Home 2017 Races Ralph Northam, Doug Jones, and the Problem of Liberal Weakness

Ralph Northam, Doug Jones, and the Problem of Liberal Weakness


This post was “inspired” by the recent dispiriting news stories concerning the two Democrats who have led the way to two massive Democratic victories in the past month and a half– Governor-elect Ralph Northam, who led the Democratic ticket in its powerful triumph over the Party of Trump here in Virginia, and Senator-elect Doug Jones, who achieved the previously unthinkable victory of a Democrat in a statewide election in Alabama.

More, below, on those news stories, and the larger problem that they exemplify.


By now it is recognized by probably the great majority of the well-informed people across the advanced nations of the world that the American power system is beset by a profoundly dangerous sickness.

Understandably, much of the attention is directed at the most florid symptom of this pathology, i.e. the grotesque nature of the man who now occupies the American presidency. But of course, Donald Trump is not himself the disease: he was not imposed upon the United States by some foreign conqueror, but rose to power through the constitutional processes of the American democracy (albeit aided by the nation’s foremost adversary).

Beyond Trump, there is the whole of this era’s Republican Party. Even if we didn’t know that it was the GOP whose base — made crazy and deluded by right-wing/Republican propaganda over the course of a quarter century — that elevated Trump to become the Party’s nominee in 2016, and whose leaders have subsequently supported Trump and even circled their wagons to protect Trump from the rule of law, we could readily see just how deeply rotten the spirit of that Party had become: it would suffice to know that every Republican Senator voted for a tax bill that is atrocious along almost every relevant dimension, that worsens America in virtually every respect on which it has an impact.

But it would be a big mistake to imagine that the whole problem in the American power system is located in the shamelessness, the sociopathy, the immorality of the right. Rather, the pathology should be understood as involving the system as a whole, involving Liberal America as well as what once was the conservative part of America.

For more than a decade, I’ve been describing the systemic malady afflicting the American power system as a fateful conjunction of destructiveness on the right and weakness (and blindness) on the liberal side.

(See, for example, my 2014 piece “Right-wing Destructiveness Plus Liberal Weakness: The Dangerous Combination Behind America’s National Crisis.” This theme is developed at greater length, and in much greater depth, in my 2015 book WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How We Can Defeat It.)

The problem of liberal/Democratic weakness has been starkly brought to mind this past week by news stories involving the two Democrats whose recent stunning victories are most emblematic of what appears to be a gathering Democratic wave: Ralph Northam in Virginia, and Doug Jones in Alabama.

The story with Northam concerns his having made conciliatory gestures toward the Republicans, in an interview with the Washington Post, extending some sort of olive branch with talk of bipartisanship, and seeming to backpedal on his campaign commitment to push for Medicaid extension in Virginia.

(The Republican blockage of Medicaid expansion was clearly bad for Virginia, and motivated by the basest of partisan motivations: it was just a part of the national Republican priority to make President Obama fail, in this case part of their doing everything they could to sabotage Obama’s signature achievement.)

I confess to being unclear just where Northam’s position ended up (if it has ended up anywhere clear), though it seems that he has reaffirmed his original position.

But regardless of where he has landed, the question remains: why would Northam be making unilateral conciliatory moves at this juncture?

What evidence is there, from the past decade and more, that the Republicans respond to olive branches by seeking mutually agreeable terms of peace, that reaching out to them yields any result other than bitten fingers?

Doesn’t all the experience of recent years support, rather, the notion that the Republicans interpret such gestures as signs of weakness and then intensify the aggressiveness of their attacks?

Northam (like other Democrats running surprisingly strongly in off-year and special elections around the nation) rode a wave of anti-Trump revulsion that has swept up all but the right-wing base. The people have sensed that there’s a major battle afoot– a battle for the soul of the nation — and they have been aroused to join the battle.

(Finally we see a reversal of the circumstance described by Yeats, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.”)

