The one unifying characteristic of both Donald Trump’s campaign and those who have mobilized to stop him is the concept of change. This is not piercing insight. Trump promises to remake how America relates to both itself and the rest of the world. Most of “the resistance” talks about unprecedented organization, a new type of activism. This rhetoric remains the same, whether the speaker is a loyal Democrat or an ardent revolutionary.
But one must always be wary of false promises. The opposition linked to the Democratic Party may march alongside radicals, but at the end of the day their participation is linked to getting people and money to win the 2018 midterms. Policy is not a major part of the pitch. Stop Trump, priorities #1, #2, and #3.
This focus on becoming the opposition to a person, rather than an ideology, is dangerous. Fortunately, we have lessons from history. In David Broder’s piece in Jacobin, “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”, he takes the example of Italy, whose politics have been dominated for over twenty years by Trump-esque populist Silvio Berlusconi. In a short time, the former Communist Party had shifted so far to the right that they mirrored the Democrats, both in their party name and outlook. They upheld neoliberalism and austerity, and focused on Berlusconi’s scandals and outrageous statements, attempting to win disaffected conservatives. The Left atrophied, no longer being seen as a way to power. And all this concerted campaign against one man did was reinforce the status quo and produce weak, unstable governments.
The election of Tom Perez as DNC chair, along with subsequent events, shows that the Democratic establishment wants to roll into 2018 with the same outlook and message that lost them the 2016 election (well, and the 2010, 2012, and 2014 ones too, minus Obama’s re-election). The energy created by Trump’s election among progressives is fuel for an attempt to reintroduce the status quo. And if the Democratic Party gets its wish, the time loop restarts- the status quo doesn’t work for many people, right-wing populist seizes on this disaffection, gains power, creates opposition, opposition funneled to Democratic Party.
Whatever your opinion on Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, he was offering a possible way out of this time loop. Fixing the major social and economic problems in the country, or at least trying to, helps prevent another Trump down the line. With the current strategy, the Democrats aim to fight the same divisive election every two years, with climate change and a hundred other serious problems charging through unfixed.
In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.
American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.
All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.
This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.
Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.
So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.
If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.
So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.
I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.
It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:
We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.
She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.
Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.
The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!
As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.
What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.
So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.
Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.
The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.
So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.