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.
Speaking as a progressive, the fight for economic, political, and social justice is such that, despite any setbacks, there are always more battles to fight. In other words, there is always work to be done and voices to be amplified. But damn if it doesn’t get disheartening sometimes.
Of course, as the death count related to COVID-19 in the United States makes its inexorable climb toward 100,000-plus, the immediate health and safety of all Americans is of paramount importance. Still, taking a snapshot of progressive politics at this moment in time, it’s worth noting that, at the national level, progressive leadership and power doesn’t seem all that it’s cracked up to be or could be.
Let’s start with the Senate. Who are your progressive leaders and how do you feel about them lately? Bernie Sanders, who has missed at least one key vote in recent memory, is reportedly asking some delegates to sign agreements barring them from attacking other candidates or leaders, getting involved in social media confrontations, or doing interviews with reporters without approval. If true, it’s a disappointing development from a man who suspended his presidential bid with a whimper and gave up the fight with so much at stake and with so little conceded from Joe Biden’s camp.
Elizabeth Warren? After a disappointing campaign that ultimately saw her fail to catch on with progressives and party loyalists alike and only manage a third-place finish in her home state, her progressive credentials are in question now more than ever. Her attacks on Bernie, her reversal on super PAC funding, and her self-identification alongside Amy Klobuchar from primary season notwithstanding, her apparent abandonment of Medicare for All, a central tenet of the progressive movement in the U.S., invites charges of selling out for a chance to be Biden’s vice president—an unlikely eventuality to begin with given Joe’s ties to the banking industry.
Kamala Harris? Kirsten Gillibrand? Cory Booker? Like Sanders and Warren, they’re all carrying water for Biden despite a credible sexual assault allegation against him and other claims of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Poor Ed Markey might not survive a primary challenge from Joe Kennedy III, the Pete Buttigieg of the Senate Democratic races—and no, that “Mayo Pete” comparison is not a compliment. Jeff Merkley. Mazie Hirono. Sherrod Brown. They’re not exactly household names outside of progressive circles and none are younger than 60.
In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, we thankfully have members who are making a name for themselves as progressives on the national stage—and younger ones at that. The problem here is that these reps are seemingly having their influence circumscribed at every possible turn (or at least the attempt is there) by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other dyed-in-the-wool establishment Democrats.
Faced with an unprecedented economic and health crisis, Pelosi and Co. have largely capitulated to moneyed interests, offering little in the way of substantive relief to everyday Americans beyond the minimum standards Republicans have proposed. All the while, Pelosi, like her other moderate colleagues, has endorsed Biden’s presidential bid and has allowed herself to get dragged down in the mud with Donald Trump, making references to his weight and other performative gestures which neither do anything to help people in need nor do they help rally support for the party cause outside of loyalists (and also risk alienating people who don’t take kindly to body shaming regardless of the source).
To recap then, we have a promising group of younger progressives in the House amid Democratic Party control, but old-guard leadership is evidently determined to thwart them as part of a last-gasp effort to flex its might. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is majority leader, Chuck Schumer is the party’s face, and even the members with the best voting records have made questionable alliances/decisions of late. In addition, as alluded to, the most progressive options of the 2020 presidential campaign saw their hopes dashed in dramatic fashion following Super Tuesday.
All of this on top of a coronavirus crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Americans die, millions of people file for unemployment and/or lose health insurance, and the world’s richest individuals get even richer as a direct result of the global pandemic has made the first half of 2020 so far a little frustrating, to put it mildly. What’s more, it doesn’t appear things will improve over the rest of the year or anytime soon for that matter.
Small businesses will continue struggling to survive in the absence of needed aid from the federal government. Another wave of COVID-19 infections is probable if not certain. And while Biden is enjoying a national polling lead in some cases of eight or more percentage points, that he’s not doing better given the depths of Trump’s inadequacies and that he continues to lag behind in the enthusiasm department is deeply troubling with November fast approaching. In short, 2020 has sucked royally—and for progressives in particular, there is every reason to worry the worst is yet to come.
Lest I relegate myself purely to the realms of doom and gloom, it’s not all bad for the progressive movement in the United States of America. If the popularity of figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, it’s that there is a real appetite for new leadership within a growing subset of the left-leaning electorate. As ignominious as the end to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign was, too, exit poll after exit poll showed that despite primary voters’ preference for Joe Biden to take on Donald Trump, on issues like Medicare for All, they favored the progressive position over the standard alternative. So many voters are desperate for real change.
As the late great philosopher Tom Petty once said, however, the waiting is the hardest part. Whilst progressives helped organize a campaign for Bernie that was poised to go the distance—and there’s much to discuss in the postmortem period of analysis about why it didn’t but there’s not enough space in this article or perhaps one article in it of itself to do that—the Biden campaign struggled to raise finances, limped out of the gates in early contests, and didn’t even have a presence in a number of bygone primary states.
And yet he still romped in the South and managed numerous upset wins following his dominant showing in South Carolina. Whether Elizabeth Warren’s presence in the race long after it was clear her electoral chances were dead on arrival hurt Bernie is yet a subject of debate in leftist circles (among Sanders supporters, I feel like this may be overblown), but regardless, the two best candidates to ever be in striking distance of the overall polling lead came up well short of winning the nomination despite being better-funded and better-organized than the campaign that actually has Biden on a path to win the Democratic Party nomination and maybe even defeat Trump in November. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and increasingly so as real life proves candidates like Sanders, Warren, and even Andrew Yang on the topic of universal basic income right.
The news is better further down ballots, where there are real electoral successes to be found. AOC’s meteoric rise to prominence aside, though, primary challenges ending in progressive wins are fewer and farther between than eager leftists sifting through voting results would obviously like to see. The Democratic Party establishment has been more than hostile toward primary challenges from the left. (If you’re Ed Markey and facing a challenge from the right in the form of a corporate-funded candidate with the Kennedy name, that’s apparently fine.) Though this doesn’t mean that challengers’ efforts aren’t worthy if not necessary to compel Democratic incumbents to actually try to earn their votes, it’s nonetheless deflating when effort and good intent alone can’t overcome voter aversion to change and a party apparatus specifically constructed to quell dissent.
Inherently, these circumstances promote tension, for while progressives ideally would like to think about how to organize over the long term, the realities of the short term compel action even at the expense of immediate political capital. Regardless of the “color” of one’s district, someone should be running to represent policy goals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, cancellation of student debt, universal basic income, and other progressive priorities. No one wants to be running without a genuine chance at winning when the optics surrounding a landslide loss loom large. The need for involvement at the lower levels of government because of the magnitude of suffering for millions of Americans creates urgency, and progressive groups across key voting blocs are often fighting one another for relevance when cooperation should be the order of the day.
For me, what is especially challenging about all of this is how, despite progressives’ collective efforts since the 2016 election, we yet find ourselves in a precarious position. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats haven’t learned their lesson, that much more determined to return to the days before President Trump no matter what in coalescing behind a candidate in Biden who generates even less enthusiasm than the woman who just lost.
Regarding COVID-19, America lags behind the rest of the world in curbing the spread of infection despite its wealth of resources, and at a time when we should be rethinking the role of capitalism in how our society functions (or doesn’t), some people seem only that much more willing to sacrifice others on capitalism’s altar so they can get a haircut or prevent a decline in stock prices. If there is a lesson to be learned herein, it’s sadly that 90,000 deaths is not enough to spur a movement of sufficient size toward fundamental change. A few months into widespread quarantines across the country, many of us are restless to the point of advocating for armed rebellion. What happens when the ravages of climate changes really start hitting home? If current developments are any indication, it, um, won’t go well.
In belaboring progressives’ struggles within the Democratic Party, I don’t mean to paper over the differences between the Dems and the death cult that is the Republican Party. For example, Joe Biden deserves your vote more than Donald Trump—full stop. I also don’t mean to insist that leaving the Democratic Party altogether is necessarily the correct tactic. The #DemExit movement is fraught with its own difficulties and potential shortcomings, though I also don’t blame progressives for wanting to move on after the litany of abuses they’ve suffered in such a short time, only wanting to do their part to make the Democratic Party better.
Though I think progressives might do well to place a greater emphasis on winning and grassroots organizing at the lower levels of government and though I have reservations about watching the Democratic Party burn to the ground, politics is ultimately a two-way street. Democratic leadership would do well not to take progressive votes for granted and offer at least some meaningful concessions to the left rather than mere table scraps. 2020 has been a disaster for progressive politics on the national stage thus far, but it doesn’t have to end that way—and the Democrats would be all the stronger by recognizing it.
Amid her 2018 take-down of President Donald Trump, members of his administration, media networks and their on-air personalities, and leaders of the Republican Party at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedienne Michelle Wolf took a brief moment to assail the Democratic Party. From the speech:
Republicans are easy to make fun of. You know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie. But I also want to make fun of Democrats. Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.
Wolf’s armchair prognostication didn’t quite hit the mark. Riding a “blue wave” of sorts, Democrats did manage to take control of the House of Representatives, gaining a net total of 41 seats. Conversely, they further lost ground in the Senate, with Republicans adding two seats to their advantage. Nancy Pelosi soon became the Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, tightened his grip on the role of Senate Majority Leader.
It’s 2020 now. Once again, every seat in the House will be contested as well as 35 Senate seats, with both parties likely to retain a majority in their respective houses of Congress. (Then again, this year has been so wacky who knows what’s in store.) The one that looms largest, however, is undoubtedly the presidential election. In a virtual walkover, Pres. Trump won the Republican Party primary, meaning he will officially be vying for a second term.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile? The presumptive nominee is Joe Biden, who is on pace to secure enough delegates to win the nod outright but at this writing has yet to do so. Following Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his campaign and endorsement of Biden (barring rule changes at the state level, Sanders will continue to appear on primary ballots and accrue delegates in hopes of being able to influence the party platform), the former senator from Delaware and vice president has fully pivoted to a prospective November showdown with the incumbent.
The Biden-Trump match-up is one many would have predicted in advance of primary elections. For a while, it looked as if Bernie might run away with the nomination with Biden struggling to stay relevant. Then came a big win for Joe in South Carolina and a winnowing of the moderate portion of the field, followed by a Biden romp on Super Tuesday and decisive wins on successive “Super Tuesdays.” In the end, the early forecasts were right.
In advance of the general election, meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to who would triumph in a theoretical face-off between these two men. Politico, for one, labels the race “too close to call.” The website 270toWin gives the edge to the Democratic Party nominee, but notes that critical states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are effective coin flips. Regarding polling, various survey sources give Biden a lead of anywhere to two to 10 percentage points nationally, with none of the recent polls referenced by RealClearPolitics giving Trump an advantage.
Of course, polling doesn’t necessarily translate to votes, much in the way support on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to votes (thank you, Bernie detractors, we get it). This is beside the notion that the Electoral College decides matters, not the popular vote, as any Democratic Party supporter ruefully recounting the 2016 presidential election can tell you. The 2020 election will be decided on a state-by-state basis.
And while, as with national polling, Biden is ahead in numerous cases, re swing states, his are not overwhelming leads. Factor in margin of error and these numbers are somewhat worrisome. Not merely to invoke Hillary Clinton’s infamous line, but why isn’t Biden 50 points ahead or at least better off than current polling dictates? As many would reason, Trump is a terrible president and the depths of his depravity and incompetence have only become more apparent in his administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. What gives?
With all due respect to the “blue no matter who” crowd and even noting how difficult the threat of spreading coronavirus has made traditional campaigning, Joe Biden is a terrible candidate, especially noting the pitfalls which led to 2016’s debacle. What’s more, at a time of great need for so many Americans, he hasn’t been nearly as visible as he could or perhaps should be.
Let’s start with the whole missing-in-action business. Sure, there have been various public appearances by Joe via cable news outlets and online town halls, but these have been fairly sporadic. Additionally, when they have occurred, they’ve been marked by Biden’s trademark gaffes, mental lapses, technical issues, or have otherwise been led by to a considerable extent by Dr. Jill Biden, his wife.
