For the past five years an American left has lived and breathed as never before, with a self-described democratic socialist coming out of nowhere (okay, Vermont isn’t nowhere, but it’s next to it) to eventually become the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, until the party’s mainstream/establishment contenders united behind one of their own—former Vice President Joe Biden.
When asked “what she thought her role would be as a member of Congress during, for instance, a Joe Biden presidency,” a January New York magazine article reported that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) responded “with a groan,” that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” By now some readers of the Biden stripe may already be checking out of this article in search of a good cat video, having concluded that this is just a wrecker’s piece designed to sow dissension where unity is called for. But we continue, as did Ocasio-Cortez, who finished her sentence: “but in America, we are.” Here we may see some of the little-to-no-love-lost-for-Biden crowd peeling now off on in search of a clever meme elsewhere.
For those of you remaining, however, before jumping on any #DemExit train, I suggest that it may be time to start to plumb Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, obvious and incontrovertible as it may be. When Bernie Sanders launched his long-shot, presumed-to-be-marginal candidacy in 2015, there simply was no such thing as a national electoral left in this country. And given that these five succeeding years have been largely a time of turmoil rather than one of reflection, it’s perhaps only to be expected that this phenomenon of two distinct political tendencies co-existing under the tent of a single party—even as they grow further apart—has barely been acknowledged, much lest thoroughly considered.
The principal reason for Biden and Ocasio-Cortez being in the same party here, where they might not be elsewhere, is that most of those elsewheres she has in mind have some kind of parliamentary system in which parties can—and usually do—form coalition governments because no one of them commands a majority of the legislators needed to name the leader of the government. So while Biden and Ocasio-Cortez might belong to separate parties in some other imagined parliamentary situation, they might still both wind up part of the same governing coalition.
For the purpose of analyzing the different systems, we could consider a parliamentary structure “additive,” in the sense that the votes for different parties are translated into parliamentary representatives whose legislative votes can be added to create a majority government. For instance, in Germany most voters who back the Green Party or the Social Democratic Party would likely vote for the other party if theirs did not exist. When the German Greens were founded, voters who might previously have preferred the Social Democrats could vote Green without fear that their vote might inadvertently help elect a government of the Christian Democrats, the major party of the right, because the Greens would retain the possibility of forming a left coalition with the Social Democrats with a negotiated common program. This is an outcome that has since occurred in Germany. Such a coalition, like all coalition governments, was made between parties that had just publicly and intensely aired their differences in an election campaign, differences certainly as serious as those between Biden and Ocasio-Cortez.
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When a Green Party formed in the U.S., however, it faced a very different “subtractive” presidential election system. Absent the legislative ability to combine forces in this country, any previously Democratic votes that might now be cast for the American Greens would essentially be subtracted from the Democrats’ total in relation to the Republicans, running the risk of inadvertently electing a president from the party those voters love the least. There are remedies for our “subtractive” problem, such as ranked choice voting or fusion, i.e., allowing candidates to run as candidates of more than one party (as well as abolishing the Electoral College). But until one of these or some other better option is adopted, this is the system that actually exists, the one that the various #DemExit advocates must ultimately reckon with.
In the meantime, while there are a myriad of different political structures on the lower electoral rungs that might allow for a myriad of different strategies, on the national, presidential level, the still recently-birthed American electoral left will need to stay under the Democratic tent, awkward and unpleasant as this may at times be, while we continue to press Medicare for All, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the Green New Deal, tuition-free public higher education, and the rest of the program that has been taking the party’s rank and file voters by storm these last several years.
Of course, none of this holds if one considers it all the same whether the country has a Democratic or Republican administration—or even thinks a Republican might be preferable. So far as this goes, our near daily outrage at the Trump Administration’s elimination, reduction or pollution of government programs and regulations—regarding the environment, education, voting rights, health care, on down the line—should not blind us to the fact that these programs we want to preserve had to originally come from somewhere. And from that point of view, you don’t have to be a major fan of Obama, Clinton, or any of the rest of them to consider them preferable to the alternative.
(Of course, if you are one of the relatively few Americans concerned with foreign policy, it is true that, while the overwhelming majority of those congressional representatives not buying into our ongoing warfare state are Democrats, when you get to the higher reaches of the party, e.g., those who become presidential candidates, you will find them generally be part of a bi-partisan Washington consensus—a consensus favoring maintaining a status quo that has involved bombing seven different nations annually, under both Democratic and Republican White Houses. For instance, despite Democratic voters’ widespread opposition to Bush’s Iraq War, Joe Biden would be the third Democratic presidential nominee to have voted to authorize it in the U.S. Senate—following John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Biden then offers little reason to hope for improvement on this front, but it is also rather difficult to make a case for Trump being in any way preferable.)
With the heat of the Sanders campaign apparently a thing of the past, we will have a lot of time to appreciate just how far we have come in such a relatively short period, as well as to figure out how all of this will work in the future. But we on the party’s left should be clear on one thing—we don’t need to be in love with its mainstream/establishment wing in order to recognize the importance of holding this marriage of convenience together. They don’t have to like us—or even respect us; and the opposite holds as well. And we’re certainly not going to stop disagreeing. But remember, there’s a lot of the corporate-oriented types in the Democratic National Committee who would just love to see us leave an actual route to government power all to them, while we formed another marginal party in a subtractive system. And we wouldn’t want to make them happy, would we?