The Democrats are celebrating their win in the November election as a victory for democracy, a welcoming assertion if they’ve indeed checked the anti-democratic tendencies in the Republican Party and elsewhere. But it was also surely a defaulted one, dependent to a great extent on Republican failures: their mediocre candidates, refusals to explain positions on key issues, extremist, alienating rhetoric, measures to curtail voting, the blowback from Roe, etc.
This margin of victory would’ve been much greater had the party aggressively recruited the diversity of voices it once represented. The party leadership spent considerable time and resources to support moderates and defeat progressives to solidify its centrist course. This despite polls showing that most Americans support the issues the progressives represent (though not the label!). The form of democracy within the Democratic Party has repressed the democratic potential in the larger society.
The party has consumed cyberspace with its top-down rhetoric of “diversity,” a laudable moral inspiration for sure that has led to the greater demographic inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities. But a more inclusive diversity is lacking in the party, one that pays more attention to the class status of those successfully included while more broadly representing the economically disadvantaged. And this broadening need not eclipse the importance of the cultural categories of race and multiculturalism.
As Thomas Frank has recently shown, the Democratic Party has been moving toward the center since the 1970s, courting the suburban and educated legions of the electorate to compete with the Republicans. Polls from the last two election cycles show that those making under $50,000 a year from all racial and ethnic groups are trending toward the Republicans.
The Democrats’ legislation to compensate students for their loan indebtedness, for example, speaks volumes about its priorities. In failing to address the causes of this problem, it offers no distinction between those who reaped the benefits of college and can repay their loans, and those who either didn’t go to college or haven’t received sufficient rewards from their degrees to retire them. And it ignores the plight of those in the lower and working classes who could never attend. The Democrats of course have been pushing the fast-track into college for some time while slighting those who have neither the aptitude nor the interest in college, reflected in their weak support for unions and their reluctance to develop workable programs to expand the trades. Expanding the competitive field to get more bodies into college will not fundamentally alter the inequality gap between the educated and the un-educated, the urban and rural populations.
Instead of working to transform the party to become fully diverse, the Democrats are shoring up their current position, even moving further to the right. Hakeem Jeffries is being hailed as the voice of the new generation. Appropriately, since he fits the image perfectly of cultural inclusiveness. But despite his claim—on Meet the Press, 1/8/23—that the Democratic Party represents everyone, he has been at odds with the progressives’ support for the lower and working classes for some time. Tragically, as mentioned, since the progressives only want a return to the days when the Democratic Party represented this larger diversity.
Instead of reversing these trends to expand its base of support, and delivering a more inclusive democracy, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party elite have repeatedly targeted MAGA as a “fascist” threat to democracy. However credible such comments might be, this rhetorical flourish helps them avoid the issue of how they’ve managed to lose so many of their traditional supporters to the Republicans and the MAGA movement. These have captured a significant number of the lower and working classes abandoned by the Democratic Party, especially the less educated populace in rural America. Seduced is a better word since MAGA and the larger Republican Party offer no real solutions. It’s a reactive populism.
This being the case, the issue then is how and why citizens who’ve traditionally supported the values of the Democratic Party could end up essentially going against their own interests and supporting a movement that negates these values. This hasn’t happened overnight. Years and years of exclusion since the Democratic Party’s move to the center have spawned irreversible damage. The average wages for workers have been essentially stagnant since then, the moment when inequality began to increase. This decline in the standard of living has compounded alienation over time.
This alienation, and not simply the blockage from representation, explains why so many victims of this decline believe their interests are served by a reactive populism, one that bodes little help for correcting these conditions; and not a progressive populism, one that proposes to return the Democrats to its roots as the party of the economically excluded. They’re also drawn by a powerful symbolism: the strident rhetoric from charismatic figures that promises to take care of all problems with authority; appeals to a faux nostalgia for a world that never existed; and success at blaming the real victims of our problems which only serves to detract from their essential causes.
The Democrats must broaden its policies to lure these disaffected citizens back into the fold. Failing this, we will be faced with continual stalemate and extremist ideologies.