If anything, Biden and his team seem content to try to hide him rather than make him more accessible, concerned that he will do or say something to hurt his chances in the fall. His absences, sometimes spanning days, have prompted the creation and promulgation of the #WhereIsJoe and #WhereIsJoeBiden hashtags on Twitter, and speaking of Twitter, we can be reasonably sure Joe himself is not the one publishing those tweets. Facing the rabid army of supporters that is Trump’s following, this is not a strength.
As for why Biden is a bad candidate, ahem, how much time do you have? Though, in Biden’s defense, that he’s merely “another old white guy” gets perhaps unfairly dwelt upon in an era of seemingly increasing sensitivity to identity politics, his policy goals aren’t doing him many favors in countering the narrative that he’s out of touch. To this effect, most of us seem to be unaware what his actual policy goals are, an idea reinforced by his and his campaign’s insistence on his decency and leadership rather than specifics. Granted, not everyone is a policy wonk or needs to know the nittiest and grittiest of the details of a candidate’s stances on issues, but for younger and more idealistic voters, in particular, their omission is troubling.
Given a dearth of elaboration on what Biden would hope to accomplish as president, we have only his record and his ties to certain industry groups as a large part of his donor base to rely on. That’s not a good sign either. As a senator, Biden took numerous positions/cast votes that haven’t aged well. Voting in favor of the Iraq War. Leading the charge on a 1994 crime bill that helped accelerate mass incarceration. Favoring cuts to social safety net programs like Social Security in an effort to reduce deficit spending. Siding with credit card companies and predatory lenders on 2005 bankruptcy law reform.
Biden’s participation on these fronts suggests fealty to donors and lobbyists or at least acting in the name of political expediency rather than genuine concern for his constituents. What’s worse, in his run-up to the nomination, Biden has either defended a number of these positions or has sought to obfuscate his role in the passage of key legislation. True, he has apologized for certain elements of his record and has backtracked on specific stances that would put him at odds with the rest of the Democratic field, such as his support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of federal programs like Medicaid in paying for abortions. One gets the sense, however, that his admissions and his reversals are begrudging ones, forced by a recognition of the damage his electoral prospects might incur by refusing to accommodate voter reservations.
On top of what we know about Joe’s votes and past public statements, there’s also the matter of proven falsehoods he has stated as well as questions about his conduct. Biden is a serial liar who had a previous presidential bid derailed by accusations of plagiarism. Just this election cycle, he and his campaign repeated a fabricated tale of his arrest in South Africa en route to see Nelson Mandela and have trumpeted an inflated image of his involvement in the civil rights movement, one Biden himself has promoted over the past three decades and change despite a lack of corroborating evidence. For all the insistence of Biden as a “good guy,” he sure has a problematic relationship with the truth that speaks to his identity as a career politician.
And then there’s the Tara Reade scandal, an ongoing and apparently worsening development for Biden. Initially slow to be recognized if not outright ignored by major media outlets, Reade’s claims of sexual harassment and eventual assault have gained traction even from publications and other sources who tend to be sympathetic to Biden and the Democratic Party. Biden, for his part, vehemently denies the allegations. But his penchant for spinning a yarn as well as his exhibited proclivity for, well, touching girls and women in a manner definitely considered inappropriate by today’s standards casts at least the shadow of a doubt on his dismissal of Reade’s account. It’s circumstantial, yes, but in an era where optics matter more than ever, the associations voters might make are potentially damaging.
Other politicians have been asked to resign or have bowed out of races for less. Here we are, though, in 2020 and with the #MeToo movement firmly established, and Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. All this despite the allegations against him, his checkered voting record, his fabrications, his obvious cognitive decline, and his sagging enthusiasm among younger voters. This is the face of the Democratic Party and the person who is supposed to usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation and be a bridge to a new era of Democratic leadership. This is the man who party leaders have hitched their proverbial wagon to and who party supporters are backing substantially in the primary.
The question of “What should we do?” in both the short term and long term is one being bandied about at a fever pitch by progressives since Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his presidential campaign. How did we lose and so decisively? Who will run in 2024? Should we vote for Joe Biden? Should we endorse Joe Biden? Are we not focused enough on winning races at the local and county level? Is there too little organizing among similar-minded groups and too much infighting? Where have all the cowboys gone?
OK, that last one was a joke. (Anyone here remember Paula Cole?) In all earnest, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty on the left right now and a big part of it involves whether progressives can co-exist with the rest of the Democratic Party or whether an existing or new party needs to be built up to challenge the duopoly the two major parties currently have on the American political landscape.
Concerning the former, if Bernie’s late struggles in the primary and the tone of the party establishment following his dropping out are any indication, progressives have a long way to go. Sure, a few younger progressives have begun to make a name for themselves. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Ayanna Pressley. Ilhan Omar. Katie Porter. Pramila Jayapal. Rashida Tlaib. Ro Khanna. Despite the popularity of these figures, however, Democratic Party leadership still appears dead set on keeping them at somewhat of a distance.
Also, for every upset win like that of AOC’s, there are that many more blowouts in favor of the more moderate incumbent. By and large, Democratic voters are reasonably satisfied with their elected representatives. Either that or they are too afraid to take a chance on an alternative, too uninformed to make a decision on an unfamiliar candidate (primary voters tend not to be low-information voters but just raising the possibility), or simply convinced that no matter who they choose it won’t make a major difference in their day-to-day lives. The battle to reform the Democratic Party is one being fought tooth and nail by establishment forces and hasn’t yet caught on with a large enough subset of voters.
As for the state of the presidential race, if Biden’s camp and the DNC have made any meaningful concessions to progressives in hopes of winning their votes, er, most of us haven’t seen them yet. Lowering the age for Medicare enrollment to 60, for example, is a slap in the face to Bernie supporters, many of whom are younger and therefore nowhere close to qualifying. In fact, Biden’s refusal to even entertain a single-payer insurance system is, to many leftists, absurd given record numbers of people losing their jobs due to the spread of coronavirus and, with that, access to affordable healthcare.
Rumors of Cabinet appointments for people with ties to Wall Street and/or bailouts for “too big to fail” institutions. Virtual fundraisers starting at $2,800 to participate. Biden himself has been recorded saying that he “has no empathy” for younger generations and telling donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” if he’s elected president. On top of this, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other high-ranking Democrats have offered milquetoast remedies to the economic hardships facing the electorate, allowing Donald Trump, in all his bombast and cluelessness, to hijack the domestic COVID-19 conversation. I don’t doubt the Democratic Party is willing to win in November, but it seems unwilling to do so at the expense of its contributions from certain industries and lobbying groups.
Indeed, the playbook from Biden and Co. for 2020 is evidently to try to court white suburban voters and persuade Republicans to go against Trump while it all but ignores the insights from the energetic progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In doing so, they’re pitching a return to “normalcy,” trying to win without younger voters and independents, or otherwise trying to hector undecided voters into submission, throwing everything from kids in cages to the potential death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as reasons to vote for Biden and not against Trump. That didn’t work in 2016 and, for a segment of the electorate convinced the progressive option was screwed not once but twice, that’s arguably not going to cut it.
And yet, Joe Biden may still win! The closeness of the race as evidenced by polling lends itself to the notion Democrats are wedded to Joe for better or for worse. Take him or leave him. But if you’re a progressive being told that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are a discussion for “later,” that it’s OK that Biden may have committed sexual assault because “look at Trump,” and that top party brass would rather have someone who struggles to complete sentences versus a much sharper candidate in Bernie Sanders, one who isn’t beleaguered by scandal and who has an army of fanatics waiting to help turn out the vote for him, how are you supposed to feel welcome? Where is the moral compass of this party?
Bypassing the Democratic Party completely, meanwhile, has its own complications, namely that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to establish a party. Granted, there are existing third-party options like the Green Party and Libertarian Party available, but so far, they have faced many of the same challenges progressives as a whole have faced in terms of funding, organization, and electoral logistics. Widespread voting reform including ranked-choice voting may help overcome this reality or at least mitigate the argument that “X cost us the election.” In the meantime, trying to draft progressives as Greens or Libertarians is a hard sell.
That brings us back to the notion of transforming the Democratic Party from within. As with fashioning a new political entity, it’s going to take time, money, hard work, and a vision forward. Simply put, it’s no small task, and with a party infrastructure in place that is specifically designed to check progressive momentum and stifle dissent, it begs wondering whether the Democratic Party, well, can be saved from itself or whether, even with the very real possibility of a second term of President Trump existing, the party has to fail and be dismantled for substantive progress to be made.
If letting the Democratic Party burn to the ground sounds crazy, as a reminder, in the midst of a pandemic, its presumptive presidential nominee, who has promised to veto M4A if it somehow clears Congress, has trouble navigating his way through an online forum and its congressional leaders have made more concessions to moneyed interests than average people. For a party that is ostensibly a working-class organization, it’s not living up to its mission.
In highlighting the different ways of addressing a broken political system, I don’t mean to dismiss reform efforts as worthless, but only to underscore the difficulties therein. Already, many of us on the left have seen the fight for recognition as the fight of our lives. The global pandemic has only intensified those sentiments.
I, for one, remain optimistic that changing the Democratic Party from the ground up is possible. At the same time and on the road to a more democratic Democratic Party, I feel it’s fair to wonder how many indignities progressives are meant to endure and whether establishment Democrats will ever learn their lesson from their electoral failures.
Following Bernie Sanders’s all-but-inevitable departure from the Democratic Party presidential primary race, the endorsements have been coming fast and furious for Joe Biden, the Dems’ presumptive nominee, including from Bernie himself.
Soon after Bernie’s surprisingly-early public backing of his friend and former senatorial colleague during a recent Biden livestream, Barack Obama, the yin to Biden’s yang during his tenure in the Oval Office, threw his weight behind Joe’s candidacy. Not long after that, Elizabeth Warren, who notably abstained from endorsements when it came down to just Bernie and Biden, also got behind the latter with a proud endorsement video for the man who loves Amtrak, aviators, and ice cream.
Echoing the positions of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, however, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel against voting for him, mind you, especially for those who live in swing states, and I also believe even probable nonvoters should contribute to the discussion by trying to influence the party platform in a progressive direction. Either way, though, I am patently against trying to shame those who are undecided or have indicated they won’t vote for Biden into doing so.
First things first, if you’ve read my writing for any length of time, you know I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through. How could I advocate not endorsing or not voting for Biden when my main man Bernie suggested it would be “irresponsible” for me not to?
Well, despite what some of you may have heard or might believe, we Bernie faithful are not members of a cult or bots. We can think independently of our inspirational leader. In fact, there are many who donated to the Sanders campaign and who otherwise supported Bernie’s run for the White House who wanted to see him go harder after Biden and his record when they became the final two candidates for the nomination. We believe Bernie’s a great man, but he’s not infallible. We can openly disagree with him.
This is besides the notion that, after years of being labeled as “toxic” and being dismissed as “Bernie Bros” who are predominantly young and white and hate women and want everything handed on a silver platter to them, all of a sudden, our votes are highly desirable and our endorsements are expected to mean something. Well, which one is it? Are we toxic, to be avoided at all costs? Or are we highly-valued members of the voting bloc/Democratic Party supporters? You can’t have it both ways.
(At this point, it might behoove me to mention that the concept of “Bernie Bros” being more liable to attack people online than supporters of other candidates is a myth perpetuated in large part by media outlets, more correctly attributable to his popularity. But please don’t allow me to let observable data get in the way of a good narrative.)
Plus, there’s the matter of the logical trap surrounding the “a vote for anyone but Biden is a vote for Trump” line. By extension, by one not voting for Trump, isn’t that the same as voting for Biden? If not, how so?
This is where, before I get ahead of myself, I openly concede Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t the same—and it’s not even close. Trump is a bigot, a cheat, a con man, a fraud, and a liar. Worse yet, he’s not remotely good at his job.
We’ve seen 3+ years of President Trump and the results include an administration continuously full of upheaval and vacancies; a Cabinet full of millionaires, billionaires, and other cronies; an escalation of racist and xenophobic rhetoric; a fast track for confirmation of federal judges thinly veiled in their prejudices and often incompetent; a tax cut that primarily favors wealthier earners; weakened protections for the environment and the LGBTQIA+ community; and a woeful response to the present threat of coronavirus/COVID-19 marked by political favoritism and hampered by a lack of due preparation. All the while, Trump, when not enriching himself, playing golf, tweeting, or watching FOX News, deflects blame, undermining a free press as “the enemy of the people.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president in the modern era than Donald J. Trump.
