Senator Schumer’s teary response on Saturday to Trump’s modified Muslim ban wasn’t namby-pamby. It felt right. Yet Bernard Avishai wasn’t wrong to point out in a piece posted last week at Talking Points Memo that Schumer (and Nancy Pelosi) aren’t made for this moment. Avishai argues Democrats must coalesce fast around figures who can appeal to voters who once supported the party.
The Democratic party, in other words, must have a clear message that speaks to the anxieties of the traditional Democratic voters it lost. And the message needs a tough, plausible messenger: a leader, or small number of united leaders, who embody—in their persons, their logic, their stories, and their demonstrated courage—integrity that advances what they are saying. If the message is right, and the messenger is authentic, you get a winning charisma.
Avishai offers up what he thinks is a winning proposition, though he knows it will upset political pros. He suggests Democrats considering a run in 2020—Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown in particular—announce now. They should agree to run on the same ticket (“It doesn’t matter who’s in the lead. Take your pick.”) and come up with a platform quickly, thus creating “an opposition to which [Trump] can be invidiously compared—an alternative against which every Trump move looks pale, coarse, copycat.”
Avishai’s thought experiment is stimulating, but his angle on the Democratic field is too narrow, too northern. North Carolina Rev. Dr. William Barber II would be a much stronger spokesperson for the Resistance than Warren or Brown. Click on the video below and see if you agree. (You should also check Tim Tyson’s piece on the Moral Mondays Movement organized by Barber—a movement that’s made Barber “the most significant moral and political leader in North Carolina in the last century if not longer, and a significant national figure.”)
"People have always stood up." Rev. Barber talks about hope in Trump's America. pic.twitter.com/IAnn5qq61D
— AJ+ (@ajplus) January 20, 2017
Avishai’s piece was prompted in part by the contrast between Senator Schumer’s Inaugural speech and Trump’s low opposite–a sequence Avishai characterizes as “the worse than expected introduced by the better than nothing.” In the context of Trump’s divisive version of populism, Schumer’s try at knitting Americans together wasn’t contemptible. Yet Avishai picked up on how the Senator’s class talk sounded irreal, zeroing in on one of Schumer’s litanies: “’Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live in wealth or poverty…’ Notice that to live ‘in wealth or in poverty’ meant living in just another demographic.” That sort of imperial mush gives Trump the kind of opening he exploited in the Rust Belt. Avishai is aware Democrats must find a way to reach voters who went for Trump after, say, feeling the Bern or voting for Obama in 2012. He knows neither Warren nor Brown is without flaws but he’s sure both of them sound more of-the-people-by-the-people-for-the-people than Schumer (or Pelsoi): “Democrats, of all times now, cannot go three years with the very leaders who have made Trump seem a relief.”
I share Avishai’s responsiveness to Brown’s gravelly tones but I doubt Warren’s preceptorial persona will seem like a balm to most Americans. Even if Avishai is right to assume her rep for resisting bankers’ imperatives insulates her against the charge of being an insider, I question his impulse to settle for celeb-Senators and a D.C. politics of spectacle. I take it as one more sign of (what George Trow lamented as) “the disappearing middle distance.” Rev. Barber isn’t media-made (and he’ll never represent the thinning of America). He’s down home in that middle distance. Notice how (in his video) he invokes the way the Koch brothers focused on local politics and Statehouses. His felt clarity that democracy is founded on local heroism distances him from beltway types. His local angle on coalition-building calls to mind lessons learned by that other brotherly community organizer. Though, on the real side, we don’t know if Barber wants to follow in Obama’s footsteps. Let’s draft him and find out!
1 I don’t want to sponsor rifts in Resistance to Trump, but passages in Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, underscore why she may not be the best front woman for our struggle. First, there’s her own account of the episode where she claimed credit (in a Daily Beast interview) for sparking Occupy Wall Street. She was embarrassed when that claim became a headline story and aimed to push back until it became clear the interviewer had her on tape asserting: “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what [Occupy Wall Street’s] doing.” Warren allows her “incredible” line sounded “puffy” and “self-important.” A teachable moment, or so one would hope. But other passages in her book hint Warren isn’t the best student of her own life. Her account of her first private lunch meeting with Timothy Geitner (whom she’d repeatedly criticized for being soft on Wall Street) suggests why her presentation of self is extra-iffy in the Age of Trump. Warren explains how she noticed Geitner hadn’t buckled his seat-belt when they headed out for a restaurant in his car…
Like a bossy third-grade teacher I looked at him and said “put on your seat-belt Mr. Secretary.” Like a naughty kid, he looked at me and said: “I don’t have to.”
He explained with obvious pride that the car was bulletproof and that the driver and his partner were highly trained and carried big guns [Geitner has often been called boyish, but I’d call bullshit on Warren’s boys-with-toys riff here. Notice the absence of quotes until…] “We’re safe here.”
“Who are you kidding?” I said. “What good is that if we get hit and this thing turns over a few times and you smash your head against this great bulletproof glass.” I may have raised my voice a little…
He didn’t put on his seat-belt all the way to the restaurant.
Warren then recounts how she had an amiable conversation with Geitner over lunch, in which she embraced the logic of markets as long as there’s a “level playing field.” She implies her interlocutor found her position undeniable and…
On the drive back to the office, Secretary Geitner put on his seat-belt.
Geitner’s politesse becomes an occasion for Warren’s petty triumphalism. The ride to and from that lunch, btw, doesn’t come up in Geitner’s memoir, Stress Test (which isn’t odd since it’s a much less self-enrapt work than Warren’s).
I doubt a pol who recalls with pride an incident in which she acted like a “bossy third-grade teacher” has the anti-authoritarian chops to lead the fight against Trump.