Demonizing the Few to Alienate and Sway the Many
The only media fixation that’s more irritating than the saturation coverage of candidates running for an office nearly two years ahead of the election instead of discussing issues, is the punditry of phrase-pinning, the constant refrain that certain candidates are “socialist” and therefore untouchables.
George Stephanopoulos recently destroyed what burgeoning relevance had surfaced about this discredited ism with one of his patented interruptions. The issue at hand was whether the Democrats would have to field a candidate more mainstream in order to beat Trump. He blurted that the problem the “left” is having is that 75% of independents are uncomfortable with socialism and especially a socialist candidate. The air cleared, the “powerhouse roundtable” could turn to Joe Biden’s troubles (This Week, 4/7/19).
Polling-artifice can deliver a wealth of surprises. Many Americans react to the mere mention of “socialism” like it might leave a toxic stain on their being, so when questions are crafted to force a limited choice about it the results can be quite predictable. Those same independents supported Bernie Sanders and he has called himself a socialist from the start. With such an example we should be witnessing an epidemic of copycats.
But perhaps Bernie was immune because his transparency and passion trumped a claim that most didn’t really believe anyway.
Much of the mainstream media has been claiming for some time that the Democratic Party is moving to the “far left” and this labeling is often interchangeable with “socialist.” Jonathan Karl, piling on this sentiment, said that the 2020 election “will be a referendum on socialism” (This Week, 4/14/19). Hence this media’s obsession with the new firebrands in Congress, particularly Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re certainly not your weekend liberals who spend most of their time fundraising or hanging around K Street. They challenge the bipartisan do-nothing consensus and as a result seem so far removed from biz-as-usual that they’re destined for overkill coverage. They deserve attention, but this media has little interest in putting their resurgence in perspective. Since they’re so different than the standard Democrats in tone and style—forget substance for a moment—short-cut labeling works just fine.
The perfect formula for creating external threats: Demonize the few to alienate and sway the many, the gullible public; convince them these upstarts are really only the aggressive tip of the iceberg, that the whole party is becoming outside the mainstream, thus mimicking the Republicans’ persistent refrain.
The bulk of Democrats are still fixated on the Russians stealing the election and engaging in all sorts of nefarious actions against us; forming a bloc to challenge the Green New Deal proposed by a few; protecting incumbents in the upcoming election cycle; supporting Trump’s military excesses in the face of continued austerity, etc.
They’re even taking swipes at their more popular colleagues, dissolving the facade of unity, according to Aida Chavez (The Intercept, 4/12/19).
The public appears to be in sync here. According to a recent survey by the Hidden Tribes Project, the views of the Democrats who post on social media tend to be liberal and progressive but they are outnumbered two to one by those who don’t post and tend to be more moderate and conservative (“Liberals on Twitter Don’t Speak for Quiet Majority,” New York Times, 4/10/19).
A few more Congressional Democrats are admittedly starting to support Medicare for All, but how telling it was when Nancy Pelosi went on record recently assuring the private insurance industry their fears of this passing were unwarranted. How was she re-elected if the party is moving to the left?
Sticking with healthcare, can the call for Medicare for All be deemed that radical anyway when it is essentially the healthcare system in place for virtually every advanced industrial country, none of which are “socialist?” The northern European countries, especially Scandinavia, are often labeled socialist by those who conflate them with authoritarian, one-party controlled states which barely exist, but they’re multi-party, democratic states. The first attempt to get Medicare for All occurred in the mid-1960s, the current Medicare program in place for Seniors the compromise from that failure. The Democratic Party was hardly staffed with radicals in those days, though LBJ’s Great Society consensus included a different breed of liberal.
The Great Society liberal programs were essentially a retooling of the New Deal. It’s no accident that one of the biggest offerings from the new breed in Congress is the Green New Deal, a remaking of priorities through a massive public-private partnering modeled on the public works projects of the 1930s to invest in green, renewable energy, and a host of other related shifts designed to create quality jobs and bring more of the excluded into the system.
The goal of FDR’s programs was to stabilize capitalism not scrap it and start over with a socialist boilerplate. Getting the unemployed on the payroll was of course a major incentive but those programs were not meant to last and they were compromises, not meant to replace the private sector. This mentality was reflected in Social Security, a pension system devised by the Rockefellers and FDR’s class to ward off the system’s complete collapse. It was meant as a kind of stopgap, a last resort to supplement the hoped for growth of private plans beyond the Depression.
