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Progressives (Not Corporate Democrats) Are Winning the War of Ideas, But the Fight Isn't Over

A Bernie Sanders sign in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo: Phil Roeder/flickr/cc)

Now that the 2016 primary season is drawing to a close, many are contemplating the impact the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will have on the American political landscape, both in the near future and years, perhaps decades, down the line.

To start, by articulating and passionately advocating for ambitious policy goals, Sanders has, in just a few months, lifted the expectations of voters who have long been content to usher in, reluctantly, the least bad of the two neoliberal, corporate-friendly candidates.

"Though he has effectively lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, Sanders, along with the progressives who have organized within and around his campaign, is winning the ideological war. "He has, furthermore, broadened the limits of discourse within the Democratic Party by bringing fights that have been ongoing for years — though largely unacknowledged by the Democratic establishment — to the national stage.

Stepping over dogmatic political guardrails, Sanders, during televised debates viewed by millions, denounced American imperialism and spoke powerfully in favor of Palestinian rights.

He has argued, consistently and forcefully, that the political system has been captured by organized wealth — a capture that has eroded the middle class, worsened deep poverty, and sent extraordinary wealth to the top. He has pointed to the fact that, despite the United States' status as the world's wealthiest nation, conditions in many American cities are comparable to the destitution experienced in poverty-stricken, highly oppressive countries.

And, much to the consternation of corporate Democrats, he has laid bare the rightward shift of a party that, as Thomas Frank has documented, long ago abandoned working people in favor of the wealthier, more politically influential professional class.

To combat Sanders, Democrats fell in line behind a vision of change that is inadequate to address the problems we face, revealing repeatedly their disdain for mass politics, inclusion, and transparency. By doing so, they have justified the view of many Americans, who believe that the two-party system is fatally flawed and unrepresentative of their interests.

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Sanders has also revived the message that many Democrats fail to appreciate: That the fight against worsening economic inequality is central to the fight against various forms of social inequality, as Martin Luther King Jr. understood.

Though he has effectively lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, Sanders, along with the progressives who have organized within and around his campaign, is winning the ideological war. And by staying in the race as he has vowed to do all along, Sanders is using the clout he has accumulated to force what he has called a "fundamental transformation of the Democratic Party."

"Clinton, and the 40-year ideological campaign she represents, has lost the battle of ideas," writes Naomi Klein in a piece arguing that the left is not just winning the war of ideas, but that the left has already won. "The spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of data."

The lived experience to which Klein refers is that of millions of Americans — in fact, according to a recent survey, a large majority of Americans — who believe that the political process is broken, and that government does not work for them. It is the experience of millions of Americans who have been left behind by two political parties driven by a core ideological commitment — neoliberalism — that has outsourced jobs, suppressed wages, worsened inequality, and pushed working families downward.

Between 1998 and 2013, while those in the top 10% saw their incomes soar by almost 75%, American families on average saw their incomes drop sharply, with the working class bearing the worst of the decline.

And while government increasingly tailors its policies to the desires of economic elites, the rest of the population must endure soaring rent prices, crumbling infrastructure, flattened wages, austere budgets, overwhelming college debt, and the general economic anxiety that has infected even families that would otherwise be considered middle class.

The austerity inflicted by those looking to maximize private profit at the expense of the public has had horrendous effects in cities like Flint, where the public has been conditioned by failing institutions to fear even the most basic of services, and in Baltimore, where, in many neighborhoods, the life expectancy has fallen below that of North Korea.

In the wealthiest nation in the world, sixteen million children live in poverty, the infant mortality rate is horrendous, and over a million families are attempting to survive on $2.00 a day.


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Corporate Democrats have proposed little that would bring about a radical departure from these trends.

While tepidly supporting a $15 minimum wage by saying she would sign it into law if it reached her desk, Hillary Clinton has played the same game party liberals have played for decades — pay fealty to progressive causes but, once the nomination is achieved, "pivot" to the center and beyond.

By remaining in the race, Bernie Sanders has continued to place pressure on the Democratic establishment, not allowing Clinton to renege on her promise to keep the plight of the millions failed by both of America's major political parties at the center of the Democratic platform. His persistence has already had a significant impact.

But, even in the face of such encouraging signs, I have to ultimately disagree with Klein's conclusion. While the left is winning the war of ideas in many important ways, it is not yet time to declare victory.

Klein is correct to argue, for instance, that majorities favor some of the more ambitious proposals of the Sanders campaign: Single-payer healthcare, in particular.

"While the left is winning the war of ideas in many important ways, it is not yet time to declare victory."

She is also correct that public opinion is, in many ways, to the left of elite opinion. Most Americans believe that the economy is rigged, that too much power rests in the hands of a few large corporations, and that the rich should pay more in taxes.

But Klein seems to underestimate the backlash that is sure to come (as it has in the past) from business and their representatives in government — both Democrats and Republicans — as progressive causes move from opinion to action. She also fails to provide crucial context: Although public opinion is often on the side of progressive causes, government, as Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have documented, is utterly unresponsive to the desires of the population — and quite responsive to those of elites.

Finally, Klein under-emphasizes the willingness of Democrats to use the looming Republican threat as an argument against advancing progressive reforms — and, also, their willingness to collude with Republicans to ram through corporate-friendly agreements in the face of progressive opposition.

In short, Democrats have yet to demonstrate that they have halted, let alone reversed, the rightward lurch of the party that has led it to embrace welfare reform, disastrous "trade" agreements, deregulation, and interventionism abroad.

Klein's optimism is inspiring, but the left cannot fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction that comes with democratic progress. And prematurely declaring victory ignores the important (and unavoidable) role losses play in the pursuit of change, creating a kind of false confidence. Defeats, as I.F. Stone observed, are, in an important sense, the necessary precursor for victories down the line.

Klein, though, is correct to place less emphasis on the fact that Sanders has lost in the realm of electoral formalities — elections, as Carl Beijer notes, play an "extraordinarily limited role" in the advancement of the left's agenda.

Still, they can provide evidence of progress.

"Ralph Nader won 2.75% of the vote in 2000. Mike Gravel finished with less than one percent in 2008," Beijer writes. "Sanders, having run well to the left of both, is likely to finish his campaign with around 43% of the popular vote. I have never been so optimistic."

There is, however, still much work ahead, and significant barriers to overcome. To ignore these facts is to replace necessary optimism and hope with a rose-tinted outlook that simply doesn't comport with the lived experience of millions.

And entrenched interests, as history shows, will not bow to popular movements without an intense, and often devastating, struggle.

Jake Johnson, staff writer

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep

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