Tilting at Windmills?
Two months have passed since the 2018 midterm elections, yet Democrats are already jumping into the 2020 Presidential race with many more candidates on the way. Typically, candidates are reluctant to go against an incumbent, but the Democrats smell blood in the water with the Trump Presidency.
This is another “new face” moment when Party leaders sense that Democratic Party voters are angry at nearly all of the US institutions and disgusted with past choices.
Earlier moments of flagging voter confidence necessitated fresh faces to bolster class rule. For example, in the wake of the Nixon fiasco, the Democrats found a relatively unknown “aw shucks” peanut farmer/governor from the South. Jimmy Carter, a “Mr. Clean Jeans” with an unblemished record as an administrator, served in sharp contrast to the Nixon sleaze machine. By 1978, he had betrayed the last iteration of a progressive, New Deal-like Democratic platform and roused the somnolent then “lion of the Senate”– Ted Kennedy– to run against him in the next primary.
Bill Clinton, another governor, but this time with youth and charm, rode the health care issue to victory. It is easy to forget that universal, low-cost healthcare was the number-one issue nearly thirty years ago and still remains unsolved. And every Democratic candidate will run in 2020 again on healthcare reform, though the Democratic Party leadership is working overtime to stealthily dilute any popular “Medicare for All” program in order to make it corporate friendly.
The twin catastrophe of costly wars and a collapsing economy associated with the Bush administration drove public confidence in US institutions to a new low. Once again, ruling class legitimacy required confidence builders. Seizing the opportunity, the Democrats offered both a reliable, established policy hand– Hillary Clinton– and a new fresh, untainted face– Barack Obama. Both came with a bonus appeal to urban social liberals and identitarians: first woman President or first African American President.
Obama proved better suited to ruling class purposes, raising and spending over twice as much money as McCain in the general election.
Like Carter, Obama was all promise and little change. Despite two years of rare command of both the legislative and the executive branches, Obama only delivered on a Rube Goldberg health care bill written by the insurance industry. Of course, its failings are the reason that the healthcare crisis remains at the top of national issues.
Frustration with “hope and change” opened the back door to the vile Donald Trump and his military/con men coterie. Trump became a gift to the Democratic Party and the deeply discredited media (polls show that most people thought that the media was a monger for “fake news” well before Trump coined the term). With Trump’s bombast and crudity, Democrats and cable news windbags can trash Trump without wrestling with deeper issues. Moreover, they could invent a few issues of their own and further their saber-rattling, militaristic agenda. If your corporate masters won’t allow you to tackle inequality, systemic racism, and deteriorating living conditions, then resort to fear and distraction.
Presented with the prospect of a campaign against a bumbling, egomaniacal Donald Trump burdened with falling approval ratings, a herd of Democratic Party politicians and officials are scraping together cash and scrambling for operatives and supporters. Some are really only jockeying for a Vice-Presidential anointment. Still others, for future consideration or a step up in job title. An announcement and a tour of the hinterlands serves as a beauty contest for some future considerations. But there are still many with sufficient self-regard that they plan to run for a shot at Trump.
What’s new in this election– or appears to be new– is a sizable, pesky left wing in the Democratic Party. To be sure, the Party’s left today is a tepid left by historic or international standards. But economic duress often generates a left turn. It is established that younger people’s fate was the most damaged product of a decade of halting growth, greater inequality, and fewer opportunities for better jobs in the wake of the 2007-2008 collapse. So it is no surprise that “socialism”– ill-defined socialism– is more popular with youth than it has been in many generations.
Bernie Sanders brought the idea of socialism into a Democratic Party that had even cast off the term “liberal,” embracing “progressive” in its place. Cold War Democrats rivaled Republicans in denouncing socialism.
Of course Bernie embraced Scandinavian-style social democracy, but his use of the forbidden word was welcome indeed.
It is worth remembering that the Sanders primary campaign in 2016 garnered 46% of the delegates at the Democratic Convention despite the widespread sabotage of his campaign by the Party leadership and the powerful effect of conservative superdelegates. Sanders polled well against all of the Republican candidates and in states later critical to Trump’s victory. Nothing demonstrates better the dissatisfied mood of the country two years ago.
But since 2016, the Democratic Party establishment has shown no interest in embracing, even tolerating Sanders-style leftism. They have marshalled a host of arguments– pragmatic, technical, seldom ideological arguments– about electability, diversity, demographics, experience, etc. They muster a slew of “realities”– budgetary limits, need to compromise, unintended consequences, etc.– that hinder change. They aim to paternalistically keep the Party’s left within the tent without even remotely advancing a left agenda.
