Democrats’ inability to present a meaningful progressive alternative to the status quo and Trumpism doomed them to defeat and condemns them as a force for achieving even mild progressive reforms.
The November election dealt the Democrats a crushing defeat, handing control of all three branches of the Federal government to the Republican Party. Additionally, the Republicans are one state legislature away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. This appears to have been a wave election, but unlike the wave of 2008, which swept Obama into office, this was not some inevitability. Indeed, well into election night the smart money was on Democrats pulling out a comfortable victory. This was not simply the normal beltway hubris. This election was the Democrat’s to lose; and they did.
The reasons for this shocking upset are many but the bulk of influential Democrats, after a period of self reflection as surprising as it was brief, seemed to land on the suspicious conclusion that it was Russian meddling that handed Trump the White House. The reason this conclusion seems suspicious is not only the lack of any verifiable proof to back the allegations (as of this writing). It also conveniently shifts blame off the party leadership which bungled an election that could easily have been won. In doing so they redirected the justified anger of rank-and-file progressives and point it toward a traditional bugaboo of US politics.
Is it possible that Putin could have done something like what is being claimed? One would be a fool to put it past him. He is an authoritarian strongman who lacks even the pretense of commitment to democracy that most politicians have the good taste to feign. It must be understood that Putin is as much an enemy of freedom as is our own ruling class.
But was it Russia that prevented Hilary from campaigning even once in Wisconsin? Was it Putin that cleared the way for an unlikable candidate mired in scandal before the first primary? Did Russia force the Democrats to embrace neoliberal policies and trade deals that alienated previously reliable democratic voters in rust belt states, voters like the ones in Ohio and Pennsylvania that essentially handed Trump the win? Did Russian hackers make the Clinton Administration embrace policies like welfare reform and mass incarceration that might make black voters a little less likely to turn out on election day? Was it Russia Today that made Obama deport more immigrants than any other president? Of course not. Claims of Russian interference ought to be investigated, preferably by organizations more trustworthy than the CIA, an organization with its own tortured history of subverting democracy. But if the Democratic leadership wants to find the source of their woes they should look in the mirror, not across the Bering Strait.
But they won’t do that because any honest assessment of this disaster would demand that heads roll. The liberal technocrats that have dominated the Democratic Party since the rise of Bill Clinton would rather keep their heads and see their party drift into obscurity than lose them and see the party drift to the left. Thus they obsess over Russian hacking as a way of not dealing with the real reasons they lost.
This points toward two reasons establishment liberals were so hostile to Bernie and left wing alternatives generally. The first is careerism. Many of the people who controlled the democratic party were Clinton appointees or people connected in some way to the Clinton machine. They owe their positions to that machine and have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the its defeat. The second reason is that the Democratic establishment is just not that ideologically progressive. Theirs is the liberalism of the public private partnership not universal communal property, of John Locke and John Maynard Keynes rather than Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg. They may support curbing the worse behaviors of the ruling class and subsidies to prod the market into yielding marginally more humane results. However, when it comes to the role of the market, let alone the ideological assumptions undergirding capitalism, they have much more in common with Paul Ryan than Bernie Sanders.
If you call for universal access to health care they will fight you. Perhaps not in a racialized rhetoric of “moochers” and “takers vs makers” but they will come at you with arguments about feasibility, realism and perhaps most tellingly efficiency. (Doubt anyone that tells you universal healthcare isn’t “realistic” when other, poorer societies have “really” done it). Just last week Democrats voted against a Sanders bill to cheapen prescription drugs. The idea that the government should be able to negotiate the price of the drugs it buys is one of those patently obvious truisms that would be an easy sell to the general public but mainstream Democratic leaders can’t get behind it. This is partially because they’re bought off, but it’s also because they really don’t believe the government should have that kind of influence over the market. Thus they become Republican Light™. And if you like Republican Classic™ why would you pick Republican Light™? And if you don’t, why would you pick either one?
There’s an opportunity here for leftwing politics.
Many progressives have for a long time admitted the fundamental shittyness of Democratic politics, at least behind closed doors. They stayed in its orbit in large part out of fear of Republicans being even worse, and out of a desperate hope of moving Democrats to the left. We’ve seen that the Democrats are likely structurally incapable of tacking left. But the strategy of Democrats as a bulwark against reaction now seems unworkable as well. The party that was too incompetent to be “The Winners” now seeks to cast themselves as “The Resistance.” One could be forgiven for not placing much faith in such a resistance, even as Republicans seem poised to ratchet up the reaction.
In my admittedly anecdotal experience it seems that progressives seem to be awakening to the need to build a politics that goes beyond or even breaks with the Democrats. This isn’t because our arguments suddenly became more convincing. Rather, now the Democrats appear not just ideologically bankrupt but also politically impotent. Some could get past the former but none should forgive the latter. Building radical alternatives is no longer just a nice idea; it’s a practical necessity. If there is a silver lining to the mess that Clintonism has left us this is it. IWW branches across the country report up ticks in interest. Every Communist League Tampa seems to have new faces at it. As people grasp for a way out of this, and as Democrats seem basically content to abandon white working class people to racist demagogues, it’s important that radicals point the way to an alternative.
Trumpism functions as its own kind of alternative to the existing order. This is the secret to it’s surprising appeal. It’s also the secret to Bernie’s unexpected traction. And it’s why professional, technocratic, steady-as-she-goes liberalism suffered such a defeat. When I say Bernie would have won it’s not to anger injured Clinton-istas. Well, not only that. It’s a recognition that only a superior alternative can defeat Trump and the ghouls that will inevitably swim in his wake. That is the lesson of 2016 but Democrats, even supposed Progressives like Keith Ellison, seem unwilling to learn it.
In 2016 we were once again presented with the choice of socialism or barbarism. Because the Democrats couldn’t countenance even Bernie’s tepid, mild socialism we ended up with orange barbarism. It’s clear now that we can’t rely on Democrats to save us. They can’t but they wouldn’t even if they could.