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Bad Takes: Ineptitude and corruption explain Democrats' recent losses, not 'wokeness'

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If Beto O'Rourke makes good on his threat to run against Gov. Greg Abbott, he'd be best served by taking on corrupt elites instead of bowing to them. - LUKE HAROLD / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Luke Harold / Wikimedia Commons
  • If Beto O'Rourke makes good on his threat to run against Gov. Greg Abbott, he'd be best served by taking on corrupt elites instead of bowing to them.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and political analysis.

"If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?" news anchor Will McAvoy, portrayed by Jeff Daniels, asked nearly 10 years ago on the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin's journalism drama The Newsroom.

To that point, corporate Democrat extraordinaire Terry McAuliffe's bid for the Virginia governorship went down in flames last Tuesday in a state Biden won by 10 points. There were a bevy of unexpected Democratic losses from Seattle to Long Island to pick from that same day. My favorite was a Republican newcomer who spent $153 on his campaign and whose official website brought up only error codes, yet he managed to oust the six-time incumbent president of the New Jersey Senate.

Closer to home, Texas House District 118, representing much of southern Bexar County, flipped despite Democrats' best efforts.

This doesn't bode well for the 2022 midterms, which will determine whether Republicans take back control of the Congress. Nor does it enliven optimism in Beto O'Rouke's chances of closing out the reign of Gov. Greg "Can't Keep The Lights On" Abbott.

Should O'Rourke announce his run soon, how will he avoid coming up short again,  as he did in 2018 against Likable Ted Cruz? Will Beto pull another McAuliffe?

Ever-sneering Democratic strategist James Carville's diagnosis of the recent shellacking was as simple as it was crude: "stupid wokeness." But even respectably left-of-center writers noted McAuliffe's candidacy was "clueless and lethargic" from the get-go. In an election dominated by the issue of education, McAuliffe bluntly declared, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." How is further angering parents, understandably frustrated after pandemic-related school closures that lasted a year, the fault of progressives interested in racial justice?

Carville, like so many craven Clintonian has-beens, is a two-dimensional creature: whether a moderate or a progressive loses, it's always because they alienated moderates, so the Left is always to blame. Who can argue with such an impenetrably circular bad take?

A month earlier, the analysis of a more refined Obama-era political consultant named David Shor was all the buzz, and in retrospect, it might seem like foreshadowing. His approach is called "popularism," which basically means that Democrats should only talk about what polls well with swing voters, sticking to policies such as a federal jobs guarantee or anti-loan sharking legislation. He also advises candidates to eschew divisive culture war issues altogether.

Would O'Rourke or McAuliffe have won by simply refraining from bringing up Colin Kaepernick or Toni Morrison?

Should Democrats go to bat for bestselling anti-racist authors like Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who, while not technically Critical Race Theorists, have an appreciable knack for refusing to coddle those whites who believe institutional racism ended in 1965? Or as one conservative pundit suggested, does "the immediate future of the Democratic Party depend on its leaders separating themselves from academic jargon and progressive zeal?"

These questions go deeper than designing focus groups to test out effective messaging. The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act: exactly which of these "woke" policies are Democrats willing to give up on to court white voters without college degrees?

The trouble is not "identity politics" so much as Democrats' lack any coherent identity whatsoever. Biden's glorified coalition is a ramshackle affair held together by the wispy locks of Donald Trump's ducktail — and both are as embarrassingly vulnerable to high winds. To paraphrase the great Mort Sahl, if Biden had run unopposed, he would have lost.

Without Trump's name on the ballot, what do Democrats even actually stand for?
Dems can talk about heading off "threats to our democracy," but as a bonafide practitioner of Critical Race Theory, Ian Haney López has argued that what set Trump apart from old-school Republicans was precisely his willingness to bend the rules to achieve and maintain power. That's what delivered conservatives the judiciary for perhaps a generation.

And if much of the white majority is terrified by the prospect of becoming just another minority over the next 20 years, why would suspending majoritarian democracy cause them to demur? What appears to concern them most is the precarity of their social status and the right to pass it on to their children. Pesky factoids like whether the Jan. 6 rioters coordinated with members of the White House are for them old news.

Which is why we ought to tell them the truth: Trump-style politicians don't care about white people. They care about rich people. Stoking racial division is a time-tested divide-and-conquer strategy of the upper class and their cronies. Every second we waste bickering among ourselves about salacious details or supposedly subversive ideas in school library books, or whether some bathroom rapist was "gender-fluid," means ignoring the massive vacuuming of the bulk of the country's disposable income to the very top while we fight each other over the scraps.

Right when we begin to focus on the promising resurgence of labor strikes, we're carpet bombed on social media with another round of hyperbolic clickbait, featuring some new outrage deceptively edited by the Daily Wire, Project Veritas, Dan Bongino or the "human boat shoe" himself, Tucker Carlson.

When forced to choose between inoffensive reforms that only succeed in kicking the root causes of our problems down the road or race-consciousness to the exclusion of all else, it's important for genuine progressives to reject both alternatives and to state outright what Democrats beholden to their corporate donors cannot — that racism, coded or overt, is a weapon of the rich, and none of us, white or nonwhite, is truly safe or free from looming plutocracy.

Stop obsessing about whether the food stamp recipient in the grocery store line is buying a hot meal — which is illegal — and start asking why we pinch working families' pennies while showering multimillionaires and billionaires with tax breaks.

Hopefully Beto has recognized that the basis of lasting cross-racial solidarity is taking on corrupt elites instead of acting like one. After all, neither Bernie Sanders nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez draped themselves in Kente cloth. If "stupid wokeness" has any meaning, it's as a pacifying theatrical substitute for confronting racism and classism.

Aside from the candidates themselves, the two biggest reasons for Democrats' losses last week are named Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom have bent over backward to excise wildly popular provisions from the now-stalled reconciliation bill.

With Democrats like that, who needs Republicans?

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