Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?

By: Andrew Levine | August 17, 2018
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Between now and Election Day, November 6, expect to hear a lot about how politics is “the art of the possible.”  Then, as the results sink in and are processed, expect to hear more.

That old bromide is true, of course, but also ambiguous because “possible” can mean anything from “remotely feasible” to “easily attainable.”  With the electoral circus about to rev up full blast, the time is right for reflecting on some of those possibilities.

***

To the dismay of mainstream pundits across the spectrum, all the way from the center to the right — which is all the spectrum there is in the American mainstream these days — both duopoly parties are in crisis.

For the GOP, the proximate cause is, of course, Donald Trump.  In all but name, the Republican Party is the Trump Party now — lock, stock, and barrel.  This could change in the blink of an eye, but if and when that happens, it will not be in time for the midterm elections.

Trump has violated so many well-established norms so egregiously that it can seem as if the cult-like movement that has crystalized around him materialized out of nowhere.

In fact, it is only the latest wrinkle in a story of mounting cultural contradictions that have been festering within the Republican fold since even before Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan launched their “Southern strategy,” their ultimately successful effort to turn the formerly Democratic Solid South Republican.

The general idea was to play racist and nativist cards — sometimes subtly, sometimes not — at just the time that, under pressure from the civil rights movement, the unhappy marriage of liberal Democrats and Southern segregationists was falling apart. It was that longstanding unholy alliance that had made the New and Fair Deals possible.

Contemporaneously, the three decades long period of post-War capitalist expansion began to fizzle out, turning financialization and de-industrialization into the dominant motifs of capitalist development.  Accordingly, American politics took a neoliberal turn from which it has yet to stray.

This made old school liberal Democrats an increasingly endangered species, creating a vacuum that business-friendly Democrats and well-meaning social liberals rushed in to fill.  The good done by the latter does not begin to offset the harm brought on by their party’s pro-Wall Street, pro-corporate orientation, or by its malign neglect of working class interests.

Finding it expedient to apply the Nixon-Buchanan formula more generally – not just in the South, but also in the mountain states and in de-industrializing regions everywhere — the traditionally more “conservative” (big business friendly) Republican Party took an increasingly retrograde turn as well.

The party’s patrician establishment bought into the Nixon-Buchanan plan reluctantly at first. But being cunning and greedy and in need of a reliable pool of voters, the old guard soon came around – actively encouraging the recruitment of people whom they would otherwise cross the street to avoid.

They were so successful that, in due course, it became touch and go whether the party establishment and the traditional Republican base could remain in control of the party they had long comprised.  When Barack Obama became president, that problem became more acute.  The complexion of Obama’s skin led many a Republican – some newly minted, some not — to cast longstanding pretenses of gentility aside.

Before Trump, Republican racism was muted; with Trump in the White House, it no longer is.  But the GOP establishment was in trouble long before anyone took Trump seriously.  The old guard managed to hold on by the skin of its teeth, but the Tea Party nearly did them in almost from the moment (well before the 2010 midterm elections) that it coalesced.

Nevertheless, they were still able to get one of their own, Mitt Romney, nominated to run against, and lose to, Obama in 2012.  By 2016, getting him or anyone like him nominated was beyond their power.

And so Trump came, saw, and conquered.  When the dust from the election settled, the GOP ended up in control of almost everything in Washington and in many state capitols as well.  It also found itself in shambles.

Even Trump must be wondering what the hell he was thinking.  Could he actually have thought that he deserved nothing less than the presidency or even that he was up to the task?  More likely, he just wanted to enrich himself and his family and to publicize his brand.

Too bad for him – and everyone else – that things didn’t work out that way; that, to everyone’s amazement, including his own, he actually won.

***

Democrats are so far not in anything like as bad shape as Republicans.   Their political divisions and cultural contradictions are less profound and, largely for that reason, their center is more secure.

This is why such silly ideas as that Democrats are all basically of one mind, differing only on some imaginary idealism-pragmatism spectrum, or that the party’s “agendas” are generally in tune with the wishes of constituencies that traditionally vote Democratic, remain intact.

There is some merit in these illusions.  Most Democratic politicians are indeed chips off the same block, especially at the national level.  But Democrats are hardly in tune with their “base.”  This should be obvious to all but the willfully blind.

Nothing in American politics today defies comprehension quite as much as the steadfast obtuseness of loyal Trump voters.  But the notion that establishment Democrats are radical firebrands, and therefore that Democrats running for office in deep “red” districts must distinguish themselves from them, comes close.

That unjustified and probably false belief was what led Danny O’Connor, the Democrat running for Congress in the special election held August 7 in the Ohio 12th, to declare that he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi!  Neoliberal, corporate ass-kissing Nancy Pelosi!

