The sign said “Trump is a Ruskie”. Another read “I’m Still with HER.” And others: “Thank you Obama,” “Thank you Michelle.” At the Inauguration protests and at the Women’s March, loyal Democrats and Hillary supporters turned out to defend their party. On the dais Inauguration Day, Democratic Congress people wore buttons that said “Save Our Care,” meaning Obamacare. And at the Justice Department, the investigations went on into ties of Trump people with the Russians.
None of this is unexpected. None out of line. But it bespeaks an eagerness – largely unconscious on most people’s part, no doubt – to defend the party that was from the party that might be. To reassure Democratic loyalists that “It wasn’t our fault” that Trump won.
Whatever the verdict on that question, it’s clear that the Democratic Party has alienated voters, and not just its supposed working class base. The young, the left, the hyper-educated didn’t turn out for the Party’s standard bearer. More tellingly, as Bernie Sanders pointed out, the Party has been losing elections for a long time, so that today Republicans control most state legislatures and governors’ seats, not to mention both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. And this was a party that was deeply divided almost up to election day in November and a wreck when Obama took office eight years ago. A party whose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were deeply unpopular when it lost control of Congress two years before Obama’s ascendancy, and which subsequently brought the nation to the brink of economic ruin.
As Bernie Sanders pointed out in his gentle way after the election, when you’ve lost as many games as the Democrats have, you have to conclude you’re doing something wrong.
The current upwelling of outrage at the Trump administration, with all its revolutionary potential, simply cannot become another opportunity for the Democrats of business as usual to take the stage again.
The widespread movement to defend immigrants and Muslims certainly crosses whatever lines there may be between party apparatchiks and Bernie voters. But even here there are dangers that the old instincts will distort the movement. The vigorous defense of local authority in California and the sanctuary cities is heartening. At the national level, Democrats are not risking such a radical stance. In The Nation, We Can’t Throw Other Immigrants Under the Bus, Cesar Vargas warns that extremist Republicans are already offering to trade a citizenship route for the Dreamers for an end to family migration and other immigration programs. And, he notes, “Democrats are, with good intentions but a misguided strategy, championing the BRIDGE Act, which would provide temporary relief from deportation and work authorization to undocumented youth, essentially DACA [Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] minus a path to citizenship.” Timid Democrats threaten, in his words, to “throw immigrants under the bus in order to save DACA” and reinforce a “good immigrant vs. bad immigrant” narrative that falls neatly into the hands of the right.
Efforts to “save Obamacare” are equally misguided. The faults in the program that Republicans have harped upon are not imaginary. From the perspective of a single payer plan, Obamacare is principally a new lease on life for the insurance industry. Even expanded state Medicaid programs are often handled by private insurance companies like Anthem (California). And any repeal is likely to retain protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and young people. In fact, Republicans are justifiably worried about repeal (see New York Times, Affordable Care Act Republican Retreat).
By welcome contrast, Representative John Conyers has reintroduced H.R. 676, “The Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act.” With 85 sponsors last session and growing, the bill needs the support of every Democrat and any Republican who can see no way out of the bind the party has constructed for itself.
Apart from the rocky roads of legislation in a Trump-controlled Congress and the defense of threatened populations, the current rebellion has to turn into the “revolution” Bernie Sanders proclaimed, starting with mobilization to take the Democratic apparatus from the base up and transform it into the populist party it once claimed to be. That claim never held a great deal of water, of course, because, to the degree the party was “progressive,” it was so in the mold of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Even the New Deal was principally an effort to put capitalism on life support, directed by many of the captains of industry and finance. And “progressivism” in economics has largely followed that precedent. Has no one else noticed the Robert Reich, certainly no “corporate Democrat”, features his new book Saving Capitalism on the bookshelf behind his seat during his daily podcast of the 100 Days of Resistance?
And, while progressives’ commitments to equal justice and broad opportunity for all will certainly be a part of any reawakened Democratic electoral machine, it would also help the cause if Democrats acquired a deep appreciation for the exhaustion of ordinary Americans with bureaucratic overreach and incompetence. Ask a typical Democratic candidate about the more onerous characteristics of the bureaucratic state, and you will get a shrug and a defense of government action for the common good – as if that were the question. The left in America has no critique of bureaucracy, a failure that makes the right’s tendentious one plausible to millions of Americans, as David Graeber points out. But neither bureaucracy nor “science-based” policy making – another sacred cow in the current uproar over the triumph of the right – are compatible with democratic procedure.
If we are to have new Democrats, we shall have to re-think small-d democracy, starting with the functioning of the party itself. I recently attended the Assembly District elections for delegates to the California Democratic Central Committee, the body that makes many of the most important policy and candidate endorsement decisions for the state party. Wondering who else sat on this committee, I looked into the bylaws and found that the Central Committee, much like the National Convention, was stacked with office holders, stalwarts of other Democratic organizations, and appointees. Structures like these have stifled populists and left dissidents within the party for decades, if not forever. They will have to change if the corporate Democrats are not to assume their accustomed places at the head of the Party in Rebellion.
Hence, we need all be cautious as we adopt one or another path of “resistance.” To each “action alert” or “strategic plan” we have to ask “What agenda does this serve? Whose party does this defend? and, How does this advance the real revolution we need?” And we’ll have to adopt Bernie’s 50 state strategy and Nader’s grassroots mobilization in each Congressional district in the country, first of all to put the Congress critters on notice that we are watching, but also, and for every election that comes along, not just to elect Democrats next time, but to elect the right people up the chain, Democrats, Greens, independents, what have you, from party officers to public officials at every level. Then we might have a chance to construct a government capable of confronting the challenges of our time.