The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma

By: Andrew Levine | May 24, 2019
The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma

The Trump presidency has been a disaster for the country and the world; a second Trump term would be calamitous.  The menace must be stopped.

The sad fact is, though, that for Trump to lose in 2020, a (big-D) Democrat will have to win.

This means that the responsible thing for (small-d) democrats to do will be not just to vote for the (big-D) Democrats’ candidate on Election Day, but also to muster enthusiastic support for her or him in the weeks and months leading up to it.

Enthusiasm is necessary because turnout is all.  There are many more registered Democrats than Republicans, and there is reason to think that most independents, whether or not they lean Democratic, oppose Trump.

The reason Democrats lose as much as they do is that Republicans and “conservative” (right-leaning) independents have been voting at higher rates. Turnout has generally been lower among potential Democratic voters because the Democratic Party has seldom offered them anything worth voting for.  There had always had plenty to vote against, but, as in 2015, this time around that may not be enough.

There is therefore reason to think that, for the time being, democrats ought to make common cause with Democrats.  Ultimately, the task is to divide, not unite, that wretched, thoroughly compromised party of theirs – to retain and build upon what is salvageable in it, and to cast off the rest.  That would require a thorough housecleaning.    But the time for that is not now; not while Trump and his minions are on the loose.

This goes against the grain. For democrats and also, insofar as there is a difference, for genuine socialists, proponents of the deprivatization of ownership of principal means of production, the actually existing Democratic Party is useless; more often than not, it is an obstacle in democracy’s, much less socialism’s, way.

It is as much a party of Wall Street and corporate America as its Republican rival.  Worse still, the Cold War mongers who have come to control it, under the aegis of the Clintons and their co-thinkers, make Trump look almost like a dove.

Too bad, therefore, that, in the real world of politics, political parties are indispensable for turning ideas into political realities.  (Small-d) democrats can get nowhere without them.

Building a democratic party from the ground up would be the cleanest way for democrats to get to where they need to be.  Taking over the actually existing Democratic Party in order to transform it radically is a far messier proposition.  But it could also work.

It is bound to be messier because the party’s stalwarts, and the gzillionaires behind them, will not give their power up without a wrenching and protracted struggle.  Witness the full court press coming down from our vaunted, agenda-setting quality press.  TheNew York Timesand Washington Post have all but declared Joe Biden, corporate America’s Great White Hope, the Democratic nominee.

Biden is the most retrograde of all the unreconstructed Clintonites and Obamaphiles left standing after 2018.  He is also nearly as much of a joke as Trump, a hardcore doofus who almost never gets anything right.  And yet Democrats and their media flacks pile on the praise. How pathetic is that!

Even for those whose only concern is to send Trump packing, this is stupidity on stilts – unless, of course, it has suddenly become sensible and wise to make the same mistake over and over again.  Hillary Clinton was the Democrats’ mistake in 2016; Biden is in every relevant way the same, only worse.

How much better it would therefore be to make a clean break!  But that is out of the question, thanks to the semi-established, deeply entrenched duopolistic party system we live under.

Taking over and transforming the Democratic Party is therefore the best, perhaps the only, way to get the job done.

The Biden craze must therefore be defeated quickly and decisively; corporate media must not prevail.

Meanwhile, Trump and his inner circle are busy making the world safe for the vileness they exude.

As long as that is going on, democrats have no better option than to make common cause with the neoliberals and liberal imperialists who made Trump possible.  If Biden is the nominee, that won’t be easy.

If Democrats have any sense at all, though, they will at least try to accommodate the positive changes that have already taken place within the ambit of their party.  This is doable; the situation is still at a point where they can benefit from the energy insurgents are bringing into their fold, without ceding power to them.  Something like a popular front of Democrats and democrats is possible.

Wise Democrats should be able to appreciate how their interest in forming a popular front is at least as great as the insurgents’.  After all, the Old Guard is, as the Donald tells us, “low energy.” Biden is no remedy for that, and neither are “moderates” or “centrists” who think like him.  They are not where the energy is.

