Civil war has broken out inside the Democratic party. Does the future belong to the populist left or the centrists?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Civil war has broken out inside the Democratic party. Does the future belong to the populist left or the centrists?” was written by Heather Cox Richardson, Michael Cohen and Jean Hannah Edelstein, for The Observer on Saturday 24th June 2017 23.13 UTC

America is in the middle of a major political realignment. While the focus is on the Republican party’s internecine fight among corporate realists, political ideologues and the wild-card president, it is a mistake to assume that the Democrats are going to sweep into office in 2018 and 2020 to replace the corroding Republicans. The Democrats are also in a profound struggle over their future.

The 2016 election marked the end of a political era. Just as Republicans expecting an easy nomination of Jeb Bush in 2016 were blindsided by the rise of charismatic outsider Donald Trump, so too were Democrats expecting the easy nomination of Hillary Clinton surprised by a powerful challenge from elderly Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. Both Trump and Sanders ran on powerful populist messages, slashing at politics-as-usual and bemoaning that Washington served the wealthy. Democratic primary rules put in place after the party’s disastrous nomination of South Dakota senator George McGovern in 1972 meant that, unlike Republicans leaders who were incapable of stopping Trump, establishment Democrats could hold off the Sanders surge. But the insurgency opened a rift in the party.

The election of Trump exacerbated the Democrats’ intra-party conflict as Sanders supporters insisted that he could have won, while Clinton supporters dismissed those claims, pointing out that, among other things, Sanders never had to endure an opposition news dump. The two sides squared off in February, three months after the election, over the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. This position, contested for the first time since 1985, tossed new names to the front of the party. Ultimately, the choice came down to establishment-backed Tom Perez, President Obama’s secretary of labor, or Minnesota representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Perez won 235 votes to Ellison’s 200, and then, acknowledging the tensions in the party, tapped Ellison to be deputy chair.

Ellison pledged support for Perez, but cooler heads have not prevailed. Last week, when 30-year-old political newcomer Jon Ossoff lost a special election to reactionary Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th district, Democratic critics laid blame for the loss not on the nature of the district (staunchly Republican) – it was Newt Gingrich’s – but on the toxicity of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

To understand what’s going on now, it might make sense to return to pre-war America, since the Democrats, like the rest of America, are coming to grips with the end of the New Deal era. The party came out of the 1930s having created a new, activist liberal state designed to prevent the return of the great depression by using the government to defend the rights of labour and level the economic playing field that had tilted so steeply toward the wealthy. This liberal state was wildly popular, so popular that Republican Dwight D Eisenhower felt obliged to adopt and expand its premises.

With the country firmly behind what was known as the “liberal consensus”, Democrats continued to expand FDR’s New Deal, recognising that economic fairness required ameliorating racial inequality. When Republicans ran the reactionary Barry Goldwater against President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, the resulting landslide gave Democrats a super-majority in Congress. Working with moderate Republicans to cut racist southern Democrats out of their centrist coalition, they passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and launched LBJ’s War on Poverty.

But, in part because of the economic prosperity it created, this centre did not hold. In 1968, Republican candidate Richard M Nixon attacked it from the right by bringing white racists into his party, while Democrats destroyed it from the left by shattering over the Vietnam war. Angry at the establishment Democratic hawks who had carried the nation to war in southeast Asia, affluent American youth flocked to the standard of anti-war Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat.

The outcome was a free-for-all for the party leadership. President Johnson withdrew from the race, to be replaced by his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey; Senator Robert Kennedy jumped in to challenge McCarthy only to be assassinated. The Democratic National Convention dutifully nominated establishment candidate Humphrey, but the mayor of Chicago, where the convention was held, turned police against the protesters who descended on his city. The resulting violence enabled Republicans to tar the Democratic party as an elite establishment using tax dollars to cater to lawless thugs. The result just went Nixon’s way.

In 1972 the Democrats continued to move away from their traditional defence of labour towards social issues, and they haemorrhaged voters. In that year, anti-establishment candidate Senator George McGovern won the party’s nomination with the support of young activists, only to go down to such a sweeping popular defeat that the party establishment created “superdelegates”, party war horses and leaders who would also vote on nominees, and presumably avoid another disaster similar to that in 1972.

Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976 after Nixon’s spectacular implosion over Watergate, but the party’s crumbling coalition was no match for the rise of Movement Conservatives. Their narrative was simple: the Democrats’ New Deal government redistributed tax dollars from hardworking white men to lazy minorities and women. This easy – and false – explanation for the economic stresses of the 1970s drained working-class Americans away from the Democrats and into the party of Ronald Reagan. And there they stayed, for the most part, even as neoliberalism gutted the American middle class.

As they did so, Democrats tried to undercut Republican accusations that they were nascent communists hell-bent on redistributing wealth by moving to the centre on economic policy while mobilising voters by focusing on social issues. President Clinton famously ended “welfare as we know it” and signed the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which had prevented financial bubbles by keeping commercial and financial banks from being one and the same; President Obama defended banks in the aftermath of the great recession as key to recovery.

And so, we have come to the end of an era. The destruction of the New Deal state in a time of globalism has created an American economy that looks much like that of the 1920s, with extraordinary wealth concentrated at the very top of society. Thus the populist moment of 2016, when voters on both sides set out to smash the establishment, on the one hand electing Donald Trump and, on the other, rending the Democratic party in two.

Unlike the Republicans, though, who will have to reinvent themselves if they are ever to recover from the damage of the Trump era, the Democrats have the opportunity to heal their differences for an easier transition to a new political era. Establishment Democrats are not wrong to put faith in experience: Clinton, after all, lost the electoral college, but won the popular vote by more than two points. The upstart Democrats who rallied to Sanders are, though, demanding a focus on economic fairness, one that echoes the Democratic leadership of the 1930s. “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” FDR said in 1944. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Heather Cox Richardson is professor of history at Boston College

We must learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s success and speak to younger voters

One might have thought that the November election would have drawn a clear line under Democratic centrism. But the defeat of Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th congressional district may have been its true death wheeze. Even with six times as much funding as his opponent and a crazed and incompetent Republican president, Ossoff could not get enough of the district’s wealthy and well-educated Republicans to vote for him to flip the district.

When Bernie Sanders remarked that he wasn’t sure that Ossoff was a true progressive, it wasn’t a kind thing to say, but it also wasn’t inaccurate. The future of the Democratic party is not men like Ossoff. We must learn from the comeback of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK election and start putting our might and money behind candidates who are truly on the left.

We scoff at accounts of the 45th president still presenting visitors to his office with a map that lays out his electoral victory, but many Democrats are also preoccupied with the details of the election and the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. It’s clear that sexism was a significant factor, as was the intervention from ex-FBI director James Comey and possible interference from Russia. But those in the party who are willing to do real soul-searching must admit that the lack of the anticipated Democratic party landslide must also be blamed on the failure of the party’s policies to resonate with people in the states that decided the election – places in the middle of the country that have seen their livelihoods dry up, rather than flourish, under late capitalism.

Trump’s promises that he would solve the problems that plague their communities – problems such as unemployment, poverty and the opioid crisis – seem to be empty promises. But the Democrats could have done a far better job of showing that they cared about these middle-American communities: for example, through actually turning up in them. Clinton’s hobnobbing with Hollywood stars held little appeal for Americans in the middle of the country.

We need to look to movements such as the Women’s March, which inspired a record-breaking number of people to take to the streets, and the Run for Something campaign, which helps progressive people to run for office – and has elicited a huge, enthusiastic response from new candidates. They’re the best hope Democrats have of effecting change in 2018 and beyond. But only if they motivate turnout from the young voters who came out for Obama but couldn’t be bothered to vote for Clinton.

This means focusing on real issues that mean a lot to young people: education debt relief; steady employment; healthcare that makes it possible for them to afford to start families.

Though his continued engagement with the DNC shows Bernie Sanders’s ambition to promote this agenda, it’s time for him to step aside. His refusal to register as a Democrat invalidates any true claim he has to be at its helm. Many of his critiques of the party are legitimate, but if Sanders is not willing to commit to working on the inside for change, he needs to support someone who is willing to do it.