Returning to the question of the fallacy that not voting for the Democrat is a vote for the Republican and vice versa then, the only way this equivalency loses validity is if you consider that one candidate’s supporters are that much more likely to come out for their chosen nominee than the other’s. Such is potentially a big problem for Biden: enthusiasm. As recently as the end of March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only 24% of those surveyed strongly support Biden over Trump, while more than half of prospective Trump voters surveyed indicated they are “very” enthusiastic about casting their ballots for the incumbent. That’s worse than what Hillary Clinton encountered in 2016 at this point in the race—and we all know how that turned out.
Why the lack of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe? Maybe because he’s—and I’m just spit-balling here—not that good of a candidate. Through all these proud endorsements by the likes of Obama, Sanders, and Warren, a lot has been said about his character, his lifetime of public service, and his leadership. On the other hand, little, if anything, has been said about his policy positions or a cohesive vision for America’s future, and talk of his supposed progressive credentials flies in the face of his actual record.
The image Obama et al. are creating is an idealized version of Biden, one designed to drum up votes and drive home the differences between him and Trump on dimensions like empathy. It does not consider Biden’s stalwart opposition to Medicare for All and other single-payer health insurance systems, even during a global pandemic that is seeing record numbers of Americans file for unemployment and get kicked off their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. It does not consider his halfhearted embrace of the Green New Deal which would see the United States miss a net zero emissions target date of 2030 recommended by progressives by two decades. It does not consider his support for student debt cancellation only for some income levels, not all, and not after siding with lenders on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy and unable to discharge their student loan debt through bankruptcy. It’s revisionist history that re-characterizes Biden’s identity as the poster boy for political expediency as something greater than what it actually is.
All this hagiographic elevation of Biden also fails to consider limiting factors that would seemingly disqualify most other candidates. One is his cognitive decline, obvious to anyone who has eyes and ears. It’s why we have not seen or heard more of him since the coronavirus prompted a state of national emergency in the United States. It’s why he’s reliant on cue cards, notes, or teleprompters during all planned appearances, which are often short and have his wife, Jill, leading him along. It’s why we see clip after clip of him laboring with his speech, struggling to form complete sentences and thoughts. This is more than gaffes or a stutter—and it’s not a secret to Republicans either.
The other big problem with Biden as the candidate of a major party, particularly one that touts its inclusivity and its strong female leadership, is the list of allegations made against him by various women of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Most serious among them, and yet disappointingly underreported, is the account of Tara Reade, a staffer for Biden in the 90s, who claims that Biden sexually and verbally assaulted her.
Despite comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court and despite Reade seeming credible in her retelling of details about the alleged assault, many of the same people loudly calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal as a nominee are expressing their doubts about the veracity of Reade’s public statements. The primary difference herein appears to be not whether Reade is believable, but that Biden is a Democrat backed by the party establishment, while Kavanaugh was jammed through confirmation by Senate Republicans. He’s on our team, not yours. At least he’s not as bad as Trump. A victory for women and #MeToo, this isn’t.
Given all this, it’s no wonder enthusiasm for Joe Biden—the “white moderate” warned about by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is cognitively impaired, has no empathy for young people, has few clear policy goals, and may be guilty of sexual assault—is so low. Even after a term of President Trump, that Biden is a tough sell should be immediately concerning to Democratic Party leadership and the “vote blue no matter who” crowd all the same.
So what, you may be thinking. If you’re not voting to stop the madman in the White House, maybe you should be ashamed. You just refuse to accept that your guy is not the one going for the nomination. He didn’t have the votes. It’s over. Get over your privilege and get behind the winner. We’re ridin’ with Biden.
I get it—a second term of President Trump would not be felt as severely by all Americans, much as is the case now. The horror stories of migrants kept in detention, denied asylum despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin. The families negatively affected by the Muslim ban masquerading as a travel ban. The anti-Asian hate being fomented as a result of fear and misinformation about COVID-19. The administration’s attempt to erase trans people. It’s not something I like imagining.
Citing Pew Research Center data from 2018, Greenwald finds that 56% of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election made less than $30,000 per year. More than half of non-voters were age 49 or younger or were high-school-educated or less, and nearly half of nonvoters were non-white. Moreover, while voter suppression efforts of these groups are both “real are pernicious,” the idea that nonvoters are frequently not registering because they are dissatisfied with their choices or don’t believe their vote will make a difference is significant. It would, too, seek to dispel “the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain.” In saying this, Greenwald is fixated on the bubbles we find ourselves in when we subsist only on a diet of one-sided cable news and social media.
It is this understanding that begs the question: How many indignities are progressives supposed to endure in their earnest attempts to help reform the Democratic Party and to defeat the Donald Trumps of today and tomorrow? Bernie Sanders ultimately didn’t make the case to enough Democratic primary voters that he is the most “electable” and is the right choice to take on Trump and the GOP. His, like any campaign, was flawed.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has suffered from a lack of organization and funding throughout his run. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It was because of his strong showing in South Carolina and the coalescence of the Democratic Party around Biden that he was able to vault to the lead for the nomination and never look back, further buoyed by a media narrative that celebrated his comeback uncritically.
To make things worse, Barack Obama has had more influence on said coalescence than he would lead or like you to believe. As reports have indicated, the former president was influential in getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Biden right around the time they bowed out of the race. Obama also held several conversations with Bernie to help “accelerate the endgame” before the Wisconsin primary results were made public.
Most chillingly, and regarding that Wisconsin primary, according to insider reports, Biden’s campaign was “eager” to have it run as originally scheduled or else they’d turn up the heat on Bernie to drop out, a notion Obama stressed in his conversations with Sanders. For all the “bad optics” of 2015 and 2016, this blatant favoritism of the establishment candidate over the progressive is yet harder to bear four years later. That Biden and his team would encourage people to go the polls during a global pandemic and despite widespread closures and poll worker shortages is all the more reprehensible. This was always about stopping Bernie and then beating Trump. Any pretense otherwise is beyond absurd at this point.
Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump, and if you’re voting for the former to stop the latter, I understand completely. When people don’t share your enthusiasm for voting strategically and when they perceive that nothing meaningful will change regardless, though, trying to bully, demean, or insult them into voting is of questionable, if any, utility. So enough with the vote shaming already. You’d be better off making calls and trying to engage with disaffected nonvoters by understanding their points of view if you truly want to avoid disaster in November.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters, establishment Democrats and corporate media outlets want you at each other’s throats. They want you focused on each other and not on their preferred candidates, all the while using this conflict to generate clicks and satisfy their sponsors.
Don’t take the bait.
In giving this advice, I understand that these matters are fraught with emotion and thus that it’s hard to separate one’s feelings from one’s electoral hopes. Many Sanders supporters, I know, are downright furious with Warren. Warren supporters who believe their candidate of choice are likely disgusted with Bernie and the “Bernie Bros” who reflexively support him. From my perspective, I am less angry than I am disappointed that the situation evidently has turned so acrimonious so fast and in a way that so clearly benefits the less progressive challengers in the field.
So, where do we begin? Well, to be sure, some Sanders and Warren fans don’t need much prodding to get into it with one another, if any. Some of Bernie’s faithful have distrusted Warren ever since she endorsed Hillary Clinton over her more progressive primary challenger in the run-up to the last election, considering the move a betrayal of the highest order. They also see the Massachusetts senator as somewhat of a cheap imitation of Bernie and his ideals.
Some Warren backers, meanwhile, fear Sanders as a candidate who promotes disunity among the Democratic ranks by holding to a my-way-or-the-highway approach. By extension, they might argue he hasn’t done enough to rein in the #BernieOrBust faction of his base or respond to charges of sexism and sexual harassment from his followers and members of his campaign. As it was with Hillary, so is it with Elizabeth. 2016 becomes 2020.
It is against this backdrop that we might view the latest turn in tensions between the Sanders and Warren camps, one fueled by an incendiary report by CNN’s MJ Lee which tells of a meeting in 2018 between the two candidates in which the former expressed to the latter his belief that a woman couldn’t win the presidency.
The account is jarring to many observers for a number of reasons. For one, this depiction of Sanders contrasts starkly with past statements regarding female candidates and his own track record. It was Sanders, after all, who urged Warren to run in 2016 and only took up the progressive mantle when Warren didn’t oblige. He also, despite Clinton’s revisionist history, campaigned heavily for the Democratic Party nominee after bowing out of the race and has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights and of the idea of a woman as president.
Even for critics and outlets that tend to be critical of him, these supposed remarks of his didn’t pass the smell test, and for his part, Bernie denies ever saying anything to this effect. As he recalls the conversation, he simply advised Warren that Donald Trump would try to weaponize misogyny and other forms of prejudice should she seriously contend for the Democratic Party nomination. That’s markedly different from the tale told by the sources cited within Lee’s piece, who some believe are individuals affiliated exclusively with Warren’s campaign. In this respect, it’s at best a fabrication and at worst a baseless accusation.
Warren did not back down from the central thrust of the MJ Lee piece, however, or offer any sort of apology. As she asserted in a public statement, Bernie did, in fact, share his view that a woman couldn’t win the presidential race, a notion with which she disagrees. She did not expand beyond that confirmation of the CNN report except to say that she and Sanders “have far more in common than our differences on punditry” and that, as friends and allies, they would work together to defeat Trump and promote a government that works for the American people.
Elizabeth Warren may have struck a conciliatory tone in the closing of her statement, but as her accusation went viral, the damage, as they say, was done. By the time the latest Democratic Party debate rolled around, mere days after the “bombshell” article release, the stage was set for hostilities to flare up once more.
CNN, the debate’s host, was only too happy to oblige after helping to fuel this fire in the first place. During one astonishing sequence, Sanders was asked why he had said a woman couldn’t be president, directly assigning him guilt in a case in which he disputed the prevailing narrative. Upon Sanders offering his defense and rebuttal, the moderator turned to Warren and asked her how she felt about Bernie’s words back in 2018, as if his denial meant nothing.
This was the most egregious instance of anti-Bernie bias during the debate, but by no means the only example of a question framed in such a way as to immediately put him and his claims in doubt. On more than one occasion, the on-screen text accompanying the questions asked was thinly-veiled criticism of Sanders’s positions. It presumed his opposition to the USMCA is “wrong,” his level of federal spending would “bankrupt the country,” and his health care plan would “cost voters and the country.” It was up to Bernie alone to reverse this narrative. That’s asking a lot from a format in which candidates are jockeying for speaking time and interruptions are par for the course.
When Sanders approached Warren post-debate seeking a handshake and instead getting an indignant and incredulous response from her as to whether her colleague had essentially called her a liar on national television, CNN had exactly what it wanted. The showdown it had built up prior to the event had come to fruition and here was the image waiting to go viral. What was discussed during the debate? Did climate change get its usual token mention at a point halfway or later through the broadcast and never again? Who cares. The two progressive candidates are fighting. That is the story the network ran with.
In the aftermath, Bernie supporters and others sympathetic to both candidates took to Twitter to convey their vehement disapproval with Elizabeth Warren, popularizing the #NeverWarren hashtag and dotting her mentions with snake emojis and electronic shouts of “Liar!” For the observers still lamenting the protestations of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd against Hillary Clinton from 2016, history was repeating itself in an ugly way. That in both cases it was a woman bearing the brunt of Sanders backers’ scorn was therefore no coincidence. Here was the Bernie Bros’ naked sexism on display for all to see.
At this point, most media outlets are treating this “clash” as somewhat of an inevitability, the byproduct of two progressives with passionate followings being in a race together that only one person can win. Throw in some half-baked analysis as to where their differences lie and you have a postmortem column about the growing schism between them ready to serve to a general public eager for excitement amid an otherwise drab discussion of policy specifics.
Even if things would eventually have to come to a head between Sanders and Warren, though, that a spat would not only occur this early but with such antagonism and to be actively encouraged by the American mass media should give leftists pause. After all, this sowing of the seeds of discord is something we might expect from, say, Joe Biden’s campaign.