It is with the insurgents, especially at the state and local levels; and it is with the cohort of genuinely progressive Democrats now in Congress.  There are perhaps as many as several dozen of them, and many others who probably could be moved along when circumstances are right.

It will be different when democrats become strong enough utterly to transform the party whose name they share.   That time is still far off, however.  For now, the “good guys” – and “gals,” which is what many of them are — are at most, a force to be reckoned with.

For now too, even as democrats join Democrats in the fight against Trump, the objectives of the two are not only different, but also ultimately at odds.

Backed by donors with deep pockets, and by corporate media, the Democrats hold over the Democratic Party remains nearly as formidable since the midterm election as it had been before.

It is therefore quite a dilemma that democrats face; they cannot move forward or even get by without making common cause with enemies of all they stand for.  But, of all the feasible options before them, this is the least unsatisfactory.

Trump makes it easy to get in a frame of mind that helps democrats adjust to this ultimately untenable situation.  Every word he utters or tweets, and everything he does, underscores the urgency of making his defeat a higher priority than the transformation of the Lesser Evil party.

On the other hand, mainstream Democrats make it harder than need be for democrats to cooperate with them when they promote positions even more pernicious than Trump’s.  That was a persistent problem, when Democrats were still hoping that G-man Mueller’s report would somehow force Trump out of office.

Their hopes were not unfounded; the content of the Muller report could have had that effect.  But Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump’s stooge, succeeded, as they say, in controlling the narrative.  Ironically, this turned attention away from the worst of the Democrats machinations.

But it didn’t end those machinations entirely.  Quite to the contrary, the Russiagate story remains alive and well.

The level of hypocrisy on the part of Democrats and others who promote it is staggering.  The United States, is, and long has been, the world’s foremost serial meddler in the affairs of other nations.  Even if everything our media say about Vladimir Putin is true, Russia doesn’t even come close.

It also bears mention that the same Democrats who are so horrified by Russian meddling in our elections are fine with the meddling of “friendly” countries: Israel is the most obvious example, but it is not alone.  Only the meddling of “adversaries” gets their goat.

The fact that Democrats like Hillary Clinton and the liberal imperialists she and Obama empowered helped turn Russia back into an adversary, at least in the public mind, after having been a “friend” for nearly two decades, seems not to register with them any more than does the fact that their Israeli friends are hard at work trying to cause the United States to wage war on Iran.

An Iran War would make the Bush-Cheney war on Iraq and their never-ending war in Afghanistan seem almost benign in comparison.

To maintain credibility in liberal circles nowadays, it has become almost obligatory for anyone critical of the Democratic Party to add that, despite everything, Trump is worse. This gets tiresome fast. Nevertheless, it is true, and worth repeating on that account: Trump is worse than anybody the Democrats will nominate, even if it is Biden; and Democrats remain the lesser evil party.

***

And yet, some forty percent of the American public either doesn’t care or doesn’t see it or else is fine with Trump as he is.

There are many reasons why. Some are obvious: people are reluctant to admit that they have been snookered; a few actually are better off under Trump, though not nearly as many as think they are; and some remaining Trump supporters have nefarious, they would say, “moral” or even “godly,” agendas which they believe, sometimes correctly, that Trump’s presidency will advance.

And, of course, for racists, nativists, and quasi-fascists of the kind that the pseudo-intellectual Trump-advisor Steven Bannon glorifies, Trump has been a godsend.

The state of the economy and of public perceptions of its infirmity or health is a factor too. This is something that, in recent years, has become almost an anomaly; so-called “values voters” were notorious not just for voting against their material interests, but also for caring less about the state of the economy than about their retrograde concerns.

This perception was always exaggerated, at best.  But the hypothesis could never be tested because Trump inherited a strong economy, at least according to some measures, and so far it only seems to have gotten stronger since he took charge.