Each day, there are additional reports of yet more Democrats following O’Connor’s lead – distancing themselves from Pelosi and her cohort, not from the left, as any sane person would, but from the right.

It is mind boggling that anyone, even a mainstream pundit, could fail to see that, while there have long been a few left liberals with nowhere else to go who identify as Democrats, the Democratic Party itself is, at best, a party of the dead center, not the left, and that Pelosi and the party’s other leaders epitomize all that is wrong (dead centrist) with its political line.

This was hardly news to the white working class voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, but went for Trump in 2016.  For them, Obama’s color was obviously not much of a factor; if anything, it was a mark in his favor.  What mattered more was the increasingly undeniable fact that his politics was neoliberal through and through.

That was less obvious in 2008.  By 2012, it has become clear as can be that when he talked of “hope” and “change,” he was just blowing air.  Even so, compared to Mitt Romney, he was plainly best in show.  Hillary Clinton had an even more ludicrous opponent, but her neoliberalism was more blatant than Obama’s, as was her contempt for working people.  She was just a tad too much.

Clinton had all the party’s political machines behind her, especially in communities of color, but even that was not enough to get sufficient numbers of people victimized by Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) politics out to vote.

It was a case of the chickens coming home to roost.  The Clintons and their fellow “pragmatists” had long taken the labor movement for granted, and had basically written off the larger white working class.  They could hardly have expected changing demographics to make up for that blunder – not in 2016, and maybe not ever.

The Democratic Party in the Clinton and post-Clinton era was like General Motors in the decades of its long decline.  Once upon a time, it could be truly said, as “Engine Charley” Wilson famously put it, that what was good for General Motors was good for the United States and vice versa. From that peak moment until the time came that GM’s survival depended on a federal bail out, the company still had customers who, out of habit or conviction, continued to buy GM cars.  As the years went by, however, and as memories of the company’s glory days faded, consumer loyalty diminished and GM’s market share declined.

The Democratic Party’s support, within the white working class, has followed a similar trajectory. The difference is that there are no Hondas or Toyotas or Volkswagens for American workers to turn to instead.  There is only Trump.

The Clintons were causes but also symptoms of their party’s moral and political deterioration.   The Democratic Party was never all that great to start with, but it had become profoundly decrepit long before anyone except readers of New York tabloids and viewers of schlock TV shows took Trump remotely seriously.

However, thanks to engrained traditions and un- and anti-democratic election laws that restrict ballot access and that sustain all sorts of additional encumbrances to progressive (and other) departures from “normal” politics, the duopoly party system had only become more entrenched in the years leading up to the emergence of the Trump phenomenon.

The Republican Party is destroying itself; good riddance to it!  In a less “exceptional” liberal democracy, there would be some not too unfeasible way to be rid of the Democratic Party too, and to replace it with a more authentic opposition party that more genuinely does represent the will of the people or at least of those people who were drawn to the illusions that Obama’s 2008 candidacy encouraged.

In principle, this could happen even here and even now.  But it is not going to happen, or even begin to happen, in a way that could affect the 2018-midterm elections.  On any remotely plausible understanding of what the possibilities are, there is no art of the possible capable of getting from here to there.

This was not always the case.  In the year 2000, when Ralph Nader was its candidate, and then again in 2016, when the idea was floated that Bernie Sanders might run as on the Green Party ticket, it seemed remotely possible, for a while, that the Green Party could come in from the margins in a way that would seriously challenge the Democratic Party’s hold over progressive voters.

It didn’t happen, however, because the Democrats pulled out their heavy artillery, seeing to it that Nader would end up with no Electoral College votes and only 2.74% of the popular vote.  Eighteen years later, they still villainize him for being a spoiler; they still blame him, not themselves and not Al Gore, for George W. Bush.

Democrats rigged the election against Sanders – everyone who cared knew that long before Wikileaks provided documentary evidence – but, despite what many Sanders voters wanted, there was never any chance that he would bolt out of the Clinton orbit.  If he had, he could have done a world of good, but he would also now be villainized more viciously than Nader ever was.

We know in retrospect that Clinton would have lost anyway, but nobody could say that for certain back then; quite to the contrary, it seemed that there was no way that she could lose.

I confess that, at the time, I thought that if Sanders ran as a Green, Clinton would win anyway – not because he wouldn’t garner a lot of votes, but because she would still be running against Trump.  I underestimated her incompetence.

In the 2016 and 2012 presidential election, the Greens ran Jill Stein, an outstanding candidate; and they have run several outstanding candidates for lesser offices over the past two decades.  Their politics is as good as it gets within the realm of the possible. And yet, they get nowhere.

I vote Green, every chance I get; it is my way of casting a protest vote.  I would be extremely pleasantly surprised if I am wrong, but I doubt whether the Green Party will ever be good for anything more than that.

