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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Liberalism’s Veil of Ignorance

David Plouffe’s book is not a guide to beating Trump, but it is an excellent guide to understanding liberalism.

Review of A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump, by David Plouffe, Penguin Random House, 256pp, $25.00

As a matter of professional necessity, I am regularly obliged to watch clips from cable news. To say I don’t particularly enjoy the experience would be something of an understatement. In fact, on the rare occasions it becomes necessary to watch an entire program, I am aghast that so many people opt to do so voluntarily, idly wondering if I’ve committed an unpardonable sin and slipped into some lesser circle of Hell, a place where the damned must pay eternal penance by listening to talking heads deliver insights about politics so trite they might as well be sports commentary (“The economy’s going to be a big factor in 2020, no doubt about it,” “When it comes to candidates, the most important thing is always character,” “In campaigns, messaging matters but on election day it’s all about the ground game…”, etc., etc., ad infinitum as the flames lick my ankles.) 

On an aesthetic level, David Plouffe’s A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump reads like several hours of punditry in precisely this vein, transcribed for those who prefer to consume the august medium of cable news in literary form. Tedious even by the cavernously low standards of the many Why Trump Is Bad cash-grab books that have popped up since 2016, the author delivers more or less what a skeptical left-wing observer might assume from its title: a pallid political treatise containing instructions for what the average person can do to ensure Donald Trump’s defeat in November. 

Many of these turn out to be prosaic beyond belief—so much so that even the most hardened Obama partisans are liable to be disappointed. Despite Plouffe’s ostensible bona fides as a political master strategist (he did, after all, manage Barack Obama’s stupendously successful presidential campaign in 2008) the book is more Idiot’s Guide than Art of War, brimming with banal observations like “the [Democratic] nominee must win the economic argument against Donald Trump among those voters who will decide the election,” all written in the same drably declarative prose. Elsewhere, for example, in a chapter evocatively entitled “Create”, the author observes “It is absolutely mandatory that we weaponize our own social media and email lists”, waiting until midway through the book to deliver one of its most memorable aphorisms: “Registering won’t get you to victory if our people don’t then vote”. 

Machiavelli or Sun Tzu could hardly have put it better. 

Nearly the whole of A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump reads this way, the mundane instructions that make up most of the text punctuated with occasional war stories from the Obama campaign and the odd personal anecdote. The word Russia, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes plenty of appearances (I counted nine, more if you include the various allusions to Putin, Moscow, and, for some reason, Belarus) though it’s mercifully not until page 98 that the phrase “Orange Menace” rears its head and somewhere near the book’s halfway point before we are finally subjected to the inevitable West Wing reference.*

At least some of the mundanity is owed to the book having been written in the summer of 2019, long before the heat of the primary season and well-before important details of the general election matchup were known. This, says Plouffe, is intentional: 

“I have no idea…who the nominee will be. I don’t know how various issues, including the economy, the tariff wars, the border wall, North Korea, Iran, and impeachment will play out over the next year…My timing is intentional because knowing the candidate does not matter in terms of getting ready for the main event, the general election…Please, please, do not waste vital energy and time worrying about events we do not control…”  

This veil-of-ignorance approach is meant to be the book’s strength: the very thing that makes it a practically-minded handbook which the average person can use to become an effective militant in the anti-Trump struggle of 2020. But with the details of policy and ideology—not to mention more basic facts like who the Democratic candidate is and what they’re running on—entirely absent, A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump is reduced to making a series of prescriptions so obvious and pedestrian it’s by no means clear that they justify its existence. 

Be an enthusiastic Democrat. Make phone calls. Register to vote and tell your friends to do the same. Contribute money. Host debate watch parties. Email your friends and post pro-Democratic messages on social media, preferably putting the campaign’s message-box in your own voice so it sounds more “authentic.” Interact with voters and use the exchanges to create lists. If you canvass your neighborhood, post a photo of the canvass on Instagram, etc. A few paragraphs are even dedicated to explaining basic concepts like how data collection works, what a battleground state is, and the difference between the popular vote and the electoral college. 

Like many elite liberals, Plouffe is evidently under the impression that people who fail to vote Democratic primarily do so out of ignorance or because they’ve internalized misinformation. To this end, a key section is devoted to tutoring readers on the finer points of how to argue with fellow citizens online: 

“You see something in your Facebook feed from one of your old college friends about a ‘study’ demonstrating that if the Democrat is victorious, crime will rise 50 percent and rapes and murders from undocumented immigrants will triple. Take a minute to shake your head in frustration, sigh in sadness, but then respond calmly and by sharing content that shows the Democrat’s commitment to increasing funds for local enforcement; stats showing that immigrants commit fewer crimes than those native born; our candidate’s commitment to solving at long last the immigration challenge with comprehensive reform, including smart, humane, technology-based border security.”

Note that Plouffe simply assumes the Democratic nominee will have exactly these commitments come election time; this tells us something about his own political preferences, and what he believes is possible.

