Why Democrats Need to Calm Down

Two words associated with the progressive movement frighten the establishment.

Photo by Jose Moreno on Unsplash.

In this current political climate, practically everyone on the left seems to be in a panic right now. This is not just liberals and progressives; it applies to virtually all Democrats. The establishment and progressive wings of the party view each other with suspicion and disdain, each remaining deathly afraid that the other will hand the next presidential election to the incumbent.

They need to calm down. Every president who runs for re-election is setting up a referendum on himself. Yet because the incumbent is such a thoroughly reviled figure in virtually every circle save his own increasingly cultish and diminishing party, he will lose. Having spent these last two years playing only to his base of 35% or so of the nation, he’s going to have to pull off a political miracle to dwarf that of 2016 in order to win in 2020. He won states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by razor-thin margins last time, and his hope of repeating that feat is dim or dead.

My prediction is that every true liberal in the country will join with every true conservative to turn Trump out. To true conservatives, Trump is a traitor; to liberals, he is anathema in almost every respect. To both, he is an international humiliation.

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“Oh no!” wail the establishment Democrats. “If we nominate some goofy leftist Bernie Sanders type, the entire middle of the country will turn against us and swallow Trump again!”

“Oh no!” wail the progressive Democrats. “If we nominate another center-right Clinton or Obama-style figure, people will stay home in droves again; that’s already a losing tactic!”

They’re both dead wrong, and they both need to look farther into the future. Everything in the above paragraphs is true if Trump is the Republican nominee in 2020. If someone else is the nominee, all bets are off. Damaged though the Republican brand is by the cesspool of Trump’s presidency, the quaint and needless institution of the Electoral College — functioning as designed to thwart the majority — remains skewed in favor of the GOP.

Conservatives, of course, have been without a party for the last couple of years, and they miss it. Progressives have been without one for 40 years, and now they have hope. In both cases, they’re already embroiled in bitter intra-party feuds.

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But this is about the Democrats. For purposes of honesty and full disclosure, I am one, and I am a devoted member of the party’s progressive wing. I voted for Sanders, believing him, an independent, to be no radical, but closer to the finest in the Democratic tradition than those in the Clinton-Obama school who claimed a Democratic pedigree while betraying it. A good many of my Democratic friends despise this in me and seem to think we progressives want to replay the Clinton-Sanders contest. The fact is that contest, with different names on the ballot, is being replayed in Democratic primaries all over the country. The progressives are winning, and they are the party’s future.

Does this mean we’re in danger of painting ourselves into a left-wing corner, just as the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner of Adolf Hitler’s portrait? It does not. We are not the radicals. The Republicans are. They ran all the liberals out of their party. Then they ran out the moderates. Now they’ve turned on the conservatives, cannibalizing a once-proud institution and leaving it to the anti-intellectual, nativist, populist Trump crowd. The Democrats are in no apparent danger of doing such a thing.

But Democrats of all stripes need to remember who got us into this mess. Democrats themselves had a great deal to do with it. The party has not nominated a genuine liberal for president since 1972. George McGovern’s loss that year was monumental, and apparently the lesson Democrats took from it was that liberalism was a political dead letter. They have won the presidency five times since then, once with Jimmy Carter and twice each with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. What did they get for it? Carter started the ball rolling toward deregulation and dismantling the welfare state. Clinton fulfilled his promise to end welfare as we knew it and paid back Wall Street’s investment in the party many times over. Obama spent daily time on his “kill list” and refused to make anyone — other than the still-shrinking middle class — pay for the economic collapse at the end of George W. Bush’s terms. Better than the Republicans? Malaria’s better than tuberculosis.

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Every presidency, Republican and Democratic, and every Congress since Lyndon Johnson’s tenure has been a failure on the critical issues of the economy. The distribution of wealth and income has gone the way of capitalism without the leavening and softening measures of large, socialistically organized institutions. The causes may not be understood, but the effects are deeply felt by working Americans. These people are tired. They’re weary of not being able to meet expectations brought on by America’s mythic social and economic class mobility. They are financially insecure, and they are deeply frightened. So we are not in an America any of us can recognize, if we see it clearly. We are in Germany, circa 1934.

Two words associated with the burgeoning progressive movement frighten establishment Democrats. One is populism. They fear populism because they identify it with Trump and with such anomalous historical figures as William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson. Yet, to be anti-populist is to be anti-democratic in the most profound sense. It is the populace — at least 40% of it — that is suffering, and it is populism that needs to move people to rise and reform.

The other word is socialism, and the objections to it are three: first, that it can’t win in a country educated to despise the concept, and a country that in normal times is always conservative; second, that capitalism has been successful in raising more people from poverty than any other system, ever; and third, that socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried. Shall we take those objections in order?

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Young people did not grow up in the Cold War, with Russia and communism as the bogey men for every ill, and the idea of socialism does not mean to them what it did, and perhaps does, to their elders. What it means is nationalizing things like healthcare, which are both necessary for everyone and completely out of control. This new brand of socialism, though, would leave plenty of room for entrepreneurialism. As to the country’s being conservative in normal times, well, it is. But Ben Carson and Mike Pompeo are in the president’s cabinet, and the administration is tearing families apart at the southern border as a matter of policy. These are not normal times, and normality promises to look a great deal different in the future — one way or the other.

Capitalism has had its successes. It’s ripe now, arguably overripe. The Hegelian dialectic (simplistically but accurately synopsized as thesis, antithesis, synthesis) points us toward a synthesis of capitalistic and socialistic systems. We can do this.

Finally, socialism has not failed in Scandinavia. The experiences with it elsewhere in western Europe have been mixed and highly instructive, and have left European countries with far more workable, working socialized institutions than Americans have. The obvious first example is healthcare systems. We can do this, too.

Because the progressive movement is so strong in the party, establishment Democrats are racing to take it over from the rear. On issues from immigration to healthcare to financial-sector regulation, such corporate Democrats as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand sound like Sanders these days. It’s comical, but it’s a good thing.