Moreover, the consensus view nowadays, echoed repeatedly on the cable networks and, more cautiously, in the financial press, is that the economy is not only doing well, but also that it will continue to do well throughout the impending election season and beyond.

To be sure, if all they had to go on was their own experience, a healthy economy would be news to most Americans.   But consumers of news, “fake” or otherwise, tend to believe what they are told, especially if they are told it often and authoritatively enough, and if authorities they trust agree.

Needless to say, it is fatally unclear, in this case especially, but also in general, what role presidents and their administrations play in generating good and bad economic news.

Trump’s role is especially problematic because he seems to be doing everything wrong, and yet, so far, no significant economic downturn has occurred.  His tweets have not caused the sky to fall.  Quite to the contrary, the general impression is that, notwithstanding all he has done to foment trade wars and enrich the already well off, the economy has actually gotten better since he took over.

Still, there is plenty of anxiety around.  There are also some well-established truths that are generally understood that ought to give Trump and his handlers cause for concern.

Everyone who knows that that capitalist economies go through cycles of boom and bust which governments can and generally do affect in various ways, but which they cannot really control.

Because of its size and complexity and its global reach, the American economy is especially resistant to traditional fiscal and monetary mechanisms for dealing with business cycles. This too is generally understood.

Whatever Trump might say, tweet, or do, it is also plain that the “recovery” that began with the subsidence of the Great Recession has had more to do with policies undertaken while Obama was president than with anything Trump has done since.

His tax cuts resounded overwhelmingly to the advantage of the well off, the obscenely well off especially; all they did for the economy at large was to give it the fiscal equivalent of a sugar high. This too is widely understood, except perhaps in the most retrograde Republican circles where faith in Trump’s wisdom still runs high.

Everybody, except the Donald, knows too that trade wars seldom turn out well, and that a trade war with China would have all sorts of dire consequences.

Still, it doesn’t look like the economy is about to turn sour in time to hurt Trump’s reelection chances.   He may actually have an economy to run on in 2020 that will not turn the unreconstructed “deplorables” in his base, or the “moderates” responsible for boosting his approval ratings slightly in recent weeks, against him.

Indeed, as of this moment, the causes of significant economic downturns in the recent past do not even seem to be hovering about off-stage.  As far as anyone can tell, there are no bubbles ready to burst, and there is very little inflation — not enough anyway for the Fed to do anything precipitous with the money supply that might set a recession off.

Therefore, Democrats may be right in thinking that they cannot rely on bad economic news to cause Trump voters to defect.

Trump himself remains the Democrats’ best weapon against the Trumpified GOP, but they may already have gotten all the use out of it that they can.  Nearly everybody capable of being embarrassed by Trump’s manifest incompetence, appalling ignorance, and emotional immaturity already is.

This means that if Democrats do not want to risk somehow yet again losing a sure thing, as they did in 2016, they will have to do better than come up with more of the same old same old.

But enough on Uncle Joe.

Thanks largely to one of the major ironies of our time — that in a world dumbed down by reality television, the medium in which Trump thrived, and by mind-numbing social media — attention spans are short and peoples’ concerns are more than usually unhinged.  The national “conversation” can therefore take almost any turn, and change on a dime.

Unforeseeable developments are therefore more likely than not to become important, perhaps even determinant, political factors between now and November 2020.

It would be unwise even to rule a bad economy out; severe economic downturns have a way of arising unexpectedly.  So do ecological catastrophes, especially nowadays, as the consequences of climate change and global warming become increasingly felt.

Or the United States could become bogged down in Iran or Venezuela or almost anywhere in wars of choice so devastating and so “stupid,” as Obama once said of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, that the kinds of resistance that flourished a half century ago could revive, crowding everything else out of the public mind.

As for Trump, he could mentally decompose in full public view; indeed, he is already showing every sign of it.

Whether that would cause his base to turn against him is anybody’s guess, just as it is impossible to say how benighted, willfully blind Trump supporters would react to a severe economic downturn.

