As we gear up for next year’s presidential race, the only political class in the United States that may be as terrified of losing power as the Republican Party is that of centrist Democrats. Former President Barack Obama embodied this fear in his recent remarks at an event for wealthy liberal donors when he said, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.” It was a not-so-veiled reference to the rising chorus of demands for a “Medicare for All” health care system, a climate action plan like the Green New Deal or taxes on billionaires that redistribute some of their obscene wealth.
Obama’s statements prompted a backlash on Twitter under the hashtag “#TooFarLeft,” with people asserting that if their demands for drastic solutions to solve our many serious problems are seen as too far left, then so be it. It was the second time in the last few weeks that the former president, who still enjoys a great deal of popularity, admonished leftist activists. At an event in late October, he said, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff … you should get over that quickly.” He was referring to what an older and more conservative generation of Americans have denounced as “cancel culture” on the left.
Presumably, Obama feels threatened by not just the vocal left flank of his party’s base, but also by the two most popular presidential candidates who generally embody leftist politics: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who consistently draw more cumulative support in polls than the centrist front-runner, Joe Biden, Obama’s former second-in-command. Obama’s view is the reason millennials have adopted scathing retorts like “OK Boomer.” They are tired of being told to shut up about injustice.
Centrists are terrified that if the Democratic nominee is far to the left of Biden and Obama, they will be forced to coalesce around a candidate who represents a threat to the establishment of which they are a part. The unflappable Sanders brushed aside Obama’s criticism in an interview with The New York Times, saying, “When I talk about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, I’m not tearing down the system. We’re fighting for justice.” On the health care front, he added, “When I talk about … ending the embarrassment of America being the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child, that’s not tearing down the system. That’s doing what we should have done 30 years ago.” His words resonate with the millions of Americans who are struggling every day, but they grate on the nerves of those who have thrived in our unequal society.
In a nutshell, American politics have tilted our economic system so far in favor of wealthy elites—and this has been by and large a bipartisan project—that establishment lawmakers are really the ones guilty of “tearing down” a modest (if flawed) system that once upon a time distributed riches more fairly. When Americans—the vast majority of whom are not millionaires—read reports like this one showing that “[f]or the first time in history, U.S. billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class last year,” for Obama to ask us to not tear down the system is deeply insulting. The system has already been destroyed—by billionaires and their backers in Congress and the White House, including Obama.
In realizing that Sanders’ and Warren’s popularity is indicative of a widespread anger at the status quo, wealthy elites are understandably worried. In their clumsy attempts to defend their unimaginable riches (what actual difference does it make to someone’s lifestyle if he or she has $100 million versus $1 billion?), some are attempting to equate their plight with ours. The billionaire Wall Street executive Leon Cooperman has complained bitterly about his pariah status, saying, “What is wrong with billionaires? You can become a billionaire by developing products and services that people will pay for,” as if that’s all it took for him to gather his disgustingly large fortune. Cooperman conveniently left out the unfair tax rates, offshore tax havens, taxpayer subsidies and all the other ways in which the government rigs the system to favor people like him at our expense. He denounced Warren’s wealth tax, saying, “I believe in a progressive income tax and the rich paying more. But this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on.”
Others have gone as far as to label candidates like Warren and Sanders the left-wing equivalents of Donald Trump. One person, identified as a “prominent Wall Street hedge fund manager and Democratic bundler who is raising money for a Warren rival,” said about the Massachusetts senator, “It’s the same thing Republicans went through with Trump. You look at her and think what she is going to do is going to be horrible for the country. But if you say anything about it, you just make her stronger.”
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So flustered are the superrich that they have taken to running their own candidates at a relatively late stage in the game. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently joined the race, has so much personal wealth at his command that he doesn’t even need to raise campaign funds and plans to spend $100 million on anti-Trump ads. Thrilled Wall Street executives are lining up to back him.
Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick—another newcomer to a hugely crowded field—has said he will not turn down donations made through super PACs, at a time when other candidates are eschewing what they see as tainted money. Patrick also has centered his candidacy around defending corporations and capitalism, saying, in an interview with The Associated Press, “There’s a lot of good that gets done by private interests investing in the country.” The AP story reminded us that Patrick “served as counsel to an oil and gas company, on the board of a subprime lending company and most recently worked for Bain Capital, the private equity company that became an albatross around Republican Mitt Romney’s neck during his presidential campaign in 2012 after President Barack Obama painted the company as ruthless toward middle-class workers.”
The top two centrists among Democratic candidates—Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have been working vainly to rise to the top of the crowded field of candidates. Biden’s star may be fading as the unethical (if not illegal) position that his son Hunter assumed on the board of a Ukrainian oil and gas company continues to make headlines. The former vice president also just can’t help putting his foot in his mouth, as his most recent out-of-touch comments about marijuana being a “gateway drug” illustrated.
While Buttigieg’s star may be rising, he is facing a struggle with black voters, whose support is critical to the Democratic Party. Beyond the simplistic and racist claim that black voters are uncomfortable with an openly gay candidate, he has had trouble with criminal justice issues in South Bend and now faces scrutiny over falsifying support from black voters in South Carolina.
In the coming months, we will hear a lot from centrist forces in the Democratic Party about unifying behind a single candidate in order to beat Trump. But we will be told that such a candidate can only be a moderate centrist who will compromise with Republicans and essentially maintain a less racist status quo, or a pre-Trump status quo. Centrists will blame voters for being reckless and will themselves refuse to unify around a Sanders or Warren candidacy.
At the event where Obama chastised the left, he also claimed, “It turns out people are cautious, because they don’t have a margin for error.” It is as if Obama entirely missed the 2016 election triumph of the least cautious presidential candidate in recent memory. “People” are not cautious; those who want to preserve inequality are the cautious ones, and no amount of wishful thinking on their part will change the reality that their time is over.