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Barack Obama at a rally in South Carolina in 2008. When Obama won the presidency in 2008, Johnson writes, "expectations were high." (Photo: Joe Crimmings/flickr/cc)

Progressives Have Raised Expectations, and Democrats Have Fought Desperately to Lower Them

Jake Johnson

When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, expectations were high.

What occupied the minds of the president-elect's advisers, however, was not how to live up to those expectations, but how to temper them.

"He's got to lower some expectations, indicate the limits he's confronting," said former Bill Clinton staffer Leon Panetta. "He's got a story to tell about how he's confronting the worst crisis that any president has faced in modern history, and I think he can make clear that he's going to try to deal with these problems one at a time."

Panetta was, of course, referring to the Great Recession — the worst economic downturn since the Depression — a crisis that sparked a sharp rise in unemployment, eliminated trillions of dollars in wealth, and devastated millions of homeowners, many of whom were victimized by predatory lending.

Over the last several decades, the New Democrats have come to occupy the center of the Democratic establishment, with great consequences for working families and the business class.

With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, though, the environment seemed ripe for a move in the direction of a recovery that would both offer robust assistance to Americans harmed by the economic crisis and set the stage for a shift toward a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Quickly, the president squashed these hopes. Turning to such figures as Robert Rubin — the "godfather" of Wall Street deregulation during the Clinton years — and Timothy Geithner, Rubin's protégé, President Obama, in the words of Matt Taibbi, "pulled a bait-and-switch on us."

"If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised," Taibbi added. "Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different."

The banks, in short, were bailed out, and Main Street was not.

And the banks are now back, "almost as big as ever," while Main Street contends with stagnant wages and a thoroughly lopsided recovery. In 2015, Justin Wolfers would note that "so far all of the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent."

Further, President Obama reneged on his promise to protect homeowners from foreclosures in the aftermath of the crash and, famously, he failed to hold prominent bankers accountable for their crimes.

Disillusionment followed, but we should not have been surprised; President Obama has frequently assured us, if in less than definitive language, that he is no radical, that he is firmly entrenched in the camp of the New Democrats — if his own words were not sufficient, one needed only to observe the institutions that funded his presidential campaign to understand that systemic changes would not be forthcoming.

Over the last several decades, the New Democrats have come to occupy the center of the Democratic establishment, with great consequences for working families and the business class.

Particularly since George McGovern's landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, Democrats have maintained a skeptical posture toward what they have long viewed as excessive idealism.

Commitment to the New Deal tradition, a tradition that utilized mass politics to force progressive change, was thus transplanted by pragmatism — a fancy word for sterile, business-friendly centrism — in order to ensure that the left was kept in check by a powerful center.

Democrats' shifting donor base — the move from union halls to corporate boardrooms, the abandonment of the working class in favor of the professional class — also helped to ingrain the ideological bent that brought us the Democratic Leadership Council and, ultimately, Bill Clinton.

The goal of Clinton Democrats, once they achieved power, was simple: To demonstrate that the Democratic Party had adapted to the times.

No longer would they conform to the typical perception of the Democratic Party as the party of  higher taxes and "big government." Instead, they would embrace a variety of interest groups and take an ostensibly neutral stance toward business and labor. All too often, however, their favor was heaped upon the former.

"Convinced of the state's incompetence, flush with cash from Wall Street and Silicon Valley — or maybe just too busy going after welfare recipients — Clinton showed no interest in initiating ambitious new programs that could improve people's lives," writes Shawn Gude.

And as Republicans continued to lurch further and further right in the years following Clinton, Democrats, unwilling to return to their roots, continued their rightward slide, as well.

Instead, Clinton, while still paying fealty to progressive causes, hit the nation with welfare reform (called by a former Clinton ally "morally and practically indefensible"), NAFTA, and Wall Street deregulation.

And as Republicans continued to lurch further and further right in the years following Clinton, Democrats, unwilling to return to their roots, continued their rightward slide, as well.

Presenting the conservative movement as a powerful force that must be stopped at all costs, Democrats began to focus less on articulating an ambitious social agenda — one that, if implemented, would improve the material conditions of the population — and more on doing just enough to counter the Republican threat.

As Adolph Reed put it in an essay published in 2014, "fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left had won."

Much of this defensive stance has been based on a key assumption: That the United States is a conservative nation, and that to continue to win elections, Democrats must adopt swaths of the Republican agenda to prove, for instance, that they are "tough on crime" or that they aren't "soft on terrorism."

They must also, in the interest of "getting things done" in the face of an intransigent opposition, lower the expectations of voters.

