by Alex Fischer
Many knew that Obama and the Democratic Party’s failure to bring ‘hope’ and ‘change’ left the Democratic Party vulnerable. Few, however predicted the party would actually implode by 2016.
Those who did, realized the ground would be fertile for implosion especially if: The Dems followed Obama’s two terms —polices of prolonging the War on Terror, starting new wars in Africa and Yemen, bombing Libya into a ‘failed state,’ bailing out “too big to fail” banks, only recovering the economy for the 1%, repressing Occupy Wall Street, enacting the Affordable Care Act, and supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership —with a 2016 Presidential campaign “consensus script” of: “just keep calm, things will get better, trust what we’re doing.”
Not only was Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign not Obama-esque enough, she “deliberately moved to his right on security and foreign policy issues.” In fact, “Clinton’s move to the right [in the policy areas toward Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Russia, and Afghanistan] persuaded many so-called ‘Neo-Conservatives’ that they should seriously consider supporting her.
Thus, the Dems imploded in the 2016 Presidential election. Perhaps they could have avoided this by delivering to their left and progressive bases under Bill Clinton and Obama. Or maybe by running (Hillary) Clinton on a progressive platform. Or by nominating Sanders and riding the surge of their progressive base to the White House. Instead they deliberately undermined Bernie Sanders, nominated Clinton, and even perversely bolstered Trump as her opposition.
The Clinton camp assumed Trump was an easy political target to juxtapose against her under the following suppositions: If elected Clinton would become the first woman President in the US, she was experienced, Trump was not, she supported LGBTQA+, Blacks, Latinos, Women, Unions; Trump was racist, sexist, xenophobic, called Mexicans rapists, wanted to build a new wall on the US/Mexico border, etc.
Despite decades of failure to deliver to their progressive base, and the 2016 Presidential race failures, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly 3 million, though the Dems lost the White House to the electoral college.
The Dems and Clinton did just enough to fail. As opposed to reflecting their progressive base and becoming the much stronger party, the Dems decided to shut out their progressive base, even if it meant gambling on a Presidential election. Nominating Hillary Clinton for President in 2016 was a risk the Democratic Party was willing to take if it meant undermining their progressive base led by Bernie Sanders.
No left influence
A 2014 study of the mid-term elections from that year by Political Scientists Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham concluded that “The major parties appeared to be breaking down as mass organizing vehicles…” In other words, after the historically low and dismal voter turnout in the 2014 mid-term elections, it was foreseeable that things needed to be shaken up in the American political process and the candidates it offered.
What do you know? 2016 offered us two extremely popular outsiders in Sanders and Trump. The Republicans and especially Steve Bannon drew the right conclusions from the type of information Ferguson and Burnham analyzed. The Democrats, either did not, or did not want to.
The Democrats — contrary to such findings and contrary to the Republican strategy of suffering through Trump for the sake of winning the Presidency — ran not on the strength of Sanders and his policies, but on Clinton and identity issues. Clinton campaigned on identity issues at the cost of ignoring policy content in an unprecedented manner.
When it came to nominating a candidate, the Democrats “deliberately and knowingly chose the weaker candidate” when “in virtually every poll [seven months prior to the election], [Clinton’s] rival, Bernie Sanders, [did] better, often much better, in head-to-head match-ups against every possible GOP candidate.” Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept brilliantly and soberly summarized the result:
“Trump did not become president and the Republicans do not dominate virtually all levels of government because there is some sort of massive surge in enthusiasm for right-wing extremism. Quite the contrary: This all happened because the Democrats are perceived – with good reason – to be out of touch, artificial, talking point-spouting automatons who serve Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the agenda of endless war, led by millionaires and funded by oligarchs to do the least amount possible for ordinary powerless citizens while still keeping their votes.”
Such an analysis helps us to focus on the reality and the context in which the Democratic Party operates, and not simply on the Russia-gate narrative, anti-Trump politics, and assuming better Democratic candidates will come along to save us. The reality is that the Democratic Party leadership class, often referred to as “Wall Street Democrats,” has the ability to undermine its progressive base at the cost of gambling away the Presidency by nominating the establishment candidate who was less likely to win than her counterpart.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that the Democratic Party leadership is both unwilling and incapable of supporting and riding their left and progressive waves even when these waves are carrying the party* and have a strong (if not the only) chance of competing in an election. Or, as Clio Chang of The New Republic argued in her analysis of Keith Ellison’s loss in the 2016 race to head the DNC: “It seems the Democratic leaders prioritize ensuring that the left has no influence in their party over strengthening itself to beat the Trump-led Republicans.”
The Democratic Party leadership is simply more responsive to investors than to voters, hence the term “Wall Street Democrats.” Just look at what Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told an NYU student in her recent CNN Town Hall meeting. The student quoted a 2016 Harvard study which found that 51% of people ages 18-29 no longer support capitalism, then posed a question. Pelosi contemptuously responded, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.” The Democrats have long been more loyal to capitalists and their needs than voters/workers and their needs. Though some may be surprised, this is nothing new. Perhaps the only thing new is the honesty.