If there were general laws in political science, this might almost count as one: that new parties that succeed at more than just living to fight another day, come into prominence and establish themselves quickly.  Beyond a certain threshold, party building is important, but it is not a way for new political parties to establish themselves.

I would therefore venture that the Greens hit a dead end long ago. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, but, even if I am, the likelihood that their breakout moment will come this fall is, for all practical purposes, nil.

***

Smashing the Democratic Party to smithereens would be better, but transforming it beyond recognition wouldn’t be half bad.  The will is there, but is there a way?

In some respects, the Democratic Party is currently in a situation similar to the one that the pre-Trump GOP faced in 2012.   Discontent is seething, and the spirit of rebellion is alive and well.  The difference is that the center remains strong and mobilized and, with the unstinting media support it receives, it is almost certain to prevail.

In the sixties and seventies, there was an anti-war movement and a black liberation movement and there were other popular insurgencies whose aims and methods transcended the horizons of electoral politics.  There is nothing like that today.  If there were, it would be easier to break through the roadblock the Democratic Party establishment has concocted to keep itself in power.  It would also be easier for progressives engaged in electoral politics to resist cooptation.

As it is, the best we can hope for is that this fall’s electoral circus will leave the Democratic Party with a viable left wing.   It hasn’t had one since the eighties, when the Clintons and their co-thinkers undertook to purge the party of the remnants of the already feeble Democratic left of the sixties and seventies.

Congressional Democrats do have a Progressive Caucus, comprised of some seventy-seven members, but the genuine progressives in it could all, as the saying goes, fit in a taxicab with room left over for luggage.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both members of the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, will be entering Congress next year.  We know this for sure because they are running as Democrats in districts that Democrats cannot lose.

Perhaps they and others like them who might emerge out of the forces mobilizing to defeat the Trump Party this November will inspire the handful of Progressive Caucus stalwarts who do sometimes show signs of being on the side of the angels to defy their party’s leaders.   If that happens, then there might before long be a Progressive Caucus, by that or some other name, large enough and progressive enough to make talk of “democratic socialism” more than just talk.

I fervently hope so, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Pusillanimity is built into the Democratic Party’s DNA, and the forces of cooptation are mobilizing and strong.

However, there is still reason to hope that good will come from Ocasio Cortez and Tlaib and others like them.  However, for that hope to amount to anything, progressives everywhere will have to hold their feet to the fire; and, unlike Bernie Sanders two years ago, the new batch of democratic socialists will have to project their political vision beyond the water’s edge.

***

If a general election in the UK were in the offing, there would be a good chance that those democratic socialists would soon have a real world model to emulate.

Thanks to Brexit, corruption, and ineptitude, the ruling Conservative Party there is, like Republicans here, though not nearly to the same extent, despised and in disarray.  A Labor Party victory would therefore not be out of the question.

Labor’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is, of course, a bona fide democratic socialist, but also a principled anti-imperialist and an authentic proponent of disarmament and peace.  Far more than Sanders, to whom he is often compared, he is the whole package, the real deal.

Therefore the forces, domestic and foreign, arrayed against him and the policies he favors are formidable. This is why, even were public opinion generally to turn sharply in his favor, it is far from certain that he would prevail.

The point, though, is that Corbyn-like politics does fall within the realm of the possible, at least in the UK – not quite perhaps in the sense of “easily attainable,” but nearly so.

Indeed, so much so that Corbyn and his allies have become targets of unrelenting and baseless calumny — emanating more out of their own party’s center and right wings than from their Tory opponents, and, because he supports justice for Palestinians, from an increasingly vituperative Israel lobby.

It could happen here too – both that Corbyn-like politics could take hold and that defenders of the status quo would fight back with all the vileness they can muster.

Ocasio Cortez and Tlaib and others like them, and all their many supporters, should therefore take heed of what is now going on in the UK – to be ready to fight back if and when their power becomes threatening enough for them to become objects of baseless calumny too.

“Baseless” does not begin to describe the situation.  With Trump in the White House, people all over the world are going more than a little bit crazy, just as we Americans are.  But the attack on Corbyn, the claim that he and the Labor Party generally have an anti-Semitism problem, is more than a little bit crazy.  The idea that Corbyn is, if not an anti-Semite himself, then too insufficiently anti-anti-Semitic to lead the UK, is absurd.

Why, then, is it taken seriously in mainstream media circles?  And why now?

The short answer is because a perfect storm has been brewing — as supporters of the UK status quo and supporters of Israel, their respective causes becoming ever more difficult to abide, become increasingly desperate.

Nowadays, there are few racists so unabashed that they would not take exception to being called what they are.  And, since Auschwitz, it has been much the same with anti-Semites.

Trump and his supporters have done much to set progress back, but it is still the case that racist attitudes, though much in evidence in many quarters, have substantially diminished in recent decades, and that racist practices and institutions remain on the defensive and in decline.

