Corporate Democrats Have Always Hated the Left — Now They're Shocked to Learn That We Hate Them Back
Since the 1970's, the American left has been on the defensive.
Facing both an increasingly ambitious business offensive against the core tenets of the New Deal and a Democratic Party establishment that was slowly beginning its rightward shift, progressive activists were pushed out of the mainstream, where they had remained a solid force during the Roosevelt era and through the 1960's.
These consequential shifts were, in large part, due to the changing composition of the Democratic Party's donor base — a base that moved away from union halls and into the lucrative embrace of corporate America.
To justify their rightward lurch, ambitious Democrats urged us to consider the dangers posed by, to use the words of Adolph Reed, "the relentless Republican juggernaut." Simultaneously, the party also became increasingly hostile toward those on their left, those who remained opposed to the corporate interests Democrats were attempting to attract.
"The administration is being run by the far right. The Democratic Party is in danger of being taken over by the far left," said Senator Evan Bayh in 2003, in a comment that captures quite well the posture of the Democrats of the 1980's and 1990's.
Looking to chart a new course — a "third way" — for liberals who were apathetic or even hostile toward organized labor and friendly toward organized wealth, the Democratic Leadership Council emerged as a powerful voice within the party's establishment, touting the benefits of "private-sector economic growth" and attempting to counter the perception that Democrats are the party of unions and "big government."
Coming to fruition with the election of the Bill Clinton, DLC liberals have since held tremendous sway over the party's ideological trajectory — President Barack Obama, putting to rest any lingering hope that he is a leftist at heart, has touted his own position within the ranks of the New Democrats.
"As it stands," writes historian Lily Geismer, "the Democratic Party is much more than a repository of liberal values. It's a party that consistently favors its upper-middle-class base in both presidential campaign platforms and its governing agenda."
But in 2016, in the face of unprecedented income inequality and rising anger against an impotent political establishment, a revolt has taken place, a revolt that has challenged the centrist bent of the party and forcefully argued that radical change is necessary to confront the deepest issues facing the United States and, indeed, the entire planet.
As Jedediah Purdy notes in a recent piece in The Atlantic, the 2016 presidential race has, in many crucial ways, been a referendum on "the Obama style" of politics, a major aspect of that style being his commitment to technocratic liberalism and market-based economics.
"For his efforts, Sanders has largely been repudiated by both the Democratic leadership and ostensibly liberal pundits, who went from carelessly dismissing Sanders's candidacy as a side-show to condemning his progressive movement from every possible angle."
Purdy observes that, far from "lifting all boats," Democrats' commitment to growth-oriented capitalism has in many ways contributed to the already existing status quo, in which "a vast share of new growth in recent decades has gone to a tiny upper echelon of high-earners and to the already wealthy."
The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, though vastly different in almost every way, have channeled the opposition to this new normal.
While Trump has used hysterical bigotry to exploit very real material anxieties, Sanders has offered an ambitious way forward, focusing largely on the growing gulf between the wealthiest and everyone else, and its horrendous consequences. To shrink this gulf, Sanders has put forward proposals previously favored (at least in word) by Democratic Party loyalists, from single-payer health care to the seemingly uncontroversial goal of getting corporate money out of politics.
For his efforts, Sanders has largely been repudiated by both the Democratic leadership and ostensibly liberal pundits, who went from carelessly dismissing Sanders's candidacy as a side-show to condemning his progressive movement from every possible angle.
Yet even after months of ridiculing Sanders and his supporters, Democratic politicians and pundits seem rather startled by the relatively mild resistance they are confronting not just outside the walls of the well-guarded Wells Fargo Center, the site of their corporate-funded convention, but also from inside the lavishly decorated arena, on the convention floor.
Even Bernie Sanders, one commentator marvels, cannot convince his supporters "roll over and play nice with the presumptive nominee."
The underlying assumption here is, of course, precisely the problem: Complacent Democrats have come to expect the left to "roll over and play nice" with any candidate they put forward, no matter how awful, given the alternatives. And in a system that operates in such a way as to virtually guarantee two-party dominance, as Ralph Nader has pointed out, the alternative is usually horrifying.
For years, this strategy worked. Democrats pointed to the Republicans, a party explicitly dedicated to the needs of the wealthiest, and that was sufficient to garner votes, no matter how reluctant.
Of late, though, as Thomas Ferguson has noted, voters have come to realize that Democrats, while they continue to pay fealty to progressive causes, have in many cases done as much harm to the vulnerable as the other side.
