Why the Democrats Won't Wake Up
Moments after rightwing Republican Karen Handel won America’s costliest congressional race ever in Georgia’s sixth district, the de rigueur post-election quarrelling erupted: Why did Democrat Jon Ossoff lose, and what does it mean for the Democrats and American politics?
Many on the left bemoaned the defeat as yet another sign that the Democratic Party refuses to “wake up” to the populist moment.
Longtime sixth-district resident and scholar Billy Michael Honor nailed it in Huffington Post, observing that Ossoff’s comfortably centrist and noncommittal message “lacked any compelling progressive vision for the future. It also lacked any way to substantively convince the average politically uninterested citizen why they should give a damn about the Democratic Party. The message simply says, ‘vote for us, we won’t be as bad as the other group.’ ”
There is no evidence that a progressive populist would have fared better than Ossoff, who came closer than any recent Democrat to winning the solidly Republican district. But that doesn’t mean the Democratic Party shouldn’t be running bold unapologetic progressives in every district, win or lose, to shift the electorate and help mobilize a massive grassroots movement.
Beyond the particulars of the Ossoff race and the politics of Georgia’s 6th district, there’s a deeper reason why this won’t happen.
It’s not that the Democratic Party can’t “wake up” to Americans’ surging support for a bold challenge to the corporate stranglehold over our economy and politics. It’s that it won’t.
The Ossoff loss isn’t the clearest illustration of the Democrats’ addiction to centrism and neoliberalism—one could argue his brand of politics, like it or not, was a close fit for the center-right district. Still, what happened in Georgia is yet another blaring signal of the party’s endemic refusal to embrace progressive populism. It’s not that the Democratic Party can’t “wake up” to Americans’ surging support for a bold challenge to the corporate stranglehold over our economy and politics. It’s that it won’t.
The Democratic Party leadership remains hopelessly bound to corporate power and profits. This fatal yet indefatigable marriage goes beyond the most obvious layer of corporate PACs and lobbyists—it spans the neoliberal agenda itself.
To become a true “party of the people” that stands courageously and consistently for workers, unions, low-income communities of all colors, and our ecological future, the Democratic Party must divorce itself not only from corporate cash, but from its deeper enmeshment with corporate power.
The dynamics that propelled the Trump nightmare and that plague a Democratic Party revival are deep-seated. When Trump stumbled his way into the White House, many commentators pronounced the death of neoliberalism and the corporate centrism that defined Hillary Clinton. Yet under Trump, corporate interests and the evisceration of the public sector are of course powering on full-throttle, deepening the alienated anger and dispossession—and the racism, immigrant-scapegoating and xenophobia—that helped enable Trump.
As Cornel West assessed shortly after the November 8 election, “This lethal fusion of economic insecurity and cultural scapegoating brought neoliberalism to its knees. In short, the abysmal failure of the Democratic Party to speak to the arrested mobility and escalating poverty of working people unleashed a hate-filled populism and protectionism that threaten to tear apart the fragile fiber of what is left of U.S. democracy.”
From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, the Democrats have helped pave the path for their own demise by failing to challenge the corporate power interests. These interests, along with Republican corporate allegiances, preclude the kind of change that workers, low-income people, immigrants and communities of color urgently need.
From Carter to Clinton to Obama, the Democrats have paved the path for their own demise by failing to challenge the corporate power interests.
This doesn’t mean the Democrats don’t deliver some changes that benefit these communities. But the party’s entrenched corporate allegiances preclude delivering the kind of change—such as universal single-payer health care, a true living wage, muscular union protections, and redistributing wealth and profits back into communities—that would uplift people’s lives and mobilize people to the polls.
In short, the Democratic Party’s marriage with corporate interests—even if testy and stressed at times, like any marriage—means that a bold progressive shift is not about “waking up,” but about breaking up.
With the 2018 midterms now looming, progressives face the same-old maddening choice of either pushing the Democratic Party to prioritize human and environmental needs over corporate interests, or building an alternative party movement.
Another path, Dave Lindorff argued recently in Counterpunch, would follow the model of the Civil Rights Movement and “build a movement on the streets and in local communities that presents the political establishment with the untenable prospect of ongoing mass militant opposition to which it has to respond.”
For the Democrats to be a true opposition party, Lindorff wrote, the party “would have to be thoroughly deconstructed and rebuilt. The millionaire-packed Democratic National Committee leadership—the lobbyists, the elected officials and the well-heeled donors—would have to be tossed out entirely, and replaced by genuine progressives, labor activists, environmentalists, representatives of various minority groups and (gasp!) socialists.”
There are promising signs of a resurgent democratic socialism, particularly among millennials. Groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have soared in the months since the election. And the array of anti-Trump efforts, even if scattered, at least evidences a sizable mass of people ready to fight, and keep fighting.
Ultimately, however, these movements need a political home both in and out of the voting booth. And until they build one (either a new party or a potent pressure movement that can force the Democrats leftward), the Democratic Party is the only electoral game in town.
In this long, slow march, the first step is to stop expecting the Democratic Party to “wake up” and run candidates who challenge the very interests that undergird—and in fact inhabit—the party’s infrastructure and identity.
The sooner progressives and the left embrace that reality, the better. The only way we’re going to get either a truly progressive Democratic Party or a viable alternative to it, is to name the fundamental problem. The party won’t change until it is forced to divorce itself from corporate power and the neoliberal agenda—a marriage that harms both the party and the public.