It's as If They're Trying to Lose: Democrats' Optimism Ignores the Struggles of Millions
Writing in 2008, months before the year's presidential election, Ezra Klein — an ostensibly clear-headed, data-driven policy wonk — lavished effusive praise upon Barack Obama, praise that verged on the metaphysical.
"Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate," Klein informed readers of The American Prospect. "He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I've heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence."
Though they so frequently congratulate themselves for their ability to jettison emotion and opinion in the service of objectivity and respectability, mainstream analysts often, as Klein did above, forget their self-professed role precisely when it would best serve the country.
For the eventual victory of Obama in 2008 was also — as Noam Chomsky, Adolph Reed, and others noted at the time — a victory for the advertising industry: Obama's success represented an astounding achievement for the politics of imagery and personality, for a political message that provides a kind of blank slate onto which voters can project their ideological preferences.
Having been enraptured by the brilliant oratory and soaring rhetoric, self-described wonks failed to notice that, behind this rhetoric, there was very little of substance.
Some, however, did get it.
"As far as political positioning goes, his strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view," Matt Taibbi wrote of Obama in 2007. "His political ideal is basically a rehash of the Blair-Clinton 'third way' deal, an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle."
Since Democrats began their rapid ideological transformation in the 1970's, this has been a consistent theme: They have attempted to present themselves as reasonable and non-ideological, the party in which facts reign over emotions and idealism.
This prominent "smug style in American liberalism," as Emmett Rensin puts it, "insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts."
In reality, however, as John Dewey noted many decades ago, in American politics, "reasonableness" often serves as an effective equivalent of "subservience" to corporate power and to the economic order held in place by such power.
In order to remain palatable to business interests bankrolling their political ambitions, Democrats did away with "hard positions on issues" — such as robust support for the causes of organized labor — and instead focused on vague notions of pragmatism and, increasingly, on identity politics.
While 2016 has in many ways been a diversion from decades-long trends within both of America's dominant parties, in other ways, it has been more of the same.
Last week, President Obama delivered a speech at the Democratic convention and, by all accounts, it was masterfully performed and inspiring in the face of the grim vision put forward by Donald Trump.
Still, there was a sense that something was missing — that there was a disconnect from the material realities facing millions of Americans, as well as those affected by American policies abroad.
As Nando Vila noted after the president's speech, the picture painted by political elites so often serves as a sharp contrast to the lived experience on the ground, the experience of those who feel most deeply the impact of political maneuvering and American military force.
While listening to the speech, Vila felt what many others felt: Inspiration, optimism, even pride. But one moment, he recounts, shook him from his reverie.
"I heard," he writes, "a lone voice shouting, 'Stop killing children!'"
Referring to the drone program that has been intensified under President Obama, the protester sharply called attention to the massive gulf between the proclamations of our political leaders (and the ideals they claim to hold dear) and the brute material facts.
"Obama transformed America by becoming the nation’s first black president," Vila writes. "In a country built by black slaves, it's an astounding thing. He also transformed America by escalating the drone program, already shadowy and unscrutinized, and making it the focus of the country's war machine."
A criticism frequently leveled at President Obama by his conservative detractors is that he so often maintains the air of a disinterested onlooker. But this criticism can be leveled at the Democratic Party broadly, as it is a party that, as the 2016 convention so thoroughly demonstrated, embraces symbolism over material realities and posture over principle.
Adopting the stance "America is already great" in response to Trump's promise to "make America great again," Democrats have come to fill the role of defenders of the status quo with troubling — though unsurprising — ease.
Despite proclamations that the party's platform is "the most progressive in history," in the world that exists outside of political commitments set down on paper, little seems to have changed. In fact, much has gotten worse.
Democrats, for instance, remain committed (in word) to curbing the influence of corporate money on the political process. But such gestures seem utterly meaningless after a convention that was overflowing with lobbyists and influence-peddlers looking to gain access as protesters marched in the streets, alongside the luxury hotels arranged for the donor class.