If the New Deal stabilized capitalism, the Great Society, proffered during a quite prosperous time, attempted to make it more secure by completing and deepening the innovations of the 1930s. The Democrats had the power of the postwar consensus on their side, the partnering of labor, management and government to build the middle class, and they controlled Congress during much of this stretch. Tax policy was a significant tool for advancing the middle class and including more of the excluded. The bracket for the highest earners was 70% (down from 91% during the Ike years), and this revenue stream fed the programs that could make this happen.
Proposals by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren to tax the rich at a higher rate are essentially a throwback to those years when capitalism offered protections to the lower and middle classes, and are in sync with what Bernie Sanders has pushed for years. They are certainly not “socialist.”
In this climate of labeling and political correctness there can be no clarity on what socialism is and how it differs from social democracy or some other emerging social formation, impeding progress toward new ways of thinking through our polarized state. The demonizing of positions deemed to be liberal or radical is nothing new, but this time around it’s clear that it’s being done to discredit policies and ideas that huge numbers of Americans want, or might want. Label them “socialist” and they’ll have second thoughts.
In his recent column Paul Krugman claims that neither the Green New Deal nor Medicare for All are “socialist in the traditional sense” (New York Times, 4/12/19).
Those in the media who see socialism breaking out everywhere hardly read Krugman but we have to wonder what a non-traditional socialism might look like. Perhaps it should be re-labeled. But first we should become firmly anti-anti-socialist and reconsider the relationship between capitalism, the public sector and labor.
The existing system has in effect been a species of un-labeled socialism for a select group of corporate brokers who pander market fundamentalism while usurping the public sector for some time. This partnership works toward the dissolution of democratic freedoms and the voiding of checks and balances in a virtual one-party state. Whatever the smattering of sympathies finally is among those on the left, they’re certainly for more democratic freedoms that can lead to checking the power excesses of the current corporate-socialist authorities, and above all bringing labor back into the partnership.
We’ve shifted so far to the right over the past several years that moves or even suggestions to revive an earlier status quo seem “far left” to many, but the new constituency for Sanders and the progressive faces in Congress see the political spectrum differently. It’s propelled mostly by millennials and post-millennials who’ve been exposed to new social models and witnessed the failure of the existing partnership, some the direct victims of the 2008 crash. These models themselves were responses to the failure of traditional socialism, its top-down centralization of power and economies of scale especially, that mandated anti-democratic methods. Bred on the wave of Zapatista-inspired anti-globalization movements and their flare-ups in the more recent Occupy movement, which drew attention to inequality through the coining of the 1%, they distrust large state-driven structures and parties supported by special interests. Strongly influenced by anarchism, they believe in seeding the scattered and repressed localities with the tools to participate in their own destiny; giving them access to a social contract permitting their perpetual input.
The big ideas of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal require a considerable degree of centralized control and this perhaps explains the reluctance to quickly embrace them even by some liberals. But Medicare is devoid of special interests and eliminates the overhead that can expropriate value, while the Green New Deal bonds previously excluded interests and communities with a redirected alliance of government and business.
But we’re in uncharted territory and the value of anti-anti-socialism is remaining open to what can happen through crafting one success at a time, using each to spawn a narrative series that will eventually redefine a replacement for “socialism.”
Reprinted from CounterPunch, April 26, 2019.
DROPS, AND THE DROPPED: DIVERSITY AND THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS
The left professes diversity as its vehicle and goal to expand power and bring more of the deserving into the system but, ironically, it’s one of the reasons why the Democrats fared so poorly in the 2016 election. Some, like Jay Haug, blame their intolerance. They force their issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the faces of their opponents with a politically correct inevitability that backfires (American Thinker, 1/20/17). Similarly, J. T. Young claims their diverse pitch is undercut by their homogenizing of substance and badgering methods (The Daily Caller, 11/30/17).
Could they have diversified and softened their pitch to those outside their orbit?
