The hopes for rebuilding and strengthening the left lie outside the Democratic Party.
TWO STORIES have gotten attention in recent weeks as key indicators of what direction each of the major political parties is heading in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Donald Trump’s leading Republican critics, announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election after it became apparent he wouldn’t win a primary challenge from Kelli Ward, the rabid xenophobe whose campaign is part of Steve Bannon’s master plan remake the Republican Party in Donald Trump’s vile image.
A few days earlier, Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Tom Perez purged a number of Bernie Sanders’ key allies from the organization’s leadership posts and its rule committee.
Many of the progressives were replaced with current and former lobbyists for big banks and energy corporations. Also appointed was Donna Brazile, best known most recently for using her job at CNN to leak debate questions to the Clinton campaign–“an interesting choice for a committee that focuses on ‘rules,'” as Branko Marcetic noted for In These Times.
Put the two stories together and what do you have? At a time of growing polarization in which people are moving toward both ends of the political spectrum, the Republican Party is moving further to the right while the Democratic Party is…also moving further to the right.
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BERNIE SANDERS’ stunning success last year as a self-proclaimed socialist running for the Democratic presidential nomination created justifiable excitement on the left about the prospects for socialism to finally break out of isolation after many decades in the American wilderness.
Since then, Sanders’ popularity has only increased. A recent Harvard-Harris poll has him as the most popular politician in either party, with especially strong support registering among young people generally and Blacks and Latinos of all ages.
It isn’t hard to see why. While Sanders is pushing for policies like a single-payer health care system that would benefit the vast majority of the country, other leading Democrats have little to offer beyond hoping that the Robert Mueller investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia will somehow lead to the president’s impeachment.
No wonder many supporters of the Democrats are getting restless. The same Harvard-Harris poll shows that 52 percent of Democrats support “movements within the Democratic Party to take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders.”
Even more encouragingly, the AFL-CIO convention passed a resolution last week calling for labor to form an “independent political voice” because “the time has passed when we can passively settle for the lesser of two evils.”
These expressions of frustration with corporate Democrats are important, but they shouldn’t give the left a false sense of confidence that the maneuverings of Perez and the DNC represent the last gasp of a clueless old guard whose time has passed.
In fact, as the outlook for the 2018 midterm elections starts to take shape, it’s looking more likely that the party apparatus knows what it’s doing in maintaining control than the progressives who think they’re reshaping the party from the inside.
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ALL THIS takes place in the context of political volatility around the world.
Countries that have failed to restore living standards to the level before the Great Recession of 2007-08 have seen increasing polarization, creating crises for parties of the center–and the rise of more radical parties and leaders on both the right and left.
In the U.S., Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries was both the culmination of a decades-long move to the right and a dramatic shift in the GOP’s internal power dynamics–to the extent that its traditional corporate power brokers now have to accommodate and sometimes follow the ideologically hardened nationalism and fascist flirtations of sections of the party’s base.
Jeff Flake’s problem in Arizona wasn’t that Kelli Ward and Steve Bannon are wildly popular–Harvard-Harris puts Bannon’s approval rating at 16 percent–but that they increasingly dominate a party shifting even further to the right.
The Democrats, of course, have their own polarization to deal with. But unlike their weakened and divided Republican counterparts, the Democratic leadership has remained united around a vision of corporate liberalism–with political platforms that read like generic corporate brochures about the benefits of a diverse workplace and the wonders of retraining programs when you inevitably get laid off.
This party unity in spite of the discontent of its base was clear last year when Sanders won 45 percent of primary voters, but was backed by only 8 percent of the elected officials, staffers, lobbyists and donors who made up the party’s “superdelegates.”
Republicans have reflected the polarization of this period so much more clearly than Democrats in part because there is much less room for radical left-wing politics inside parties owned by the 1 Percent than there is room for radical right-wing politics.
The militants inside the Republican Party have been funded by a constellation of billionaires with overlapping reactionary agendas, ranging from libertarianism to Christian theocracy to fascism.
These ideologues may cause some discomfort among party donors in the boardrooms of ExxonMobil and Morgan Stanley, but ultimately, all sides can agree on the general principle of empowering the wealthy and keeping everyone else divided and oppressed.
This doesn’t work as a blueprint for the radical left, which has to be built by large numbers of working people in the labor movement and grassroots organizations “speaking with an unquestionably independent political voice,” as the AFL-CIO resolution put it.
