Party Foul

What do we do about the Democrats?

Clark Goolsby, A Table of Things Organized Neatly. 2013, acrylic, ink, and collage on canvas. 48 × 54". Courtesy of the artist. 

What about the Democrats? Can they stop this? We call them more than our own families, imploring them to save our health care, to save our civil libertiesnot to screw this up again. But we don’t have much faith. Trump, an idiot and a buffoon, should have been an easy man to beat. Watching the Democrats lose was like watching a smug tennis player lose a thousand set points on double faults. Since November, the Democratic Party has spent its energy searching for someone to blame. Comey, the Russians, Cambridge Analyticaanyone, it seems, but itself.

Ah, the Democrats. We know their problems like our own faces. They’re the closest thing we have to a party. Yes, they represent a panoply of powerful business interests who write the bills. Yes, they are almost as captive to lobbyists as the Republicans. Yes, they’ve managed to pass legislation that previous Republican administrations could only dream of: welfare “reform,” the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Yes, a majority of Democratic senators voted to invade Iraq, later indulging in bathetic recantations as they transferred their animus to Russia. Yes, they are the partyor they’re not not the partyof testing and charter schools, health-insurance conglomerates and pharmaceutical lobbyists, university privatization and sham meritocracy, deindustrialization and the interests of the professional elite. Yes, they seem incapable of propping up a sturdy sentence without allowing an idiot wind of circumlocutions to blow it down. Yes, they seem to have a teeth-grinding fondness for the rhetorical figure of chiasmus (“We can build on the strength of our diversity, and the diversity of our strengths”). Yes, yesyes. But...

Is now, more than ever, our moment to yank the Democrats back from decades of rightward drift? It’s an old, even farcical question for the left. Keith Ellison’s lead for DNC chair gave us momentary hope: when Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and much of organized labor endorsed him, it seemed as though the Democrats were finally coming around. But then Obama deputized labor secretary Tom Perez to stop the Ellison wavea signal to cool our hopes. Republican hegemony leaves us with little choice but to work with the Democrats, at least for the moment, and even bring them closer to us. The question is how.

Two views of the Democratic Party suggest two paths.

The first sees it as the prodigal party of the people: the onetime champion of the New Deal that went astray in the 1970s, when a young generation of post-Watergate liberals began to move the party to the right on economic policyundoing antitrust protections and encouraging big businesseven as it moved left on social issues like feminism and civil rights. This rightward drift culminated in the figure of Bill Clinton and, later, his wife, who came under fire during her campaign for giving well-compensated speeches to Goldman Sachs. In 2016, many Democrats who had voted for Obama voted against Hillary, in part to put an end to the Clinton era. So they went for Trump, the candidate who spoke to their downward mobility and insecurity (and perhaps in the case of many, their misogyny and racial resentment).

In this view, the Democrats’ grave error was to neglect the working class, the party’s natural base. The people wanted populism, and so they turned to the populism on offer. With the party on the rocks, now is the left’s moment to take it back. Centrists do not know how to build a left populism to counter the right’s phobic, racist populism, let alone mobilize voters around it. But the left does. To win in 2018 and beyond, the Democrats must remake themselves as the party of good jobs, universal health care, paid leave, affordable child care, affordable housing, and free public education for all. In this account, the left understands the Democratic Party better than Democrats do; it can save the party from itself. The way to do so is to win elections with left-wing Democrats, eventually pushing the party back to its home on the liberal left.

The second view is less misty-eyed. Rather than a good party gone bad, the Democrats were never a party of the people, even during the heyday of the New Deal. This is because party ideology isn’t determined by the shifting views and needs of voters, but by “investors”: lobbies, corporations, businesses, interest groups, and unions who spend time, money, and energy to shape the direction of the party in hopes of seeing a return. This view allows that a party could shift to the right, and also indicates why there might be a hard limit on shifting a partyparticularly the modern Democratic Partyto the left.

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