In the booming buzzing confusion of Trump’s mind, anything could happen.

The fantasies and delusions that motivate his supporters are not a whole lot more scrutable.

***

What, then, can democrats working with Democrats do?  How can they keep faith in the possibility of a better word alive, while also doing all they can to stop Trump before he does more harm?

Compared to most other “center left” parties around the world, Democrats are bad news.  But democrats proposing to work with them, even if only for the year and a half leading up to the 2020 election, ought not to dwell on that sad fact.

The wiser course would be to try to minimize the inevitable cognitive dissonance, by focusing on the few things Democrats are good for.

As Trump and his minions act like the tinhorn dictators they are by nature, doing their level best to “deconstruct” the rule of law, while giving predatory capitalists free rein, Democrats have, to their credit, become the guardians of all that is worth preserving in the ancien régime.

The word has become so abased in our political culture that it might as well be retired, but there is still no better way to say it: with the old Republican Party all but defunct, Democrats have become the true conservatives — not the libertarians or the evangelicals or the “deplorables” or worse who have crawled out from under the rocks Trump overturned, and not the troglodytes Mitch McConnell has succeeded in installing throughout the federal judiciary.

Democrats also shelter bona fide leftists who want to be players in mainstream politics. With nowhere else to go, they have been knocking on the door for as long as anyone living can remember; and while the price of admission has been high, they have usually not been turned away.

Neither, of course, have they been empowered.  Anyone really seeking change – not the Obama kind, but the real deal – who somehow manages to come into office on the Democratic ticket is, of course, at risk of being coopted or neutered or both.  Even so, progressive currents within Democratic ranks have never gone entirely missing; even the Clintons could never wipe them out.

Over the years, as legislators and higher-level bureaucrats, Democrats have done their share of damage control too.  There is much along these lines for which even Obama deserves credit, along with all rest he has to answer for.

In 2016, many a potential Democratic voter finally said – enough.  This wasn’t Vladimir Putin’s doing; it wasn’t even Donald Trump’s. Democrats did it to themselves; they made themselves odious.

Then, in 2018, for the first time in decades, the pendulum began to swing back.

There were intimations of what could be before the 2008 election and then for the first few months of Obama’s first term.  But before long it became clear that Obamamania was a snare and a delusion, and that the election that brought him into the White House only further entrenched corporate America’s and Wall Street’s hold over the political scene.

For all its glories, the Occupy movement changed nothing in that regard.  By the time Obama ran for a second term in 2012, it had become little more than a cherished memory.

It seems different now – thanks to reactions to Trump and thanks to the trajectory of leftwing politics in the United States and elsewhere.  The rightward drift of American politics seems finally to have bottomed out.

In the 2018 midterms, the politics of many insurgent Democrats was anti-corporate and, in some cases, if not exactly socialist, then at least counter-systemic. In those electoral contests, the Democrats’ chronic pusillanimity was kept in bounds.  Over the years, Democrats had become good at pulling their punches; in the last election, they let their punches fly.

Democrats therefore succeeded in ridding the body politic of quite a few Republican malefactors and reprobates.  At the state and local levels, good and decent people, many of them new to electoral politics, took their place.  And, of course, progressive insurgents changed the face of the Democratic caucus in the House.

Thus a genuine left, or proto-left, has become a force to be reckoned with – at all levels of government. And the prospect of transforming the Democratic Party from its present state into something that democrats can benefit from and participate in for principled, not just strategic, reasons, has come onto the agenda.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, has become the human face of this new and promising state of affairs. But the phenomenon she epitomizes is a lot bigger than she; it consists of many, perhaps a dozen or more freshman Congresswomen and men who think like her, and a handful of more experienced legislators, empowered by the new scene in Congress, by the changing demographics of the Democratic Party’s base, and by the spirit of the times.  AOC is only the most charismatic and, by now, the best known of the lot; and there are many more waiting to join her in 2020.

