This week, Arif and Ben talk about the controversy surrounding the late-breaking Bernie Sanders endorsement for Jon Ossof and how it contrasts with the easy endorsement he gave Heath Mello. From there, they engage in a wider discussion about the pragmatic implications of demanding ideological purity and how it relates to primaries and general elections.

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Episode Notes

Despite the fact that DailyKos withdrew their support for Heath Mello, they do have an interesting piece arguing in favor of campaigning of Mello—arguing that he’s not a “pro-life” candidate in the same respect as he’d been characterized. Mello is evidently biting the bullet and has promised he won’t infringe on reproductive rights while in office. His role as a mayoral candidate also makes the impact far smaller than as if he were in the House of Representatives.

The book that Ben mentioned on the podcast is Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. You can find it on Amazon, or read various summaries around the web. Matt Taibi digs down at Rolling Stone on the book, who concludes that the book is more about establishment politics than Clinton herself, though he does reiterate the first chapter’s point about a lack of a coherent vision. It’s not great:

Our own voters “largely” don’t think your real reason for running for president is evil qualified as good news in this book. The book is filled with similar scenes of brutal unintentional comedy.

Vox (of course) has their own explainer but reveals an unusual set of conflicting arguments that buttress the book’s arguments:

This thesis rests on two arguments that are fundamentally in tension. One is that the allegedly best and the brightest of Clinton’s campaign fell short because they failed at marketing an otherwise winning candidate — that unforced strategic blunders, factional infighting, and boneheaded investments torpedoed a Democratic nominee who, in the hands of some better staff, would have swept to the White House.

The second main argument Shattered makes is that Clinton herself was a flawed candidate whom no campaign team could have saved. This argument hinges on the idea not that Clinton was failed by her staffers, but that she failed them by never articulating a political vision they could use to capture the public’s imagination. It is in uncovering proof of this second thesis where the book is both most persuasive and most arresting — and where its lessons for the Democratic Party are the most salient.

For the most part, the book doesn’t tell us larger arguments that we didn’t already believe. Without having read any summaries of the book, I had made the same arguments in the podcast above—that one of the fundamental problems with the campaign was resource distribution, and that Clinton lacked a salable vision for the future. Vox might make the best arguments about the book, which is that it sensationalizes aspects of the campaign that didn’t impact the outcome (all campaigns have infighting, and the opposition campaign likely had more) and that it doesn’t substantiate some of its most important points.

Nowhere is the attention to campaign ephemera more aggravating than in the book’s endless of discussions of the rival “power factions” within the campaign. The authors write breathlessly about how, despite Clinton’s desperation to avoid the public infighting that marred her 2008 presidential bid, there was ceaseless warfare between the “old guard” of Clintonites, the “data-driven” millennial set of numbers crunchers, and the bevy of other Clintonworld hangers-on and political hands. “The practical implications of the dysfunction at the top of the campaign were felt throughout the ranks,” they write, without citing any real evidence for the sweeping claim. A few different chapters go into tensions between Mook and John Podesta, the campaign’s vice chair and a member of the “old guard.”

Political science is rife with studies on protest voting and professors clamoring to create models that best capture the incentives to vote and the intended consequences of voting. This paper here might be the best model, but I couldn’t find any studies with clear conclusions on whether or not protest voting actually had an impact.

This piece on Politico substantiates the argument made in the podcast that the Green Party of 2000 was committed to winning locally as much as they were to winning globally. That Politico piece quotes Nader as arguing that the Green Party didn’t move the Democrats to the left, and Nader argues that his failures led to Bernie Sanders’ campaign strategy:

If his run didn’t expand the influence of the Green Party, Nader concedes that it also failed to push the Democrats to the left in the following election. “That’s how deeply degraded and mired they are in the corporatist mentality,” he said of the Democrats. So what did his campaign accomplish? Nader told me that one of his campaign workers became mayor of Richmond, California, and others “went into politics at various levels.” The campaign, he said, “helped produce some waves that eventually lapped up on the shores of Occupy. A lot of Occupy people really were young interns in some of our groups.”