The long right turn
In the 1980s the Democratic Party leadership began to successfully shift the party rightward in spite of its growing and influential left factions. In their 1986 book Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers dubbed this shift: Policy realignment without electoral realignment. They considered the shift to have occurred because “The fundamental ‘market’ for political parties in the US [was being defined] not [by] individual voters [but] by major investors.” Ferguson and Rogers further wrote, “What changed [by the 1984 election] … was voter’s perception of the Democrats as macroeconomic managers,” and that “on economic issues, the Democrats offered voters almost nothing in 1984.”
As the 2016 election shows, the Democratic Party has continued in this trend. Voters did not fall for Clinton’s empty, policy-lacking rhetoric in 2016. The title of an article by Aída Chávez at The Intercept says its all, “Polling shows running on progressive policies would work in swing districts.” What do you know! Democrats can win elections by advocating for and supporting policies the more progressive base wants. Just like in 1984, 2016 marks a disconnect with what establishment Democrats are offering, and what their progressive base wants.
Change the system
It is simple to suggest that running candidates on more progressive platforms and nominating someone like Sanders over Clinton will win the Democrats elections. What is more difficult is relying on the political process for change.
Even if more Sanders-type candidates, “outsiders” (like Trump himself) were to become victorious in major elections, should we expect to rely on the Democratic Party to lead us/ to become once again a “mass organizing vehicle?” Early twentieth-century Presidential candidate and socialist Eugene Debs once lamented that electing (socialist) representatives is not socialism any more than a menu is meal.
The problem is that even if progressive candidates appeal to the progressive base and become elected, there is no ensuring that their representation will translate into ending wars, solving climate change, socializing wealth, broadening the welfare state, taxing the rich, creating jobs, aligning with workers and students, becoming more liberal, or anything of the sort. This is because we cannot expect representatives to represent us, as opposed to their donor base.
We must interrogate Eugene Deb’s comment. Why is it, that electing who represents us, even Sanders, might not transpire? Our elected representatives cannot instill political power over the capitalist class because they are beholden to the capitalist class. We should certainly elect progressives and socialists here and there if we can. But they alone will not amount to a majority in which we can hope for sweeping revolutionary change. Maybe what was perhaps the greatest finding from the report by Political Scientists Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen can assist us:
… popular control of the state depends on the extent to which ordinary citizens can bear those costs … [T]o control the state citizens need to be able to share costs and pool resources easily… this requires functioning organizations – unions, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, etc…If existing parties are not controlled by voters, then they have to undertake the comparatively expensive process of running candidates of their own. To the extent that “secondary” organizations flourish, or the population directly invests its own resources in candidates, popular control of the state and effective mass political movements will flourish. Where investment and organization by average citizens is weak, however, power passes by default to major investor groups, which can far more easily bear the costs of contending for control of the state.”
In other words, people can control the state and decision making, not necessarily by electing candidates, but to the extent that they can “pool resources” for “mass political movement.” Is the Democratic Party really grounds for cultivating progressive politics, or is such an orientation destined to co-optation?
I would argue that political parties are grounds, but not very fertile grounds. We should never expect change to come simply by choosing representatives. We have to focus on democratizing society and building mass movements. We must deal with not only the political class, but the capitalist class, and re-engage with ourselves as the working class.
It is more likely that we can instil a political cost on existing representatives, rather than campaign for a candidate and have them deliver. Either way, mass movements must exist that can instill a political cost on the decision maker, i.e. “Instill our policies or you will lose office!”
Furthermore, however, it is in our institutions and the spaces we take up during the day, week, and years that we can democratize because we are always there. The employer class or capitalists, who appropriate the surplus we produce currently has more power than the working class who actually produces the surplus. We as a working class have not only to battle with a Democratic Party that shuts out its progressive base at the cost of responding to its investor base, but also to battle with the capitalists themselves.
This is how we must focus our political energy on a path to a conscious economy and society with thriving democratic infrastructure. Let’s read the signs of Democratic Party failure and the grip capitalism has on the party, do our homework, organize, struggle, strike, walk-out, sit-in, and remake decision making processes to gain power in how we produce, reproduce, and appropriate the fruits of our labor.
In the long 20th century, the Dems have proven futile in ensuring the longevity of success, as well as reaching new checkpoints. I am not saying don’t vote. I am simply saying that when our work and homework are done, then maybe we can discuss going to the Party. As long as we are represented, we must ensure our representatives are scared to lose elections and must act on our behalf. But we must be political actors through and through. In order to build egalitarian democracy, and a peaceful world that moves away from ecocide, we must practice democracy.
Alex Fischer is pursuing a Masters degree in Political Science at Lehigh University and a member of the Beyond Capitalism Working Group. He lives in Bethlehem, Pa. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“I’m not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans. We’ll get to them in a minute. But it is true; you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last…The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party…Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don’t wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of.”