2022-08-05 Thomas Zimmer on the Forward Party

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Let’s talk about the Forward Party.

It encapsulates all the fallacies of a shallow “unity politics” that is based on a superficial analysis of what ails the country and offers empty promises of overcoming “division” as pseudo-solutions that are actively harmful politically.  1/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1555544925097414656/photo/1

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): It’s been about a week since the Forward project was announced, and the one reason why I believe it’s worth dwelling on this endeavor is that it puts into stark relief some common misconceptions and bad-faith talking points that are pervasively distorting the discourse. 2/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): A lot has been written about why this project is guaranteed to fail – and not just because of the structural impediments, but also because it has absolutely nothing interesting or innovative to offer. It’s all just bland, tedious “moderate”/centrist punditry canon. 3/ https://twitter.com/jbouie/status/1553015003523039233

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The Forward Party’s diagnosis (“polarization is bad!”) and vision (“let’s do unity in the middle!”) may sound good in a vacuum, but they are entirely detached from the empirical reality of the political situation and the actual nature of the political conflict. 4/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Let’s talk about the diagnosis – both sides are so extreme! – first. It is based on a bizarrely distorted, woefully dishonest characterization of the political landscape. Look at the paragraph below: No major Democratic figure supports any of the positions deemed “far left.”  5/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1555545501717635076/photo/1

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): It’s a big country, and I’m sure there are people on the “far left” who hold those positions. But we should be really suspicious of a political project that can’t distinguish between “I read something annoying on the internet” and “This is a major threat to our nation.” 6/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Meanwhile, all the positions listed as “far right” are basically just GOP dogma, and the imagined “middle ground” is where the Democratic Party mainstream is. I mean, come on, this is just not something a serious group of people would publish. 7/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1555545865934315522/photo/1

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): This type of distortion is the main problem with the “polarization” narrative. Once it’s adopted as an overarching diagnosis, as a governing historical and political paradigm, it actively obscures what the key challenge is – the anti-democratic radicalization of the Right. 8/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Unfortunately, the least controversial thing in American politics is to decry “polarization.” If you do, you will be rewarded with a steady stream of nodding heads from almost across the political spectrum: Yes, polarization! The root of all evil that plagues America! 9/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): It is true that, in an internationally comparative perspective, the gap between “Left” and “Right” (if you’ll excuse the very broad way in which I am using these terms just for a minute) is very wide, and has been widening, on many issues. 10/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): But where that’s the case – say: on guns, pandemic response, the question of whether or not political violence is acceptable if you don’t win elections – it has often been almost entirely a function of Republicans being more extreme than mainstream conservatives elsewhere. 11/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): There are indeed areas in which we are dealing with a rapidly widening partisan divide that is not purely caused by conservatives / Republicans moving right, but also by liberals / Democrats moving left. Two examples: climate change and immigration. 12/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): When it comes to climate change, attitudes have indeed been polarizing, with Republicans and Democrats moving away from each other, largely vacating a position in the middle. But as a political narrative, polarization is still misleading, even here. 13/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The “polarization” narrative implies two things: a) both sides moving to the “extremes,” and b) that this move to the “extremes,” and the widening gap between the two positions that results from it, is the actual problem. 14/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Crucially, though, Democrats aren’t moving to an “extreme” position – they are getting in line with the position shared by nearly all serious experts and political parties in the world. Meanwhile, a sizable percentage of Republicans is drifting further into fantasy land. 15/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): It’s also not the widening divide per se that’s the problem: If Democrats hadn’t moved on the issue, the gap would be smaller – but we absolutely wouldn’t be better off, instead just ending up with fewer people acknowledging the reality and urgency of climate change. 16/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): On immigration, Democrats have indeed moved considerably to the left when compared to the Clinton era in the 90s, for instance. But let’s try not to miss the forest for the trees: By international comparison, the Democrats are very much a standard center-left party. 17/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): More importantly, the “polarization / both sides are so extreme” narrative that Forward is propagating completely obscures the fact that on the central issue that is at the core of the political conflict, the two parties are very much not the same – that issue is democracy. 18/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The social, political, and cultural divides are inextricably linked with the struggle over democracy – the central conflict is the one between a vision of traditional white Christian patriarchal authority and one of egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic democracy. 19/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): That is the fundamental reality of American politics right now: The conflict over whether or not the country should actually be a democracy maps onto the conflict between the two parties - democracy itself has become a partisan issue. 20/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Republicans are willing to abandon and overthrow democracy because they consider it a threat to traditional hierarchies and their vision of what “real” (read: white Christian patriarchal) America should be. Many of them are embracing authoritarianism. Democrats… are not. 21/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): One party is dominated by a white reactionary minority that is rapidly radicalizing against democracy and will no longer accept the principle of majoritarian rule; the other thinks democracy and constitutional government should be upheld. That’s not “polarization.” 22/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Why are people from across the political spectrum eagerly clinging to a tale that so clearly obscures more than it illuminates? Because in many ways, the obscuring quality is precisely what makes it attractive – it is the feature, not the bug, of the “polarization” narrative. 23/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The Forward Party provides a striking example of exactly this dynamic: It relies on the distorting effect of the narrative, its whole enterprise is predicated on that very distortion, on getting enough people to buy into the idea that extremism on “both sides” is the problem. 24/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The “polarization” framework allows Forward to lament major problems in American politics – problems to which they then claim to have the only viable solution –, without addressing the fact that the major threat to American democracy is a radicalizing Right. 25/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): In this way, the concept even provides a rhetoric of rapprochement since it does not require agreement as to what is actually ailing America, only that “polarization” is to the detriment of all. 26/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The solution Forward has to offer fits the diagnosis: Let’s come together in the middle and have some unity. It’s a promise that is both historically illiterate and entirely oblivious of the very real political conflict that can’t simply be reasoned away in consensus. 27/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): What self-proclaimed “moderates” like Yang simply refuse to acknowledge or at least grapple with in any meaningful way is that yes, in a vacuum, unity is good. But in the reality of U.S. history, unity politics has always stifled real political and social advancements. 28/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): In U.S. history, the price for extending democracy and civil rights has always been political instability - or: “division” - because demands for equality are inherently destabilizing to a political order of white elite rule. Careful with your nostalgic desire for “unity.” 29/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Conversely, what reactionary forces have always sought to delegitimize as “divisiveness” is straying from the white male elite consensus to uphold existing political and socio-economic hierarchies, lending legitimacy to the claims of traditionally marginalized groups. 30/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): If one side wants to preserve democracy (a democracy that is severely flawed, but at least offers the potential for improvement towards egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic order) and the other doesn’t, “meeting in the middle” is not a value-neutral proposition. 31/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The fallacy of the Forward approach is captured in their promise that “On every issue facing this nation … we can find a reasonable approach most Americans agree on.” The language of reasonable conciliation masks a radically misleading view of the political conflict. 32/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1555550450866425859/photo/1

