friends.” Some of the most damaging blows to Democratic hopes this year are friendly fire.
I immediately nodded my head in agreement and anticipated that Greenfield would go on to admonish Democrats who are still battering each other over their support for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, or maybe even Jill Stein. But that’s not where Greenfield was going. Instead, he identified the main culprits as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who was appointed by a Republican, an anonymous staffer at a Planned Parenthood chapter in Pennsylvania who sent out a provocative tweet, and the cable news programs, particularly on CNN, that focus too much attention on the Russia investigation and not enough attention on the actual consequences of some of the Trump administration’s policies.
Greenfield does have some points to make. We’ve seen the Republicans badly underperform in midterm elections because their candidates have said some intemperate or simply crazy things. Random Republican activists and media personalities make comments all the time that are unhelpful to their party’s cause. And Lord knows the right-wing media bubble can lead conservatives very far afield from a rational appraisal of where the voters are on any number of issues. Certainly, the Democrats can and do make the same kinds of mistakes and suffer from similar vulnerabilities that could diminish their chances of having a fully successful election night in November. I don’t doubt that John Paul Stevens’s call to abolish the Second Amendment is a gift to a lot of Republican office-seekers.
On the whole, though, the gun issue is shaping up to be a positive for the Democrats because it’s mobilizing the youth vote in a way we haven’t seen since perhaps the Vietnam Era. And, in any case, how am I or anyone else supposed to prevent people like John Paul Stevens from speaking their mind?
Other than a standard admonishment to people to think before they speak, I don’t see much value in Greenfield’s warning here. He’s probably on firmer ground when he suggests that the Democrats shouldn’t put all their eggs in Robert Mueller’s basket, but the people on the ground getting campaigns up and running and organizing voter mobilization efforts are not spending their time watching cable news. They don’t have any control over what Mueller does or doesn’t do and they aren’t waiting on him.
What Greenfield doesn’t note is that the left is doing the most harm to itself by willingly participating in an effort to depress turnout by picking fights with people who are broadly on their own side. As the Russian effort to interfere in our elections is re- and deconstructed more and more each day, we’re learning how they feverishly worked to prevent reconciliation between Clinton and Sanders’ supporters. They took some of the more heated ideological battles on the left, like the Black Lives Matters movement, and weaponized them to pull socially conservative Democrats out of the coalition. They sought to depress black turnout, to prevent socialists from holding their nose and voting for more of the same, and looked to exploit leftist critiques of capitalism and American foreign policy to promote apathy and third-party voting.
These are weaknesses and fissures on the left that are to some degree always with us, but the best time to wage ideological battles is when you’re already in power and trying to decide what to do with it. When you’re out of power, these wars are a luxury the left cannot afford. That doesn’t mean that people can or should stop fighting for what they believe in, but they need to be self-aware about how their actions can be self-defeating and a great aid to the opposition.
Avoiding simple errors can be a high-wire act. It’s not helpful to tell people to shut up, to stand for the national anthem, to show support for the Second Amendment, to tamp down their support for transgender people, or to show some restraint in their their advocacy of abortion rights. Yet, it’s not a bad idea to recognize that these issues are not political winners in many states and districts and to give people some freedom to craft their own campaign messages and themes. Probably the easiest way to look at this is as a matter of using your energy and resources efficiently and avoiding doing the work of your adversaries for them. Why pick fights with people on your side of the broader fight to take back control of Congress from the Republicans? Is it the best use of your time to sling insults at Bernie Sanders supporters you encounter on social media, knowing that you’ll need them to turn out to vote? Or, if you are a Bernie Sanders supporter, do you really need to continue to bash Hillary Clinton and her supporters? What good does it do?
Likewise, if you’re trying to get a Democrat elected in a conservative district or state, why waste time and energy complaining that someone somewhere said something that’s going to be useful for the other side? If you’re an ideologically purist liberal, do you really need to police every Democratic candidate in the country for evidence of apostasy?
The other side (and the Russians) will once again spend much of their effort this year trying to get Democrats to pick fights with each other in an effort to hurt turnout. Why would you willingly do their work for free?
Greenfield doesn’t have the right critique. The solution isn’t to hopelessly attempt to control what other people say. Look to yourself, first. You have control over what you do, so that’s where your focus should begin. Are you being helpful or are you creating a disincentive for someone to work with you on your common goals? Are you getting someone to vote or basically making yourself an uncompensated cog in the Republicans’ apathy campaign?
The left will always fight with itself, but it must do it in an intelligent way. And that starts with each individual making sure to focus their energies where they will help rather than hurt.