Try to reform the Democratic Party from within or start a new party and overcome the two-party system of electoral dominance? It’s a fundamental question for leftists in the United States and one that hasn’t gotten any easier following Bernie Sanders’s now two failed bids for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Each option has its merits and demerits. Regarding an “insurgency” within Democratic ranks, progressives can, in part, utilize the existing party brand and infrastructure to help attract a following, though in doing so, they risk incurring the wrath of establishment members, notably the “elites” within. Re bypassing the two-party paradigm, progressives aren’t beholden to any “establishment,” but lose the clout a Democratic Party affiliation affords. It also means, in the specific case of forming a new party altogether, that time, money, energy, and people will have to be marshaled and put to work under a single vision. That’s no small task.
In the meantime, the debate rages on. Progressives are earning key victories in Democratic Party primaries, in some cases ousting entrenched incumbents of 10+ terms backed by party leadership. Thus far, however, the upsets have been fewer and further between than many on the left would like or perhaps even would’ve expected, signifying transformative change indeed can be difficult to achieve and slow to realize. The backlash primary challengers and their supporters have faced from party loyalists for merely daring to run against sainted incumbents, too, is a veritable cross for them to bear.
On a theoretical third-party alternative, at this point, a viable challenge to the Democrat-Republican binary is just that—theoretical. The Green and Libertarian Parties are reviled as potential spoilers more than valued as legitimate voting options, especially at the federal level. Meanwhile, the movement for a People’s Party has not translated to electoral gains despite support from notable figures in the entertainment and political spheres like Abby Martin, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Jimmy Dore, and Oliver Stone. If reforming the Democratic Party from within is a slow burn, starting a party from scratch is downright glacial in its pace (note: this may not apply to the pace at which actual glaciers are melting).
In addition, and at the heart of this piece, while said debate is elaborated, leftists still don’t have a real home. Back in January, speaking an event honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated this outright, remarking, “We don’t have a left party in the United States. The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or center-conservative party.”
By now, if you’ve been paying attention to American politics over even the past five years, you understand ideas like those of AOC’s aren’t absurd and shouldn’t be controversial. Nevertheless, the first-term member of Congress (at least until she officially wins re-election in November) received flak from liberals when, earlier in the same month, she pointed out that, in any other country, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t even be in the same party.
However you perceive her comment—whether as a dig at Biden or not—she’s right. Because of the stronghold the two-party system has on U.S. politics, the likes of Biden and Ocasio-Cortez are forced under the same “big tent.” In Canada, for instance, AOC would at least have the safety valve of the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, rather than being simply lumped in with the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau. She’d be able to trade her Democratic blues in for NDP orange. Hey, I think she could pull it off!
Despite being a member, AOC has been among the most frequent critics of the Democratic Party and its leadership, particularly that of Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps her most salient observation, though, is not about who calls oneself a Democrat, but what the Democrats stand for. For Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive brothers and sisters, their efforts to reform the party from within aren’t about taking the Democrats in a new direction, but steering them back on course.
As AOC opined back in November, leftists aren’t pushing the party left—they’re “bringing the party home,” citing achievements like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act as evidence of the Democrats’ past progressivism. To this effect, what they hope to achieve isn’t “radical,” but in line with professed Democratic values, and in certain respects, bringing America in line with the rest of the world (looking at you, single-payer healthcare!). In fact, their policy goals are in accord with what a growing segment of the electorate, chiefly Democrats, want to see their elected officials pursue.
At the end of the day, votes matter. Joe Biden ultimately beat Bernie Sanders in resounding fashion for the nomination before the latter suspended his campaign in April. As Bernie himself conceded, he and his campaign did not make a strong enough case for his “electability,” with primary voters opting for Biden because they perceived him as more likely to get his policy initiatives advanced, they were more likely to have confidence in his leadership, and because they felt he would be better capable of handling the ongoing pandemic (note: all very debatable points).
However, Joe Biden’s comeback victory/misgivings about Bernie Sanders shouldn’t obscure the reality that, in state after state, voters indicated they support policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. At the moment, the Democratic Party might be able to get away with pointing to Biden’s victory as a justification for denying the American people these things. As time wears on and as progressives start notching more victories on their belts, though, these calls for more-than-incremental change will be tough to ignore.
The state of the progressive movement in the United States really feels like an exercise in optimism vs. cynicism. If you look at primary wins against entrenched incumbents for progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, your glass is likely half full. If you look outside the House of Representatives (and with that, outside the state of New York), your glass might be half empty.
I can’t say I consistently feel one way or another, hovering somewhere between half-full and half-empty on the progressive enthusiasm continuum. That more and more people are embracing policy goals like M4A and student debt cancellation (and, more recently, defunding the police and reparations) as part of mainstream political discussion is encouraging, for instance.
