Moderates versus Radicals in the U.S. Democratic Party

We are on the road again travelling through the U.S. to return to Toronto. I have had an intense two days with one of my sons and his family. After a discussion last evening on climate change and the need for urgent and radical moves on the subject, as well as a discussion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the word “concentration” to depict the internment camps on the American-Mexican border, my son emailed me the article published on 25 July by Ben Judah in The Atlantic: “Saikat Chakrabarti Is Building a Millennial Movement.” I do not know the extent to which he shared the views of the author.

I wrote back the following:

An open letter to my son:

A very interesting and provocative take, but with many holes. For example, let me point to four questionable claims of note on first reading, and for reasons of expertise, I will give greater attention to the first claim.

Claim 1:

  1. Nancy Pelosi caved to Republicans and moderate Democrats and agreed to pass an emergency-aid package, skewed heavily right, for the southern border.
  2. Pelosi attacked AOC when she dubbed the internment camps “concentration” camps.
  3. Pelosi’s attacks backfired, harming both moderates and leftists. What began as an intra-party fight over a bill has morphed into anti–Ilhan Omar chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally, a development as alarming as it was predictable—forcing the party moderates to stand by Omar’s side.  

Let me begin with part c), namely that Trump used that event: i) to initiate the anti-Ilhan Omar chants of “Send her back” in order to further divide the Democratic Party; ii) the development was both alarming and predictable; iii) that forced the Democratic moderates to defend Omar.

Where does the author identify any connection between AOC’s use of “concentration” camps and Trump’s attacks of the Squad as a collective or even between the evolution of Pelosi’s criticism into the chants?  At the rally, Trump called for the four to go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Of course, this raised a hue and cry around the world, including in my own writing, concerning Trump’s racism and his ignorance since 3 of the 4 were born in the USA. The crowd breaking into the chant, “Send her back” and Trump’s 13 second nodding acquiescence only exacerbated the negative reaction around the world.

The origins of this behaviour have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what Pelosi, and the author offers no connection, just asserts that there is one. The origins lie in the deep-seated racism in the USA, in Trump’s Republican Party which is joined at the hip with its anti-immigration stance and is based on the presumption that America is essentially a country for whites. Thomas Jefferson proposed sending blacks back to Africa and a black movement to do just that emerged, which led to the creation of the state of Liberia.  Even Lincoln proposed sending blacks to the Caribbean. In other words, in the view of many Americans, America is at its best a place that tolerates blacks but is not inherently black. If blacks are unappreciative, they should just leave. The “patriots” had the same view of dissidents, especially those who flirted with communism.

Were Trump’s remarks and the chant that followed intended to deepen the divisions within the Democratic Party? If that was the intention, the reverse happened – the party rallied around the four congresswomen who were attacked. More importantly, where is the evidence that this was Trump’s intention? A more likely hypothesis is that his intention was to brand the Democrats as radicals. Hypotheses and speculations should not be cited as facts, especially when they are far-fetched and are not connected with evidence.

The development of the alleged effect on the Democratic Party was neither alarming and certainly not predicable since it did not take place. The moderates in the Democratic Party were not “forced” to defend the four; they did what any human with a decent set of values would have done. I defended the four and I was certainly not forced to do so.

Therefore, it was anything but “obvious” that Trump would hijack any division or that he did. To claim that, “it was obvious to anyone who fully recognizes how far American politics has changed since Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel first came to Washington,” is to accrue to oneself prophetic vision and to engage in ageism, the supposition that because of your age and long history in Washington, you are out of touch. This was a mantra of The Donald when he sought the Republican nomination. As is evident from both Trump and the writer, you do not have to be young to be guilty of ageism.

Did Nancy Pelosi attack AOC when she dubbed the internment camps “concentration camps” or did she attack AOC’s use of “concentration” camps to characterize the migration internment camps on the Mexican border? There is a great difference between the two. The first is an accusation that it was a personal attack stimulated by AOC’s use of a term, and the second, that it was an attack simply on the use of the term.

Go back to Pelosi’s comments and I believe that you will see that it was not even an attack, just a well-deserved criticism. And, ironically, it was a criticism of the Republicans doing the attacking while differing – a very different action that attacking or criticizing AOC – with AOC. One could fault Pelosi for taking 2 days to launch her attack on the Republicans, but the depiction is a misrepresentation at best and more akin to a total distortion. The reality: Pelosi refused to condemn or condone AOC’s misrepresentation of the internment camps on the Mexican border and their comparison to the places where Jews were killed by Nazis in WWII. Pelosi said, Republicans “will misrepresent anything.” So will bad writers with a thesis to prove about a Millennial revolution against the previous generation of Boomer compromisers by attacking old politicians who belong to neither generation.  

What about the claim that Nancy Pelosi caved (my italics) to Republicans and moderate Democrats and agreed to pass an emergency-aid package, skewed heavily right, for the southern border”? Can the action she took be described as “caving”? How can a moderate (Pelosi) cave to moderates? Is this not a contradiction? Was the package skewed heavily right?

What are the problems on the southern border? They are multiple.

