The Tricky Semiotics of Tom and Sheldon

It’s time once again to do a close reading. Today’s subject, the email sent by Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, two state senators who claim to be proud Democrats, even as they hand the political chamber they’re in over to the Republicans.

We’re proud Democrats who represent our districts, not a party.

So say the senators in the title of their letter. Starting with the assertion that they’re not just Democrats but “proud” Democrats, they proceed immediately to an antithesis–“who represent our districts, not a party” whose parallelism tries to skirt a fundamental paradox: what does it mean for Shelton and Tom to declare themselves Democrats (whatever their degree of pride) if they in no way represent the Democratic party. It is true that all representatives in government, regardless of party, represent their districts, but voters in each district cast votes for candidates, at least in part, because those candidates represent parties that those voters think ought to be in charge of the legislative or executive functions of government.

Here’s a question we have never heard from a constituent: “Why can’t you be more partisan and divisive and forget about getting things done?”

Believe it or not, the state Democratic Party is saying just that. In a resolution adopted at its recent central committee meeting in Olympia, the state party charged us with not reflecting “Democratic values” and being “disloyal” to the party.

Senators Tom and Sheldon’s opening gambit is a straw man argument. While the resolution they’re talking about does say that the duo has been “disloyal” and that they don’t reflect “Democratic values”, nothing in what they quote demands that they either act in a more partisan fashion or that they should “forget about getting things done”. Instead, the Senators open with a quote that they claim no one has said, then assert, without foundation, that “state Democrats” said it.

Why? Because in December we openly recognized the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans in the state Senate possessed the 25 votes needed to effectively govern. We understand that it is the role of political parties to put politics before all else, but as elected officials and leaders, we have a higher responsibility. We have to get things done.

The construction here is tricky. In this passage the senators position themselves outside of both parties, speaking of “Democrats and Republicans” as if they belong to neither group. This allows the senators to omit something that would bear directly on their claim of being “Proud Democrats”: they were the 25th and 26th votes for the Democrats in the state senate, which would have given Democrats full control of the chamber, its committee chair assignments, and its agenda. Because “effectively” has no clear meaning in that sentence–what is the difference between de jure control and “effective” control?–it’s a weasel word.

The next line, “We understand that it is the role of political parties to put politics before all else, but as elected officials and leaders, we have a higher responsibility.” is another straw man gambit. The role of political parties in democracies is to organize large groups of people with common political interests so they can put like-minded officials into office in hope of influencing legislative and administrative decisions. It is rare for a political party, or a political leader, to put politics above “all” else. “All” contains quite a lot. Not even Stalin, as political an animal as ever there was, put politics above “all” (which was why, when Hitler invaded his country, Stalin partnered with ideological enemies Roosevelt and Churchill). If Democrats in the state senate are more obstinate than Stalin, the burden falls to Senators Tom and Sheldon to prove it, not to merely assert it.

As for their “higher responsibility”, which prefaces the final sentence’s “We have to get things done”: it’s a glittering generality. We all love higher responsibilities and getting things done. Arguments start over what things actually need doing and what methods are the best ones to accomplish them. We have parties precisely because we disagree on these issues.

As the two Democratic members of the Senate’s new Majority Coalition Caucus, we find this accusation of “disloyalty” to be small-minded, petty and factually untrue. We have never betrayed our core beliefs, and regardless of what some self-important potentates in Olympia and Seattle pronounce, we are still proud Democrats.

 

The senators are free to find the accusation of disloyalty “small-minded and petty”, but they might be in some trouble with the “factually untrue”. While the senators deny betraying their “core beliefs”–an unfalsifiable claim–what is certainly true is that they accepted money, volunteers, and organizational support from a party that, at minimum, expected to have their vote when the question of chamber leadership came up. It is the senators’ refusal to do so that has (understandably) poisoned their relationship with other Democrats. When the senators go further to assert that “regardless of what some self-important potentates in Olympia and Seattle pronounce, we are still proud Democrats”, what they’re saying is “When other Democrats, whom we dislike and insult, say we’re no longer acceptable members of their party, we are anyway, because we say we are.”

Exactly what part of encouraging job creation, creating a quality, well-funded education system and producing a sustainable, balanced budget is a betrayal of Democratic values?

Nothing, actually. But again the senators are conducting the reader into the land of glittering generality. Using the same paragraph, the senators could have just as easily denied having betrayed Republican values, Libertarian values, Social Democratic values, or Bolshevik values.

As far as our loyalty is concerned, we are loyal to the principles we have always held and to the constituents who have sent us to Olympia. We are not switching sides. We always have, and always will, be on the side of the people we represent, and side with them over any political party.

 

Again, that may be true. But the majorities in the senators’ districts didn’t vote for Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon (Principles We Have Always Held–WA). They voted for Democrats. By choosing to give the opposition party control of the senate, they are “switching sides”. And while there’s a certain sentimental charge in a line like “We always have, and always will, be on the side of the people we represent, and side with them over any political party,” the truth they’re avoiding is that the people they represent voted for something that their senators are refusing to let them have: a Democratic senate. If that’s what it means to be on their side, what would thwarting them look like?

Most politicians who find operating within one political party intolerable either switch parties or run as independents. There’s an honesty in this, an honesty with Senators Tom and Sheldon can’t seem to muster. No one would have stopped them from organizing and running as Independents or Republicans if that was what they felt they had to do. Instead, they want the presumed electoral advantage of running as Democrats in Democratic constituencies, without taking on the one obligation that running as a Democrat requires. It’s understandable that they don’t want to put it this way, which explains why their letter is filled with vague, dishonest rhetoric.

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