To clarify the heading of today’s post: Jeet Heer did not appear on the Chapo Trap House podcast. Although he seems like a natural fit for the show, he has criticized it, most recently in an essay in the New Republic this morning. My experience reading Heer is that he is a scrupulous thinker even when he’s wrong, and this essay upholds that rule. He pushes back early against the dirty argument that Chapo host Will Menaker meant something sexist when he said centrist Democrats would have to “bend the knee” to form a coalition with leftists. Such a reading seems opportunistic, and Heer dismisses it. But he also cites Chapo as an instance of the left using the same bullying tactics as Donald Trump—a practice he calls “dominance politics.” Quote:
This gendered analysis seems unwarranted because Menaker’s remarks weren’t aimed at women as a class, but at the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; Clinton wasn’t mentioned, and the phrase may even be an allusion to a common refrain in Game of Thrones. Yet if the remark wasn’t sexist in intent, it still suggests a troubling vision of politics as a contest in domination.
Heer argues that dominance politics is a dead end. Demanding that centrists bend the knee won’t work, because “you can’t really build a coalition of egalitarian politics by browbeating a key segment of that coalition.” That’s true. I think his central point is correct: the Clinton wing is not going to cede control of the party to democratic socialists, and demanding they do might thwart a winning coalition. I’m not sure that’s what Menaker meant, though, when he said bend the knee. It seems like he was talking less about submission and more about some kind of acknowledgement that the moderates were wrong, and their mistakes blew a winnable election.
Regardless, I like that Heer envisions a coalition of Democrats who are not actively vituperating one another. For the same reason I don’t think liberals should hold Trump voters in contempt, I don’t think leftists should ask liberals to confess. My main concern with Heer’s argument, though, is that it focuses on one form of dominance without acknowledging others that are more significant.
When Heer says that Trump or the hosts of Chapo Trap House are exercising dominance by mocking their political opponents, he means they’re exercising rhetorical dominance. Agreed the left is good at that—especially compared to the Clinton campaign, which pretty much ate sand in the area of messaging. But moderate Democrats and the Clinton network dominate the party in every other meaningful sense of the word. They control the DNC, as we saw last spring. They control fundraising. They set strategy in the last election. They drive the policy agenda, although Sanders et al have tickled the wheel lately. Still, in most important areas, centrists dominate the Democratic Party. The only area in which they don’t is rhetoric. The rhetoric of young, left-leaning Democrats is much more lively and contagious than anything moderates have come up with since Obama 2008.
That’s not to say Heer is mistaken to argue Chapo should be nice to them. On the contrary, it probably means that going easy on neoliberal complacency will be an important part of the left’s strategy moving forward. But that’s a claim about tactics. Heer also seems to be making a claim about the philosophy, or even ethics, of the Democratic party. Are Democrats too good for insult comedy? It’s a question worth considering, but only in the context of larger power dynamics. Civility is a luxury of the winning team.