Tuesday’s crushing defeat of the centrist Clinton/Obama Democratic Party provides an opening for the American left. The next few years are not going to be pretty, but they could be the beginning of something beautiful.
In 2009, shortly after its most crushing national electoral defeat in 44 years, the GOP was sparked back to life by the tea party insurgency. America’s right wing revived its moribund conservative party with a stark challenge to the Republican establishment. The GOP gained 63 House seats in 2010.
Could the left do something similar to bring the Democrats back to life? Many barriers have to be confronted, but leftist progressives who are serious about making positive changes in our society need to get going now—for two reasons.
First: The moderate, pro-corporate, Democratic Leadership Council wing that has dominated the Democratic Party since 1992 is reeling, unable to compete with a well-funded and reactionary GOP. Without a charismatic frontman or -woman, this Democratic Party cannot mobilize its middle- and working-class base for the simple reason that it doesn’t represent their interests. Only leftist progressives stand for the welfare of average Americans, and they have to stand up, make this distinction and stake their claim before all focus turns to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Second: The country and the world are a mess. The economy, the justice system, the environment, education, immigration and foreign policy are all out of whack. Obama, Hillary and the centrist Democrats aren’t going to set these right; as for the GOP, God forbid. If leftist progressives really believe that their program for America is the best possible program, which they do, the state of the world demands that they get to it right away.
The time is right to strike now. The electoral left has a secret, albeit underutilized, asset. Almost no one in this benighted land knows that the Congressional Progressive Caucus is larger now than the Tea Party Caucus ever has been—yet given its relative influence on the national discourse, the CPC’s anonymity is no surprise. The progressive caucus is simply not as aggressive or as focused a political force as the tea party.
This has to change, and if it does, progressives will go into the next election cycle holding a winning hand. All they have to do is boldly introduce themselves to the public, establish very clearly what they stand for and present themselves as a unified front in 2016. Even if they just hold on to the seats they currently hold, the results will have the appearance of a national victory for a unified insurgent movement.
This might seem like petty gamesmanship, but it’s not. The GOP has been running on economic populism, claiming to represent the interests of working people, and winning elections. To date, the Democrats have failed pathetically to expose this lie—and only leftist progressives can really make the case.
Furthermore, as issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, attacks on the EPA, Social Security reform or the Trans-Pacific Partnership take center stage in the next year, leftist progressives have to fight back as fiercely as the tea party did in Obama’s first year and a half. Fighting the good fight will draw the American people’s support.
Another strategy of the tea party that a progressive insurgency must adopt is a willingness to challenge incumbents—demanding that they support the leftist progressive platform or else. Paradoxically, the gerrymandering that will dominate the national election scene through the 2020 cycle is an asset, as the GOP has created overwhelmingly Democratic districts in which the party nominee has almost no risk of losing.
At the same time, the people in these districts are generally further to the left politically, and they’re conscious of being weakly represented in the political system. In other words, these districts could elect an Angela Davis if she was willing to challenge a faux progressive incumbent. Just like the tea party challenged the GOP mainstream, leftist progressive Democrats need to do the same, except where the GOP got Christine O’Donnell, the Dems would get a new Paul Wellstone or Delores Huerta.
The third asset leftist progressives have is the crescendo of support for either an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders challenge to presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton inside the Democratic Party. At the moment it seems more likely that Sanders will go for it, as Warren has more to lose from a failed effort to topple Clinton.
Although Warren is considered a competitive challenger, a Sanders campaign would provide a vehicle to drive support for a unified progressive slate (he co-founded the CPC in 1991), as the Vermont senator doesn’t fear appearing radical in his convictions. Also, if Sanders, who has been a lifelong independent, runs as a Democrat, it will personify one of the central arguments of this essay: that the millions of people to the left of the milquetoast Democratic Party can enter the party with the express intent of rewriting its policies to build a better world.
But what about money? Can a truly progressive wing of the Democratic Party compete in the era of Citizens United? Isn’t the current Democratic Party wholly addicted to an array of pro-business mega-donors who have been a major force in pushing the party further to the right?
The Democratic Party of recent years can’t even defeat the dysfunctional troglodytes of the GOP. On the one hand, who cares how much money the Democrats raise if they still lose? On the other, it’s not like Hillary Clinton is going to join the GOP. Assuming she runs for president, she will represent the DLC wing of the Democratic Party, and the more “liberal” CEOs from the Fortune 500 will write her checks galore.
What leftist progressives will have to do, while she is giving the same speech every night at $35,000-a-plate dinners, is twofold. First, make this a central issue itself, declaring unwavering opposition to money in politics—shaming opponents as bought people. Most Americans loathe the buying of the political system. This is a winning issue for progressives (and, although progressives can never waver in calling for the end of money in politics, holding true to real leftist progressive convictions will attract financial support). Second, and most importantly, leftist progressives can defeat big money by doing the hard work of building a grass-roots political movement of the left that is honestly inspiring enough to motivate a highly cynical public.
Indeed, this is where the rubber hits the road and, at the outset, it doesn’t look promising. The American electoral system is so degraded, so dominated by interests counter to those of the people, that most progressives, indeed most regular people, choose to steer clear. Compounding this problem, virtually every political campaign has, falsely, claimed to be different—perhaps, most disappointingly, the Obama campaign of 2008.
