Many years ago I was at a party where we were outside on a warm summer night telling ghost stories— spooky things which we had experienced. I had none to tell, but we all got into the spirit of the evening (no pun) and nobody tried hard to debunk any of the stories. There were the usual things— heavy furniture regularly rearranged in a room with nobody admitting they did it, objects flying across a room, a voice coming from an empty room calling out to a married couple, each hearing his or her own name (that one was original, to me at least), a woman falling off a ladder caught by invisible hands, someone waking up to see a ghostly figure standing there (a classic sort of hallucination). ‘
The festival of spookiness concluded with an acquaintance who had a flair for the dramatic, telling a long story which had everyone on the edge of their seats, me included, though in my case I was waiting for the supernatural punchline, something actually spooky to happen. It never came. The story boiled down to this: the narrator had gone into a creepy old house and she felt a little frightened. No objects were moved, no spectral figures appeared, there were no ghostly voices. The story worked because she was a good storyteller and people were primed to be pleasantly scared by all the previous stories.
Russiagate is a ghost story (involving spooks) for liberals. It follows nearly two decades of ghost stories told by liberals which they don’t try to debunk because they want the mood created by these stories. I am not claiming that Russiagate is false— I am guessing it is a mixture of truth and falsehood and hype. But it is part of a genre and is intended to set a mood and you aren’t supposed to spoil the fun. So pretend you are outside on a warm summer evening, ready for some political supernatural horror. Boo.
It all began with the Nader campaign in 2000. Some voted for Ralph Nader, at least in safe states, hoping that a vote for Nader would send a message to the Democrats telling them that corporate money in politics was corrupting the process. Nader also stood against America’s imperial foreign policy. How did liberal Democrats react? With extreme anger. The issues raised were ignored at best and at worst whatever Nader said was denied. The storyline was that what Nader should have done was run in the Democratic primaries, raising his issues, thereby giving them exposure in a way that wouldn’t siphon away votes from the Democratic nominee in the general election and pulling the party to the left. Having done that, he could have then supported that nominee himself. You know, like Sanders would do in 2016. Then everything would be fine.
As for issues, Democratic partisans usually didn’t give an inch. They simply ignored the criticisms and instead heatedly denounced the idea that Democrats and Republicans were similar. They pointed out the differences and accused Nader voters of not caring about poor people who would suffer more under a Republican Administration. They said that progress in our system was incremental and that utopian third party candidates did nothing except weaken the Democrat. They said a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush. You have a moral duty to vote for the Democrat and to be pragmatic. Your Naderite purity came at the expense of the poor. Only affluent selfish white guys could afford this type of virtue signaling. In fact, maybe some of these people were really Republicans in disguise. There were no Russian bots to blame just yet, but clearly some liberals are unable to imagine good faith criticism of Democrats coming from the left.
The terms “ virtue signaling”, “ purity pony”, and of course “White Berniebro” weren’t coined yet, but the the stereotype they describe was formed in 2000. Gore lost and Nader and all his voters, in swing states or not, were vilified. They were worse than Republicans. They were traitors. Of all the factors that caused Gore’s loss, the only one that Democratic partisans really cared about was Nader.
The Democratic partisan mindset in its current form was born as a reaction to Nader. The rejection of all criticism and the hatred of critics, the cries of “ traitor” and the claim that they are pragmatic and understand how to win and achieve progressive results— this all started then. But it just keeps getting worse.
I actually found some of these arguments persuasive. In particular, the argument for lesser evil voting when you know only one of two candidates can win makes sense to me. I don’t think it is a moral imperative the way the partisans claim. It is a tactical argument. But it has some force. Where they go wrong is in their fanaticism. They claim to be pragmatic, but pragmatic people try to argue in such a way that you want to support them. A partisan Democrat has no interest in persuading a leftist to hold his or her nose and vote for the lesser evil. They don’t acknowledge any weakness or flaw in the Democrats and if you point to issues like Gaza or Yemen where many Democrats have been bad (Democrats have improved on Yemen since it can now be blamed on Trump) they simply ignore it. The fundamental basis of their morality is this— Thou shalt support the Democrats.
The anger on open display is the opposite of pragmatic politics. They don’t try to persuade people to vote for the Democrat. They demand it. It is a moral litmus test, or rather, a judgement of one’s very soul. Good people know they have to vote for the Democrat. Bad people vote for Republicans and the very worst people of all claim to be left, but vote for Stein or maybe even voted for Clinton, but criticized her. Democratic partisans have no interest in what you say about an issue if they perceive it as in any way an attack or a criticism of a Democrat. If you are a third party advocate you can forget about being taken seriously on any issue because you have already self identified as a Satanist and you need to be exorcised from the body politic. Even if you say you support the Democrat as the lesser evil, you speak as one of the damned and deserve no mercy. Sanders played the game in 2016 exactly the way people said Nader should have played it and he and his supporters were still dismissed. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made the white Berniebro label a little hard to apply in her case, and one can see how the Democratic partisans are trying in various ways to handle this, sometimes by ignoring her anti-corporate message or by trying to bully her on the Israel Palestine issue. And some say her message won’t work elsewhere, meaning with white Clintonbros.)
