Reagan Democrat yesterday, independent tomorrow

Trigger warning: racism

Earlier today, sitting West Virginia Senator Jim Webb announced that he’s wrapping up his candidacy to be the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2016. His official campaign announcement underscores that he will remain politically active and for the time being continue to run for president. His website still requests visitors for donations, claiming that with “enough financial support to conduct a first-class campaign, there is no doubt that we can put the issues squarely before the American people and gain their support.” That certainly implies that he is seeking the funds to run a write-in or third party campaign. With that potentially pulling Democratic voters away from the Party’s nominee, you might wonder why the Democratic Senate is weakening his own Party’s chances in the general election. As a kicker to his announced withdrawal, he has stated that he is unsure he will remain a registered Democrat.

As he lays out in his statement, the most overt case made for his candidacy is essentially that as a Reagan administration official turned Democratic Senator (turned independent?) he would be able to transcend partisanship. The fundamental assumption baked into his politics is that partisan hostilities are driving polarization in politics. Divergent ideas about who we are and how we should organize this country are, in this view, irrelevant. The singular way he speaks of gaining support from “the American people” suggests he may not even consider that a facet of the modern US. While his call for bipartisan comity will likely inspire some, they’re attractive to most voters as an end goal, not a means of governance. The surging popularity of more combative candidates – from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – demonstrates that large numbers of voters want some sort of a conflict between the parties. For many, it seems, they envision a war to secure the peace that Webb describes.

When it comes to his party affiliation, the Senator’s comments in the recent Democratic debate linger around the edges of his withdrawn candidacy. His in-person and textual versions of the announcement both declared that he felt that the Democratic primary is more or less rigged, mainly to the advantage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was vague, however, as to what differences drove support towards her and made him “not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party.” The image that draws up for many are the shadowy party figures, which for both major parties are largely wealthy White donors. In light of his debate performance, during which Webb insisted that race was not a determining factor for who had “no voice in the corridors of power,” it seems that Webb may in fact be implying that his racially-charged policy perspectives are what he sees as disqualifying. That explains his hostility not only to a Democratic donor class he views as never having given him a shot, but also what he called the Party’s “nominating base” – by which he seems to mean the voters of color and perhaps White voters too who refused to support someone with his perspectives on those issues.

When he spoke during the debate so dismissively of the many ways that race has contributed to limiting or denying people access to the political process, I tweeted:

Webb’s inconsistent relationship with both the Democratic and Republican parties are admittedly a bit different than the standard Dixiecrat history, but he serves as a sort of example for how those politics have fallen out of the Democratic fold. (What’s more, he seems quite comfortable adopting historical talking points of the Dixiecrat movement.) Once central to that Party’s coalition, what he obliquely refers to as its “traditional message” is no longer a key part of it. “I wish that I could see it” return or remain central, he said today, while noting that he might no longer identify as a Democrat.

The fear, which Webb himself helps spread, is that redistribution of power along racial lines will eclipse a more general redistribution of wealth and power. At its core, his understanding of this society seems fixed around the belief that race has never categorically shaped groups’ ability to politically engage. As a result, anti-racism is not a welcome addition to anti-poverty politics but a distraction from them. After his debate insistence on the irrelevance of race, he made his case that true disenfranchisement was actually felt by the “struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian mountains”. One implication that raises is that supposedly entirely empowered people of color have too much power within the Democratic Party and are shaping policy in a way specifically leaving some White people in poverty. To be frank, this makes no sense as a point made on a stage with, worryingly, only White candidates. What’s more, a few podiums away, Bernie Sanders offers both more substantive anti-poverty politics and at least some recognition of the ways race continues to devalue and deprive entire communities.

In short, the primary consistency in these politics is the sleight of hand. We have to subordinate anti-racism to White supremacist anti-poverty politics, because of a fear with literally no factual basis. We have to abandon advancing party-specific policies in favor of a post-partisan utopia that we simply will wish into existence. For a candidate who seems genuinely unhappy that no one flocked to his camp, he doesn’t seem to know how to offer people something that isn’t snake oil. Perhaps this is taking the metaphor too far, but that would explain why Webb has had to shed his skin and transform first from Reaganite to anti-Bush Democrat and seemingly now into an independent.

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