Sen. Joe Manchin opposes making Washington, D.C. the nation's 51st state through the legislative process, arguing that a constitutional amendment is needed for the popular move. (Photo: Al Drago/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Democrats Need to Stand Up to Corporate Extremists in Their Own Party

Wall Street Democrats are not just resisting progress but putting freedom and democracy in jeopardy.

The progressive optimism that the Biden presidency might lead to real change is quickly fading as right-wing Democrats such as Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are threatening to indefinitely stall the 3.5 trillion spending bill that "would expand education, health care, and childcare support, address the climate crisis and make further investments in infrastructure." This is a familiar story, a so-called centrist push back against the possibility of even basic systemic reforms in the name of finding a "sensible" economic and political "middle ground."

Yet this appeal to "moderation" masks an extremist capitalist agenda. Rightfully nicknamed "Wall Street Democrats" their constituency is first and foremost serving the interests of corporate elites. Claims to be concerned with bipartisanship or the debt are both disingenuous and dangerous.

The Democratic Party, for so long characterized by political and moral compromise, is standing up to the growing fascism of Republicans. It is time they take a stand against the Right-wing corporate extremists in their own Party. Indeed, they represent an existential threat to the survival of our democracy and the prospect of a freer future for all.

A Moderate Conspiracy

The mainstream framing of this story is as a fully expected struggle between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. Fundamentally, it is understood as a growing ideological divide within the Party between reform and revolution, a growing Leftist movement, and an established Centrist resistance. Critically, Senators like Manchin and are said to represent moderate voters that could easily turn Republican and in doing so strengthen the forces of Right-wing populism and authoritarianism.

It is important to reframe this conflict, though, for what it really is--a battle between reform-minded Democrats and corporate extremists. If this interpretation sounds extreme, consider the similar tactics used by these Right-wing Centrists and those on the far-Right. Both tread in the waters of intentional falsehood, conspiracy, and the belief in an exclusive "real America."

Firstly, Manchin and Sinema are basing their resistance on troubling politics of disinformation that is meant to preserve the corporate status quo. While three decades ago, outmoded free-market perspectives economic could be close to forgiving as simply misguided, after a financial crisis and in the face of climate change they are now downright provable falsehoods. They are simply repeating establishment talking points without any evidence to support their claims and in doing so actively misleading the public with respect to basic economic realities. In the recent words of Paul Krugman, they remain "in the thrall of Right-wing propaganda" in which "they have internalized decades of right-wing economic propaganda, that their gut reaction to any proposal to improve Americans' lives is that it must be unworkable and unaffordable." Even worse, their specific "concerns" are outright lies - as the spending bill is explicitly debt neutral and the net cost of the bill is only a cost of the 3.5 trillion price tag they so passionately oppose.

Coupled with this free-market disinformation campaign is a strategy of conspiratorial fear-mongering against the so-called "radical left." Leave aside that those in the progressive caucus and the "Squad" are mostly pushing policies that are firmly within the tradition of Centre-left social democracy Parties across the world and supported by innovative economic perspectives such as Modern Monetary Theory. The "moderate" answer is to always blame these "radicals" for threatening their electability and as such are a danger to not only the Democratic Party but the nation's democracy overall. Their "purity" politics undermine "real reform" and inadvertently (or to some even intentionally) strengthens the far-Right.

The Centrist Threat to Democracy

Of course, such disinformation and conspiracy is in truth the language of a privileged elite whose power is progressively being put into question and who are feeling increasingly vulnerable. It allows them to shift attention from the fact that they have willingly encouraged the far-Right in the recent past, played on racially inspired "white fear," continually lost at elections at almost record level home, and embraced the worst excesses of US imperialism and militarism abroad. And now their rhetoric is a direct threat to the survival and renewal of Democracy in the US and internationally.

They preserve and deepen the very conditions conducive to far-Right populism and historically fascism while ignoring how existing Democrats and capitalist democracies generally continue to perpetuate a status quo built on exploitation and policing.

Crucially, it is necessary to recognize who are the "real" constituents of these self-proclaimed "moderates." They argue that they represent what amounts to a silent "moderate" majority who are fearful of a supposed radical leftist agenda and the progressives who are pushing it. Yet their campaign contributions and family networks would suggest otherwise. For his part, Manchin resisted a rise in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% while being funded by corporate legal services who opposed such measures while his daughter was a CEO of a drug maker who acted to preserve inflated prices for EpiPens that "can be the difference between life or death for a person suffering a severe allergic reaction." Sinema is known as the "corporate lobbies million dollar woman" who "raked in cash from the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and others trying to gut the reconciliation bill." At a minimum, this reflects their conflict of interest. Fundamentally, it shows that their genuine allegiance lies first and foremost with their paymasters on Wall Street.

The invoking of "moderate voters" is symbolic of a dangerous politics where oligarchy shields itself from genuine critique through "shared identity" against a nefarious enemy "other." Wall Street Democrats such as Hillary Clinton already took a page from this playbook when they blamed the victory of Trump on a vast "Russian conspiracy" not on their own hawkish foreign or failure to address growing inequality. These "red scare" tactics have been easily turned inwards against radical activists demanding to "defund the police" or progressives who "nobody likes" calling for "idealistic" revolutions.

These denigrating strategies may win cheap political points in the short term but help pave the way for further illiberalism, imperialism, and authoritarianism in the long term. They preserve and deepen the very conditions conducive to far-Right populism and historically fascism while ignoring how existing Democrats and capitalist democracies generally continue to perpetuate a status quo built on exploitation and policing.

Standing up to Corporate Extremists

When confronted with a choice of protecting democracy or corporations, "centrists" have time and again chosen the profits of the "1%" at the expense of the rights and prosperity of the "99%." These allegiances were made clear when moderates like Manchin led the Democratic opposition to legislation protecting black voting rights or eliminating the filibuster when it threatened the power of their corporate donors. We must call them what they are - not "moderates" but "corporate extremists." And just as the "big tent" of the Democratic Party has no room for far-Right extremism neither should it let in these dangerous Wall Street radicals.

Such a policy would not only be more reflective of reality it is also simply good politics. Where the Democrats have found electoral success is presenting themselves as the Party committed to preserving democracy and against extremism. If they wanted to expand their base of support, putting in place popular policies that benefit the many and not the few is a good start. And doing so as part of a wider agenda to struggle against the twin forces of elitism and extremism imperiling our democracy and freedom is even better.

It would be naive to think that ultimately the Democratic Party (no matter how progressive or radical their rhetoric) can deliver real systemic change. That will have to happen with a mass movement committed to creating a better world beyond capitalism. However, it does have a historical role to potentially play - staving off the most reactionary and extremists elements of a racist corporate status quo that places its profits and power over our ecological survival or basic human rights and political rights. It is time for the Party to fulfill its responsibility to the possibility of real progress by beginning to stand up to the corporate extremists--even and especially those within their ranks.

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