For supporters of either Sanders or Warren to launch invectives at one another across social media when the prospects of a Biden or Buttigieg ticket are very real feels unproductive. It’s one thing if the primary race were down to a two-headed competition between two of the most progressive members of the Senate. It’s another when we haven’t even gotten to Iowa and New Hampshire and prospective leftist voters are seeking to nullify the other out of spite or an overdeveloped sense of self-righteousness.
Of course, this tends to be easier said than done. To reiterate, our investment in these candidates is fraught with emotion and no one likes to be lectured on what constitutes being a “responsible” and informed voter. That said, splitting the progressive vote with more than half a year until the general election is ill-advised. Plus, there’s the function of sticking CNN et al.‘s attempts at manipulation to them. That’s always fun.
Who do I believe is telling the truth in all of this? Not that it matters or that you likely care, but owing to his aforementioned record of outspokenness on the empowerment of women, I do believe Bernie Sanders. I also am a Sanders supporter, so take that for what it’s worth.
Could I be wrong? Sure, I frequently am. Does this necessarily mean I think Elizabeth Warren is lying if I believe Bernie? Well, it’s complicated. Out of respect for Warren, I would tend to take her at her word as well, and her post-debate emotional reaction to seeing Sanders would indicate she’s not doing this all for show.
Could it be possible that Sanders and Warren recall this meeting differently? Certainly, if not definitely. Under this condition, perhaps Bernie doesn’t remember what he said exactly. I’m not about to suggest that Warren heard it differently or misconstrued Bernie’s meaning. That’s a loaded statement and it certainly doesn’t jibe with her reputation as a sharp policy wonk.
I will note, however, it’s a little disappointing to see her align herself with Amy Klobuchar, of all people, on the subject of not losing elections like her male contemporaries. Based on Klobuchar’s rumored poor treatment of her staffers, the commonality of being a woman and an electoral success are about all she should trumpet. Warren’s recent vote in favor of the USMCA (alongside Klobuchar) likewise doesn’t do her much favor in progressive circles, especially when Chuck Schumer (!) is outflanking her to the left.
In all, though, how much should Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters buy into this divide? Very little, if at all, anger, disappointment, and hurt aside. Because establishment Democrats and corporate media outlets want you at each other’s throats. They want you focused on each other and not on their preferred candidates, all the while using this conflict to generate clicks and satisfy their sponsors.
Reportedly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is “seriously considering” a presidential run—as an independent no less.
Why not run as a Democrat and join an ever-deepening 2020 field? As Schultz has suggested in interviews, he opposes running as a Democrat because of what he views as “extremism on both sides.” He also believes that if a progressive won the Democratic Party nomination, it would be a surefire way to get Donald Trump re-elected.
There’s a bit to unpack here even with so little quoted, so let’s get down to it. On the notion that there are extremists or bad actors “on both sides,” while this may be true, it would seem a bit of a false equivalency. On the progressive left, you have people arguing for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, etc. On the far right, you have Nazis and other white supremacists. For someone who professes to loathe Trump, Schultz’s discourse sounds a lot like his. Even if he’s talking primarily about the national debt, to speak in general terms about the left and right is as reckless as the deficit spending about which he speaks.
As for the idea that having a progressive as the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 means handing over the presidency to Trump, this is a line that’s been parroted over and over since the 2016 election and even before that. But it underestimates the enthusiasm that exists across ideologies for progressive ideals and policy initiatives, and fails to account for the struggles more moderate candidates have encountered in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for all of her education and experience, and despite sexism and shenanigans prior to Election Day, had serious flaws as a candidate right down to how she ran her campaign. If centrism is the virtue we’ve made it out to be, shouldn’t Clinton have finished 20 points ahead, as she (in)famously quipped? The results don’t appear to bear this out.
This is all before we even get to the obvious assertion: that running as an independent would steal votes from the Democratic nominee. Such a prediction may or may not be true; it’s hard to assess what independents and other unaffiliated voters may be thinking as they step into voting booths absent exit polls, and then, of course, it’s too late. There’s also the matter that voters should be free to choose whomever they want in an election. It’s their vote and their right. That said, I don’t know that I’m encouraging independent presidential runs—especially not from billionaire businessmen given we have one in the White House.
Initial responses to Schultz’s visions of 2020 candidacy, er, haven’t been great. At a recent stop on his book tour—it’s called From the Ground Up and you can be sure it speaks to his credentials as a job creator and someone interested in civic engagement!—Schultz was interrupted during his interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin by a heckler who told him, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole” and later added, “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” As the kids would say, shots fired.
Schultz brushed off the criticism—”I’m not running a primary race on Twitter”—but it is interesting witnessing a lukewarm (at best) reception for Schultz’s hint at a presidential bid. Sure, the bulk of it may relate to the contention that Donald Trump is no ordinary president, a racist fraud and pathological liar intent on taking the country backwards who needs as an undivided an opposition as possible to get removed from office and get us back on track.
A component of this animus might additionally stem from Starbucks’s uneven track record of late in avoiding controversy, notably concerning race relations. While still executive chairman of Starbucks, there was the whole to-do at the Philadelphia store that saw two black men arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend. Let’s also not forget the Race Together campaign, an initiative devoted to racial equality and one promoting a dialog on race which was panned as misguided and tone-deaf. Turns out people don’t like when white billionaires lead a discussion on race relations. Go figure.
What’s also perhaps striking about Schultz’s non-announcement announcement is, despite the poor reception it has received from hecklers and trolls, how much press it has received in such a short time. Sure, a book tour helps, though there seems to be no shortage of books on the market from political figures or those with similar aspirations.
As noted, however, interviewers and other members of the media have been lining up to greet the former Starbucks chief executive and absorb his supposed political insights. He and his wife Sheri got some face time on 60 Minutes this past weekend. CBS This Morning. The New York Times. NPR. Laudatory opinion pieces by David Frum. You may not necessarily hold these sources in high esteem, but they certainly do expose Schultz and his views to a fairly wide audience.
To be fair, not all of this has been positive or even neutral press. In a series of tweets about Schultz, Paul Krugman painted him as a conservative and anti-Democrat masquerading as a centrist. Other detractors have raised objections similar to the ones outlined above. We don’t need another egotistical billionaire in the White House. No one asked or wants you to run. I asked for a caramel macchiato, not a caramel latte. OK, that last one is a joke, but suffice it to say there is plenty of negativity to go around.
Still, Schultz must figure he has an audience, right? And, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as negative press? If Donald Trump can build a following despite the attempts of the mainstream media to laugh off his presidential campaign, it’s conceivable that the networks and pundits who prop him up might be enough to make an eventual candidacy seem meritorious. If Schultz is as self-centered as he’s made out to be, he might be swayed by Trump’s attempts to egg him on, too. Left or right, there’s no shortage of individuals who would undoubtedly relish the chance to try to take the president down a peg. It’s a trap, but in an era of performative outrage, any blowback could have its purpose. Hey, at least I stood up to the man! At least I stood for fiscal responsibility!
This very column devoted to Schultz’s testing the waters could be seen as unnecessary attention. In other words, if we ignore him, he’ll go away. Especially after Trump’s electoral success, though, it may be a few cycles before the billionaire executive candidate goes out of fashion. Either way, there’s a larger conversation about how money and privilege afford power. Long before the Trump era, Ross Perot had a reasonably successful run as an independent. As long as someone’s personal finances can get him or her a ticket to “the show” and as long as he or she has a path to voters’ attention, focusing on candidates like Howard Schultz as a subset of the discussion of the role of money in politics remains relevant.
The devil’s advocate argument, if you will, for Schultz’s possible candidacy would seem to exist with respect to the notion that he built his company, as the title of his book alludes to, “from the ground up.” If he earned his money through his hard work and his vision, why not spend it how he wants? There would also be historical precedent if Schultz wins. Schultz would be the first Jewish president of the United States, though like Bernie Sanders, he tends to downplay his faith. As he said in his 60 Minutes interview, “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president. I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.” Let that be the only comparison between Schultz and Sanders, at least in this space.
Even if Howard Schultz can run for president, however, should he? In spite of recent controversies involving the Starbucks brand, the man hasn’t engendered much antipathy from the American people. Should he decide to run for office, particularly as an independent, that could dissipate fast. Why risk the damage to one’s reputation as well as a possible Starbucks boycott? Any way you slice it, that’s bad for business.
Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, claims to appeal to the voter who is sick and tired of bickering and ineffectiveness between the two major parties. He wants “to see the American people win.” But a number of his positions seem out of step with what Americans want, and certainly with what progressives would like to see. His deliberation on the national debt evokes the “pay-go” debate as it applies to the Democratic Party agenda, a shift that Nancy Pelosi and others have embraced along the lines of economic “pragmatism” but one that could stunt progressive initiatives.
His insistence that universal health care is as illusory as Donald Trump’s visions of a border wall, meanwhile, belies the idea that it is practiced around the world, suggesting that if we really wanted to, we could follow the lead of Australia, Canada, China, Europe, most of South America, Russia, and scores of other areas/countries. That Schultz so readily and straightforwardly dismisses something which is fast becoming part of the mainstream political conversation makes one tend to wonder whether he fails to understand this much or understands all too well and chooses to ignore it. To this effect, I’m not sure which is worse.
So, yes, Howard Schultz can run for president. It’s a free country. It just seems, though, like there’s not a huge need or desire for him to throw his proverbial hat into the ring, and having people dip into their personal finances and vie for public office when campaign finance is already so enmeshed with the designs of corporate and wealthy donors seems problematic.
Money should not suffice or be a prerequisite for political participation. Let’s not encourage another out-of-touch billionaire who lacks experience to go beyond hocking his autobiography.
“Wow. F**k the DNC.” That’s what I thought upon first reading excerpts of Donna Brazile’s first-hand account of Hillary Clinton’s “secret takeover of the DNC.” As published in a piece on Politico, Brazile’s reflections and retelling are apparently themselves an excerpt from her (Brazile’s) upcoming book. Yup—like the subject of her account, Brazile is seeking to profit off a relitigation of the 2016 election. But I digress.
As I alluded to in the title of my own piece, Donna Brazile’s insider information from her time as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee is both a confirmation of what many of us have suspected or known outright, and yet still startling. Even before we were mired in the era of President Trump—a tenure which has every possibility of lasting two terms, despite what approval ratings and legal entanglements might otherwise suggest—it was made evident through WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of E-mails from a hack of key DNC officials that there existed within the Committee a clear bias in favor of the Clinton campaign. It’s a bias that was suggested by a questionable Democratic Party debate schedule marked by relatively few debates (at least next to the Republican Party and its gaggle of uninspired candidates) on odd days and times, but ultimately confirmed in black and white by these E-mails, not to mention Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s particular animus toward the Bernie Sanders campaign and campaign manager Jeff Weaver. At the same time, it’s perhaps unexpected to have these revelations come from Brazile, someone who infamously was fired from CNN after it was discovered she was tipping off the Clinton campaign in advance of a debate televised by the cable news network, and someone who, within the DNC E-mails, expressed her own, even if momentary, irritation with the Sanders campaign.
Before we dive into Donna Brazile’s—shall we say—allegations, let me cut off a potential objection I see to my analysis here and clarify my purpose. Do I think the way in which the DNC “rigged” the primary, as some would say, cost Bernie Sanders a chance at the Democratic Party presidential nomination? While I may disagree with a number of my fellow “Sandernistas” on this point, I don’t think the pro-Clinton bias exhibited by the DNC prior to the Democratic National Convention tipped the scales so heavily that Bernie would have won even in a fair fight. Beyond the evident collusion between the Clinton camp and the DNC, Sanders faced significant challenges in going up against the larger Democratic Party establishment apparatus (“how dare this independent run as a Democrat!”), as well as a comparative lack of name recognition next to Hillary Clinton, an understandable disparity in support among older women, and a failure to establish a significant advantage among minority voters, a struggle which mirrors the progressive movement’s difficulties in reaching people and communities of color in American politics.