On the other hand, that voters will support these initiatives and still vote for the other candidate vowing not to implement them is more troubling, a notion exacerbated by the often-fragmented nature of the progressive moment. In theory, progressivism is, by its nature, meant to be inclusive and intersectional in its applications. In practice, though, factions within leftist spaces can feel like competing forces rather than sympathetic moving parts of the same whole.
Of course, the choice of whether to reform the Democratic Party or watch it burn to the ground and form a new party from its ashes isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing enterprise. That is, there would appear to be room for progressive Democrats like AOC to try to “bring the party home,” and at the same time, for activists and organizers to pursue other avenues in the service of advancing progressive initiatives, working together on core issues in the process. Yes, that potentially means working with Green and Libertarian Party groups with the expectation that neither side is expected to “convert” the other to its way of doing business. It’s an alliance, not a takeover.
Despite my occasional bouts of bereavement, I ultimately believe progressives will win, broadly speaking. As the saying goes, the hardest part is the waiting. AOC is right: there is no party for the Left in the United States right now. But something has to give eventually and, through all the electoral defeats, the Left’s energy and passion puts it in a better position than the centrists of the present order would care or will allow themselves to admit.
Before I begin, let me acknowledge that, on some level, I already hate myself for writing a piece about the Democratic Party’s prospects for reclaiming the presidency in 2020 when there are other critical elections happening prior to then, namely 2018 mid-terms, which, at this rate, party leadership should be concerned about in merely holding onto what they have let alone regaining seats previously lost. Still, when you have someone as unpopular as Donald Trump in the White House, with people counting down the days until his first term is over, it is perhaps never too early to be thinking ahead to the next presidential election and how eight years of President Trump might be circumvented.
According to Musa al-Gharbi, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, however, Trump’s re-election may be all but a fait accompli. Writing for The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, al-Gharbi cites four key reasons as to why a Trump 2020 victory is not only entirely possible, but likely. Why, pray tell, is—gulp—Trump probable to be a two-term president?
1. Voters tend to stick with the default option.
The hope here is that, because Donald Trump and his presidency have been anything but normal, convention might be summarily bucked in this regard again, but Musa al-Gharbi cites some pretty compelling evidence as to why the odds are against the orange one receiving the ol’ heave-ho, chief among them this nugget of fact: since 1932, only once has an incumbent party failed to win a second-term—that of Jimmy Carter and the Dems. To put this a different way, it’s apparently pretty hard to get yourself kicked out of the Oval Office.
2. Despite being unpopular overall, Trump is still popular with the people who voted him in.
Or, as al-Gharbi puts it, “popularity is overrated.” Despite not liking Trump and his personality all that much, many Americans are likely satisfied with the job he’s doing,—or even feel he’s exceeding expectations. I imagine some of you are reading this and are thinking, um, are we talking about the same guy here? We are, and much as members of Congress, unpopular in their own right, tend to get re-elected more often than not, Trump supporters, swayed neither by media accounts of the brewing scandal within the Trump administration nor bits of domestic or foreign policy they may find disagreeable, are liable to come out again in 2020 for their anointed candidate. All this makes for shitty news for Democratic hopefuls in 2018 and 2020. Glad I could lift your spirits, eh?
3. The Democrats don’t really seem to have a strong contender in place.
Elizabeth Warren? Cory Booker? Kirsten Gillibrand? Amy Klobuchar? Joe Biden? Michelle Obama? Hell, Hillary Clinton—again? If any of these possible names suggested by their supporters are leaders in the proverbial clubhouse in terms of viability as a challenger to Donald Trump, it’s not especially evident, nor is it clear that any of these individuals would have that strong of a chance to upend Trump if a follow-up election were held today. The Democratic Party, generally speaking, seems to be suffering from quite the crisis of leadership, with its most popular representatives either constitutionally prohibited from running again (Barack Obama) or not even a self-identifying member of the party (Bernie Sanders). Simply put, there is no galvanizing figure among the Democrats, or one that a majority of the party is willing to rally behind.
4. Yeah, about that whole impeachment idea.
If you can’t beat ’em, disqualify ’em? To be clear, for those who are not express devotees of Pres. Trump, it’s kind of difficult to imagine how he hasn’t, in some shape or fashion, disqualified himself. Be this as it may, though, Musa al-Gharbi succinctly states that Trump is unlikely to be impeached until his second term, if at all, if for no other reason than Republicans hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—and this reality isn’t apt to change after 2018 either. Besides, the options after Trump on the line of succession aren’t all that inspiring. Mike Pence? Paul Ryan? You may as well pick your brand of poison to this effect.