This battle is not just about any single issue (like Medicaid expansion). And people like Northam who gain power in this political moment have an obligation to lead in such a way as to assure that the dark spirit manifest in the Trump presidency, in the Republican tax bill — and in so many other destructive fruits of the destructive force that has taken over the right — does not become the soul of America.

Not just about Northam, but about Democrats generally, we in Liberal America need to be asking: why is it that the Democrats gravitate so quickly to the effort to conciliate, rather than to a resolve to fight against that dark force with a determination to win?

Which brings us to Doug Jones.

The Alabama Senator-elect made news this past week by saying that it is time to “move on” from the issue of Donald Trump’s record of bragging about and being accused of sexual assault.

It is not clear why the election of 2016 — in which the loser of the popular vote was elected President despite the Hollywood Access tape and the accusations of more than a dozen women already having been made public — would eliminate Trump’s misogynistic behavior as a legitimate point of political attack. (Particularly now that the issue of men’s sexual misconduct toward women has suddenly erupted into a moment of reckoning and possible cultural transformation.)

But even if we were to grant the dubious proposition that, considering this matter in isolation, Trump ought to be left alone, why is Doug Jones using his newly-won national platform for such a purpose, i.e. to take such moral pressure off this dangerous President. What has Trump (or any of the Republicans) done to warrant Jones’ proposing what amounts to a kind of unilateral disarmament?

The stakes in the fight against Donald Trump are of such profundity and magnitude that any Democrat with basic understanding of the peril of this moment should be glad of any truthful means of weakening this President.

It may not be realistic to expect Trump to “resign” his office because of his past, as some in Congress have called on him to do. But it serves a useful function to keep Trump’s sexual misconduct before the public mind, and thereby weaken the man who consistently uses his power to tear at the fabric of American politics, society, and culture.

Yet here is that new Democratic star, Doug Jones, gently waving another Democratic olive branch as our enemies on the right are charging at us with lance and mace and battle-ax, showing no restraint or scruple in their quest for dominance.

What the nation needs from the Democrats whom the Americans are sending into positions of power is not some reflexive conciliation with a GOP whose lack of interest in a cooperative relationship could not be clearer.

Rather, the rising passion in the nation to beat back, and sweep from power, the toxic force that now owns the Republican Party calls for leaders who are ready to do battle.

Democratic leaders are showing more of that spirit. But as we have seen this past week, the old habits of weakness — which played such an important role in allowing this destructive force on the right to rise to power in recent years — do not disappear overnight.

If we are to have the kind of Democratic force we so deeply need, there’s evidently still work to be done. And one important part of that work is to investigate: why is it that Democrats tend to be so overeager to conciliate those who have shown themselves to be implacable in their enmity?

  • Cglass

    Yes, and thank you for this. The Democrats can’t seem to understand the nature of the threat posed by Trump and today’s Republican Party. Chomsky has called the Republican Party “the most dangerous organization in the world today.” I don’t believe he’s exaggerating, as the push for war with N. Korea and Iran, climate change denial, and a tax policy that increases income inequality attest. Seeking bipartisanship with Republicans is a losers’ game and is something we would hope Democrats had learned after watching Obama get repeatedly bitch-slapped by Mitch McConnell. Northham’s waffling on Medicaid expansion sends a clear message to Republicans that he, too, can be rolled. Newly elected House Delegate and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter says in today’s Intercept: “There are 750,000 Virginians with no health insurance whatsoever. So when we’re talking about the Medicaid expansion — there’s 370,000 who are eligible under the federal rules. So a clean Medicaid expansion only covers half of those people. A clean Medicaid expansion is the compromise.” Good on you, Lee Carter. I hope Virginia progressives send a clear message to Northam that there can be no compromise with Republicans (or with neoliberal Democrats) on expanding Medicaid.