These admissions aside, to adhere to the notion that Hillary still would’ve won the Democratic Party nomination and to say nothing of the other shenanigans is to miss the point. If Hillary Clinton and her campaign didn’t need to game the system, why bother doing it in the first place and inviting criticism/risking low turnout in her favor? This kind of manipulation, even if legal—and that’s a big “if”—is the kind of unethical which undermines people’s confidence in political institutions and representative democracy as a whole. For younger or otherwise more idealistic voters who envision a reform of the political process and rejection of the status quo which favors the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, these hijinks are far more significant in their implications for campaign finance reform and political participation than the outcome of one election, disastrous as it was in ushering Donald Trump into the White House.
In other words, this aspect of the 2016 campaign season is significant, especially for a party that lost an election it was widely predicted to win and has been suffering down-ticket losses even in states in which it has historically thrived. So, let’s get to Donna Brazile’s “bombshell” account. Here are some of the more salient quotes from the excerpt featured on Politico:
My predecessor, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had not been the most active chair in fundraising at a time when President Barack Obama’s neglect had left the party in significant debt. As Hillary’s campaign gained momentum, she resolved the party’s debt and put it on a starvation diet. It had become dependent on her campaign for survival, for which she expected to wield control of its operations. Debbie was not a good manager. She hadn’t been very interested in controlling the party—she let Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn do as it desired so she didn’t have to inform the party officers how bad the situation was. How much control Brooklyn had and for how long was still something I had been trying to uncover for the last few weeks.
By now, Wasserman Schultz’s reputation as DNC chair has long been made sour; if you’ll recall, she was forced to resign in disgrace after the evidence of her Clintonian favoritism was made public knowledge. Hence, this is not exactly news that her managerial skills are suspect. Still, it does provide those who felt and continue to feel “the Bern” a certain sense of satisfaction. I know it did for me.
On the phone Gary told me the DNC had needed a $2 million loan, which the campaign had arranged.
“No! That can’t be true!” I said. “The party cannot take out a loan without the unanimous agreement of all of the officers.”
“Gary, how did they do this without me knowing?” I asked. “I don’t know how Debbie relates to the officers,” Gary said. He described the party as fully under the control of Hillary’s campaign, which seemed to confirm the suspicions of the Bernie camp. The campaign had the DNC on life support, giving it money every month to meet its basic expenses, while the campaign was using the party as a fund-raising clearinghouse.
Here, Brazile is describing her conversations with Gary Gensler, CFO of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to Gensler, Barack Obama’s campaign incurred some $24 million in debt, and between his slow repayment of that debt and the contributions of Hillary for America and the Hillary Victory Fund, a “joint fundraising vehicle with the DNC,” the majority of the remaining monies owed had been taken care of. But that still left some $2 million or so that required the approval of a loan, the arrangement of which was orchestrated by Wasserman Schultz and made possible by the direct connection between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Given the apparent dire financial straits of the DNC at the time, it is perhaps no wonder that Hillary and Co. had so much control over the allocation of monies in the Hillary Victory Fund. Still, that knowledge of this situation was not more widespread—whether within the Bernie Sanders campaign or within the DNC itself—keeps with the theme of a lack of transparency and ethical practices. Even if Hillary still would’ve won the primary nomination, this evidence of an unethical process leaves one to wonder if the race might’ve been closer if there were a more equitable arrangement, and to lament that we’ll never know for sure how close.
I wanted to believe Hillary, who made campaign finance reform part of her platform, but I had made this pledge to Bernie and did not want to disappoint him. I kept asking the party lawyers and the DNC staff to show me the agreements that the party had made for sharing the money they raised, but there was a lot of shuffling of feet and looking the other way.
When I got back from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, I at last found the document that described it all: the Joint Fund-Raising Agreement between the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund, and Hillary for America.
The agreement—signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias—specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.
I had been wondering why it was that I couldn’t write a press release without passing it by Brooklyn. Well, here was the answer.
There are two particular reasons why Brazile’s references to this agreement are significant. The first is that, despite Hillary’s talk on the campaign trail about wanting to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up, the state Democratic Parties were getting less than half of 1% of what Clinton and her campaign were raising. Brazile references a separate Politico article from May 2016 by Kenneth P. Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf which details this suspect arrangement. Again, old news, but the severity of the situation merits underscoring. The second, though, is the timing of the agreement’s creation. It was signed in August 2015, less than six months after Hillary Clinton officially announced her candidacy, and long before she had officially secured the nomination. This kind of control for Hillary’s sake well in advance of state primaries and the election itself may be unprecedented, and—not to beat a dead horse, but—it flies in the face of a fair and transparent selection process. Some kind of democracy—and we’re the ones who don’t support democracy by not voting for her.
I told Bernie I had found Hillary’s Joint Fundraising Agreement. I explained that the cancer was that she had exerted this control of the party long before she became its nominee. Had I known this, I never would have accepted the interim chair position, but here we were with only weeks before the election. Bernie took this stoically. He did not yell or express outrage. Instead he asked me what I thought Hillary’s chances were. The polls were unanimous in her winning but what, he wanted to know, was my own assessment?
I had to be frank with him. I did not trust the polls, I said. I told him I had visited states around the country and I found a lack of enthusiasm for her everywhere. I was concerned about the Obama coalition and about millennials. I urged Bernie to work as hard as he could to bring his supporters into the fold with Hillary, and to campaign with all the heart and hope he could muster. He might find some of her positions too centrist, and her coziness with the financial elites distasteful, but he knew and I knew that the alternative was a person who would put the very future of the country in peril. I knew he heard me. I knew he agreed with me, but I never in my life had felt so tiny and powerless as I did making that call.
When I hung up the call to Bernie, I started to cry, not out of guilt, but out of anger. We would go forward. We had to.
Wonderful story, Donna. I’m sure your book is full of such vividly-written prose. As unsympathetic as I am toward Donna Brazile’s position as DNC chair, even under these circumstances, and all kidding aside, it is intriguing to hear her talk about how she had reservations even before the election about Hillary’s campaign and the challenges she (Hillary) faced in beating Donald Trump. Plus, it also is kind of nice to have Brazile say something positive about Bernie. He may not be a saint and I might not agree with every last one of his positions on issues, but I do have a lot of admiration for that man. Fellow Sanders fans, this last quote was for you.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee were in cahoots—fine, you may be saying. Still, even if you don’t believe this ultimately affected the outcome of the primary election to the extent that Bernie Sanders would’ve won instead, and even if Donna Brazile’s insider account reveals a broken political process that merits fixing, what is the utility of opening up old wounds? Why risk dividing a Democratic Party that has seen so much tumult over the past year and change?
Well, Esteemed Reader, the answers to these queries are manifold. First of all, there is the issue of money, and by that I mean, campaign donations. For all the donors who contributed to the Bernie Sanders campaign (myself included), it makes a bit of a difference to have them sink their money into a cause that the DNC worked so hard to ensure was a lost one rather than an equal and fair bid for the nomination. If you weren’t already aware, a class action lawsuit already has worked its way through the courts, with the case brought against the DNC by attorneys Jared and Elizabeth Beck being dismissed back in August by federal judge William Zloch on the grounds that “the named Plaintiffs have not presented a case that is cognizable in federal court.” As Bruce Spiva, on behalf of the DNC, argued, and as the court evidently agreed, there is no way to determine who is to be considered in standing to be defrauded and eligible for remediation. In doing so, however, Spiva essentially confirmed that the Committee favored Hillary Clinton, and theoretically that it could do so because the Democratic Party can do what it wants regarding the selection of its representatives at the Democratic National Convention and at the state level. Good for party unity, this line of thinking is not.
More pressing than this, though, is the notion that the Democratic Party never has truly healed in the first place from the divisions which surfaced during the primaries. While I’m not here to defend the actions of Sanders supporters who would demean Hillary Clinton and her supporters through thinly-veiled sexism, and while there is some degree of “to the victor goes the spoils” to be expected with how the Clinton camp and Hillary’s faithful reacted to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, if ever one was to have the impression that the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and newer members/fervent Sanders supporters were a cohesive lot, he or she was missing the signs of an ongoing battle for the soul of the party. Take Hillary Clinton herself. Why author and release a book about the 2016 election concerning “what happened” only to once again deflect responsibility and to blame Bernie Sanders for irreparable harm done to the Dems? For one thing, if Bernie Sanders as one man can bring down the entire apparatus of a major political party, that appeals to a weak party infrastructure even before the events leading up to the election began. Indeed, from the sound of what Donna Brazile is indicating, the debt created by the Barack Obama campaign compounded by poor management from Debbie Wasserman Schultz already had the DNC in dire straits. In this regard, Bernie is a fall guy as much as anything.
Besides this, though, and as Clinton and her parrots would insinuate, Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat,” and beyond Bernie self-identifying as an independent, this kind of deprecation begs the question: What does it mean to be a “true Democrat”? Does it mean blindly supporting the party’s chosen candidate despite any reservations about him or her? Does it mean holding lavish meet-and-greet fundraisers that are meant to exclude a large swath of would-be Democratic voters? Does it mean bypassing whole battleground states because making speeches about income inequality in Giorgio Armani clothing is generally not appreciated by blue-collar types? To me, attacking Bernie for not being a Democrat when the Democratic Party itself has moved away from its roots as a party of the middle class and of working-class Americans is as disingenuous as it is fruitless. At least he ran an authentically grassroots campaign and talked about income and wealth inequality in a meaningful way. And yet he is the divisive one when the class warfare perpetrated by corporations and the wealthy puts the bottom 99% at risk. If Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat” by these standards, I’m not sure I want to be either.
Hillary Clinton may choose to take her potshots at Bernie Sanders from behind the cover of her non-fiction—well, more or less; it’s not fiction if she believes it’s true, right?—book. On one hand, it appears as if Clinton’s personal political aspirations have subsided. That is, “Hill-Dawg” is unlikely to run again in 2020. Though you never know—she or Joe Biden just might rear her or his head in two to three years’ time to represent the Obama administration/Democratic Party establishment in full force. Either way, however, and on the other hand, as a political figure whose work has spanned her formative years as a woman interested in politics, her identity as a notably engaged First Lady during her husband’s tenure as President, her time in the U.S. Senate, and her service as Secretary of State, HRC’s voice carries a certain amount of weight, and she figures to still be involved in the world of politics.
Thus, when Clinton speaks about Bernie in this way—someone who is still directly involved in the political sphere as senator from the state of Vermont and who may yet have designs for another run at the presidency in 2020—it does matter. Perhaps above all else, it is a signal to party leadership that Sanders is not to be trusted with the keys to the car, so to speak. If the management of the DNC under Tom Perez, former Labor Secretary and Donna Brazile’s successor, is any indication, Democratic Party leaders already have this advice close to heart. Recently, Perez revealed his list of appointments and nominations for key Committee positions, and to a large extent, Democratic Party loyalists were favored over individuals who supported Bernie Sanders and/or Keith Ellison. If there’s a better symbolic gesture of just how unwelcome progressives are at the Dems’ table, you’d be hard-pressed to find one.
All this makes Donna Brazile’s depictions of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Clinton all the more curious. Is Brazile trying to stir the pot merely to sell copies of her own work of non-fiction? Does she legitimately believe the criticisms she leveled against these current and former bastions of Democratic Party infrastructure/leadership? Or might she primarily see value in throwing a bone to Bernie Sanders supporters rather than deliberately alienating them? One can only speculate as to whether or not Brazile’s true motivations are self-serving, but if someone who seemed as staunchly pro-Hillary as she can make these comments, maybe more than just Donna Brazile see the writing on the wall concerning the future of the Democratic Party for 2018, 2020, and beyond. Serious reform of the Democratic Party and of the DNC is needed if its leadership hopes to match the enthusiasm the Republican Party has been able to generate among its loyalists and within its conservative base. Certainly, there’s a long way to go on this front, and with only a year to go before mid-term elections in 2018, the short-term political outlook looks bleak for the party associated with the color blue.
