It’s genuinely baffling that Richard Cohen still occupies a place of prominence on the Washington Post opinion page. The only time you ever hear about something he’s written is when he blurps up a column so obtuse, horrific, sexist, horny, or racist that someone like me musters the requisite energies to point out how obtuse, horrific, sexist, horny, or racist it is. He’s good for the occasional hate-read traffic bump and that’s about it. And yet he just keeps on cranking out his flaccid, miserable takes and taking up space that could be better utilized by columnists whose worldviews have progressed beyond the Reagan era.
In his latest offering, Cohen reacts to the energy and enthusiasm surrounding NY-14 Democratic nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who vaulted to national prominence with her upset victory over House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and she ran, in part, on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These two facts are highly worrisome to Cohen, who frets that they’ll be used by President Donald Trump and the Republicans to attack Democrats.
“The trouble with left-wing Democrats is that they lack a proper respect for right-wing demagoguery,” Cohen writes as his thesis. “Hence, at the moment, many of them extol socialism ... and are calling for the abolition of ICE, generously giving President Trump yet another opportunity to demagogue on immigration. They will, if allowed, declaim their way to another defeat.”
This is, not surprisingly, a precisely backward diagnosis of what ails the modern Democratic Party. Democrats have been obsessively and self-destructively worried about what nasty things Republicans and conservatives will say if they don’t come off as sufficiently “moderate.” And when they try to mollify the right they still get the full blast of right-wing demagoguery. John Kerry voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, and in 2004 he got torn apart by the right as a weakling and terrorist sympathizer. President Barack Obama implemented a record-setting increase in deportations to show Republicans how tough he was on border security, and comprehensive immigration reform still tanked because the hard-right faction in the House called him an open-borders amnesty lover.
Now Cohen is worried that Trump and the Republicans will start calling Democrats “socialists” because New York voters elected Ocasio-Cortez. “To [older voters], the socialist label is anathema and, as far as I’m concerned, unnecessary,” he writes. “This, after all, is the avuncular socialism of Bernie Sanders: universal Medicare and free higher education. It needs no label. Sign me up.” (“No label”? What a fresh and intriguing concept!)
Because Cohen has his head stuck in 1983’s ass, it never occurs to him that several decades worth of Democratic maneuvering to avoid overt associations with “socialism” has done nothing to deter Republicans from calling them “socialists.” But he wants Democrats to keep playing this losing game according to Republican rules because that’s how politics has worked for the length and breadth of his career and his brain is too ossified to contemplate an alternative.
“The socialist label, combined with the demand to obliterate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is the nitro and the glycerin of a bomb that Trump can throw at the Democrats,” Cohen continues, writing that Trump will seize on #AbolishICE to stoke white identity politics and capitalize on “resentment and fury.” Once again, I have to wonder whether Cohen has paid any attention to politics in the last decade. Donald Trump’s entire political identity is rooted in white resentment and xenophobia, and he requires no excuse to stoke racial grievance for his own benefit.
Neither Trump nor the GOP actually care what the Democratic position on ICE or immigration is; they’ll all be smeared with the same shit-laden brush regardless. Take, as a timely example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who supports abolishing ICE, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who says “we've got to critically re-examine ICE”: They were both attacked by the White House this week as crime lovers and gang supporters.
The democratic-socialist movement in the U.S. is resurgent and is proving to be a source of energy and intensity within Democratic politics. So, naturally, Cohen wants it diluted to nothingness. “ICE could certainly use some restraint,” he writes. “And some aspects of democratic socialism are welcome.” But “speak no more of socialism,” he concludes, because that accursed word might angry up the already angry reactionaries and nativists in power. This is a variation of the tiresome “civility” game that privileges bad-faith actors and lets them set the rules for how we talk about politics. Right-wing demagoguery deserves no respect, and no one should ever listen to Richard Cohen.