It’s difficult to imagine how believers in traditional marriage, for example, could have engaged in a productive conversation with the LGBT community. The left needed a more flexible frame to approach these outsiders—especially moderate, working class, and rural whites—and set aside their differences at least long enough to win elections, something the right has been very good at for some time now.
These differences were no minor obstacle. The success of the Sanders campaign challenged the Democratic Party’s established position on who should be included in its coalition. The Democrats have left the lower and working classes behind over the past forty-plus years as they’ve shifted to the right. In the mid-to-late 1970s the Democrats began to embrace identity politics, the special endorsement of racial, ethnic and gendered groups believed to be deprived and deserving of special treatment. As Robert Benn Michaels shows, the energy spent in protecting and elevating these groups consumed the field, leaving the class narrative to lie fallow (“Introduction” to The Trouble with Diversity, 2006). Their love affair with diversity erupted from this shift, replacing the mandate to expunge racism from society that had motored the civil rights movement into the 1970s and the solid support for equality that had been a mainstay of its platform. Though never completely losing the initiative to fight racism and inequality, the focus was on celebrating the differences that people of color brought to the social mix and finding ways to include them more successfully. The working class was and is not all white, of course, but the effect of this shift has been the exclusion of significant numbers of whites, particularly the lower classes. The Democrats and, more broadly, the left, have acted and legislated according to the belief that this approach was a necessary corrective since “white” is synonymous with “privileged.”
The 1977 Bakke case, where a white medical school applicant was successful in claiming reverse discrimination against the affirmative action process, was the beginning of a challenge to the easy conflation of white and privileged. Ronald Reagan’s election a few years later captured many of these disaffected whites for the Republican Party where they’ve mostly remained. The 2008 economic collapse should have returned them in droves to the Democrats, and would have to some version of the older party.
The priority given by the new Democratic Party to demographic inclusion over economic justice helps explain this failure and why so many people of color, especially Blacks, rejected Sanders. But more pointedly, according to Briahna Gray, they believed that since he is white his policies would exclude them—a misperception since these policies were more progressive than Clinton’s and geared to reduce inequality across the board and help keep the disaffected working class males from supporting Trump (The Intercept, “Fetishizing ‘Identity Politics’ Could Cost Democrats,” 6/18/18).
Those left of the liberals and the fringe to their left, relatively small in terms of numbers but not inconsequential, fought to include moderate, working class, and rural whites in the coalition because of their belief that economic justice issues should trump demographics. Had they had a more influential voice, the right would not so easily have captured this group.
But as it turned out, the reigning bloc of liberals wrote off small-town, de-industrialized, red-purplish-state America with its surfeit of deprived whites—and even sectors of moderate white suburbia—where many were certainly waiting for change. Had they scoured these areas inspired to grasp the economic damage these sectors suffered they could’ve possibly found a way to include these victims, though this would’ve required some quite innovative therapeutic conversion strategies.
They could’ve schmoozed with those privileged whites living in trailer parks on the non-living wages of the flexible, global economy and found ways to bring them into the majority. They could’ve become profilers and identified potential candidates with darker drops of blood and made use of the new testing technologies celebrated in the criminal procedure TV shows to learn if they possessed the requisite one percent or even more, and then worked out how much of a percentage was needed to make it into the coalition.
Once they knew who was in or out they could’ve held a meeting where these candidates, the drop-challenged, were interviewed about their role in slavery, giving them a chance to repent and receive political absolution. Many of the candidates would likely have acknowledged the injustices of slavery but also suggested they follow the money and go after families which accumulated great wealth from these injustices, even offering to authorize a payroll deduction at their credit unions in good faith. Some would surely have asked for help, however, in getting their kids into the better state colleges which had begun to recruit diverse candidates from outside the country to get higher tuition for their budget crises.
The real challenge then would’ve been to get the parties to engage in a conversation, no mean task since the effects of years of segregation have seeded fear and distrust in everyone’s minds. Those astute in conversion therapies might’ve succeeded in producing a consensus that more fairly placed the blame. But therapists would’ve faced an especially formidable challenge in getting those giving priority to racial, demographic justice and those pushing the priority of economic justice to see through the other’s eyes. Drop-challenged high school grads from deficit-ridden rural and inner city public schools would’ve had to mix it up with the drop-wealthy, some educated at elite schools and who might’ve been fairly recent arrivals from challenged countries. Could they have bridged the divide?
