Everybody loves a winner. That’s the Donald Trump theory of politics: vote for the winner; everyone else is a loser (or, more specifically, a “true loser,” “total loser,” “stone-cold loser,” “real loser,” or “major loser”).
i. The Party of Winners
There’s always been a Party of Winners in American politics. Their pitch: only the winners are capable of wielding power; if we empower the winners, they will ensure order and progress for the rest of us during uncertain times; the winners are the only ones we can trust to lead the battle against the enemies we have been taught to fear; the winners will turn our frightful foes into losers and we may share in the glow of their victory.
The Party of Winners helped create the winner-take-all social structures plaguing our country today. They cored out an inclusive, productive middle class, entrenching in its place a winner-take-all economy, where the credentialed and connected few live the American dream while the rest of the country suffers under economic insecurity. They traded the ideal of participatory democracy for a winner-take-all government, where the wealthy and powerful few set policy while the public sentiment is ignored or centrally managed. They embrace our winner-take-all culture, where the fascinating and celebrity few hold our attention while the common, accessible forums of community, union, church, region, and neighborhood are devalued, left to decay.
In America today, it sure is great to be a winner. But what should the rest of us–major losers, by Trump’s moral accounting–do in a winner-take-all nation? According to the Party of Winners, we should try to become like them by working to earn our place among the winning few. We should train our kids to fight for finite slots at the top of the economy. We should channel our civic energies into supporting teams of political insiders in the hopes that we may, one day, be welcomed inside. We should move to the coasts and pray for our own 15-minute chance at the other side of the Big Megaphone.
The Party of Winners knows most of us will lose this game. But they don’t seem to mind, for when we doubt ourselves more and we trust each other less, when our insecurity makes us susceptible to outsized fear, then the Party’s siren song begins to lure us in: “Only a winner can solve this. Only a winner can save us. Only a winner can beat them.”
ii. The democratic alternative
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can move beyond this winner-take-all era.
A good time to start is during election season, which should be a time for us to imagine new visions for the future of our country and identify leaders with the integrity, courage and creativity to take practical first steps towards those visions.
This election season, we desperately need an alternative vision in contrast to the one put forth by the Party of Winners. This alternative vision should be inspired by our democratic faith in the constructive genius of ordinary citizens: a vision which affirms that if you wish to find the best ideas, you should visit the outskirts of town, not the shiny towers in the city center; a vision which aims to hold our democracy and economy open so that the present arrangement, including the winners at the top of it, do not get locked into their position; a vision which calls on us to not just rise from the ranks, but to rise with them. Unlike the one put forth by the Party of Winners, this alternative vision is not of a nation judged by the heroics of its few phenomenal heroes. It is a vision of a durable republic continually co-created of, by, and for its extraordinary ordinary citizenry.
Such a democratic vision could fit comfortably within the heritage of the Democratic Party. We were the party founded by Jefferson and formed by Jackson as the democratic alternative to political elitism. We took the populist route out of the Great Depression. We redeemed our originally-narrow view of who constitutes “the people” to become the eventual home of Civil Rights and feminist movement veterans. We best understood the role that the ambitions of immigrants and young people play in enlivening the nation. And, most proudly, we took as our party mantra the complete rejection of the greatest threat to our democratic faith: fear, itself.
iii. Memory, ignored
There was a candidate on stage at the first Democratic Presidential debate last Tuesday who remembered this heritage and gestured to this alternative vision. He had the best line of the night: “The Democratic Party… has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice.” It echoes what he said in his response to the State of the Union nine years ago: “In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy: that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base.” It’s a sample of what he talks about daily in his campaign, which is not aimed at the “hard-working, middle class families” of poll-tested pablum, but rather at everyone who has been forgotten by mainstream politicians:
“If you’re a kid living in West Baltimore today, 10-year-old kid, and you’re in a building where the plumbing doesn’t work and the people that you see making money are the ones selling drugs on the street, or if you’re a kid in Clay County, Kentucky, which is 94 percent white and the poorest county in America, and you see crystal meth problems and unemployment, you’re not seeing the same American dream. And the Democratic Party, for the good of the country, I think, can really embrace people in these situations in a much more affirmative way.”