    • dirich

      Agree! What is going to kill the spirit of voters who are responsible for the wave election this past November are mamby-pamby attitudes and actions by the Dems we elected. It’s not a good start when we have to worry about the governor-elect not having the backs of people who need help the most. I can’t believe Medicaid expansion is open to question.

  • James McCarthy

    TY, Andy. We have come a long way in understanding the opposition and the damage and danger it poses to our nation and its effort to promote the general welfare and form a more perfect union. The GOP has adopted a libertarian ideology to impose upon our society while also forging elitism among classes by income and race.

    However, it has been my personal belief that, among others, the responsibility we have to all includes empathy in convincing others of our views and political goals. Criticizing our leadership does not appear to be selfless but somewhat destructive and/or political purification. Overtures by Northam and Jones to the opposition may also be viewed as both strategic and inviting, not necessarily caving. At the same time, it is our task to communicate our political objectives, e.g. Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Critical thinking is not necessarily rank criticism but a means to clarify an objective.

    We should be careful with our critical thinking and criticism to avoid any signal to the opposition that we can be rolled.

    • Edward N Virginia

      Does that include that ‘the progressives” will continue to ‘resist’ active listening with the wide variety of RURAL communities – perhaps starting with working class RURAL DEMOCRATS – who can tell you how many/most ‘progressives’ are seen to be – HEARD to be – careless ELITE IMPERIALISTS?

  • Harry

    Terry McAuliffe tried to make nice with the right wing crazies in the General Assembly Howell, Cox, Miller, Hugo and the rest of the wack-a-dos) by appointing Republicans to his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. The Rs just saw it for what it was: weakness. Northam seems to be headed in the same direction by appointing Rs to key positions. Ralph, the Rs will stab you in the back. Rs go for jugular when in power, we try to make nice and placate them. Time to go for the jugular, fire EVERY R holdover from the past administration and appoint none,. Very disappointed that Rs who supported Gilespie and were in the T-Mac administration are getting reappointed. Ralph, they didn’t vote for you and will covertly sabotage Democratic initiatives and our values.

    • Edward N Virginia

      AGREED! No need to appoint Rs …

      BUT the Cabinet and appointments MUST include LOTS of RURAL Democrats and MANY working class RURAL appointees!

      Democrats NEED to recognize that they have ABANDONED and MISTREATED rural Virginia FOR DECADES and have to get serious to make REPARATIONS.

      Medicaid expansion? SURE BUT IT MUST INCLUDE EQUAL ACCESS TO EVERYTHING in RURAL areas: EQUAL ACCESS TO every level of care and EQUAL ACCESS to every speciality – instead of no access to any care or driving HOURS to hospital, speciality care? How will Democrats ENSURE THAT?


      Net Neutrality? ! BOGUS! HOW ABOUT Internet – AT ALL! – in every part of RURAL VIRGINIA?! Just 20 minutes out of Charlottesville – the Capital of Progressive IDIOTS, complaining about Net Neutrality – poor rural communities – including poor historic Black communities – HAVE NO INTERNET AT ALL.

      So, when are the Ds going to REPAIR their selfish and ignorant and hateful treatment of rural Virginia?


  • Edward N Virginia

    By now it is recognized by probably the great majority of the well-informed people across the advanced nations of the world that the American power system is beset by a profoundly dangerous sickness.

    So, the opening concern is what ‘well-informed’ people from ‘advanced nations’ believe?

    While ‘well-informed’ people – ABOUT THEIR OWN ISSUES, NEEDS, AND VALUES – from Virginia regions and communities who have been FORGOTTEN-by-DEMOCRATS, CALLED-STUPID AND DEPLORABLE-by-DEMOCRATS … continue to be forgotten, ignored, and called stupid.

    You SHOUT rightLY against White Nationalist constructions of ‘society’ while TRIUMPHING in Urban Imperialist constructions of society.

    What up wit dat, dude? A HATEFUL IMPERIALIST is still hateful, even if not a White Nationalist.