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, Richard Spencer, a leading voice in America’s white nationalism movement, was physically attacked during an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the street in Washington, D.C. Reportedly, Spencer was being asked about whether or not he is a neo-Nazi—to which he replied that he is not—and then was prompted for a response about why he was wearing a Pepe the Frog pin, when he was punched in the face by a masked protestor. According to Spencer, he was punched twice and spat on in the aftermath of Trump’s swearing in, something about which he didn’t seem all that fazed. Evidently, when you are a white nationalist with a vaguely douche-y self-assured attitude, you are used to or at least mentally prepared to be physically beaten. Of course, this did not stop Richard Spencer from utilizing Twitter and Periscope to relay his account of the attacks to his followers, and to denounce the “antifas” who perpetrated this violence. For all the wry amusement of his notion that he can “take a punch,” it loses something in the conversion to a heart-to-heart via social media that potentially allows his fellow white supremacist friends to rally behind him.
Speaking of social media, the reaction of non-alt-righters was one of near-universal celebration. Richard Spencer, like any ultra-conservative provocateur, is bound to ruffle some feathers, not to mention—in my humble opinion—the man seems to look as if his face beckons a punching. In light of his nationalist ideologies, the memes and jokes were flowing like no one’s business. Confessedly, I enjoyed some of them, especially the idea that he did Nazi that first blow coming. (In case you missed it, read that last sentence out to yourself. Get it? Good.) However, the notion that we were celebrating a man getting punched in the face without remorse was a bit startling. For those of us more discerning types, the whole white supremacy and making “Heil Hitler” signs bit is indefensible, but just because his beliefs are reprehensible doesn’t mean he should be physically attacked. He’s still a human being, after all. If we can talk about respecting the civil rights of convicted felons in prisons, then certainly, Spencer deserves the same or better. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of not getting sucker punched on the street in broad daylight. I’m pretty sure that’s how it was written by our Founding Fathers, yes.
Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, agrees, and expressed her views in the form of a piece which appeared in The Washington Post entitled, “No, don’t punch more Nazis.” Allen’s sentiments are a direct response to an observed instance of a Netroots Nation member wearing a custom-made T-shirt to a recent public event headlined by Elizabeth Warren, encouraging the viewer—however genuinely—to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” Even in gest, however, Allen argues this kind of thinking is patently destructive, if not self-defeating. The principle of nonviolence should be a nonpartisan issue, with the goal of a relatively peaceful and stable society ideal for members of all party affiliations and those otherwise unattached to a particular political designation. When the courts and the laws fail, Allen stresses, the answer is not taking the law into one’s hands, but rather reform of these institutions. With violence, the bridge to a better path forward is obstructed, if not burned outright. Consummate with this notion, it cannot be said here that “the ends justify the means.” That is, one cannot fight for justice with injustice. No fists, no kicks, no guns—only the kind of moral clarity that beckons true justice.
The rise of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists and others who reject trends toward increased cultural sensitivity and globalism for the United States of America. In pandering to their interests and playing to Americans’ sense of fear and hate, Trump has inspired a lot of anger and anxiety from people on the left and those otherwise outside the vanguard of the conservative right. With this, there seems to be a growing acceptance of violence as a fact of rallies, protests, and counter-protests, and it would appear that many on the left don’t recognize this is as a problem, whether they are convinced these shows of aggression are justified because of possession of moral high ground, they genuinely are unaware of what is going on, or they are unable to confront the situation. Richard Spencer referenced the term “antifa” in his social media tell-all following his attacks, but it’s only very recently that this term has begun to reach the national consciousness, much as alt-right—a term widely credited to Spencer in describing the movement—really came to prominence with its mention by Hillary Clinton. Pres. Trump has used antifa and “alt-left” to try to demonize liberals and to galvanize support from his base in his apparent never-ending campaign for President—even closing in on a year since his electoral victory. I guess after an overstated career as a businessman and entrepreneur, and given a glaring inability to lead the country effectively, he might as well as stick to the one thing he (miraculously) hasn’t been able to totally screw up lately.
What exactly do these terms mean, though? It’s doubtful Donald Trump fully comprehends them—or even knows how to pronounce them, for that matter. First of all, concerning “alt-left,” this is largely nonsensical. Self-respecting left-leaners do not refer to themselves by this moniker, as it is a creation of conservatives looking to demean liberals as morally bankrupt individuals, and if used by actual liberals, it is probably in the pejorative sense and meant to distinguish the more progressive elements of the left from its more moderate members, i.e. we want nothing to do with you progressives under normal circumstances, but please give us your vote on Election Day. As for “antifa,” this is short for “anti-fascist,” and is awfully broadly stated to assign an exact definition beyond that. What appears to distinguish this movement from the larger progressive liberal movement in America is the use of force and violence against people and property alike. Some antifa members are even denoted by their dress: all black and wearing masks; they are commonly known as “black bloc” activists and this style has origins in 1980s-era protests in Germany against neo-Nazism, with vague sentiments toward anti-capitalism and a rejection of police states and a theoretical New World Order. With these anti-government sentiments, though, it quickly becomes apparent we are not dealing with a purely liberal or even characteristically leftist association.
Going back to The Washington Post, its editorial board recently published an excellent primer on the subject of antifa, with due context as to who and what antifa groups represent—or don’t represent—how much of a threat antifa is to the very societal order—or isn’t—and what their actions stand to accomplish—or not accomplish. Some key observations from its synopsis:
1. Comparisons between antifa and white supremacist groups are false equivalencies.
There is a general consensus that white nationalism, apparently on the rise in the United States and elsewhere, is a threat which must be addressed and confronted as a rejection of hate; such is why President Trump’s comment talking about violence on both sides in Charlottesville was so abhorrent. Antifa groups, most notably at a recent protest in Berkeley, California against Marxism in America, have been responsible for their fair share of violence and/or unrest. But this does not mean these two movements are on the same level. As the WP editorial board is keen to state, it “would not for a minute equate it to the menace of violent, ultra-right white supremacist groups, which are enjoying an ugly renaissance bred, in part, by the succor President Trump has given to racial and religious intolerance.”
2. As of yet, there is no “clear and present danger” from antifa groups regarding the “broader political system.”
As the board frames this notion, antifa violence has “shown a disturbing capacity for intimidating and confusing various officials in locales” across the country. Incidents in Middlebury, Vermont and Portland, Oregon—perhaps unexpected settings for confrontations—are cited within the opinion piece. Returning to Berkeley for a moment, the violence encountered there prompted Mayor Jesse Arreguin—endorsed by Bernie Sanders, among others, in his mayoral bid—to even call for authorities to recognize antifa members as part of a “gang,” which could mean potential tougher sentences for any offenses committed, as per California law. Heretofore, however, these are largely isolated incidents.
3. This is not to say, though, that antifa groups should not be considered dangerous.
Per the Washington Post editorial board, this is a two-pronged danger. The first is more obvious: intimidation and violence do harm to people, property, and the very free speech the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to be undersold, and is why it appears in the very title of this piece. The second danger, meanwhile, and one which may or may not be appreciated by antifa members, is that such violence threatens the overall progress the country is making against hate and racism, and only risks fueling the forces that antifa seeks to eradicate. To give the board the final say on the subject, “In terms of objective political impact, the group is badly misnamed: ‘Profa’ would be more accurate.” Harsh, but not wholly undeserved.
Antifa groups who use threats of bodily harm or worse do not represent the whole of the Resistance, and realistically, as the Post explains, are “not liberals or democrats, much less liberal Democrats.” Nonetheless, whether as a kneejerk reaction from mainstream political analysts or specifically as a means of trying to demonize the left for political capital, their activism all too easily becomes conflated with that of peaceful groups on the liberal side of the spectrum. For moderate Democrats and progressives alike, this is problematic. For one, it allows right-wingers on FOX News and Breitbart to point and shout across the aisle at what many conservatives see as a flawed, immoral ideology inherent in liberalism. To give conservatives, ahem, more ammunition would appear to be in bad form. Not to mention it gives Donald Trump and his ilk a subject around which to rally and engender support (and, of course, accrue donations). In addition, without the requisite response from groups which stand to be lumped in with these bad actors among law-abiding protestors, more reputable organizations run the risk of appearing less legitimate and/or out of touch with what is going on their own house, so to speak. Assuming people will be able to see the difference is not sufficient, if Donald Trump’s electoral win has taught us anything. Especially when so many red voters are made to think that the liberal left is clueless, employing a laissez-faire approach to dealing with the growing presence of antifa is arguably self-defeating.
Accordingly, it is incumbent upon members of the Democratic Party and sympathetic politicians and activists on the left to strongly denounce the use of violence, the damage of property, and the disruption of free speech and assembly which antifa has represented and can represent in the future. By now, it is impossible to get ahead of the narrative being spun by Sean Hannity et al. that antifa is symptomatic of liberal politics in sum, but a certain amount of damage control is prudent, if not necessary to avoid ceding ground to a Republican Party which has itself ceded control to more conservative elements and which all but sat idly by as Donald Trump decimated its field of similarly unqualified political entrants and ineffectual insiders en route to the party nomination. At the same time, news media should be held accountable for their characterization of antifa, and should clearly delineate the difference between its destructive elements and groups which prioritize peaceful reform of faulty institutions, and should refrain from false comparisons between antifa and white supremacist groups. Antifa, unlike members of white nationalist and white supremacist groups, does not discriminate based on race or any other demographic characteristic, not to mention the movement lacks a real sense of cohesion. This is not to say, however, that antifa is highly moral or that its actions can’t be considered terroristic. Here is a situation that really craves a fair and balanced press to put antifa’s existence in its proper perspective.
Regardless of whether or not antifa is classified as a “gang” or “hate group,” people on both the left and right should decry the use of violence as a political tactic no matter who aims to implement it. As it must be stated and restated, violence as a political tool is not the answer. It is antithetical to its very aims and advancement through reform, and if we cannot agree to this end, we cannot have the kind of discussion we need as Americans to make real progress on this issue.
I get it: Phil Murphy is probably going to win the Democratic Party primary in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. As Graham Vyse, writing for New Republic tells it, “A Former Goldman Sachs Executive Is Running Away With This Year’s Most Important Race for Democrats.” Citing Quinnipiac poll data, he notes that Murphy was 17 points ahead of John Wisniewski, his closest competitor, as of last month, and even with more than half of voters polled identifying as undecided, that’s a significant margin given the primary election is now less than a month away. Indeed, the consensus opinion from experts seems to be that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is Murphy’s race to lose, and as Vyse muses, there is as much to say for him as there is to say against his rivals.
Though candidates like Wisniewski and Jim Johnson are painting themselves as progressive alternatives, the article tells of Phil Murphy as someone who agrees at least in principle with progressives on a number of issues, including a $15 minimum wage, improved environmental protections, a more progressive tax system, more responsible banking, and stronger gun control regulations. Aside from his stated policy stances, reference is even made to his personality and his willingness to shake hands and take selfies with everyone in a given venue. Moreover, with Democrats in control of both the State Assembly and State Senate, and with party members nationally struggling to win races at the gubernatorial level of late, it is argued that for the Democrats, as “desperate” as they are, and with Murphy being a “sufficiently progressive” candidate, “maybe it’s just as well” that the kind of progressive spirit that won Bernie Sanders such popularity among young voters hasn’t quite taken hold in New Jersey and that being a former Goldman Sachs doesn’t disqualify him from winning the race. A win is a win, right?
Maybe I’m being a bit naïve here, but what exactly does it mean to be “sufficiently progressive?” Does that mean you, say, support only the decriminalization of marijuana as opposed to its legalization? Are you against fracking only on weekends and holidays? Do you think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad but consider NAFTA in its current form “a’ight?” The notion of a candidate being sufficiently progressive is quite a distinction for Graham Vyse and others to be making, not least of which because it is a subjective assessment. By this token, the idea of sufficient progressivism would appear to be dependent, to a large extent, on one’s circumstances and where he or she fares in the polls. During the 2016, Hillary Clinton repeatedly tried to distinguish herself from her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders by referring to herself as a “progressive who gets things done.” In this context, “sufficiently progressive” would appear to mean progressive enough that she can draw enough support from Sanders supporters and independents without alienating prominent donors or losing her the race. Well, um, it was a nice idea while it lasted.