But this new invocation of the Party’s old democratic faith was ignored on Tuesday night. It was ignored because, in the eyes of the political media and Democratic Party elites, Jim Webb and the citizens with whom his message resonates are not winners. The insiders–those who most needed to hear Webb’s clarion call for the party to give voice to the voiceless again–have bought into the Trump theory of politics: everybody loves a winner; everyone else is a loser. Instead of helping Democrats answer the significant questions of “Where should we go from here?” and “Who is best fit to get us there?”, they ask instead: “Who is our winner?” Webb–a Vietnam veteran, Navy Secretary and United States Senator–is not the answer to their question, so he, like all those ordinary citizens across the country who have been deemed losers by the Party of Winners–the uncredentialed, the politically disconnected, the non-rich and non-famous–should be ignored, kicked off the stage, and, if time permits, laughed at.
iv. Laughing at losers
It is no surprise that Trump spent Tuesday’s debate belittling candidates (@realDonaldTRump: “Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!”) and recommending that they be silenced. What is saddening, though, is that most political journalists and Democratic elites did the same thing. They could not resist joining in on Trump’s game, hoping to feel for themselves the same pleasure he must feel while he bullies “total losers.”
They laughed at Webb for being out of touch with the modern Democratic party. But what is out of touch about being the first Democratic Senator to push for modern criminal justice reform, years before it was popular to do so? Compare that to the debate’s winner calling, in 1994, for more prisons, tougher sentences, and a three strikes law–the exact policies that led to the mass incarceration crisis we face today.
They laughed at Lincoln Chafee for “looking silly” on stage. But what is silly about being the only Republican in Congress brave enough to oppose the Iraq War, a war which killed hundreds of thousands of human beings? Compare that to the debate’s winner, in 2002, failing to muster the courage to do the same, despite having the solidarity of 22 other Senators, including Chafee, voting “no.” What is silly about Chafee being the only candidate to mention the Obama administration’s horrific bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, let alone the administration’s terrorist-producing drone program in general? Compare that to the silliness of the debate’s winner saying that some of her greatest enemies are “The Iranians” and falling silent when asked whether she had anything worth criticizing about Obama era foreign policy. What is silly about Chafee being the only candidate to strongly defend Edward Snowden for showing the American people that their government was acting illegally? Compare that to the debate’s winner saying he should “face the music,” while, earlier in the debate, refusing to answer Chafee’s brave question about the ethics of her own mishandling of classified information.
They laughed at Lawrence Lessig for having a strange plan to use his presidential candidacy as a referendum on campaign finance reform. They even did him one worse than Webb and Chafee: they did not even let him on the debate stage and Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz will not even pick up his calls. But what is so strange about correctly identifying that nothing–no policy initiative that requires legislation–can get done in American national politics until we fix democracy first by freeing Congress from the grip of monied interests? Compare that to the debate’s winner, who–despite knowing that she had to hobnob with the wealthy at dozens of fundraisers before holding her first campaign rally for the rest of us–failed to mention the campaign finance crisis in her debate remarks at all.
They used to laugh at Bernie Sanders, too. But in recent weeks, they have had a hard time doing so, because Sanders has masterfully shown how we “stone-cold losers” can come together and opt out of the Winners’ game. By telling it like it is, by reaching out to people across cultural divides, and by slowly and steadily building up a coalition of citizens who are ready to work to build a constructive alternative, Sanders has revived the most important message of the 2008 Obama campaign: what we need in American politics is not to play the game better, but to change the way the game is played. And unlike Obama, who unplugged his campaign and its participatory call the day he was elected, Sanders at least says that he hopes to spur his civic revival beyond Inauguration Day.
v. The champion
Compare Sanders’ theory of change to that of the debate’s winner, who has presented no theory of where the American people can participate in her plan for change aside from donating money and showing up to vote. In fact, she is not hiding this–the premise of her whole campaign is “the game will not be changed, but I can win the game for you.” She’s made this clear from her very first campaign tweet: “I’m running for president. Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”
But this contrast, and all the other inconvenient contrasts above, were not raised after Tuesday night’s debate, because all that mattered to the political journalists and Democratic elite was that Hillary Clinton showed how much of a winner she was. And everybody loves a winner. And when we doubt our capability to build and wield citizen power against the great public problems of our time, when we live in an era when the continuity of order and progress is uncertain, and when we have been taught to fear our frightful enemy (“the Republicans,” according to Hillary’s debate answer), then the siren song of the Party of Winners lures us in, too: “Only a winner can solve this. Only a winner can save us. Only a winner can beat them.”
Meanwhile, whispering beneath the battle anthem are everyday Americans, still waiting for a party that welcomes them into the corridors of power. Clinton is right, they do need a champion. But she cannot be that champion. Neither can any other politician. For if we are to continue calling our party Democratic, then we must never forget that the champions we everyday Americans need are, were, and always will be ourselves.