The former head of the Democratic National Committee has managed to piss off every group of the political spectrum. That’s why we should listen to her
Donna Brazile has spent most of her life as a good soldier of the Democratic party, managing presidential campaigns, supporting the Clinton family, and (last year) stepping in to take over the Democratic National Committee after its chair was felled by scandal. But with the publication of her campaign memoir Hacks, this woman with a fondness for old-style cooking metaphors has finally succeeded in pissing off every last group on the country’s political spectrum.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders were furious last year when a hacked email revealed that Brazile, then a popular CNN commentator, had supplied a primary debate question in advance to Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump went at Brazile constantly during the 2016 campaign as a matter of partisan course. Now it is Clinton supporters and mainstream liberals who are heaping the abuse.
Brazile’s present offense is that her book reveals an arrangement between the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC that effectively gave the campaign control over the party apparatus well before Clinton became the party’s official presidential nominee in 2016. Brazile has given serious substantiation, in other words, to the charge that Sanders and his followers threw at the Democratic party through much of last year: that the process was rigged.
Members of the punditburo blasted Sanders last year for suggesting such a thing; now they are blasting Brazile for confirming it. They vituperate even though what she and Sanders have said is, well, true.
Which is to say that the fury swirling around Donna Brazile is somehow symptomatic of our times. Since she had a front-row seat to everything that happened last year, her analysis and recollections of that volcanic election are valuable by definition. But what she has to tell us doesn’t fit easily into the simple moral framework that now guides all our thinkings on politics.
For example. Donna Brazile wanted Hillary Clinton to be president and worked hard to achieve that result, but she also thinks Clinton and her team blundered repeatedly. This feels like common sense to me, but in the Republic of the Righteous it is a brain-stopping contradiction; it may not be uttered.
Brazile regards Donald Trump as an obvious scoundrel, yet she can also understand how he appealed to ordinary Americans in the deindustrialized states. Again, not a startling insight, really – but try saying it in the pages of any American prestige publication.
The reaction to her book, Brazile said when I phoned her this month, is as though she “had broken the holy grail of politics”.
“I don’t see why we can’t have two or three or four or five different versions of what happened in 2016,” she continued.
Her version seems pretty straightforward. “Hillary still got the vast majority of votes, but if her campaign would have just had one ounce of passion, one ounce of energy, and not just relied on the ‘old guard’ to bring out the new vote, she would be president today. But the fact that they took these states for granted – Donald Trump didn’t need to pick the lock. He could break the firewall by simply showing up.”
Her exasperation with the Clinton campaign’s arrogance still burns. “They had it won, remember? They had it won. They didn’t need us.” Who is us?, I asked. “They didn’t need voters. They had it won. Because Robby [Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager] had the analytics and the data modeling and targeting. He didn’t have to come out of the ivory tower to talk to the average Joe and Jane.”
It was a sterile, math-driven campaign in an angry, populist cycle – a perfect case of professional-class hubris that will one day take its place alongside the expert-planned, systems-analyzed war in Vietnam as a parable of technocratic folly.
Brazile assured me when we spoke that she has no problem with big data, microtargeting and the rest of the modern campaign palette. But when you depend on them to the exclusion of the old face-to-face politicking, “you’re going to miss something. You’re going to miss people, you’re going to miss the mood, you’re going to miss the leadership, and you’re not going to get out your vote.”
Brazile’s faith in human passion is refreshing. And also understandable after the failure of an algorithm-driven campaign that was so goddamned smart it knew better than to send its principal to the battleground state of Wisconsin.
But in her book we can see that more human style of politicking going into eclipse. I’m referring here not to the rise of big data but to espionage.
In Hacks, Brazile tells of struggling with DNC staffers who were double agents for the Clinton campaign. She recalls how undercover rightwing operatives infiltrated and embarrassed a liberal group. She describes in detail how the DNC removed sinister malware and spyware from its computers; then, failing the first time, how they had to do it all over again.
For advice on all these woes Brazile turns to a man who, from her description, sounds like a former CIA agent. And of course the FBI got involved in the election too, with James Comey driving what she calls his “18 Wheeler” investigation right through the whole thing at the last moment.
That’s where we are today: spies and lies; technocrats and math; fake populism and bad algorithms. How far we have gone from the noble causes for which people like Donna Brazile once signed up.
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