An essential first step, however, would be committing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to cooperate in an inside-outside strategy that gives voice to activists of all stripes. At the same time that leftist Democrats openly endorse activism in this way, they also need to make the case to the left-wing American polity that significant political change in our society takes place through public policy created by elected representatives. This is a lesson the right wing and corporations know all too well.
Furthermore, since the electoral system is stacked in favor of the two parties, and has remained that way since the end of the Civil War, creating a vital left wing in the Democratic Party is essential unless you’re going to resign yourself to conservative rule. Working for change outside the electoral realm is brilliant, but history shows that in almost all cases activists need real allies on the inside (and a lot of them) to achieve that change.
Another thing a leftist progressive bloc within the Democratic Party can do to win the American people’s faith is make their movement about policies, not candidates. The leftist caucus should guarantee that it will drop its endorsement of any elected official who abandons its platform. The purpose of the movement is to serve the people, not the candidate’s careers or bank accounts.
Of course, this being the 21st century, the movement needs to organize digitally. There have been many critiques of the overreliance on digital campaigns, but they are certainly an essential component of leftist strategy and one place it has a proven track record in electoral politics (see: Obama ’08 and ’12). A powerful progressive electoral insurgency has a singularity like no other cause, since all other leftist progressive movements are subsets of its agenda, and thus it needs to disseminate its message through every one of the left’s significant digital lists and viral social media campaigns (from MoveOn.org’s and organized labor’s, through every grass-roots cause supported in the platform). This can be done through coordinating all these separate groups, but consolidating into one central project for this unifying cause would be the goal. No amount of Koch brother money can interfere with this kind of direct communication.
Most important, if real leftist progressives are going to try to take center stage in the Democratic Party by mobilizing a mass movement of supporters, they need to put forward a compelling, realistic vision for a more prosperous, freer and socially just America—one that can be captured in language as simple as Reagan’s (minus the demagoguery) and that is backed up by rock-solid public policy proposals.
The key to winning the hearts and minds of Americans is to address their primary concerns and anxieties, and do so in a way that paints a promising vision for the immediate future. There’s no mystery about the source of the greatest anxiety: Neoliberal capitalism has placed the vast majority of the population in an economically precarious position. The question is: How do we make this country work for everyone?
This is not as hard as it sounds. Once again, we start with a winning hand. America remains the richest country in the world with assets far beyond any nation in history. The problem is with the distribution of these riches. One of the priorities of a modern political party should be to scour the earth for the best strategies for social, economic organization.
It is no secret that the social democracies of Western Europe (and, in a manner, the U.S. after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency) represent a public policy blueprint for the most prosperous, equitable, healthy, well-educated, peaceful modern technological societies on record. Applying the logic and specifics of these programs to contemporary America would not only rectify the endemic pathologies that afflict the country (poverty, mass incarceration, mal-education, poor health), but given the wealth of the 21st century United States, it would outstrip the performance of any previous country. In short, we could have an America with little or no poverty and a huge prosperous middle class with a market-driven economy that remains as vibrant as it is today—and social democracies do wonderful things like offer more vacation time and free health care.
We all know the right-wing media machine would create a cacophony about the horrors of Big Government, but if you list the components of what a leftist progressive platform might look like, it’s clear that many of the policies would have majority support:
- Social Security funded for the next century (with the possibility of expanding it) by raising the cap on income levels contributing into the system, while maintaining a cap on payments
- A single payer (Medicare for all) health syste
- Free public education through college
- A sharp increase in the national minimum wage and two weeks of paid vacation for all workers
- Rapid citizenship for immigrant workers and their families
- Ending the war on drugs and decriminalization
- Ending government spying
- Sane gun laws
- Support for a woman’s right to choose and equal pay legislation
- Reform of the justice system so that it applies equally to all people
- Invest in green energy and take the lead in combating global warming globally
- Shift foreign policy to support people and not every region’s 1 percent
- As for funding fiscal policy, there’s no need for making income tax levels more progressive (since the change in Social Security achieves that already)—but, in accordance with “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” author Thomas Piketty, raise the rate on capital gains. Also bring corporate taxes back in to line with pre-Reagan era levels by both closing loopholes and raising the tax rate on profits.
- And finally, a program dear to my late father’s (economist Hyman Minsky) heart—an employer of last resort (ELR) program, like Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. (This is probably too radical a proposal for many members of the current CPC, but not for some.) And if not this ambitious plan, a basic national income. I think ELR would work much better and also make a real contribution to elements of the economy that the market addresses inadequately; and it can be organized so that localities have control over ELR projects. ELR’s possibilities for transforming society are immense, but either ELR or a basic income program would conquer poverty like nothing we’ve seen in our lives and empower workers who would no longer fear leaving wretched jobs.
- If the tax increases on the wealthy and corporations aren’t enough to cover the costs, there’s a bloated military budget to shrink.
A program like this would take America off of its neoliberal course. It directly addresses the fears and anxieties of a precarious, under-compensated citizenry, and it’s no more radical than the approach espoused by the greatest Democrat of the 20th century, FDR.
Will it win majority support in the 2016 election cycle? Unlikely, but given the security of progressives already in office, there’s no harm in trying—and if leftist progressives get it in front of Americans for consideration, the next time the economy implodes … let’s just say it’s going to prove mighty compelling.
In summary, it is clear after Tuesday that leftist progressives need to step forward and assert their place in the hollow shell that is the contemporary, listless Democratic Party or the vast majority of the American population will have no empowered allies inside the political system. If they can succeed in building an ascendant political force, another world is possible.