They have a lot of work to do, however.  Most Democrats, even if they are not quite the same as they ever were, are still part of the problem, not part of the solution.

It is not just that they are too timid and slow – too “moderate” – to be of much use to anybody. It is that they are too tied to corporate America, too much in Wall Street’s pocket, too much, in other words, like Joe Biden.

They differ from AOC and the others not so much in degree, as corporate media pundits would have people think, as in kind.

Nancy Pelosi is working hard to keep the Democratic Party together; so far she has been succeeding.  More power to her for that.  However, in the larger scheme of things, the Democratic Party is something to smash, not to save.  What Pelosi is up to is actually a good thing as long as the need for a popular front against Trump and all things Trumpian persists.  Beyond that, it is something else altogether.

As Trump’s violations of basic principles of Constitutional government become increasingly flagrant, and as irrefutable evidence of his “high crimes and misdemeanors” accumulates, impeachment is again becoming Topic A.

Many, maybe most, Democrats want nothing more than to impeach the bastard.  But because she is focused on the 2020 election and nothing else, this is not part of Pelosi’s plan. This puts her at odds not just with Democratic insurgents, but with many other Democrats as well.  Therefore, in the future, expect her to have a harder time holding the line than she currently does.

One might almost think that opposition to impeachment is hard-wired into Pelosi’s mind; she put the kybosh on the prospect when she first became House Speaker in 2006, and now she is at it again.

The first time, the effort, even had it not succeeded in removing Bush 43 from office, might at least have slowed down his and Dick Cheney’s wars.  The stakes this time are, if anything, even higher; they include the restoration of the system of checks and balances set forth in the Constitution and the rule of law itself.

Pelosi can and does offer defensible, if not compelling, arguments to forbear on impeachment, even as it becomes increasingly justified, by practically any standard, many times over. There is also a consideration that she does not raise although it is as compelling as any other; that if Trump goes, the rest of the kakistocracy he has put in place (“kakistocracy” means rule of the worst) remains and, worst of all, Mike Pence will take his place.

Unlike most of what comes out of Washington these days, Pelosi makes a case worth taking seriously. But she is wrong.

She is wrong in the way that Neville Chamberlain was wrong.  Like her, he was prepared to countenance a great deal of evil – annexation of the Sudetenland in his case, a lawless and dangerous presidency in hers – for the sake of a greater good; “peace in our time,” Trump’s political demise.

In neither case, though, would – or could — appeasement work in the ways they supposed.

Chamberlain failed to understand the historical trajectory of fascism and anti-fascism; Pelosi fails to understand that just being right about Trump and being cautious about taking him on is the very opposite of what is called for in our time and place.

Now is not a time to dwell on reasons, even reasonable ones, for going slow; it is a time to build on the momentum that brought AOC and her cohort to power.

This is what democrats working within or with the Democratic Party now ought to do; it is how they can, at least for now, get beyond the dilemma they confront.

Because Trump seizes upon anything and everything he can get away with, and because he has so far been able with impunity to get away with a great deal, now is emphatically not a time to be reasonable, cautious and slow.

It is a time for audacity – not Obama’s saccharine “audacity of hope” but something more along the lines of what Georges Jacques Danton had in mind when he declared, in Paris on September 2, 1792, in the course of a real revolution, not just the kind mainstream Democrats talk about nowadays: “Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!”(what is needed is: audacity, more audacity, always audacity).

This is the way to rid the body politic of the Trumpian menace.  The too prudent by half way recommended by corporate pundits, the build a consensus with Joe Biden way, is not only wrong-headed but also at least as unlikely to succeed in 2020 as it was in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the Democrats’ anointed one.

On this, democrats, tempted to endorse Pelosi’s view on impeachment and, more generally, on how to deal with Trump, should heed the wisdom of William Blake, notwithstanding the vaguely “insensitive” (in 2019, not 1793), almost Biden-like language he used to make a point that has recently become more timely by far than the latest from MSNBC: “that prudence is a rich ugly old maid, courted by incapacity.”

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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