Instead, we have the worst of both worlds: hundreds of unions and civil rights organizations that have been completely captured by a Democratic Party owned by Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the Pentagon.
Rather than acting as “pressure groups” inside the party, this professional left more closely resembles, as Jane Hamscher once famously put it in the early days of the Obama administration, a “veal pen” that forms a left flank to protect the party from the wrath of their own members.
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OF COURSE, this is precisely the situation that many progressives are hoping can be changed by the wave of Sanders supporters fighting from the inside for the soul of the Democratic Party.
“A striking feature of the current political moment is that many activists on the Left are flocking to the Democratic Party, Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite wrote at In These Times.
“But the Democrats are not merely gaining voters,” they continue. “They are gaining activists, people who are committing not only to pull the party lever in the voting booth, but who are determined to rejuvenate and transform the party, beginning at the local level.”
It’s easy to see why that scenario would be attractive to people. But the hard truth is that an organization which has dominated American politics for as long as the Democrats doesn’t allow itself to be “transformed” without a fight–and there aren’t many indications so far that the party’s left is up for even the kind of battle that would change its current rightward direction, much less really transform the Democrats.
The response of the Sanders wing to the DNC purge, for example, was anything but threatening.
“I’m concerned about the optics, and I’m concerned about the impact,” complained James Zogby, one of the purged DNC executive committee members. “”I want to heal the wound of 2016.” Zogby voiced similar sentiments on Twitter: “This doesn’t bring the party together, it deepens the divide at a time we need all hands on deck.”
Not exactly a Bannon-like threat to go to war against the party hacks who sold their souls to corporate interests.
Zogby’s comments reflect the larger timidity of the party’s left wing to wage any kind of fight that will threaten organizational unity in upcoming elections. Unlike Bannon and the Tea Party before him, Sanders Democrats aren’t planning to wage primary challengesagainst centrist House and Senate incumbents in 2018.
The fear of continued Republican rule in Congress in the Trump era is understandable. But as long as that fear continues to be the primary architect of liberal strategy, Democrats will continue moving rightward, assuming its base will follow.
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THE IDEA that progressives have no choice but to work inside the Democratic Party in order to stop Trump and Bannon rests on the assumption that there’s nothing we can do to stop the Republicans outside the halls of Congress.
This might be the biggest problem with the electoral focus of the left: It’s taking attention away from the sources of our greatest power.
One professional football player started a protest last year that has revived a discussion of racist police murders and inspired hundreds of other players to engage in workplace protests in defiance of their employer and the president of the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of women have come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, which has not only dramatically changed awareness of the issue, but led to the investigation, suspension and termination of dozens of powerful executives.
These actions offer a glimpse of the social power just of uncoordinated individuals. Imagine how powerful those protests could be if civil rights groups called for millions of us to kneel outside district attorney’s offices until cops were arrested for killing Black and Brown people. Or if unions organized a campaign to identify and fire the thousands of managers guilty of sexual harassment every day.
Yes, it’s possible for the left to do protests and electoral work at the same time. But they’ll only be effective if they flow from a unified strategy, based on an understanding that our greatest power lies outside of a rigged political system.
The fight to get Congress to pass a “clean” DREAM Act, for example, would be greatly strengthened if it was based less on appeals to Democrats and Republicans to do the right thing, and more on the credible threat that there will be widespread and sustained upheaval on many campuses and in workplaces and communities if 800,000 DACA recipients lose their legal status on March 1.
Similarly, we should be clear that the growing support for single-payer health care will only have a chance at becoming law when we’ve built a powerful movement including patients and health care workers together.
We’re, of course, nowhere near that level of struggle. By contrast, engaging in electoral work inside the Democratic Party, particularly at the local level, feels more productive to many progressives at the moment. It’s the path of least resistance–but people should ask themselves why that is.
The current popularity of Bernie Sanders and progressive politics shows that for the first time in decades, it’s possible to see a future U.S. with a genuine left-wing party, which could have a transformative impact not only here, but around the world.
But that project has to be rooted among people committed to building that alternative not on the Democrats’ terms, but on the explosive potential of popular struggle.
Otherwise there’s a very real danger that we will lose a new radical generation to the doomed project of “reshaping” the Democratic Party in much the same way that bunny rabbits reshape a python after they walk through its open jaws: briefly.
Editor’s Note: This article was initially published with an ableist word, “lame,” in the headline, which has since been deleted. This was a mistake we regret, and we apologize for it.