In an accidentally funny passage that comes shortly after, Plouffe imagines how a savvy Democratic partisan might respond to a caricatured red state relative posting conspiracy theories about liberal politicians and infanticide. Should this happen, he advises, “the wisest course” is to “inwardly vent your frustration and sadness, then get down to business,” explaining things to the hypothetical Crazy Uncle John as follows: 

“Uncle John, I respect that you support Trump. As you know, I do not support Trump. While I don’t support everything about the Democratic nominee, I think on balance our country would be better off with that nominee in the White House than four more years of Trump. But let’s make it an honest debate. You have plenty of arguments to make on Trump’s behalf that are true and maybe persuasive to some. The article/video/infographic you just shared to suggest the Democratic nominee supports infanticide is a lie. No credible person in our country, much less a presidential candidate, supports infanticide. My candidate is pro-choice, yes. Donald Trump used to be pro-choice; now he says he’s pro-life. So there’s that difference. My candidate wants abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. Trump would like to see it outlawed—for every woman. Check out this article below from The Wall Street Journal, hardly a liberal source, that captures the candidate positions on abortion and makes clear the infanticide charge is a hideous lie.” 

Even Plouffe is obliged to concede that this approach may not actually change any minds (“Maybe it will have an impact on someone in the chain. Maybe not.”). Nonetheless, it’s amusing to think that a veteran of so many election campaigns believes the best antidote to misinformation is calm recitation of facts and logic. (Still more amusing to imagine Plouffe’s strategy taken to its logical conclusion: “Listen @DeusVult_1776, I respect that you believe Trump is on a divinely ordained mission to prevent the Satanic Islamicist Soros cult from carrying out Agenda 21. While I don’t support everything about our Democratic nominee…”)

This brings us to a bigger problem with Plouffe’s veil of ignorance approach: namely, that it leaves nothing for the average person to do besides mindlessly campaign for whoever the Democratic Party nominates. Once again, the author tells us, this is intentional—the book’s foundational premise being that there is simply nothing more important than getting Donald Trump out of the White House. “There is only one fact,” Plouffe writes, “that you need to focus on now: our candidate will be infinitely preferable to the incumbent.” 

Though he doesn’t know it, this sentiment is what makes Plouffe’s book an accidentally lucid treatise on the hollowness of elite liberal politics in 2020. That’s because, despite it being partially true (Democratic presidents do tend to be preferable to Republican ones, though “infinitely” is really pushing it) it’s also a credo maintained by Democratic partisans regardless of circumstance. Try to recall a time when the likes of David Plouffe deemed it acceptable to mount serious criticisms of the Democratic Party and its leaders, and you will inevitably struggle. The Republican bogeyman invariably justifies whatever the latest triangulation happens to be, and renders anything but the most obsequious deference to the party and its apparatchiks akin to collaboration with the enemy. 

Lesser evilism has been an animating principle among American liberals for as long as I can remember, and it rather conveniently fails to disappear even after election seasons have concluded. Which is to say: Plouffe’s veil-of-ignorance approach may justify itself by invoking the exceptional danger of the Trump presidency, but the same exceptional danger was also said to be with us in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. Democrats being preferable to Republicans, or so it follows, there’s little reason for the socially concerned person to ever do more than try and elect the former and dull any moral reservations about the kinds of things they regularly do when in office. Once this line of reasoning has been fully internalized, the whole enterprise of political and social activism as we know it becomes indistinguishable from unthinking partisanship for the Democratic Party and its leaders, the rank-and-file liberal reduced to little more than a campaign drone who blindly follows directives handed down from above. (Though there are many reasons centrist liberals have exhibited such a burning hatred for Bernie Sanders, his movement’s steadfast refusal to assume this hierarchical and deferential posture was undoubtedly among the most significant.)

This is the actual purpose of liberalism’s veil of ignorance: to subordinate policy, ideology, and even basic morality to the wider goal of pledging unthinking fealty to some Generic Democrat and keeping Republicans out of office. Tellingly, Plouffe’s supposed manual for a citizen’s crusade rarely even mentions actual issues and, when it does, it’s invariably in the service of helping elect said Generic Democrat regardless of their commitments or platform—which we do not know and in any case, we are told, do not matter (though the author did somehow know the Democratic nominee’s border and immigration policies in summer 2019, or more specifically what its necessary limits would be). 

For something supposedly motivated by disgust at the state of things in Trump’s America, Plouffe’s book is notably short on genuine moral outrage or substantive political concern outside the electoral event scheduled for November 2020. Vital issues like the need to get big money out of politics, climate change, immigration, mass incarceration, and healthcare are scarcely even mentioned, if indeed they’re mentioned at all. 

A handbook for fighting conservative reaction that doesn’t discuss ideology, program, or social vision beyond the nearest electoral horizon? You’d be hard-pressed to find a better précis of America’s gilded, ideologically-exhausted, and over-professionalized liberal project than that. 

* Having performed poorly in a 2012 debate, Barack Obama reportedly said: “Everyone’s out there working their hearts out, and now I’ve made it harder for them. I’m sure I’ve disappointed them as well. I care more about not doing that again even more than winning.” With due respect to the former president’s gift for oratory, this doesn’t read as particularly Periclean to me. But, according to Plouffe, it sounded “like an implausible line, written by Aaron Sorkin for President Bartlet in The West Wing,” which, given its source, is probably meant to be taken as even higher praise…

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