So, we have multiple concrete reasons from an expert in matters of human social behavior as to why Donald Trump will probably continue to be our evil overlord in 2020 and beyond. This invites the question at the heart (and title) of this piece: are the Democrats’ hopes for 2020 already doomed? Before conceding as much, let’s first address how much is in the locus of control of Democrats with respect to why Musa al-Gharbi says Trump should win. Certainly, historical trends are beyond anyone’s reach. Unless, of course, you happen to have built a time machine, and even then, meddling in past affairs is not recommended, as numerous works of science fiction will attest to. Opinions of Trump as president would also appear to be largely outside the realm of Democratic influence—though many of the aforementioned key Democratic figures seem content to beat that horse to a bloody pulp by assailing Mr. CEO-President at the drop of a hat. As for impeachment, meanwhile? The Dems simply don’t have the majorities needed to force the issue. After all, if voters who don’t possess donor-placating motivations aren’t moved to forsake Pres. Trump, there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell Republicans in Congress, yanked to and fro by wealthy conservatives and corporate industry leaders like puppets on strings, will act against #45, particularly when, despite all the tumult of this presidency, they, by and large, have been able to further their pro-business, anti-poor-people-and-minorities agenda.
This leaves reason #3—the Democrats’ rudderless approach to winning elections—as the primary area where the party can control its own destiny. While the crisis of leadership that evidently plagues the Dems is a big problem, perhaps an even larger issue is found in the overall message that leadership within the party is trying to convey. Matt Taibbi, who consistently writes excellent articles for Rolling Stone magazine, recently addressed the proverbial brick wall against which Democrats have been banging their heads, electorally speaking. His latest essay comes after a special election to fill the vacated seat in the House of Representatives for the state of Montana’s at-large congressional district after Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Secretary (and Destroyer) of the Interior. You may have heard about this one. Democrats were optimistic about the prospects of cowboy-hat-wearing singer-songwriter and upstart politician Rob Quist garnering a victory in a red state like Montana and sending a message of repudiation to Donald Trump and the GOP regarding their regressive path forward for America. They were especially encouraged about Quist’s chances after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, you know, assaulted a reporter after being pressed on the subject of health care and was charged with as much.
And yet, Gianforte ultimately prevailed. We should bear in mind that there are some mitigating circumstances in the results of this special election. Indeed, early voting did count for a significant part of the final tallies, though if you’re thinking this is a reason to dismiss early voting wholesale, you’d arguably be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taibbi highlights other reasons that have already made the rounds during the post-election Democratic Party sobriety hour, including lack of an infrastructure for the party in Montana, being outspent by conservative PACs, and our good friends gerrymandering and right-wing media. Still, Rob Quist’s loss in spite of bad behavior by his Republican counterpart is not the first of its kind in recent memory, one more exhibit in a disturbing series of GOP wins with seemingly little thought given to character next to overarching ideologies. Taibbi details this trend:
There is now a sizable list of election results involving Republican candidates who survived seemingly unsurvivable scandals to win higher office. The lesson in almost all of these instances seems to be that enormous numbers of voters would rather elect an openly corrupt or mentally deranged Republican than vote for a Democrat. But nobody in the Democratic Party seems terribly worried about this.
Gianforte is a loon with a questionable mustache who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about the Republican health care bill. He’s the villain du jour, but far from the worst exemplar of the genre. New Yorkers might remember a similar congressional race from a few years ago involving a Staten Island nutjob named Michael Grimm. The aptly named Grimm won an election against a heavily funded Democrat despite being under a 20-count federal corruption indictment. Grimm had threatened on camera to throw a TV reporter “off a f**king balcony” and “break [him] in half … like a boy.” He still beat the Democrat by 13 points.
The standard-bearer for unelectable candidates who were elected anyway will likely always be Donald Trump. Trump was caught admitting to sexual assault on tape and openly insulted almost every conceivable demographic, from Mexicans to menstruating women to POWs to the disabled; he even pulled out a half-baked open-mic-night version of a Chinese accent. And still won. Gianforte, Trump and Grimm are not exceptions. They’re the rule in modern America, which in recent years has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to vote for just about anybody not currently under indictment for serial murder, so long as that person is not a Democrat.
The list of winners includes Tennessee congressman Scott Desjarlais, a would-be “family values” advocate. Desjarlais, a self-styled pious abortion opponent, was busted sleeping with his patients and even urging a mistress to get an abortion. He still won his last race in Bible country by 30 points.
