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The DCCC’s Mind Games and the Ballad of Roy Moore

Progressive candidates deserve better than comparisons to Roy Moore and intimidation tactics by establishment heavyweights inside the Democratic Party

With recent polling in swing districts showing clear enthusiasm for a progressive agenda, left-leaning Democratic candidates—and voters too—deserve better this time around than what the DCCC and the Establishment wing of the party served up in 2016. (Photo: The Intercept/Youtube)

It’s bad enough that the business-friendly Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and other establishment Democrats are aggressively tipping the scales in favor of their hand-picked “moderate” candidates in primary contests around the country. It’s even worse that they’ve now taken to defending this strategy by comparing unwelcome progressives to the likes of Roy Moore.

We learned this last point just last week, with the release of a secretly taped conversation between Levi Tillemann and Democratic Party bigwig Steny Hoyer. Tillemann is running for Congress in a Colorado primary against DCCC-backed corporate attorney Jason Crow. In their meeting, Hoyer tells Tillemann that he wants him to drop out of the race, that regardless the DCCC will continue shoveling money into Crow’s campaign coffers, and that the DCCC’s meddling is in order to prevent a Roy Moore scenario, where someone deemed unelectable in the general election was allowed to win the primary.

Hoyer’s invocation of Moore is offensive and worrisome. The former Alabama judge, who lost a special Senate election last December to Democrat Doug Jones, has justly earned his pariah status among those concerned about basic decency and democratic values. That’s not only because of well-documented allegations that he sexually molested young teenage girls. It’s also because he’s claimed that homosexual activity should be outlawed, Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress, and the US Constitution should be ignored in deference to the Ten Commandments.

In short, Moore represents the ugliest strain of the Republican Party: the mistreatment of all who fall short—according to the racist vision of White supremacists. He obviously bears no resemblance whatsoever to progressive candidates resolutely committed to defending the disenfranchised and protecting the common good. Let’s also remember that, in large measure, Moore lost as a result of strong turnout from the African American community, young voters, and other “anti-Trump” voters—all groups not likely to be put off in 2018 by a candidate’s progressive credentials.

But these particular bullying measures from Hoyer and the DCCC, aimed at discouraging primary competition against their preferred candidates, are just specific instances drawn from a much larger repertoire of manipulative persuasion tactics. Indeed, my current work as a psychologist focuses on the “political mind games” of our country’s super-rich and powerful. These deceptive appeals are used with regularity to exploit of our core concerns about vulnerability (Are we safe?), injustice (Are we treated fairly?), distrust (Who should we trust?), superiority (Are we good enough?), and helplessness (Can we control what happens to us?).

More often than not, the most notorious purveyors of lucrative lies and false promises are the likes of Wall Street CEOs, right-wing think tanks, GOP stalwarts, and Fox News. But they don’t have a monopoly on such appeals, and key elements of the Democratic Party establishment—beholden to corporate interests—are making this increasingly clear. In fact, several of the mind games I’ve identified are likely to be recurrent weapons in the DCCC’s efforts to undercut support for progressive primary candidates. Here are three representative examples:

Change Is Dangerous. This is a manipulative vulnerability mind game, used by status quo-defenders whenever they want to obstruct initiatives that could interfere with their ambitions and the established order that serves them so well. It’s a prominent appeal whether we’re talking about tax increases for the wealthy (new investments stifled!), minimum wage hikes (forced layoffs!), new regulations to address climate change (U.S. businesses unable to compete!), reductions in mass incarceration (crime waves!), or gun control measures (defenseless citizens!). For the DCCC, their own evidence-free claims are similar: Support for progressive candidates in our primaries will catastrophically backfire and leave everyone worse off when the GOP wins the general election.

They’re Misguided and Misinformed. With this distrust mind game, political elites depict their opponents as naively wrongheaded, arguing that they lack an adequate appreciation of complex issues. So, we’re told that reformers don’t understand the real causes of the problems they seek to fix, and that their proposed remedies will only make matters worse. When these negative characterizations stick, the public becomes less likely to mobilize in support of change agents because we doubt their credibility. This ploy became standard operating procedure in the 1%’s campaign to discredit Occupy Wall Street, and it remains a familiar tactic aimed at marginalizing opposition to overreaching government policies. In a similarly disingenuous manner, DCCC leaders portray themselves as the pragmatic experts and progressive hopefuls as the unsophisticated novices who don’t merit the party’s support.

Resistance Is Futile. When it’s successful, this helplessness mind game squelches the political mobilization necessary to challenge an unjust status quo. Psychologically, if we feel our actions are futile, that to persevere is a waste of time and energy, sooner or later we stop trying. Without perceiving some reasonable likelihood of success, the natural response is to abandon the fight. In the broader context, we see this appeal used by one-percenters to perpetuate racial inequities in education and incarceration, to exploit low-wage workers, and to exercise control over our electoral politics. For the DCCC, this same appeal is used to demoralize, ostracize, and ultimately sideline progressive candidates who dare to disobey the leadership’s rules about who’s allowed to run and who isn’t.

For some, this may appear to be nothing more than behind-the-scenes hardball politics. As Hoyer dismissively explained to Tillemann when questioned about the DCCC’s placing its thumb on the scale, “Staying out of primaries sounds small-D democratic, very intellectual, and very interesting.” But let’s recall that the Democratic establishment used similar strategies and mind games in confidently working to ensure that Hilary Clinton was the candidate running against the supposedly unelectable Donald J. Trump in 2016. Especially with recent polling in swing districts showing clear enthusiasm for a progressive agenda, these candidates—and voters too—deserve better this time around.

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Roy Eidelson

Roy Eidelson is the former executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, and a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. His latest book is, Political Mind Games: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible.

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