To a great extent, Sanders has made their work easier. Aside from some minor Convention reforms, he has neither asked nor demanded any substantial programmatic changes in the Party. He has loyally supported the Party, its strategy, and its candidates since the last Presidential election. Unlike insurgent counterparts in the Republican Party, Sanders makes no non-negotiable demands; he refuses to elevate principles above accommodation to the Democratic Party center. Whether Sanders consciously serves the Party (“sheep-dogging”) or naively believes that he can maneuver among shameless corporate Democrats is irrelevant. He has crippled his effectiveness.
The current face of the left ‘insurgency’ within the Democratic Party is the youthful, attractive and very able Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What is not surprising is how the Democratic Party establishment and its media henchmen have lined up against her. What is surprising is how deft she has been in meeting their often ridiculous attacks. Tainted Democrats from millionaire Whoopi Goldberg to Neanderthal Joe Lieberman have dismissively scorned her.
Where she wants to go, where she will be allowed to go with her streak of relative independence is yet to be determined. But surely, her challenging of the Democratic Party leadership is an exciting development.
Ocasio-Cortez’s introduction of a 70% marginal tax rate for mega-salaries was a surprise, a welcome and politically shrewd surprise. For the Democrats who speak “progressive” when they are out of power, this idea presents an embarrassing problem. Pelosi and her cohorts have indignantly attacked Trump over his tax breaks for the rich and corporations, but they will never embrace a real, concrete, and popular tax policy as a centerpiece in the coming election.
Ocasio-Cortez has also drawn attention to the notion of a “Green New Deal.” Despite the fact that the term remains more of a slogan than a policy– how much Green? how much New Deal?– Democratic Party policy wonks and the new House leadership are blocking anything even remotely related to crafting such a policy.
For those who were snookered by the contrived faux-progressivism of the “community-organizer” legend, Barack Obama, Ocasio-Cortez presents a more credible role model.
Of the early Presidential prospects, the hollow corporate Democrats would likely be most happy with Beto O’Rourke, the upstart who raised a record $83 million dollars to run a Senatorial campaign that advanced virtually no serious issues. With a name that is instantly a campaign slogan and with overflowing congeniality, O’Rourke defines the “moderate” candidate sought by empty suits.
In the Obama mold of attractive, youthful and flamboyantly moderate candidates are Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar. All are ambitious, anxious to please, and ill-disposed to advance a peoples’ agenda.
Similarly, the avuncular crowd– Joe Biden and sleepy Bob Casey– are dependable centrists and accommodators, but not likely to answer to the “new face” moment.
Representing the Party’s left, Sanders remains the most viable candidate, though the media has already begun to dig up dirt to undermine his chances. Should he falter, Elizabeth Warren offers a Sanders-lite candidate with a credible record of assailing the bankers around the financial crisis, but little policy-wise beyond repeating that she is an advocate for the “middle class.”
The most intriguing candidate is Tulsi Gabbard, the only Democrat to dare to challenge the Democratic Party foreign policy consensus. Gabbard has courageously and vocally defied the apologists for US wars and US interventions throughout the world. Nearly alone, she has stood against the war mongers who stoke confrontations and aggression, and she has even defended Syria’s right to peacefully determine its own future. Measured against almost any Democrat, her congressional record and her public positions today are decidedly the most radically advanced.
Yet the attacks on her candidacy began almost immediately after she announced plans to run. Rather than weigh her legislative record, her projected issues, critics dredged statements made in her youth and misstatements since renounced. They accuse her of being “left hard-realist” in outlook, “homophobic,” “virulent anti-gay activist” (CNN,Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Daily Kos etc., etc.), loved by the “Conservative Media and the Far Right” (The Daily Beast) and on and on. ad nauseum. Many liberals and the moderate left– especially the speech moralizers– shook their fingers in Gabbard’s direction over past indiscretions. Significantly, one of Gabbard’s openly gay House colleagues, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, came to her defense. Her voting record with the organization that claims to represent the greatest number of sexually diverse members is 100%.
But it can’t go unnoticed that the same standards are not applied to other candidates. No one has challenged Elizabeth Warren for being a Republican until am epiphony in1995. No one is probing the past views of the many “liberal” Bible-thumping Christians who populate the House and Senate and run for office. If they attend churches that oppose abortion or same-sex marriage, does that not disqualify them? Or do we judge them on their own current public posture, as we should?
And recall the sickening obituaries by these same news sites a month ago of ex-CIA chief, Reaganaut George HW Bush, eulogies that found nothing to fault in his loathsome history. All was forgiven.
No, the real grounds for the attack on Gabbard lie elsewhere. Gabbard dared to question the official narrative that Assad is a butcher and the US should push to overthrow him. She also criticized Israeli apartheid, another foreign policy disqualifier with the media, the pundits, and the Democratic Party leadership.