One wonders if even the serial murderer bit would be enough to disqualify a Republican these days—especially if he or she went around killing liberals or minorities. Furthermore, while Matt Taibbi acknowledges all of the above justifications were, in part, factors in why Greg Gianforte triumphed and Rob Quist was left to sing a sad country song (aren’t they all sad, come to think of it?), as he argues, this rationalization/moral victory business is also indicative of a self-destructive mentality within the Democratic Party. Taibbi explains further:
A lot of these things are true. America is obviously a deeply racist and paranoid country. Gerrymandering is a serious problem. Unscrupulous, truth-averse right-wing media has indeed spent decades bending the brains of huge pluralities of voters, particularly the elderly. And Republicans have often, but not always, had fundraising advantages in key races. But the explanations themselves speak to a larger problem. The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.
This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable. (Of course it birthed a political merchandising supernova.) To many Democrats, the reaction proved the truth of Clinton’s statement. As in: we’re not going to get the overwhelming majority of these yeehaw-ing “deplorable” votes anyway, so why not call them by their names? But the “deplorables” comment didn’t just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.
This sort of us-versus-them rhetoric has long since been established by and understood of the Republican Party. Blame the welfare seekers taking advantage of the system. Blame the erosion of American values. Blame illegal immigration. Blame terrorism. I don’t wish to give Donald Trump too much credit in this regard—in fact, I wish to give him little to none for exploiting these factors—but he did commit to the GOP playbook and ride out the electoral storm unapologetically all the way to the White House. For the Democratic Party, however, a party that touts its inclusiveness, subscribing to the belief that certain segments of the electorate are, at best, not worth the effort, and at worst, irredeemable, seems, if not a betrayal of its core values, then a poor way to distinguish itself from the kind of Republican Party which makes closing America’s open door to refugees of war-torn nations and closing bathroom doors to the transgender community some of its top priorities. As Matt Taibbi offers, “Just because the Republicans win using deeply cynical and divisive strategies doesn’t mean it’s the right or smart thing to do.” In saying as much, he points to how Barack Obama campaigned in red states, even when facing racist rhetoric or when assured of losing in the general election, marking a stark contrast between his approach and that of Hillary Clinton, content to play it safe and keep pandering to the Democratic base.
At the core of the Democrats’ woes, though, and where I feel Taibbi’s analysis hits the nail on its head, is in their strategic and thematic miscues. As the author keenly stresses, a platform based almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives is neither a message nor a plan, explaining why the Democrats “have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.” Furthermore, the party appears to lack the commitment to help mobilize people to the polls. Taibbi closes his piece with these thoughts:
The party doesn’t see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn’t need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all. People need a reason to be excited by politics, and not just disgusted with the other side. Until the Democrats figure that out, these improbable losses will keep piling up.
This, if you ask me, was one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign: rather than focusing on why we shouldn’t be voting for Donald Trump—and if you didn’t see why by November, you probably never were going to see it, let’s be clear—a more compelling case should have been made for why she (Hillary) merited your vote. That is, if you weren’t sold by the “first woman President” angle, and if you were tired of voting for the so-called lesser of two evils (by now, we all should be), there should have been a different or modified narrative for her sake. The polling Taibbi cites of voters increasingly disenfranchised with the Democrats and yet more willing to choose a third-party candidate or none at all should scare the living daylights out of party leadership, as should the notion that younger and more liberal Dems are openly discussing the formation of a new party such as the People’s Party to more authentically represent the country’s needs. Granted, we might not expect the results of a splintering of the Democratic Party to bear fruit in the short term, if it even gets off the ground and is sustainable, but at what percentage of a “lost” vote will the Democratic brass truly begin to take notice and action? 10%? 15%? Or will they remain aloof and/or continue to deflect from undertaking genuine reform?
Should the Democrats be disheartened at not winning the special election in Montana? Given the state’s political leanings, no, not really. That said, a loss is still a loss, and if Democrats are looking for some sense of momentum heading into 2018 or 2020, they’ve still got a wait on their hands for that potential pivotal moment. Moreover, if they’re waiting on Donald Trump and other loose cannons to self-destruct, they’ve got a yet longer wait. Simply put, playing the game of not—not losing, being not-Trump or not-Republicans—is not working. Even if a sense of false hope is what Trump and Co. are giving their supporters, at least they are giving them something on which they can hang their proverbial hats. “Make America Great Again.” It may not mean much to those of us who condescend against its very logic, but to those who believe in it as a promise, it means a great deal. As for the Democrats, who is their inspirational leader? What is their rallying cry? Though mid-terms and the next presidential election may seem remote to many of us, if the Dems don’t figure out answers to these questions or think about how to better reach out to underserved portions of the electorate, they and members of the Resistance will still have their work cut out for them in three-and-a-half years’ time.