Shallow Politics and Deep Politics

In January, three new telegenic, outspoken, and self-proclaimed “progressive” congresswomen took their seats: Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Omar, a former refugee from Somalia who has maintained political connections there, brought to Capitol Hill her baggage of Islamist political affiliations and credible claims of immigration fraud; Tlaib, born to Palestinian immigrant parents in Dearborn, Michigan, proved so devoted to Israel’s destruction as to be dumped even by J-Street. Ocasio-Cortez, born to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx and raised in sheltered Westchester, is a political novice who won a thin primary that her opponent, the incumbent congressman, basically failed to contest. 

But AOC, as the insiders call her, quickly made up for her lack of baggage by endorsing the Green New Deal that promises to ruin America’s economy in service of impossible ecological goals, and her ideological Svengali is her chief of staff, who identifies himself with pro-Hitler Indian nationalist activist Subhas Chandra Bose.

None of these women represents the mainstream of the Democratic party of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama as Americans knew it prior to 2016. On July 14, Mike Allen published on the news website Axios data from a May 2019 poll that showed that only 22 percent of voters in the poll had a favorable view of AOC, and 9 percent (“not a typo,” Allen notes) has a favorable view of Rep. Omar. 

Unsurprisingly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), with a clearer view and more concern for what wins national elections, has tried to marginalize them together with Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.), who up until now was not nationally notorious. As might have been expected, AOC responded with charges that Pelosi was “dogwhistling” racism.

Into this struggle, which the licensed journalists at Salon have instructed us is “not a catfight,” President Trump has inserted himself:

The man from Mars might be astonished at how many commentators who previously reveled in calling the president “Drumpf” rushed to levy charges of racism, but we Earthlings are more inured. Some even among Republicans or other clearer thinkers are sure that by weighing in, Trump “stupidly” reunited the quarreling Democrats.

The picture of politics these pundits have in mind is something like this: 

  • Everybody is already either a Democrat or Republican, an opponent or a supporter of the president’s reelection. 
  • There are no voters whom some Democrats can appeal to precisely by distancing themselves from other Democrats.
  • There are no voters whom some Republicans can appeal to precisely by distancing themselves from other Republicans.

One wonders what these pundits think Pelosi was trying to do by criticizing the “squad” of four progressive representatives. In the real world of politics, politicians usually win elections by appealing not just to committed partisans, but by playing to the less committed and unaffiliated and by distancing themselves from the less popular elements in their own parties. 

Trump won in 2016 by distancing himself from Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the neoconservatives of the George W. Bush Administration, thus attracting working-class Americans, including more Hispanics and African-Americans than Romney could. Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996 in part thanks to his Sister Souljah moment, appealing to moderates by distancing himself from the race hustlers, and, as president, making inner cities safer and more prosperous by cracking down on “superpredators.”  

Now if national mainstream Democrats such as Pelosi have to try to distance themselves from the extremists in their own party, national Republicans such as Trump compete for swing voters by saddling national Democrats with the burden of supporting them. If Pelosi had refused Trump’s latest tweet gambit, she might have forfeited the partisan base and the extremist donors who helped send the squad to Congress in the first place.

This is the shallow politics of Trump’s tweets. I call it “shallow” because this analysis focuses on the targeting rather than the content. But the content, which of course the virtue-signallers on the Left and the self-proclaimed right-wing NeverTrumpers, distracted as they are by “racist” mantras don’t bother to read carefully. All of this points to deep issues in U.S. domestic and foreign affairs that ought to be on the table.

Immigrants to the Americas have always brought with them their old-world feuds and ideologies, and have passed them down, diluted by intermarriage and acculturation, to their children and grandchildren. 

John Jay, of Huguenot origin, could not help but see Louis XVI and his courtiers as the heirs of the bigots who had driven his family to the New World. In negotiating with Britain and France, Jay acted in 1782-83 out of suspicions that his fellow American diplomats in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, themselves of transplanted English stock, never thought to entertain. Elected and responsible politicians have no choice but to take account of those passions, sometimes exploiting them, sometimes mitigating them, sometimes suppressing them, and sometimes simply calling them by name, as the prudent pursuit of the common good and the political survival of the individual leader demand.

But there is another side to that storm of troubles from faraway shores. As my Tel Aviv colleague Yossi Shain showed in his 1999 book, Marketing the American Creed Abroad, diaspora activists and politicians are part of networks that help export American ideals to their home countries. 

This, too, is an old tradition. William Cobbett, an English immigrant to America who was one of the loudest voices among Federalists for prosecuting Jeffersonian Republicans for sedition and treason, upon returning to England was transformed by his American experience into a radical reformer who served two years in Newgate Prison for protesting Hanoverian repression. 

Why, then, is it absurd in 2019 to imagine, as President Trump asks us in these three tweets to imagine, that Omar could become an inspiration for enlightened reform in Somalia, that Tlaib could have some beneficial effect among Palestinians in her parents’ native Ramallah, or that Ocasio-Cortez could help bring genuinely progressive government to an indebted and scandal-dogged Puerto Rico?

Those of us who cherish American ideals and institutions know exactly why it is absurd: because these three members of Congress were educated in American schools and universities to have contempt for Americans and American traditions. To their ethnic homelands, Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez would only export more hatred and derision of America as well as guaranteed-to-fail green socialism, but no worthy ideals or estimable practices.

For that corruption, virtually invisible when Shain was doing his research two decades ago, both unhyphenated and hyphenated Americans are to blame. It is the teachers of these representatives, and the parents and taxpayers who fund those teachers’ salaries, who have to answer for that failure to Americanize these otherwise impressive women.

Photo credit: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).