Diagnosis over direction

What Ezra Klein gets so right and what Democrats are getting so wrong about the nature and future of our country.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the last few years trying to diagnosis the state of the Democratic Party — including by me. Ezra Klein’s essay from last week digs deeply into two aspects of the ongoing diagnosis from several perspectives — and is a genuine, nuanced attempt to unearth some clarity about where we are and how we seem to keep teetering on the same political knife edge. It is long, thoughtful, and worth every minute of the read: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/08/opinion/democrats-david-shor-education-polarization.html

AND it is completely devoid of any clarity about where we go from here. And this is the deficit that is undermining the party and the left more broadly amidst the profound cultural and political upheaval we’ve been experiencing for more than a decade since the rise of the Tea Party around 2010.

In the essay (which I really do recommend reading), Klein centers his exploration on the perspective of micro-famous, semi-celebrity data scientist David Shor who was part of our Analytics team back on the 2012 Obama campaign but explores his perspective in careful contrast with others from across the party. To Klein’s credit, he comes away with a “everyone’s a little right, and everyone’s a little wrong” conclusion which suits the complexity of the topic and the moment in a way that I find deeply satisfying and that is sadly rare. I don’t blame Klein for not pushing beyond diagnosis into the realm of strong illumination — that’s not his role or intent. What I find so consistently baffling is not what is in the piece but what is so glaringly absent from the conversation and that the voices across the party remain willing to continue to be consumed by the backward looking diagnosis.

I recognize the need for some coherent idea about how we got here and that a perspective on the present is necessary to understand who and how to engage people here and now. But what I fear is that our diagnostic energy is distracting us from or leaving us without enough energy left to plot a course for the future. A desperate grasp for wisdom, clarity, understanding (all good things) — not enough vision. It also reveals an arrogance that we have the vision, have figured out where we are going and merely need a way to describe it. Our lack of vision is that — a lack of vision. It is not a messaging problem (although we may also have one of those), and the more we attempt to fix it with messaging the deeper we dig our current divisions.

If what we are experiencing is fundamentally a conflict of visions and that the battle over which will define our path forward are inherently about who can lay strongest claim to how we got here, we are going to be crafting our future entirely in the language and conflicts of the past. When we look back for solutions, we are accidentally but deeply anchoring our worldview in inherently conservative terms. We are forced into painful contortions trying to look forward or talk about transformation, and the weakness of our arguments and small incrementalness of our pseudo-transformative ideas reveal our wrong-headedness. There are good ideas all over the left and in the Democratic Party. There is not a coherent worldview at work connecting those ideas in a way that animates people’s souls. Too much of our conversation is anti-something and therefore profoundly reactive. Too much of our messaging is rooted in trying to create this clarity for ourselves and not for how to make that vision connect to people’s lived experiences across a large, complex, diverse, and conflicted country.

Yes, understand the ground we are on. Yes, meet people where they are. But by asking them, allowing them to help us understand their experience not by examining them from afar or modeling their behavior. Then we strike out for a future that offers a path from the present to a better place in front of us not one rooted in some nostalgic view of the past but on a clear, powerful, values-based view of the future. Society, politics, community, systems that are genuinely inclusive, genuinely generative are not behind us — we have never had them in America. We have to let the nature of a generative future guide our actions now or we are never going to leave this fractured and damaged present.

The clarity and attempts at focus I have talked about here over the last few months are rooted in trying to live and work in that future-oriented space. To embrace the work that I began at the beginning of the pandemic as the center of my effort. To be spending my best hours working on that path and to focus the next steps in my work life on that work. The best I can say to this point is that it’s good to have clarity, but the actual steps in that direction are halting works in progress. More to come.