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The Forward promise is predicated on the notion that deep down, we all want the same for the country, only disagree on how to get there, but can reconcile our differences and find a consensual solution – a win-win for everybody! This betrays a deeply unserious perspective. 33/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): No such consensus exists. Conservatives pursue a reactionary vision that is fundamentally incompatible with the interests of most people in the Democratic coalition, rejected by the majority of Americans – and therefore increasingly incompatible with democracy itself. 34/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The political conflict that shapes America is very real, and to a considerable degree, it is indeed a zero-sum game, as those who are accustomed to a privileged status are determined to defend traditional hierarchies against those who have traditionally been marginalized. 35/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): The Right has a much clearer understanding of this fundamental reality than many moderates or liberals. They define the political struggle entirely as “Us” vs “Them,” their political identity is defined by a will to defeat the “Un-American” leftist threat. 36/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): That’s why there is no truce or compromise to be had even where, if we are looking at policy positions in isolation, there should be – because all these policy issues are so clearly infused with that underlying conflict over egalitarian democracy vs. traditional hierarchies. 37/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): To be clear, I am not lamenting an excess of “identity politics” - on the contrary, I am saying that not only do these laments have a specific political valence (and tend to transport reactionary sensibilities), they are completely inadequate analytically. 38/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): We are faced with an enormous political challenge precisely because this conflict will inevitably produce losers – or: people who will perceive the loss of privileges they have always considered their right as an outrageous, unacceptable subversion of the natural order. 39/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): Purely in terms of political strategy, there might be different ways of addressing this issue. But simply denying that there is a zero-sum struggle over whether or not America should be / become an egalitarian democracy going forward is not an honest starting point. 40/

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): I don’t think we should put our trust in people who either don’t understand the struggle over democracy that is at the heart of the political conflict – or are so indifferent to the outcome of that struggle that they consider compromising on democracy an acceptable option. /end

Pages that link to this page