  1. Migrants cross illegally without going through an immigration process.
  2. As a partial result of 1 above, the numbers of undocumented persons in the U.S. remains very large.
  3. The government (including the Trump government) is revealed as incapable of managing migration, and this incapacity in all countries is the largest cause of the backlash against immigrants.
  4. Those who wish to claim refugee status in the U.S. because they fear for their lives are being denied an opportunity to do so because of inadequate staffing and because some are being sent back to Mexico to wait for a hearing when there is no Safe Country Agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.
  5. The internment of claimants is reprehensible unless they pose a security risk or because there is evidence that they will not show up for a hearing.
  6. The facilities for detention are deplorable.
  7. There is also the charge that the Border Agency is an enforcement and removal agency rather than a migration and refugee agency. In my experience, it is both, as in most countries, and the emphasis on one rather than the other depends on the government in charge.
  8. For those who are compassionate about immigrants and refugees, the task is to work on policies focused on the sending countries, on the countries on route and on the places of reception to ensure both border security and effective as well as humane treatment of migrants and refugee claimants at the border.

What was Nancy Pelosi’s compromise? It should be placed against the background of the Trump partial 2017 shutdown of the American government for the longest period in American history when Schumer and Pelosi refused to compromise with Trump and fund his wall.  Further, the compromise should be understood against a background of certain facts, namely: 1) that the number of unauthorized migrants in the U.S, has fallen against the peak in 2007; 2) that the majority of unauthorized individuals are those who gained entry to America and overstayed their visas; 3) the numbers of those arrested at the border who have crossed illegally at non-legal crossing points are far less than the numbers apprehended in the 80’s and 90’s; 4) they are no longer mostly Mexicans; in fact, more Mexicans now return to Mexico than try to migrate to the U.S. 

However, in 2018, the numbers were the largest since 2002.

There are also perceptual problems. 75% of Republicans believe illegal immigration is a very serious problem (and, falsely believe that most immigrants are in the U.S. illegally) versus 19% of Democrats. But a majority oppose building a wall. And a very high percentage of those opposing the wall do not want politicians to capitulate on this issue.

In the so-called compromise at the time of the shutdown in 2017, the Republican offer to the Democrats included provision for $5.7 billion for expansion of the border wall in return for temporary protection for “Dreamers,” illegal immigrant children raised and educated in the U.S. The Democrats refused the compromise and Trump and the Republicans folded.

In the June 2019 compromise, only 95 Democrats voted against the proposed administration bill and it passed. The bill did NOT include the protections sought for Dreamers and did include providing Trump with $4.6 billion for improvements in the system, some of that money for repairs to existing parts of the wall but no money to build new walls. Simply put, the compromise was a result of excluding both the Dreamers and the funding of the wall from the immigration bill, but it was widely viewed as the Democrats folding this time. Pelosi’s rationale for supporting the compromise: “At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.” The compromise was rationalized on humanitarian grounds where Republicans were holding children hostage to pressure passage. The nay-sayers did not believe that this short-term gain was worth the compromise.

I think the bill was skewed right, but not heavily. It was a genuine compromise motivated by political and humanitarian considerations in opposition to those democrats who thought that the democrats were giving away too much and that better no bill, and no relief at the border, than a compromise for the next 18 months. I think that is a much fairer way to describe what happened.

Claim 2:

“Chakrabarti’s (AOC’s senior aid) cohort is trying to spur its generation to produce not just congressional wins, but broad cultural change backed up by a movement, outriders, and cultural icons. This, they think, is even more important than winning the next election. Because without a movement, moderate presidents will be in office, but not in power. For them it is better to plan to eventually win completely than fall silent, hoping only for a shaky president, with little vision, to scrape together a victory in 2020.”

Though I am not positive, I think this is a relatively accurate portrayal of the position of the radicals in the Democratic Party, that they are willing to sacrifice a victory over Trump in favour of a hoped-for longer term and more fundamental change. The radicals do not want a Democrat as president if the Democrat lacks a vision and an urgent plan of action on such vital issues as climate change.  

The characterization of a moderate as one who will be “shaky” as a president and possess “little vision” is belied by the vast majority of candidates running to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Further, four more years of Trump would be a humanitarian disaster on a number of fronts, most of all, climate change.  

Claim 3:

“These guys are here for the long haul. The Millennial left in Congress is not a faction that needs to be slapped down, but a generation that should be engaged with, brought into the fold, and better understood. This is what a more deft House speaker would be doing. But instead, the Millennial left is being turned into a straw man for Trump to bash.”

The first sentence is accurate. The second is partially accurate, except for the statement implying that the writer understands the radicals and the moderates do not. Yes – engaged with. Yes – brought into the fold.  But better understanding? The third sentence is an insult to one of the most deft speakers in American history. The last sentence is balderdash. Neither Pelosi (nor I in my writings depicting the Squad) have turned the radicals into a straw man for Trump to bash. This is just bad writing.

Claim 4:

“Because too often, the fight between the Democratic establishment and the insurgents on Capitol Hill is really a battle between a plan—admittedly full of holes and errors—and no plan, just a sense of entitlement.”

Again, a calumny – the radicals have a plan and the moderates do not. One might prefer one plan over the other – though, in fact, depending on the topic, there are different plans – there is no coherence on the left or even among the members of the Squad as I have already written. The moderates and the radicals both offer many plans, and those differ within each cluster. One might prefer one combination over another and select a candidate that comes closest to one’s own collection of ideas and priorities. But to say that one has a plan and the other does not, misrepresents both the radicals and the moderates.

Is the identification of Millennials with radicalism helpful? Ayanna Pressley, a charter member of the Squad, is not a Millennial. She is 45.  Pete Buttigieg at 37 could be considered a Millennial and he is not a radical. Excluding Mike Gravel, a very marginal candidate who is 89, I think the average age of the candidates is in the fifties. They cannot be slotted so easily into the generational fight between Millennials and boomers that the author suggests. And the classification moderate versus radical is a gross oversimplification since, depending on the position, there are a spectrum of issues. The use of “radical” and “moderate” does have its use, but not if the use deforms what is going on.  


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