Broadly, the results of this decades-long shift have been what you would expect: Democrats often accuse Republicans of being beholden to corporate interests — they are — but they conveniently omit the fact that their coffers are also overflowing with corporate cash.

In the face of economic trends that have further enriched the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else, Democrats have proven utterly feckless, putting forward tepid reforms and refusing to question the economic order that produced these trends.

And it is perfectly obvious why: As historian Lily Geismer has noted, "A party without a working-class core can’t be expected to improve the prospects of the working class."

Bernie Sanders and the movements that have supported his candidacy have fought hard to change this dynamic.

By running a campaign fueled by grassroots organization and small donations, Sanders has, in the words of the New York Times, "put the lie to Democrats' excuses that they, too, must play the big money game to win."

Despite being portrayed as a radical and an idealist, Sanders has articulated a worldview that is, in fact, quite mainstream, from his attack on soaring — perhaps unprecedented — inequality to his focus on the power and influence exerted by some of America's largest corporations.

"Bernie Sanders has shifted the goal posts for the Democratic Party," writes George Goehl. "From trade to wages, the environment to infrastructure, tuition-free college to health care for all, Sanders's platform has raised expectations and electrified the nation."

His opponent, by contrast, has filled the role played by Democrats over the last several decades: She has done her best to lower expectations, to temper goals, and to insist that nothing will get done without compromising with the right. And loyal Democrats have largely followed her lead, not just by defending the status quo, but also by attacking any attempts to alter it.

Single-payer healthcare will "never, ever come to pass," Clinton declared. Criticism of Clinton's Wall Street fundraising, said Clinton supporter Barney Frank, is akin to "McCarthyism." Sanders's healthcare plan is, according to pundit Ezra Klein, "vague and unrealistic."

Perhaps the most egregious attempts to discredit the Sanders agenda, though, have been those that have accused Sanders, either implicitly or explicitly, of running a racist and sexist campaign.

Joan Walsh of The Nation has been a persistent peddler of this narrative, arguing at one point that Sanders, his commitment to economic justice for all aside, has risked becoming "the messiah of an angry white male cult."

Smears of this kind are telling: They are an attempt to obscure the fact that Sanders has been winning among young women and young people of color, and is favored by those who make less money. This demonstrates that the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters is largely about age and class, not race and gender.

Sanders, despite being deemed by some a class reductionist, has countered the "Bernie Bro" narrative by offering a critique of the American economic order that highlights racial and gender disparities while also condemning the greed and recklessness of today's "economic royalists."

Despite his campaign's significant and unexpected successes, on Tuesday, Sanders did something that many believe tarnished his legitimacy: He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

By blending racial and class politics rather than separating them, Sanders has offered a more expansive alternative to the elite identity politics deployed by Democratic Party liberals, and he has exposed the Democrats' refusal to fight back against the class war being waged by the rich.

And the Sanders campaign has brought to the fore what Luke Savage calls "the real political schism of our time": The schism "between democrats and technocratic elites."

Despite his campaign's significant and unexpected successes, on Tuesday, Sanders did something that many believe tarnished his legitimacy: He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

While this was an understandably disappointing moment for many progressives, this year was never about Sanders.

As Matt Karp has noted, Bernie's endorsement of Clinton does nothing to negate the fight for economic justice that his campaign brought to the national stage.

And left politics is, after all, about improving the material conditions of the population; the successes of social movements do not depend on the successes of individual politicians.

There is, of course, much work left to do. The Democratic platform is better than it would have been without Sanders; but it is far from adequate.

It is "to the right of George W. Bush" on Israel-Palestine. It fails to confront climate change with the necessary urgency. It doesn't endorse a single-payer healthcare system at a time when thousands die each year due to lack of coverage. And it favors loyalty to the president over working families by not opposing an agreement shaped by some of the nation's largest corporations.

Sanders has raised the expectations of millions, particularly the young, the future of progressive politics in the United States.

And Democrats have, per usual, done their best to lower expectations, to insist that the goals of the Sanders campaign are unreachable, that the best we can hope to do is manage the decline.

The job of the left is, and always will be, to combat this perception.

Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have long insisted that incrementalism is the only plausible approach to change, and that we must adjust our expectations to fit the arbitrary political limits set by those closest to the centers of power. This notion has an air of rationality, but it is false.

"Unlike elected officials who preoccupy themselves with policies considered practical and attainable within the political climate of the moment, social movements change the political weather," write Mark and Paul Engler. "They turn issues and demands considered both unrealistic and politically inconvenient into matters that can no longer be ignored; they succeed, that is, by championing the impractical."

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Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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