It would also be fair to say that genuine anti-Semitism has become almost extinct, despite the efforts of many of Israel’s supporters to get people to think otherwise.

Nevertheless, charges of racism and anti-Semitism are toxic, as much or more than they ever were.  Centrist and rightwing forces, inside and outside the Labor Party, and rightwing Zionists intent on keeping British public opinion on Israel’s side, understand this well.

And so, because Corbyn is a true progressive, and because they see the movement behind him and progressivism generally as a threat, they disingenuously wield charges of anti-Semitism to discredit him and his party.

Their machinations warrant particular attention because the Palestine Question serves as an illuminating touchstone, and because both Ocasio Cortez and Tlaib have spoken out in support of the Palestinian people.

Before he succumbed to Potomac fever, Barack Obama spoke out in favor of justice for Palestinians too; it was only later that he fell abjectly under the Israel lobby’s sway.  Ocasio Cortez is starting out on a higher plane, but the more attention she garners, the greater the pressure on her to sell out will become.  She must not be scared off the path she is on.

That Tlaib, of Palestinian origin herself, has voiced support for American military aid to Israel, enough to persuade the liberal Zionists of J-Street that she is OK, is not a hopeful sign.  Every effort should be made to impress upon her the moral urgency of taking principled positions on Israel-Palestine, and to assure her that if she does the right thing, no matter how vile defenders of the ethnocracy become, progressives will have her back.

***

The Democratic Party is not about to become less odious overnight; and it is not about to become a force for good any time soon.   But it should be possible this November to turn the course of events around just a little, and every little bit helps.

The main thing to hope for from this election, though, is that, when it is over, Democrats, not Republicans, will control the House and the Senate.  This is important for damage control, and not much else.  Even with a dozen Ocasio Cortezes and Tlaibs elected, that wretched party will still be part of the problem, not the solution.

Controlling the damage Trump causes is not the same thing as getting rid of Trump. Every right-thinking man, woman, and child yearns for the day when the Trump nightmare will be over and, as far as possible, forgotten.  But as the old saw proclaims: be careful what you wish for.

Dump Trump and get Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary, determined to advance the kinds of policies Trump has been promoting – not, like Trump, for shallow opportunistic reasons, but out of ideological conviction.  That makes him more dangerous.

Dump Trump and the “resistance” will subside – because Pence, a hapless poltroon with the personality of white bread, isn’t scary in the way that Trump is.

Dump Trump and his minions will remain in place, executing and superintending the same foul mischief as before.  Because Trump is, so to speak, “detached” from the tasks of governance, it is they who, so far at least, have done the most harm since he took office.

They are the ones causing children to be torn away from their parents; it is they who are committing ecocide by undoing indispensable environmental regulations; and it is they who are giving corporations and financiers carte blanche to wreck the lives of working people at home and around the world.

Dump Trump and the “deconstruction” of “the administrative state” that Steve Bannon blathers on about will continue apace.

These are among the reasons to want to hobble Trump and, as much as possible, the people around him, but not, at this point, to dispose of him, wonderful as that would be.

Therefore, by all means, flip the House, so that Trump can be impeached; all Democrats need for that is a majority of one.  Flip the Senate too, though it is almost inconceivable that the Senate could be flipped enough for two-thirds of all Senators to vote to convict.

No matter: the point is, or ought to be, to tie up the works and, for that, it may actually be better for Trump to be where he now is.

Also, with House committees under Democratic control, the way would be open to investigate, investigate, and investigate some more.  What more effective way could there be for putting obstacles in the way of the malevolent juggernaut Trump heads!

Gain control of the Senate for the Democrats and it too could investigate.  More important, though, Mitch McConnell’s effort to pack the federal judiciary with retrograde judges would be stopped in its tracks.

Of all the harm the Trump Party has so far done, taking over the federal judiciary – all of it, not just the Supreme Court — is arguably worst of all.  Its consequences will be felt for decades to come.

To be sure, the idea of voting for Democrats – not some of the new ones and not the handful of decent ones already there, the ones more like Sanders than Clinton, but the garden variety — rankles.  Could the end possibly justify the means?

The short unfortunately obvious answer is Yes – because, in this case, there really is no alternative.

This does not entail abandoning a critical perspective.  The more successful progressives are in beating Trump and his people back, the more important a critical perspective becomes.

The popular fronts of the interwar period that brought anti-fascist forces of all stamps together to fight Nazis and other fascist movements provide a model.

Hobbling Trump or, if it comes to that, Pence, and disempowering Trump administration miscreants is Job One.   Clinton, Pelosi, Schumer and the rest are enemies too. But there is no way of getting at Trump without making common cause with them.  And so, it must be done.

The art of the possible is a demanding discipline; and there is no responsible way to elude what it requires.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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