Business Insider attempts to make sense of the deep divide within the Democratic Party in the US that leaves those who identify as Democrats in a major metaphysical quandary, wondering not just about their identity but whether they have a claim to exist. In so doing, it demonstrates a problem concerning the media itself, which continues to ask all the wrong questions.
The report reads: “The question of whether the Democratic Party should adopt centrist positions to win back the white-working class voters who fled the party for [Donald] Trump, or to embrace a progressive agenda and rely on a coalition anchored by voters of color and young people, have thrown the party into an existential debate over its future.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In the world of politics, a disagreement about whether a particular “essence” — a defining quality that expresses the vocation of a party, such as commitment to philosophically elaborated principles (e.g., progressivism) or simply getting elected (e.g., electoral opportunism) — can justify the continuing existence of a party
In the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, things that we recognize as real have two properties: their essence, which defines what they are (e.g., their attributes but more significantly, their identity) and existence, which affirms that they have the attribute of “being in the world.” They exist. Unicorns, for example, have an essence — we know what they should look like — but they don’t exist except as cultural concepts, which is a different form of reality since human culture is real but has no objective existence.
Democrats find themselves facing a serious metaphysical question: They know they exist today because there are identifiable human beings who call themselves Democrats and who are recognized by their peers as Democrats. They tread the halls of Congress. Candidates appear on ballots where the names of existing people are printed alongside the title, “Democrat.” For the moment, nobody doubts their existence.
The question is: Do they have an essence that justifies the title, Democrat? Some Democrats believe they shouldn’t have an essence. They should simply be (i.e., have an existence, which means they can be elected to Congress and then vote as they see best on laws). Other Democrats — the progressives — believe they should have an essence in the form of a philosophical stance that serves as a form of conscience. The first group, often called “moderates,” believes that politics is about getting things done, even managing the mess, which essentially means having the power to get things done. The second group believes that politics is about defining and implementing a coherent and equitable vision of social organization, which means using the power to not just manage but overcome problems.
The bone of contention, as Business Insider points out, is the idea of “the white working class.” As with most punditry today, it fails to answer two serious questions. The first is this: Is there such a thing as the white working class? In other words, does it have an identifiable essence? In most discourse in the media, this concept sounds more like the definition of a unicorn: It looks like a horse and has a horn in the middle of its forehead. The white middle class works in a factory with its hands and votes with its emotions.
The second question is this: Supposing the image one has of the white working class is true (taking into account geography, income level, economic history, etc.), does anyone really know what this class wants and needs? Rarely does anyone address this question, since the only issue that seems to matter is how these people vote. And the implicit answer is with their emotion because, according to the politicians themselves, these people don’t analyze their interests and they don’t vote with their brains. Elections are about appeal, not about politics.
And so the media can repeat this kind of “wisdom” to explain why the anti-essentialist former Vice President Joe Biden is ahead of his essentialist rivals: “At this point, Biden is surging because people think he’s electable and they want someone who is able to beat Trump … He has the most name recognition and he’s benefiting from his long standing presence in [the] Democratic party.” Though without essence, he exists over time: “He’s a real person, he’s authentic and that will never change.” There may be a semantic problem with the claim that he’s “authentic” (what human being isn’t?) since one can be an authentic leader or an authentic fool. But we get the point: He’s an authentic, recognizable name or hyperreal presence in a media-dominated world.
Biden exists and — like all human beings thanks to their essence of personhood — will continue to exist until he dies. But the Democratic Party, which has no essence, could disappear, much as both historically dominant parties of the French Fifth Republic have now disappeared after Emmanuel Macron’s third-party triumph in 2017. It’s too early to say whether the Conservatives or Labour will survive the never-ending drama of Brexit in the UK, but both have become shadows of what they once were. When parties have no essence their existence becomes dubious.
The Democratic Party has never recovered from its ignominious defeat in 2016, when it failed to win an election against the most unpopular presidential candidate since the advent of electronic media and possibly the worst, the most incompetent and the most mendacious in the history of the nation. To maintain the illusion of its continued existence, the defeated Democrats had to attribute their failure to an attack by Russians. What better proof of existence than the fact that an enemy has attacked you?
Observers of contemporary history in Europe today have good reason to begin to doubt the continued existence of the Democratic Party beyond 2020, just as they had good reason to doubt the continued existence of the Republican Party when it nominated Trump as its candidate in 2016. Had Trump failed, as almost all pundits expected at the time, the Republican Party would have been splintered, possibly beyond repair. Its leaders who defined its essence — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and even Chris Christie — were humiliated in the primaries by Trump, an impostor who had no business being in politics but whose triumph destroyed the traditional essence of the party.
The resulting election campaign constantly bordered on political farce. It wasn’t a contest to see who people would vote for, but rather who they wouldn’t vote for. In some cases, it was about who Democrats or Republicans would vote against by electing the opposing candidate. Many Republicans could be tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton because she was mainstream, which means conservative, even if she promoted some Democratic cultural memes. Many Democrats could be tempted to vote for Trump because Clinton represented a historical version of the Democratic Party that was totally at odds with its prestigious tradition that included Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy who, in their minds, stood for defending the middle class against the interests of the financial and business elite.
In short, and throughout Western democracies, parties have lost their essence. Soon they may lose their existence.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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