The “demographic destiny” of the drop explosion, the priority given to race, then as now, conforms to a certain ethic of equality. The liberal mandate is to mostly include the excluded, provide opportunities through expanded access that will somehow give the recipients a greater share of income and wealth, and spread the correct bodies through the social matrix in the hope that filter-down economics will deliver them from material evil. The flaw here, though, is that they will have to face off with the occupational structure and this means hierarchy and exclusion, no sure guarantee that the new included will find greater equality in a system that dispenses so many low wages.
As Jennifer Delton points out, while post-1970s diversity policies have successfully darkened the working populace in both the public and private sectors, this is mainly evident at the professional levels and, tellingly, as the society has witnessed an increasing gap between top and bottom (Washington Post, “The Left’s Grand Delusion,” 7/28/17).
The economic justice camp conforms to a different ethic. It pushes toward an equality of results, though never fully endorsing this extreme since it conjures a host of taboos for Americans. It means too much action from government and that will lead to welfare and eventually socialism, or even communism, since the individual must be free to achieve on their own. And the leaders are all-too-aware of the occupational barriers that must be confronted, not to mention the political ones. Many of the Great Society programs, for example, have been severely weakened, if not eliminated. So this camp has been ineffective, defaulting to an equality of opportunity approach that is easier to execute—just let the forces of our self-correcting system play out!—and sounds so right.
Perhaps these therapists can temper the drop friction and find a way to move forward. But more likely they’ll have to honestly admit that these notions of equality, ambiguously referenced in the Declaration of Independence, rift the cultural fabric and can’t be successfully united without force, some form of top-down authority that would surely provoke a backlash in the absence of a changed consciousness among the populace, and especially among liberals on the left whose diversity fundamentalism still mostly holds through the 2018 midterms.
While the recent election witnessed the success of progressive Democratic candidates and those of color who prioritized economic justice, the most progressive ones fell short as Ryan Grim claims (The Intercept, “How Midterm Results Will Keep Democratic Infighting Going,” 11/6). The electoral map shows that the Democrats’ biggest gains were in the suburbs (New York Times, 11/6). The Republicans still mostly captured those in economically deprived areas and the working class. According to national exit polls, the working class voted for Trump by 37 points in 2016 and Republican House candidates by 24 points in 2018 (Working Class Perspectives, “Class Prejudice and the Democrats’ Blue Wave,” Jack Metzgar, 11/26/18). This split between demographic diversity and economic justice will continue, according to David Brooks (Meet the Press, 11/11), until either the Republicans attract more people of color, beyond their already substantial following, or the diversity liberals can manufacture a new coalition. Otherwise 2020 won’t be much different than 2018.
The engineering of a vague sense of equality through the inclusion of many who are already privileged and the targeting of others strictly because they fit protected categories will continue to invest the ethic of equalization with contradictions and absurdities and invite further backlash in the absence of a fully inclusive coalition.
Consider the current lawsuit against Harvard by Asian Americans who contend they were denied admission in favor of lesser-qualified applicants (to create a more balanced student body, the school claims, based on life experiences as well as academics). There are simply not enough slots in elite or any other institutions to accommodate the qualified and tinkering with this balance from above and outside can only make our hyper-competitive society even more impossible, our democracy more fragile. The only fair and honest quota system is one that is fully inclusive but also realistically achievable. This will require an overhaul of the wage and occupational structures to absorb the surplus of applicants and compensate for the inevitable glitches and exclusions.
Forced and deficient quota systems invite a reactionary PC. Political correctness is a legitimate response to rigidity, the refusal of the system to change. It targets specific sectors where unsolved issues fester, and the link between race and class is certainly one. But politics is rarely correct. It is riddled with experimental errors forced through by special interests. Political rationality is irrationality masking as progress. It offers mostly sketchy constructs awaiting deconstruction.
Originally published in Counterpunch, December 19, 2018. Thanks to the student input from my Fall writing seminar in the expression of these thoughts.