While not of the magnitude as a presidential election, once again, with the New Jersey gubernatorial election, we have a situation where the Democratic Party nomination is all but assured (in this case, for Phil Murphy), and projections indicate Democrats should carry the day come November. Of course, the specifics are a little different with the race for New Jersey’s next governor, as rather than picking a successor to Barack Obama, a man who, through no conscious effort of his own, inspired feelings of division, New Jerseyans will be choosing someone to replace Chris Christie, whose approval ratings are in the dumps, whose legacy is tainted by Bridgegate, who failed badly in his bid to win the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination—spending a good bit of time away from the state of New Jersey in the process, mind you—and who has since become more or less a shill for Donald Trump, the President who evidently denigrates the office he holds at every turn. In addition, New Jersey tends to vote blue, as they did in this most recent presidential election, coming out for Hillary at a clip of around 55% to Trump’s 41%. There’s no chance that a GOP candidate can upset Murphy, right?
Pardon my cynicism, but wasn’t Clinton supposed to be a shoo-in with Trump’s campaign in disarray and with all the things he did and said leading up to the election that were supposed to disqualify him? Sure, FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress about re-opening the investigation into Hillary’s finances and revelations about the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were contributing factors in her electoral defeat. I mean, just ask her—she’ll tell you. Still, complacency from a campaign and its supporters alike can be a difference-maker for the associated candidate, and while Kim Guadagno, the presumptive front-runner on the GOP ticket in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, is not an odds-on favorite based primarily on her association with Christie as his lieutenant governor, to start coasting at this point can be dangerous. We saw the unexpected happen in the United Kingdom when Brexit referendum voters opted—narrowly, but still—to Leave the European Union. We may yet see it if Marine Le Pen manages to upend Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election. To reiterate, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is not of the same echelon as a national election, and the details are different, notably concerning the incumbents in each instance.
All this aside, and even if his primary victory is all but assured, to think that Phil Murphy is unassailable in the general election may be an ultimately specious mentality for Democrats to take in advance of November. Back in January, Alan J. Steinberg, writing for The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey-based newspaper, opined that Kim Guadagno isn’t such a dark horse candidatevis-à-vis Murphy. As Steinberg reasons, “conventional wisdom” dictates that Murphy should win based New Jersey’s history as a Democratic state and the guilty-by-association political albatross hanging around the neck of his likely Republican rival. However, this, Steinberg argues, underestimates the positive assets Guadagno brings to the table as a communicator, as a political candidate aware of the issues facing her state, as a problem-solver, as a professional, and as a public official. Not only this, but Guadagno contrasts on a number of key points with Phil Murphy—and in ways that may work to her benefit.
For one, while Kim Guadagno owns a distinguished record of public service, Phil Murphy does not. As Alan Steinberg profiles, Murphy served without significant achievement in the roles of chair of former governor Richard Codey’s New Jersey Benefit Task Force and as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Indeed, Murphy’s greatest contributions seem to be directly to the Democratic Party in terms of securing donations as DNC National Finance Chair from 2006 to 2009—a role which he began by tapping into his list of contacts at his Ivy League alma maters and Goldman Sachs—and as a personal donor to various Democratic Party committees. That’s not even remotely the same thing. Moreover, while Guadagno may be burdened by her association with Chris Christie, Phil Murphy’s ties to Goldman Sachs stand to hurt him in the arena of public opinion. I’ll let Steinberg explain in his own words:
Murphy’s career successes were achieved at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate symbol of American oligarchy. And it is this perception of “Murphy, the Oligarch” that constitutes his ultimate political albatross, especially when it pertains to lifestyle.
Guadagno, her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Michael Guadagno, and their three sons live a decidedly nonostentatious middle-class lifestyle. By contrast, Murphy, his wife Tammy and their children, during his tenure as ambassador to Germany, lived a lifestyle right out of the former Robin Leach television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” This lifestyle was vividly portrayed by Agustin C. Torres in articles in the Jersey Journal.
We are living in an era of a growing anti-oligarchical mood, as evidenced by the surprising showing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Murphy is well aware of this. The oligarchy issue could result in a low turnout for Murphy among Sanders voters.
Rank-and-file voters tend not to like rich candidates who throw their money around—who would’ve thought? Certainly, in the eyes of New Jersey progressives, the subject of how Murphy has used his finances has been a bone of contention. Back in June of 2016—almost a year-and-a-half before the gubernatorial election—Murphy’s first television ad began airing in the Garden State. As Democratic rival for the nomination Jim Johnson has highlighted, Murphy has already spent upwards of $10 million on his campaign before even getting to the primary, raising questions about his professed desire to institute campaign finance reform and, by virtue of this, his commitment to progressive values. For those aforementioned Sanders voters, this smacks of a candidate buying the nomination, a sore subject after Hillary Clinton, big-ticket fundraiser in her own right, had a network of support from Democratic leaders and superdelegates at her disposal as the race was just beginning. Even if the charge against Murphy is arguably somewhat overblown given he and Clinton, or for that matter, fellow Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine, are obviously not the same person, can you blame Sanders voters and other progressives for having such a strong reaction when getting money out of politics is one of their top concerns?
As a Sanders voter in my own right, the amount of money injected into the New Jersey gubernatorial race by Phil Murphy for Phil Murphy is not exactly endearing, nor is his legacy as a Goldman Sachs executive. I suppose I feel roughly the same way about this aspect of his personal history in advance of June’s primary as I did Hillary Clinton’s own connections to Goldman Sachs as a paid speaker in advance of the Democratic Party primary last year— a very, very well paid speaker. In fact, I still wonder what was so potentially damning within the transcripts of those speeches that she refuses to release them, like Donald Trump clutching to his tax returns like a baby to its mother. Concerning Murphy specifically, I also find it suspicious that various political and non-political—well, at least not expressly political—organizations have apparently been lining up for months to shower him with their endorsements. As with Clinton, there never seems to be proof of a quid pro quo, and in Murphy’s case, I don’t know that he did or even would donate to these organizations from his personal wealth for the purpose of securing much-desired public support. If anything, perhaps this says more about the state’s political landscape than it does about Phil Murphy, though to be fair, it’s not like he seems intent on bucking the trend.
And yet, over and over again, I keep hearing about how Phil Murphy is a good guy. In a November 2016 New York Times profile on Murphy written by David W. Chen and cited by Graham Vyse in his own article, he is depicted as a candidate who “oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.” He also has been engaging as a participant in town-hall-style political forums, actively involved in his campaign’s canvassing efforts across New Jersey, and the kind of guy who will shake hands with as many people as possible before walking out the door. He’s punctual. He worked his way up from a low household income. He has the backing of both Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Maybe I’m wrong about Murphy. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Democratic groups in the state of New Jersey have so enthusiastically and so rapidly coalesced in backing him. Maybe I’m just being cynical for the sake of being cynical.
And yet. Irrespective of his finances, his history with Goldman Sachs, or his outward personality, I still have reservations about Phil Murphy as a candidate, and I’ll (finally) tell you why. Much as I’ve wondered how much national Democratic Party leadership “gets it” when it comes to owning up to strategic miscues (see also “Hillary Clinton, 2016 presidential campaign”) and forging a path forward for the party structurally (see also “Debbie Wasserman Schultz on grassroots candidates”), I wonder whether Murphy truly appreciates the unique challenges that face the state of New Jersey, and with this, whether he’s even running in a way that acknowledges he is campaigning for the seat of governor, and not something larger as his would-be predecessor Chris Christie did.
From that very first TV spot which aired back in June 2016, entitled “Honor,” Phil Murphy’s flair for the dramatic shines through. Standing in a small room full of people of different backgrounds, he talks about living paycheck to paycheck before putting himself through college, building a career, and learning how economies grow and create jobs. So he is running for governor of the state of New Jersey to reward the hard work of its constituents with better jobs, a higher minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work. And before proclaiming that he will have your back as New Jersey’s governor, he firmly boasts that he doesn’t owe the insiders anything. That’s Phil Murphy, progressive champion and political outsider for you. Please, please—all this applause is embarrassing!
Since then, though, the ads have continued, but with all the same fanfare and stock footage of smiling, industrious people, and yet few specifics on what he would accomplish beyond the platitudes he has already espoused. Special interest politics has failed our state. We’re going to grow the middle class. We need an economy that works for all of us. Make millionaires pay their fair share. Stop hedge fund managers from ripping us off. Affordable college. This is all great, but how? Beyond the formation of a public bank in the state of New Jersey, very little is said about what particular policies Murphy would effect if he were governor of the Garden State. The only thing I’m certain of is that Phil Murphy doesn’t owe the insiders anything, and that he’ll have our back—and that’s only because it has been drilled into my head with every commercial.
When he’s not not giving specifics, meanwhile, Phil Murphy is spending advertising money not to denounce his biggest Republican rival or even his biggest Democratic rival, but Donald Trump. Now, don’t get me wrong—I enjoy a good Trump-bashing as much as anyone; in fact, I do it pretty regularly on this blog. Still, I’m not running for governor—Phil Murphy is. As such, I feel like he should be speaking to Chris Christie’s failed leadership more than anyone else’s, if he indeed references anyone’s record outside his own. Here’s Exhibit B, a spot titled “Betrayed.” Yes, Donald Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement is a blight on our nation. Yes, “alternative facts” are stupid. Yes, deep down, I believe we are “better than this.” Unless we are ardent Trump supporters, however, we already know and subscribe to these ideas. Murphy isn’t telling us anything new, nor is he describing anything any other Democratic governor wouldn’t have to deal with. And he’s not talking enough about certain issues that are particularly relevant to New Jersey voters, including the serious pension shortfall facing the state, concerns about our transportation infrastructure, funding for schools and higher education alongside debates about school choice and testing, and the ever-present preoccupation with property taxes, consistently the highest in the nation. So, while Phil Murphy is busy defending us from the machinations of Donald Trump, who’s actually going to be fixing the problems he inherits from the Christie administration? The office of governor is a full-time job, in case you are unaware, Mr. Murphy, sir.
See—this is where not having a more competitive primary is potentially very dangerous, and beckons genuine reform. Democratic leaders in New Jersey, as they did for Hillary Clinton in the general election, view the quick consolidation of support across the state as an asset, as it shows a sign of strength for the party. For a significant portion of New Jerseyans, however, this is evidence of a political “machine” and of a “rigged” system, and this threatens to turn off these valuable voters for this election, if not longer. In turn, if Democrats and independents don’t come out in force for Murphy come November, and the supposed wide margin between him and Kim Guadagno or another GOP candidate doesn’t turn out to be the blowout many experts anticipate it will be, this “coasting until after the primaries” strategy could backfire. At any rate, it risks the prospect of starting to undo the havoc wrought by Chris Christie. You know, assuming there is a legitimate plan to do this beyond not owing the outsiders anything and having our back.
To bring this to a close, and to repeat, Phil Murphy may be more than the sum of his wealth and his experience in the financial sector, and may have a legitimate plan to deal with the various crises facing the state of New Jersey. In spite of what Graham Vyse and like-minded individuals may insist about him being “sufficiently progressive,” though, and as much as the Democrats could use a win at the state level, victory isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all when the wrong policies may not only be detrimental to voters, but may cost the party in the months and years to come. Jon Corzine’s tenure as governor ended in ignominy and scandal, paving the way for loudmouth Chris Christie to swagger his way to the head of New Jersey’s government. Chris Christie, given his obsequious loyalty to Donald Trump and the sheer brazenness behind the bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, is likewise carrying out the end of his term under a dark cloud of disgrace, and a bigger cloud at that. Eventually, Murphy is going to have show us something beyond rehearsed lines from his commercials and that cheesy smile he forces from time to time. If he doesn’t, he may find it hard to govern—if he even it makes it that far.
Who’s the most popular figure in American politics right now? Well, obviously, our fearless leader Donald Trump, right? Um, yeah, no. As of April 12, per Gallup, Trump’s approval rating sits at 41%, seemingly not all that much improved since hurling 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. In fact, since the start of his term, President Trump has gone from having essentially equal approval and disapproval ratings at a point in the mid-40s, to having his approval rating dip to a level of near-stasis around the 40-percent-mark and his disapproval rating escalate to a near-constant rating upward of 50%. So, yeah, it’s not that guy. For the sake of a contrast, Barack Obama finished his tenure with about a 60% approval rating—though let’s be real—as feelings of buyer’s remorse began to kick in shortly after Trump’s electoral victory, this figure was bound to be on the incline.