Elizabeth Warren is the obvious choice: compared to the likes of Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden, she’s an outsider, but she’s still a Democrat who has shown her commitment to the party. Her economic populism speaks to many of the same concerns that Trump claimed he would alleviate, but she offers solutions that will buoy the middle class by making the wealthy contribute more, rather than promising to drive growth through deregulation that simply makes the ultra-wealthy more so. And her commitment to progressive social values is clear, unlike Sanders, whose remark that “you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on [reproductive rights]” elicited blowback from women on the left who do not want their rights to be regarded as something to bargain with.

As the Senate Republicans push forward a healthcare bill that will cause the death and bankruptcy of many Americans who have the misfortune to be unwell and middle-class, now should be a clear opportunity for Democrats to assert that they’ll offer a better alternative. The opportunity will be lost if we continue to debate what it means to be a Democrat. The centre had its shot. It’s time to clear a path for Warren, the left, and a party that values diversity and speaks to young people.

Jean Hannah Edelstein is a writer based in New York

Liberals should be wary of policies that will scare away the middle classes

It has been a rough couple of months for the Democratic party. As Republicans have sought to roll back the key legislative accomplishments of President Obama, it has been one disaster after another. Even with President Trump’s approval ratings at historically low levels, Democrats continue to lose special elections around the country.

But in spite of these losses, there is a clear glimmer of hope – one that could presage a significant Democratic victory in congressional elections next year. Democrats are losing, but they are losing by much smaller margins than they have in the past.

Take for example, the special election in Georgia last week. The race, which quickly took on national import, will end up as the most expensive congressional election in US history. While the Democratic candidate narrowly lost by almost four points the district had been solidly Republican for decades. In a race the same night in South Carolina, the Democratic candidate lost by three points – in a seat that Republicans had won by more than 20 points just last November.

What all this suggests is that there is serious enthusiasm among Democratic partisans and not as much among Republicans. If, in 2018, Democrats are able to perform as well as their candidates did in these four special elections, they would be the odds-on favourites to win back the House of Representatives.

So how do they keep that momentum going? First, they must make the 2018 election a referendum on Trump, who is singularly despised by Democrats – and increasingly by much of the country. Second, if Republicans somehow succeed in repealing Obamacare and passing legislation that will take away health insurance from more than 20 million people, it will hand Democrats a slam-dunk campaign issue. But even if they fail, Republican votes in Congress could be an albatross that Democrats can hang around the necks of Republican candidates in 2018.

But for Democrats to expand their support they may also need to also take a page from Trump. In 2016 Trump ran the nastiest and most dishonest presidential campaign in modern American history. But one thing he did effectively was convince millions of voters that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington and be a voice for the struggling middle class. That anyone believed he would actually follow through on such an agenda is strong evidence that you can fool some of the people all the time.

But Democrats should take a similarly populist approach. Many liberals argue that means talking about single-payer healthcare and free college education, but it’s far from clear that those policies are what voters want. Pledging to raise taxes on the wealthy, protecting health insurance for poor and working Americans, expanding childcare and social security benefits, raising the minimum wage, making college loans more accessible and waging war on the opioid epidemic ravaging broad swatches of America will be far more effective.

Populism is key for Democrats, but it needs to be the kind of economic populism that signals to the American middle class that the party is in touch with their concerns and will fight for them if they are returned to power.

Doing so will give Democrats the opportunity to reach not just their most loyal partisans – who will be committed to vote no matter what – but also disillusioned Trump voters or those who sat out 2016.

Certainly, Republicans will have their message ready to go: harsh attacks on liberal elites that have long worked for the party and were critical to victory in the Georgia special election. In an era of intense political polarisation, pledging to stick it to the other side is still a pretty effective strategy for Republicans.

But with a fully mobilised Democratic base and a smattering of moderate and independent voters, it might just be enough to return the Democrats to power. In the end, Trump hatred will be a boon to the party, but the kind of seismic victory Democrats need may require a return to the party’s populist roots as the voice of the American middle class.

Michael Cohen is the author of American Maelstrom: the 1968 Election and the Politics of Division

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