It’s long been a complaint of the American left that establishment Democrats don’t truly understand their own voters, and have spent the last three decades compromising their alleged principles—a euphemism for “slowly moving to the right and giving up everything they’re supposed to stand for”—as Republicans bully them into submission. Leaders on the right have fought without remorse or shame for the exact policies they want (all of which amounts to more money for the rich), using dirty tricks when necessary, but Democrats have lacked the courage to deliver a populist message to counteract them. The dual faces of this failure in Congress are Chuck Schumer, the minority leader of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House. Last night, their role was to deliver the rebuttal to Trump’s “humanitarian crisis” propaganda speech.
You can watch that rebuttal here:
On a superficial level, it wasn’t much of a coup—they both looked stiff, and their tone and cadence was reminiscent of nothing more than a pair of cold grandparents lecturing a child. They purposefully avoided the word “lies” when referring to Trump, going instead for “misinformation,” and you can see their desperate desire to be cast as the “reasonable” party—so much so that there’s not much oomph or fight in the presentation.
As to the words themselves, while they contradicted Trump’s claims on a surface level, they implicitly endorsed his worldview by attempting to argue against him using his own prejudices.
For example, take one of Pelosi’s first statements:
The fact is: On the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to re-open government and fund smart, effective border security solutions.
Not to diminish the importance of so-called “border security,” but here Pelosi made her priorities clear: “We did what the Republicans wanted,” she effectively says, “it’s just that Trump is a bad Republican.” She does not argue for the humanity of the poor people trying to cross into the United States, or condemn the bigotry of Trump’s attempt to paint them broadly as terrorists and rapists and murderers and every other species of criminal. Instead, Pelosi is appealing to the imagined beliefs of an “ordinary” American—ie, someone white, and possessing at least a few of the watered-down prejudices Trump broadcasts on a daily basis. Instead of “immigrants are not bad people,” she went with a display of her own apparent toughness on border security, which concedes ground to the Republicans right from the start by painting those immigrants as invaders.
The fact is: President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation – many of them veterans.
Why the added “veterans” part? Surely it’s bad enough that the workers are being harmed regardless of who they are without putting in this added caveat that seems to imply that veterans are a special class of American, and mistreating them is somehow a greater crime than stiffing an ordinary joe…right? Veteran’s rights are an important issue, but the fact that Pelosi mentions them alone here is another tip-off—she’s speaking, fundamentally, to a voter with perceived Republican prejudices. “We won’t make them angry enough by pointing out that workers have been screwed,” you can imagine her thinking, “so we’ll really stoke their outrage by pointing out that a few of the workers are veterans.”
She may well have said, “and many of those workers…own puppies.” When mentioned alone, ignoring the other groups this shutdown hurts, it’s cheap and manipulative.
The fact is: We all agree we need to secure our borders…
In fact, we don’t all agree on that, though Pelosi would never deign to even recognize a position that deviates from the center-right.
The fact is: the women and children at the border are not a security threat, they are a humanitarian challenge – a challenge that President Trump’s own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened.
This is the one decent part of her speech, but even then it’s qualified—the women and children, apparently, are the only decent ones. Again, it’s a patronizing pull at the heartstrings, and it glosses over the critical point: The men are not a security threat either, anymore than any U.S. citizen, and immigrants as a class don’t deserve to be demonized wholly or in part.
Then it was Schumer’s turn:
Make no mistake: Democrats and the President both want stronger border security. However, we sharply disagree with the President about the most effective way to do it.
Again, why must he concede Trump’s perspective here? Why say “we all want stronger border security” when in fact it’s a crisis wholly manufactured by the right to stir up racial resentment? Why not instead discuss immigrants as human beings facing grave challenges, instead of lazily accepting that they’re an occupying force that needs to be defeated by better robots, or dogs, or x-rays, or something?
There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference. Federal workers are about to miss a paycheck. Some families can’t get a mortgage to buy a new home. Farmers and small businesses won’t get loans they desperately need.
Again, as with Pelosi, we see Schumer’s unquenchable need to phrase things in Republican terms. Who, in his mind, does the center-right voter fetishize? Farmers, small businessmen. Pelosi chose veterans, but it’s all the same—they have to seek out and identify a special class of people, as though causing them pain is somehow a greater outrage. They are, in this telling, worth more.
My fellow Americans, there is no challenge so great that our nation cannot rise to meet it. We can re-open the government and continue to work through disagreements about policy. We can secure our border without an expensive, ineffective wall. And we can welcome legal immigrants and refugees without compromising safety and security.
Overall, Schumer’s words are less offensive than Pelosi’s, but it doesn’t take much to detect the subtle concessions to a Trumpian/far-right worldview. Here, though he does mention refugees, he still stresses the need to “secure” the border, which contradicts his previous claim that Trump is manufacturing a crisis. Why not call it out for a blatant lie and argue vociferously in opposition, rather than accepting the premises of the argument while quibbling with the conclusion?
If these people are our leaders, who is arguing for the American left?
The answer is Bernie Sanders, among others. They wouldn’t let him anywhere near a TV network, but he gave his response on YouTube, and it hits all the notes Pelosi and Schumer could not.
Look at his opening salvo:
President Trump has stated tonight, and, over and over again in recent weeks, that this country faces a national emergency. Well, he’s right. But it’s an emergency and a crisis that he himself has created.
See how easy that was? In simple words, he called Trump’s claim BS without caveat or hesitation. And where Pelosi and Schumer gave way to Republican iconography when highlighting affected individuals, Sanders took a different route:
Let me just quote what one federal employee has said: “I’m a single mom and a federal employee. I have $100 to last me – and my vehicle payments will not be made this month. I live paycheck to paycheck and I can’t get a side job because I still have to go to my unpaid federal job.”
My goodness, an ordinary person! What about all the white men who drink Budweiser and get angry at Colin Kaepernick and are farmer-veterans with small businesses and MAGA hats? Aren’t they more special? Why didn’t he mention them?? (/sarcasm)
Which is not to say you can’t mention those people, or that they’re not deserving of respect! Sanders, in fact, mentions them all, but he also mentions pregnant mothers and innocent babies and homeowners and elderly people on food stamps. For him, there is no extraordinary class, just a collection of Americans who equally deserve responsible government.
Nor is he afraid to use the word “lie.”
President Trump tonight has told us why he believes we need the wall. It gives me no pleasure to tell you what most of you already know. President Trump lies all of the time – and in his remarks tonight, and in recent weeks regarding immigration and the wall, he continues to lie.
He then went on to outline Trump’s lies one by one, which simultaneously humanized immigrants while debunking the idea that they are fundamentally criminal. While noting the need for border security, he spent far more time on the plight of the immigrants themselves:
It is inhumane that tiny children at the border have been torn away from their parents. It is disgraceful that 1.8 million young people, raised in the United States, and who know no other country but the United States, have lost their legal protection under the DACA program because of Trump’s actions. It is heartbreaking that almost 11 million undocumented people living in this country, the overwhelming majority of whom are hard-working and law-abiding, worry every day about being deported and separated from their loved ones.
Then he listed the greater crises facing our country: Healthcare costs, elderly poverty, starvation wages, and climate change.
In every sense, Sanders outclassed the purported leaders of the Democratic party, and in doing so showed yet again why his candidacy gained such momentum in the 2015-16 primary campaign, and why he should be considered the frontrunner for the 2020 nomination, should he choose to run.