Ultimately, though, Nader’s most powerful example was negative, providing Bernie Sanders with a template of what not to do. Sanders, Nader said, is “obsessed by the way I was shunned. He hasn’t returned a call in 17 years. He’s told people 100 times he didn’t want to run a Nader campaign.” Determined not to be marginalized as Nader was, Sanders worked within the Democratic Party instead of going to war with it.

I’m not sure Nader is a reliable source for whether or not the party moved leftward, because I think it has—just not because of Nader. There’s evidence in the Politico piece that there was more backlash than there was responsiveness, and though I don’t think that will be the result of the Democrats’ response to Sanders, it is worth noting that that could have just as large an impact as anything. There’s also the question of why Ross Perot didn’t move Republicans to the center—Perot was aggressive about cutting the budget and regulations and in favor of free trade, but he was also pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-international aid. He wanted to expand voting access and was in favor of gun legislation.

The Democratic Party Platform certainly moved to the left. The Nation has a fantastic account of what it was like to be inside the process that crafted the platform.

We mentioned a Vox piece previewing a Hillary Clinton presidency and the idea of “listening.” This could have been a phenomenal pivot point for the party to craft a vision and message to organize around and mobilize voters.

Laurie Rubiner, who served as Clinton’s legislative director from 2005 to 2008, recalls being asked to block out two hours on the calendar for “card-table time.” Rubiner had just started in Clinton’s office six weeks before, and she had no idea what card-table time was, but when the boss wants something put on the calendar, you do it.

When the appointed day arrived, Clinton had laid out two card tables alongside two huge suitcases. She opened the suitcases, and they were stuffed with newspaper clippings, position papers, random scraps of paper. Seeing the befuddled look on Rubiner’s face, Clinton asked, “Did anyone tell you what we’re doing here?”

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

Her process works the same way today. Multiple Clinton aides told me that the campaign’s plan to fight opiate addiction, the first and most comprehensive offered by any of the major candidates, was the direct result of Clinton hearing about the issue on her tour. “Her way of dealing with the stories she hears is not just to repeat the story but to do something about the story,” says John Podesta, the chair of Clinton’s campaign.

There was also a discussion of George Lakoff and the impact of language and framing on elections. A neurolinguist that specializes in political messaging, Lakoff seeks to replace the conservative messaging establishment with a more scientific approach to imagery and emotion. He has an interview in Salon here. It’s well worth a read.

After “Don’t Think of an Elephant” was published, you got a lot of attention but your message really didn’t sink in. I think it was largely because of what you said above — what you were saying simply didn’t fit into the Enlightenment worldview that Democratic elites took for granted from their education.  

When I started teaching framing the first thing I would tell the class is “Don’t think of an elephant,” and of course, they think of an elephant. I wrote a book on it because the point is, if you negate a frame, you have to activate the frame, because you have to know what you’re negating. If you use logic against something, you’re strengthening it. And that lesson was not understood. So if people think in terms of logic — it’s a mistake that’s made every day on MSNBC — you go on there and you’ll get people saying, “Well, you know, Trump said this, and some Republicans said that and Jeff Sessions said this and here are the facts that show they’re wrong.” You just keep repeating the things that you’re negating. And that just strengthens them.

. . .

There are other things that need to be said that progressives don’t say because they don’t really understand how framing works. Framing is not obvious. People read “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” they got some of the ideas, but when they tried to apply it, it turned out it’s not so easy to apply. You need some training to do it, and you need some ideas.

For example. Trump said we’re going to get rid of regulation, when there’s a new regulation we’re going to get rid of two for every new one that comes in. But what are regulations? Why do people have them? They’re there for protection of the public in every place. Why do you have environmental regulations? To protect against pollution and global warming and so on. Things that are harmful. Why do you have an SEC regulation? To protect investors, and protect people who have mortgages. Why do you have food and drug regulations? To protect against poisons. This is important. You’re protecting against corporate malfeasance. Corporate harm to the public. When they say, “We’re getting rid of these regulations, no one reports in the media, “They have gotten rid of protections, and they’re going to get rid of more protections!”