All issues are seen through this Democratic moral lens. During the Bush years it was common to see Nader and his supporters blamed for Bush and the Iraq War. The Iraq War was described as the worst foreign policy blunder of our lifetime and sometimes even the mainstream called it a crime. Democrats like Clinton who actually supported the war (she changed her mind when she began her first presidential campaign) were let off the hook. Admittedly Clinton lost to Obama in part because of Iraq, but 8 years later this supporter of every military intervention that came along, including the worst blunder of our lifetime, was being hailed as a foreign policy expert. And of course the Democrats who were so strongly antiwar when Bush was in office simply vanished when Obama came in. Obama could support the Saudi war in Yemen and pretend the attacks on civilians were accidental and there was wasn’t a peep from partisan Democrats.
The same was true in 2014 in Gaza. It is common now to see Trump called a fascist by liberals for his treatment of immigrants, which is fair, but there is comparatively little said about his support for the barbaric policies of Israel in Gaza or the Saudi and UAE war in Yemen, because Democrats are implicated. Democratic partisans are much closer to Republican warmongers than they will ever admit. They will be on the antiwar side of an issue, such as in the case of the Iranian nuclear deal, if it makes Democrats look good and Republicans look bad. They ignore issues where the Democrats may look bad or they join with the warmongers if their fearless leaders are warmongers. Syria is an example. I still occasionally see liberals making fun of Gary Johnson for not knowing about the Syrian/Russian bombing of Aleppo, but in that same time frame liberals were ignoring the bombing of Yemen. Most still do. Aleppo and later the bombing of East Ghouta were treated as massive war crimes. But the bombing of Mosul and Raqqa, as Patrick Cockburn points out, received much less attention and at worst were treated as unfortunate displays of poor targeting. One could have blamed Trump for Mosul and Raqqa, but since it is the US military and not Trump personally which carries out the bombing and persistently undercounts the civilian dead it is hard to limit the blame in a useful partisan way. So the issue is largely ignored.
Which brings us to Russiagate. Whatever the truth of Russiagate, it is a story made in heaven for Democratic partisans whose only foreign policy concerns are about how a given issue affects their party. They have spent decades living in a mental universe where everything that happens is seen in terms of how it makes the Democrats look. Clinton lost an election to a narcissistic, misogynistic, bigoted freak. Rather than question whether the Democrats themselves might possibly have done something wrong, it was easier to blame the voters for being evil or stupid or apathetic. And of course, there was the machinations of evil foreigners attacking our pristine democracy.
A story like Russiagate requires some recalibration of moral norms. Nothing out of the ordinary for a partisan, just the usual swapping of Eurasia and Eastasia. People like Brennan or Clapper or Mueller with their dubious pasts are treated as heroes of the Resistance. Comey is treated by some with disdain, not because he is better or worse than they are, but because he reopened the Clinton email investigation just before the election. But he does say bad things about Trump, so he is a confusing figure.
On issues, the recalibration is easy. Whatever hurts the Democrats is evil, so the hacking of emails that make Democrats look bad is the worst thing in history. The content of those emails, which made the Democrats look bad and also showed how some rich people influence foreign policy, is something only a bad person would talk about and it should not have been reported. Obviously. It used to be that talking to Putin was smart, even if he is a ruthless man, because Democrats like Obama are smart and try to reduce tensions. But now that Putin might have stolen emails and run some Facebook ads and since it seems Russians are allegedly better at using stolen Democratic campaign analytics than the Clinton campaign was, we have to get to Trump’s right when it comes to Russia. It doesn’t matter that Trump opposes the sale of Russian natural gas to the Europeans or that he sold antitank weapons to the Ukraine or that he is inching towards war with Russia’s ally Iran and ended the nuclear treaty with Iran against Putin’s wishes. Trump insulted our universally-beloved intelligence community and this is the only data point worth discussing.
Lefties and others sometimes say that even if all of Russiagate is true, it looks a bit trivial compared to our ongoing war crimes and even the endless number of times we intervene in the politics of other countries, including Russia. I say this myself. The reply is that this is whataboutery. My reply is that whataboutery is a perfectly valid argument to make when a bully complains about something done to him and never takes responsibility for what he has done and is doing to others. If we have or had a functioning democracy before Trump and Putin spoiled everything, then our democracy intervened constantly in other countries, kills civilians with our bombs, helps the Saudis bomb civilians and starve children, supports Israeli apartheid, invades counties on false pretenses, tortures prisoners and nobody is ever held to account for any of it. MSNBC is the TV network for liberals. According to FAIR, they haven’t mentioned our support for the Saudi war in Yemen in over a year.
I don’t have any success to report in reaching the type of liberal I have described. There was a post and a very long thread about this at the nakedcapitalism site which you can read here. I have nothing to add.
PS. I used the term “ liberal” in this piece as something synonymous with “ Democratic partisan”. There are of course people who identify as liberal who are not Democratic partisans blinded by their partisanship. But usually Democratic partisans identify as liberal, and they dominate the conversation in the press and online, so that’s why I used it.