Now, Ferguson observes, "Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests." Polling data offers some support for Ferguson's assertion: One survey suggests that almost half of Sanders's millennial supporters "are thinking about backing a third-party candidate."
The 2016 revolt is in part a reaction against the system that Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page describe in their remarkable 2014 study, in which they conclude that "In the United States...the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose."
And that's the point: The people "generally lose," and they're tired of it. They see what's happening to them, to their kids, and to their communities, and they are no longer satisfied with the explanations of those who insist that everything is just fine.
Progressive activists have long been waiting for a candidate who represents their interests, a candidate who is willing to use the presidential primary process as a vehicle to drive key issues to the fore. They found that candidate in Bernie Sanders.
But by supporting Sanders in large numbers, progressives also brought to the fore a powerful faction within the political establishment — and within the media establishment — that is downright scornful of the mass politics Sanders's campaign has provoked.
So disconnected are they from the needs of the people, Democrats continue to peddle an ahistorical approach to change that eschews popular revolt in favor of what Matt Karp calls "fortress liberalism."
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"Mass politics just does not compute with the professional-class worldview that suffuses today’s Democratic Party," Karp writes. "For liberal elites, effective political struggle is something that happens inside committee rooms, not at strikes, rallies, or protests. (The Clinton campaign itself embodies this vision of the world, where politics means deal-making and democracy means voting — nothing less and nothing more.)"
"Instead of making a good faith attempt to examine the material conditions from which this outrage against establishment politics emerged, prominent analysts have been content to gaze from their perches at the unserious rubes who don't understand the intricacies of political change."
This contempt for democratic action has emerged in full-force as Sanders delegates refuse to pay complete deference to the norms of party politics on the floor of the usually euphoric and commercialized convention.
But instead of making a good faith attempt to examine the material conditions from which this outrage against establishment politics emerged, prominent analysts have been content to gaze from their perches at the unserious rubes who don't understand the intricacies of political change.
Their comfortable position in the cultural hierarchy prevents them from seeing that, in fact, those they make a career of ridiculing understand political change better than anyone else.
People understand that they have been sold down the river by a party increasingly committed to the highest bidder — a party more interested in organizing seating arrangements at big money fundraisers than in organizing the working class and fighting for economic justice.
They see that the party now expecting them to fall in line makes nice with war criminals and bankers, with CEOs and notorious despots.
They see that Democrats favor loyalty to the president over principled opposition to corporate "trade" pacts that threaten workers and the environment.
They see that, far from putting forward an agenda that matches the severity of the issues we face, Democrats are using fear — fear of Trump in particular — as their primary strategy.
They see that, as Hamilton Nolan puts it, "All is not well."
"The Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, of the progressives, of the left," Nolan adds, "and yet the Democratic Party is roughly equivalent to a major corporation, operating with all of the ruthlessness and profit-driven mindstate that that implies."
Recognition of this fact has driven the left for decades, and the movements that have spawned in large part from opposition to insulated Democratic Party politics have made crucial progress.
Bernie Sanders did much to bring the left back into the mainstream, and electoral losses will not change this fact, as long as the conditions, the anxieties, and the crises facing American families remain unaddressed by the nation's dominant political parties.
Nor will the vitriol spewed by prominent journalistic outfits and Democratic Party loyalists be enough to dissipate the resurgent left. But it is enough to clarify an important point, one that Fredrik deBoer, among others, has made repeatedly: Elite liberals harbor a striking level of disdain for the left.
"As the recent WikiLeaks revelations have made clear, Democrats have colluded to ensure that Sanders's progressive movement doesn't overtake Clintonian neoliberalism."
This year, thanks to those protesting both on the convention floor and in the streets, we have a voice (however limited) with which to say to the corporate liberals within the ranks of the Democratic Party: The disdain is mutual.
So the liberal commentariat and Democratic politicians are faced with a choice.
"You guys can keep complaining about booing from Manhattan and the Bay," deBoer writes, "or you can actually address this country's massive problems."
Given recent history, and given the extent to which the Democratic Party has been fattened by corporate money, I think we can safely predict which path they will choose.
As the recent WikiLeaks revelations have made clear, Democrats have colluded to ensure that Sanders's progressive movement doesn't overtake Clintonian neoliberalism.
But this concerted effort to destroy Sanders has never been about Sanders, himself; it has always been about his ideas. So, in discussing the organized opposition to the Sanders agenda, concludes Matt Karp, "there is no need to speak of conspiracy; for liberal and Democratic elites, ideology is usually more than sufficient."