"We must have set up five fund-raisers today," one particularly eager Democrat, now running for Congress, said of his work at the convention. "This is the bank."
Throughout the high-profile gathering of delegates and prominent political leaders, Democrats had numerous opportunities to confront Trump's appeal to working class voters by offering an ambitious alternative, one that says, in the words of Eddie Glaude, "business as usual is unacceptable."
Instead, they co-opted right-wing talking points and celebrated the endorsement of a pro-Wall Street billionaire. And in choosing to take the route of patriotism and exceptionalism in the face of national crises — and in choosing, furthermore, to leave the economic order untarnished — Democrats have ceded crucial ground to Trump.
"I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals," Trump said in his speech at the Republican convention. "These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice."
Hillary Clinton, of course, paid fealty to the struggles of working class Americans, but her appeals were laden with an optimism that doesn't comport with the material struggles of millions, including the factory workers of whom Trump spoke. And her approach to change — one that promises incremental gains, even in the face of issues that require radical action — does little to narrow the ever-present gap between rhetoric and reality.
Liberal commentators, believing that criticism of Clinton amounts to de facto support for Trump, have largely remained silent on this front, choosing instead to celebrate the values expressed by the convention's star-studded lineup.
But values, to paraphrase R.L. Stephens, are only meaningful when they inform action.
For all of their professed commitments to egalitarian and progressive goals, Democrats have repeatedly been the enemies of these very same objectives.
"Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people," writes Thomas Frank. "The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous."
We have reached a point, as Frank and others recognize, where pro-business reactionaries seem more in touch with the feelings of working class Americans than the self-styled progressives wooed by last week's festivities; they are outflanking liberals from the left.
"Instead of reasons for hope, the Democrats offered these voters bromides about optimism: America's best days are always ahead of it, etc., etc.," writes conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru. "Will it be enough in an anxious era, when Americans are deeply dissatisfied with their politicians?"
And it is indeed "an anxious era": Over a million families are surviving on $2.00 a day; over 14 percent of American households are food insecure; income inequality is soaring; wages are stagnant for everyone but those at the very top; people are dying of despair; the infant mortality rate is horrendous; the mass deportations, along with the regime of mass incarceration, continue.
While the media class may have been caught up in the spectacle, Americans see clearly the problems at hand. Because, unlike David Brooks, most don't get to choose to live among "the pain" merely to gain perspective; they live the pain. And as is always the case, those who best understand political realities shaped from above are those who have no choice but to live with the consequences.
"I find it hard to believe she'll do anything for me after taking all this money from these special interest groups," a trucker who backed Bernie Sanders said of Hillary Clinton. "Why will she turn on those people when it's so easy to turn on us?"
This sentiment is not just felt on the margins. Recent polling data suggests that an overwhelming majority of Americans lack confidence in the political system, and rightly so: By failing to deliver material gains to the majority, Democrats and Republicans alike have fed the expanding perception — backed by academic analyses — that politics is a tool used primarily for the benefit of economic elites.
Democrats' attempt to fashion an agenda that has broad, bipartisan appeal — an agenda that eschews ideology for unity and that uses "the fear of a Trump presidency as a bludgeon to keep progressive detractors quiet" — ultimately offers nothing but unsubstantiated assurances that everything will be okay.
There is, however, an explanation that is simpler, and more plausible, than self-sabotage: Corporate Democrats simply have nothing to offer the working class. So instead, they put forward a largely rose-tinted view of the American economy, downplay material struggles, defend the status quo, and offer tepid reforms in the place of solutions that would challenge corporate power.
Is anything else to be expected from the "party of the rich"?
As Fredrik deBoer has noted, you can't have a party that is both devoted to Wall Street and Main Street, to hedge fund managers and the working class, to defense of the economic order and to the radical change necessary to improve the material conditions of the most vulnerable.
So despite their righteous calls for solidarity and hope, Democrats will ultimately, in Emmett Rensin's words, "tilt toward the interests of the powerful. They always do."