The American Left is in an Abusive Relationship with the Democratic Party
…and it’s time we sent it packing.
With the 2018 elections coming to a close, it seems the evolution of the Democratic party’s centrist campaign strategy has reached its final form:
I know how to beat the Republicans… become the Republicans!
Take as a case study what’s happening in my home district, the New Jersey 11th. There was real excitement in the wintery air last January when Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a decades-long Republican party line–toeing incumbent, called it quits in the midst of mounting pressure from grassroots groups and grim reelection prospects.
But for progressives, the excitement quickly faded as Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot who “never asked if someone was a Republican or a Democrat before starting a mission,” fundraised her way through the Democratic primary.
In the general election the excitement all but disappeared when Sherrill abandoned every progressive policy in the book in her head-scratching debate with Republican candidate Jay Webber.
The hour-long spectacle saw Sherrill assume an array of conservative postures, including distancing herself from a price on carbon, backing away from free public college tuition, opposing single-payer healthcare, calling for more border security funding, and acceding to Trump’s $716 billion military budget. By the end of the night it became clear that while the candidates on stage belonged to two different political parties, their viewpoints, to a startling degree, embodied one ideology. Indeed, Sherrill had disagreed with leftist positions more often than she disagreed with her opponent.
This comes as no surprise. The Democratic party has followed a rightward trajectory, particularly since the election of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. Their “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” platform has alienated the working class by fixating on individuals’ bad behavior while ignoring — and in many cases perpetuating — the economic structures that reproduce it.
This is by design. In a cash-flooded electoral system where the better-moneyed candidate wins 91% of the time, politicians have become professional fundraisers who prioritize wealthy donors over their constituents.
Consequently, most Democrats, gagged by corporate dollars, have lost their ability to speak to issues of class. Any policy capable of genuinely helping Americans — nationalizing our healthcare system, cutting our military budget, investing in a Green New Deal, providing tuition-free public college education, securing a jobs guarantee and a living wage — is therefore largely neglected.
Rendered legislatively impotent by its special interest donors, the Democratic party has been on the hunt for new methods of problem-solving. What it appears to have found are the rhetorical strategies of the Right. Issues such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia are no longer connected to the colonial and misogynistic legacy of capitalism or the ruling class’s long-standing efforts to prevent class unity by sowing worker division. Instead, these social symptoms are diagnosed as a simple matter of bad apples in need of carceral punishment. The Republican party’s torches of “personal responsibility” and “law and order” now light the way toward the Democrats’ post-prejudice capitalist utopia. In typical neoliberal fashion, these systemic issues have been reduced to individual problems with individual solutions.
The bankruptcy of this approach to politics is clear in the stark outcomes of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Incarceration rates have spiked by 200 percent since Clinton’s 1994 “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” decimating black and brown communities. Obama deported 2.7 million people during his eight years in office— more than any other president in history. And the wealth disparity between white and black/hispanic families widened by nearly $300,000 between 1992 and 2016.
The Democratic party has let down women, too, and especially African American women, who are dying at alarming rates during childbirth, receiving significantly less money than men for their labor, and suffering from high levels of rape and domestic violence. Women in general remain grossly underrepresented in government and business. And due to the party’s electoral failures, women’s access to a safe abortion and other crucial reproductive rights is back in jeopardy.
These phenomena persist in an increasingly unlivable U.S. economy. Housing prices have jumped 82 percent since Clinton took office. College tuition has doubled. And the cost of healthcare has tripled. All the while, real wages for most Americans have flatlined as inequality has surged under both Democratic presidents.
The result is widespread misery for the working class, with an epidemic of alcoholism, drug addiction, anxiety, depression, and suicide. For the past two years, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined. And as long as the cost of living continues to tower over Americans’ purchasing power, we can expect more of the same.
We should also prepare for continued low voter turnout among disillusioned poor and working class Americans — young people, blacks, hispanics — who emerged from the Obama years virtually unchanged or even worse off. When their only “good” choice is a party that has proven itself incapable of actually improving their lives, it is no wonder that people aren’t raring to “Get Out the Vote!”
This political climate has devastating implications. A chronic lack of enthusiasm for the lesser of two evils has allowed the greater of two evils to consolidate its political power. In the past two years we’ve seen this power used to enrich the ruling class and terrorize the working class. Tax breaks for the wealthy and across-the-board deregulation couple with savage ICE raids and police brutality as the Republican party rushes headlong into the perils of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war. And what’s stopping them?
In the absence of progressive leadership, The Left requires an independent workers’ party, free from elite party bosses and corporate cash and full of the sort of courage and imagination that imbues people with hope and inspires them to action. Given the compromised state of the Democratic party, it is the only viable option to combat Republicans’ assault on human beings and our planet.
The good news is that America’s working class is ready: 6 out of 10 Americans feel that neither party represents them and 7 out of 10 millennials feel that a third major party is needed. Tellingly, more than half of identified Democrats view capitalism negatively while over 60% view socialism positively.
Yet when asked by a college student whether Democrats could benefit from embracing more socialist economic policies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi predictably answered: “We’re capitalist — that’s just the way it is.”
The American Left is in an abusive relationship with the Democratic party, and has been harmed for far too long by the party’s coziness with special interests and subsequent refusal to pursue systemic change. As with any relationship, it is common that feelings of nostalgia, attachment, and fear of being alone will tempt us to stay. But as anyone who’s been in one will tell you— leave; you’ll be glad you did.