It should not be lost on the Democratic Party left that no other candidate will speak as boldly on these issues, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And it should not be lost on the left, in general, that no prominent Democratic leader has stepped up to defend Gabbard’s foreign policy positions, her right to legitimately hold them, or her right to run for President on these issues.
Denied a sense of history by 24-hour cable news noise and suffering social media addiction, it should come as no surprise that most voters demonstrate no grasp of the history of reformism, of insurgencies in the Democratic Party. As some left pundits like to remind us: “The Democratic Party is where good ideas go to die!”
There is much truth in this epigram. With the exception of extraordinary moments like the Great Depression and the 1960s mass insurgencies, the Democratic Party as an institution has shown overwhelming resistance to any movement to change its character from fealty to the capitalist agenda. Its existence as an opposition force is based solely on cultivating an image moderately distant from the other more shamelessly pro-corporate, unabashedly capitalist party. For the most part, the Republican Party has established the capitalist, ruling class line and the Democrats have occupied a position minimally to the left of that line, an option available when the preferred line falters. That would appear to be the logic of a two-party system when both parties are capitalist.
The details of history support this thesis. Within a few years of the close of the Second World War, the Democrats were in retreat from Roosevelt’s New Deal vision, especially its foreign policy. The turbulent sixties were dampened by assassinations that effectively disrupted electoral politics and frightened potential insurgents who likely suspected that the spate of assassinations was more than a coincidence.
When Senator George McGovern secured the Democratic Party nomination in 1972 and promised to further democratize the process, extend the Great Society, and revise US foreign policy, the media, the Democratic Party establishment, a conservative labor leadership, and Cold Warriors subverted, sabotaged his campaign and emboldened the re-elected Nixon administration.
When that same Nixon administration was disgraced and the Republican Party damaged, the Democrats enjoyed a rare freedom of action with a veto-proof House and Senate domination in 1976. The platform promised a reduction in military spending, full employment, a low-income housing policy, comprehensive national health insurance with universal coverage, acceptance of busing for racial integration, rejection of nuclear energy, and a host of other progressive reforms. This was to be the last New Deal-like Democratic platform. It was betrayed within two years.
By the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party was reborn as Reaganism-lite. As The New York Times noted, virtually all of the reforms of the 1976 and 1980 platforms were discarded. In their place was a new focus: “The  platform contrasts in a number of key areas with the 1976 platform on which Jimmy Carter and Mr. Mondale were elected, and the differences say a good deal about the path the party has chosen this year. Abortion and Homosexual Rights.”
In place of welfare-related programs, the Democrats offered “Cost containment.”
“The 1984 platform mentions marijuana for the first time in its section on crime and drug control,” signaling the Democrats’ developing fixation on criminalizing drug use. “What may be the only overt mention of liberalism in the 1984 platform,” The New York Times notes, “maintains that the answer to crime is ‘neither a permissive liberalism nor a static conservatism.’”
Similarly, the Democrats’ fascination with global, unfettered markets emerged at this time: In the view of The New York Times, “The party is more concerned about world trade now than it was in 1976, with attention rising from two paragraphs to nearly 2,000 words. Very little of the campaign protectionist language survived into the final draft, however, which observes that ‘the international economy is the area in which we must compete.’”
As the grand liberal chronicler, The New York Times, underscores above, the 1984 Democratic Party platform marked a watershed in the abandonment of New Deal thinking in the party, a change that entrenched even further in the ensuing years. By the election of Bill Clinton, the process was completed, allowing the Democrats to successfully attack and dismantle the New Deal welfare system. An attempt by Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize social security was only derailed with the distraction of Monica Lewinsky.
Of course, there were insurgencies along the way– some shallow, some Quixotic. The Kennedyesque Gary Hart campaign was hollow and symbolic; Jesse Jackson successfully broke through the racial barriers constraining a Black national candidate by projecting a remarkably radical economic and peace program in the primaries, only to be buried by corporate fundraising funneled to the Democratic establishment; the Deaniac campaign of Howard Dean was innovative and boldly challenging of the war consensus, but was sunk by a corporate media exercising its powers to submerge Dean under waves of derision.
History suggests that the Democratic Party is a corporate monolith only moved to change in order to meet profound crisis coupled with extreme mass pressure. Even then, it remains a capitalist party, a party that puts the interests of capital before all else. And when it is forced to make concessions, its corporate masters move as quickly as possible to reverse them.
History shows that these moments of concession are extremely rare. Nonetheless, new generations of well-meaning activists are intent upon foregoing the more radical– actually the more promising, but more tasking– alternatives of independent, revolutionary politics. As insurgents have in the past, they will attempt to reform the nonreformable.
One can only hope that when the new generation, excited again by the idea of socialism, recognizes the futility of transforming the Democratic Party, they will not fall into cynicism and settle for polishing the capitalist apple. One can only hope that they will find a home where they are more welcome.