Given Congress’s depressed approval rating of late, you would be loath to thinking it would be a member of the House of Representatives or Senate either. Back to Gallup we go. Though hating on Congress is nothing new, it’s still fairly startling to see only one in five Americans giving our lawmakers a proverbial thumbs-up. Democratic respondents, likely frustrated with a Republican-controlled legislature running amok, report a scant 10% approval rating. Independents, likely believing both major parties, by and large, suck eggs, lie at the 20% national average. Even Republican respondent approval ratings of Congress are down; the current approval rating sits at 31%, notable after a 50% rating and seven-year high in February. Apparently, people don’t like it when you screw around with their health care—who knew!
Let’s back up a moment. Who is the most popular senator with his or her constituents? Wait a minute—could it be a certain senator from Vermont? Close! Patrick Leahy is second among senators in terms of approval from the residents he represents. Oh, wait—you meant the other senator from Vermont. Yup, the Granite State has quite the one-two punch in terms of positive vibes, and leading the country in terms of the most beloved senator in these United States is none other than Bernie Sanders, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Both of Maine’s senators, Angus King (#5) and Susan Collins (#6), also ranked in the top ten, which is actually pretty well balanced between Democrats/independents and Republicans.
It should be noted that Sanders, while most-approved of within this poll and possessing the widest gap of approval to disapproval percentage, does not get the lowest disapproval rating overall; that honor goes to Brian Schatz of Hawaii (#8). For the sake of completion, lowest approval rating goes to Thom Tillis of North Carolina (39%), with Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan (39%), Robert Menendez of New Jersey (40%), and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada (42%), and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada (43%) rounding out the bottom five. Honorable mention goes to dishonorable Mitch McConnell (44%), Republican senator from Kentucky, the only person in the Senate to garner a higher disapproval rating (47%) than his or her approval rating. Congratulations, Mitch—you toad-faced heel.
Forget about mere popularity within the state of Vermont, though. Nationally speaking, Bernie Sanders, according to a FOX News poll dated March 15, enjoys a 61% approval rating, as opposed to a 32% approval rating. That’s significantly better than Donald Trump (44% favorable; 53 unfavorable) or even Mike Pence (47% favorable; 43% unfavorable). As Janice Williams, writing for Newsweek, frames these statistics, this kind of appeal might have been enough to give Bernie the W in a theoretical head-to-head matchup with Trump. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess, but regardless, these kinds of figures likely merit the Democratic Party’s attention.
While Sanders ran on the Democratic ticket in opposition to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries, as a member of the Senate, he is, of course, an independent, and one of only two in the Senate alongside the aforementioned Angus King of Maine. As much as Bernie Sanders is keen to preserve his identity as an independent, though, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party appears content to keep him at arm’s length. Such is the complex dance between progressives who are sympathetic to the aims of the Democratic Party at large, especially as regards the Dems’ superior positions on matters of social policy, and mainstream Democrats who, generally speaking, want nothing to do with progressive candidates.
The well-publicized tension between the then-leadership of the Democratic National Committee and the Sanders presidential campaign provides perhaps the most salient example of this divide, but even after a failed attempt to keep Donald Trump out of the White House—an attempt which featured Bernie, upon suspension of his campaign, throwing his support behind Hillary Clinton, mind you—this same kind of tug-of-war informs Democrats’ backing of more liberal candidates, or lack thereof. This past Tuesday, the results of a special election to fill the vacancy of the House seat left vacant by Mike Pompeo’s appointment and confirmation as CIA director were surprisingly close given the setting: a Kansas district, which is situated in a deeply red state and which opted for Trump over Clinton by a 27% margin in the presidential election. Only seven percentage points separated the winner, Republican Ron Estes, from the runner-up, Democratic challenger James Thompson. Whether or not this one election heralds a more pronounced Democratic uprising in future elections is yet to be seen, but in another upcoming special election for a House seat in Georgia, Democratic supporters are licking their chops at the chance to grant victory to Jon Ossoff and send a message—however small—to President Trump and the GOP that their agenda is not approved of by a significant cross-section of the American population.
Give Republicans a run for their money in two red states? Democratic leadership must have invested a lot in both candidates, huh? Maybe—maybe not. In terms of Jon Ossoff, the candidate for the vacant House seat in Georgia, both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have invested heavily in support of him, adding millions of dollars to the millions his campaign has raised, eager to spin the narrative of sticking it to Donald Trump. As for James Thompson, the progressive from Kansas? Eh, not so much. Sure, after the fact, the Democratic establishment added the closeness of the race between Estes and Thompson to this same anti-GOP, anti-Trump narrative. But during the campaign itself? Support for James Thompson was quantifiably lacking, despite his identification under the Democratic Party banner.
The Democratic establishment tried to appropriate Thompson’s success in the district as a testament that anti-Trump sentiments will translate to big wins for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. However, when pressed on why they failed to support Thompson, they dismissed criticisms for ignoring the race. The Huffington Post reported, “A DCCC official who spoke with The Huffington Post on Monday, however, argued that the party’s involvement would have been ‘extremely damaging’ to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race. Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.” This claim makes little sense, especially given that Thompson’s Republican opponent portrayed him as an establishment Democrat anyways.
Rather than this special election representing an anomaly or misstep from the Democratic leadership, there’s a prevailing trend within the party’s establishment to select and support weak, centrist candidates who provide the party with opportunities to fundraise from corporate donors. This trend is symptomatic of a revolving door within the Democratic Party leadership, where party officials often sell out to work for Republican lobbying firms.
In this equation, Ossoff is that “centrist” candidate, which explains the disparity of support. The thinking from the leaders of the Democratic Party seems to be that a moderate Democrat is better than a Republican—even when courting big money from similar or even shady sources, or even “selling out” to working for Republican lobbying firms after the fact. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and as progressives might argue, money in politics, whether at the behest of Dems or Republicans, is still a corrupting influence.
Thus, when it comes to progressive candidates and voters, there’s a dilemma concerning how and where they swear their allegiance in upcoming elections. By virtue of the Republican Party’s alliance with regressive conservative elements, and Trump’s own collusion with the far-right, the right side of the spectrum is a no-go. Supporting the Democratic Party, meanwhile, is problematic in its own right when its leadership doesn’t support them back, hews too close to center, and refuses to authentically embrace grassroots fundraising and organizing on a national level. Existing independent/third-party options are likewise less than savory owing to questionable organizational infrastructure and, as regards the Green Party and Libertarian Party specifically, figureheads in Jill Stein and Gary Johnson that are considered punchlines more so than viable presidential candidates. Broadly speaking, the current list of options for liberals is fraught with frustration.
In fact, if a recent article by Alex Roarty for McClatchy DC is any indication, liberals are “fuming” over the Democratic establishment’s reluctance to stick its neck out for anyone of a more progressive tint. Both Jim Dean of Democracy for America and members of our Our Revolution, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers, are cited within the piece as reproaching the Democrats for their refusal to “wake up” and to stop ignoring districts they don’t think they can win because they are too “red.” Even James Thompson, the also-ran man from Kansas, was critical of the Democratic Party’s approach to his race, averring simply, “(DCCC) and DNC need to be doing a 50-state strategy.”
The DCCC and DNC spokespeople cited in Roarty’s article seemed to defend the lack of backing for Thompson by throwing up their hands and declaring the race “unwinnable,” a sentiment echoed all the way up to Committee chair Tom Perez himself. This is not the kind of talk that helps energize a party and recruit new members, though. First of all, yes, James Thompson lost, but only by seven percentage points, and with the likes of Mike Pence and Ted Cruz making appearances and Republican donors infusing money into the race against him in the final weeks and days when the final result seemed not so sure. In addition, and in the arena of the self-fulfilling prophecy, if you never try to make inroads in certain districts and areas of the country (e.g. Midwest, South), you are never going to win. It didn’t play well for Hillary Clinton to write off Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and it arguably doesn’t help the Democratic Party to ignore whole swaths of the United States of America.
In short, what are progressive liberals to do, especially when they see some of their most popular figures in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison reduced to flunkies for the Clinton campaign and/or donation solicitors in the name of “party unity?” See, I think the Democratic leadership thinks we progressives are too stupid to notice that they are less concerned with what’s in our hearts and minds, and more concerned with what’s in our wallets and purses—or that they simply don’t care if we do notice. I believe, however, that progressives—young progressives, especially—are better at reading authenticity or its absence than today’s political leaders give them credit for, such that when Sanders or Warren threw their support behind Hillary for political reasons, or when they create a position in the DNC of deputy chair that is even more ceremonially meaningless than that of Perez’s role of chairperson, it rings hollow. As it should. Representative democracy doesn’t truly qualify as such unless constituents feel they are being represented by someone who embraces and exemplifies their values, and consistently, the Democratic Party brass had made it evident that they can’t or won’t go as far on matters of grassroots fundraising and policy than their more liberal supporters are asking them to.
As Jonathan H. Martin, professor of sociology at Framingham State University, and others of a progressive mindset are convinced, the answer to the question, “What do we do?” is “Form a new party.” As Martin depicts the situation, if people can’t coalesce around an existing party that has seemingly benefited from a Bernie bump of sorts, such as the Green Party, Justice Party, Socialist Alternative, or Vermont Progressive Party, then a new organization needs to be forged, with those who “feel the Bern” in mind. According to Prof. Martin, the two groups who are leading this charge, at least as of late February, are the Progressive Independent Party, which aims to be a coalition of the willing in terms of progressive, third-partiers, and others on the left, and the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, which pretty much says what it entails up front.
Of the two, Jonathan Martin finds the latter more immediately appealing, for if someone as popular as Bernie Sanders were to break ranks and form a new party, polling indicates that not only does a sizable subset of the voting population desire a viable third party, but many Americans do want the kinds of bold reforms that a Sanders type proposes. Martin highlights both the likelihood that this vision could move forward with Bernie at the helm, and the ultimate choice that progressives face in the political uncertainty following the 2016 election, with the following ideas:
While recruiting Sanders for a “people’s party” may sound like a long-shot effort, his own statements indicate that he remains open to third party politics, and might well go that route if his work to reform the Democrats fails. However, if Bernie doesn’t eventually do this, the movement for a new party may go forward without him.
In any case, the DNC election and subsequent events should challenge both influential and ordinary progressives to ask themselves how long they will continue sailing on the U.S.S. Democrat. That ship is not headed toward the desired destination, nor is it even designed to go there. Moreover, in the wake of the 2016 election, it is a boat that appears to be rotting, drifting, and gradually sinking. Why not jump aboard a different vessel, one that really has the potential to get us where we urgently need to go?
For Bernie’s part, the man still seems unwilling to abandon ship, continually speaking in terms of reforming or rebuilding the Democratic Party in more democratic fashion, and eschewing the pleas of Jill Stein and Company to get on board with a third-party agenda. At the immediate moment, therefore, it seems more probable that a theoretical People’s Party will have to soldier on without their muse, though the alternative is certainly not impossible considering just how tiresome the Democratic establishment can be for the rest of us—and we’re not even interacting with them regularly like Bernie Sanders is. As for the rest of us? Perhaps we don’t quite see the Democrats as a rotting, drifting, sinking ship, but how many of us have one foot in a lifeboat—with some rope handy just in case we get the urge to kidnap Captain Sanders and hold him as our progressive prisoner? Presumably, such a political maneuver would be intended for 2020, as the 2018 midterms are just a year-and-change away, but to take a genuine shot at disrupting the duopoly held by the Democratic and Republican Parties, even that kind of mobilization needs to happen sooner than later. In other words, if liberals are thinking about bailing, they may need to make a decision fast with political waters rising.
Fix the Democratic Party or start a new party altogether? For progressives across the United States, it’s a conundrum, to be sure. This much, however, is clear: the Democratic Party, as it is, can’t function as a cohesive unit in the long term, and progressives backed by/composed of a coalition of young voters and working-class individuals either need to be invited to the table, or find a new restaurant altogether. What to do, what to do?