When Democrats bristle at President Trump’s mass deportation regime, what often goes unsaid is that Obama himself earned the unfortunate distinction of “Deporter-in-Chief” for his historic number of immigration deportations.
When Democrats grouse over Trump’s loosening of engagement restrictions on the battlefield, they often forget that Obama escalated America’s drone wars and expanded the country’s war footing in the Middle East and Africa, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths.
When Democrats condemn Trump’s attacks on the media, partisan blinders are activated, preventing them from recalling Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers. It was only a few years ago, in fact, when former New York Times investigative reporter James Risen referred to Obama as the greatest threat to press freedom “in a generation.”
This all being said, Trump’s incompetence, aversion to the truth, misogyny, and racist rhetoric—whether regarding Charlottesville, his Muslim ban, or likening Central American migrants to an invading army for political purposes—has made him a particularly revolting figure in the eyes of most Democrats.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
It’s that disdain for Trump, and everything he represents, that may make it difficult for many Democrats to look beyond Obama’s soaring oratory, deft ability to heal during moments of tragedy, and his even-keeled demeanor, and acknowledge his many blemishes. And it’s hard to understate what Obama symbolized as the nation’s first African American president.
As the tumultuous midterm elections careened to an uncertain outcome amid a horrific anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh and a bomb plot targeting prominent Democrats and Trump critics, Obama returned to the trail to stump for some of the most inspiring Democratic candidates in recent memory. During a rally in Florida for Bernie Sanders-backed gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, Obama characterized the election as a fight for the soul of the nation. The first black president was campaigning for a man hoping to become Florida’s first black governor against the backdrop of a torrent of racist attacks.
To many Americans, that’s what Election 2018 would represent. Either, this is Trump country—where white nationalists are emboldened and norms are crushed—or a nation defined by its diversity and purported democratizing ideals. For the latter to prevail, the thinking went, it would take a Democratic “wave” to serve as a check on a reality TV star-turned-president who simultaneously applauds despots and admonishes allies.
Politicos have debated whether major Democratic victories can be characterized as a true “blue wave.” Such a distinction is entirely subjective, but the facts suggest a strong Democratic performance in the midterms. The popular vote margin on election night was well in Democrats’ favor and the party is in line to take between 35 and 40 House seats when all the votes are counted. The party also won key gubernatorial races, none bigger, both symbolically and practically, than in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker, an unapologetic union buster, was unseated.
“The modern-day Democrats, it’s not clear what’s changing here. We seem to keep going through this cycle of ‘Hope and Change’ and then throwing people under the bus, and the Democrats are full of promises when they don’t have power."
– Dr. Jill Stein, former Green Party presidential candidate
Now the question for Democrats is what will they do with their newfound power? Will the old guard embrace its diverse freshman class, including self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or will the Pelosi-Schumer wing of the party consolidate control and retreat back to entrenched neoliberalism, which enriches its corporate overlords and billionaire campaign contributors? Perhaps most importantly: Is it even possible for Democrats to represent a “true” left—one in which capitalism is eschewed for investments in public schools, infrastructure, and the poor and middle class—when their interpretation of “progressivism” is resisting Trump and championing moderate social policies?
Modern political history suggests a splintered Congress will result in little, if anything, tangible being accomplished. Also hanging over this dysfunctional White House and the president’s distinctly corrupt cabinet, is the Russia investigation. Team Mueller will no doubt re-emerge with new indictments, likely paralyzing Washington yet again.
In the run-up to the election, News Beat podcast interviewed some of the foremost minds outside the two-party bubble, including perennial Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges; Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus at University of Amherst and renowned economic commentator; and Glen Ford, an acclaimed journalist and executive editor of Black Agenda Report, an online media site providing news, commentary and analysis from the black left. The interviews were conducted in collaboration with Left Forum, a New York City-based nonprofit that hosts an annual conference focused on progressive ideals.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Stein has been one of the biggest critics of the Democratic Party for years. Her presidential campaigns serve as a rebuke to Democrats and the two-party system more generally.
Stein had just wrapped up a bus tour in which she stumped for Green candidates, including Howie Hawkins, a gubernatorial candidate in New York, when we talked.
Under the premise that Democrats would retake the House, which polls accurately suggested would be the result, Stein questioned what, if anything, would change inside the Democratic establishment. She didn’t have to go back that long to remember a time in which Democrats wielded power in Washington, yet failed working people.
“The modern-day Democrats, it’s not clear what’s changing here. We seem to keep going through this cycle of ‘Hope and Change’ and then throwing people under the bus, and the Democrats are full of promises when they don’t have power,” Stein said. “The Democrats are very big on promises until they have the power. As Obama did, for example, when he had two Democratic houses of Congress, as well as the White House, and in the face of the worst economic disaster in modern times, what did they do? They bailed out Wall Street and through working people under the bus.”
Stein unwittingly became part of the story after Trump’s shocking election victory and the ensuing Russia hysteria. Predictably, Stein was attacked by Democrats for allegedly siphoning votes from Hillary Clinton. That in itself reflected deep-seated arrogance within the party for assuming Stein voters would’ve instead chosen Clinton if she weren’t on the ballot.
“Is the Democratic party anyway represented of the Left? It’s not even representative of the traditional liberal establishment.”
– Chris Hedges, Pultizer Prize-winning journalist
Also, Stein was captured in a now-infamous photo that included Trump’s short-lived national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, who has since been indicted in the Mueller probe, seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the photo emerged, Senate investigators wanted to learn more from Stein. An NBC News article sums up the establishment view of Stein, characterizing her as a Putin stooge. Their evidence? The aforementioned photo and Stein’s regular appearances on RT, an alternative news outlet funded by the Kremlin. (For those unfamiliar with RT, it’s the same network that employs former CNN host Larry King.)
“Democrats in charge of the House are, you know, shall we say, will most certainly be continuing their agenda in the fight for that House,” she said. “We saw Democrats blaming and shaming independent voters, focusing on Trump-hating and Russia-baiting, attacking Trump from the right, not tough enough on North Korea, on Russia, on Syria, no room really in that agenda to be attacking Trump for betraying working people and advocating for working people.”
Stein likened what Democrats have done in recent years to former President Clinton’s deregulation of banks in the 1990s. Last March, 13 Democratic senators voted to rollback Dodd-Frank reform that was created in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, the same anxiety-filled Democrats who warned an erratic Trump couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes overwhelmingly supported a measure to inject hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending. And after weeks of making a case against Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Democrats, led by Schumer, struck a deal with Republicans to fast-track confirmation of 15 conservative federal judges—a deal that allowed Democrats to get a head start on campaigning.
There are already signs of Democrats moving rightward. In September, Pelosi proposed reinstituting the so-called “pay-go” rules that require any spending measure automatically include budget cuts elsewhere, angering progressives.
Just this week, Ocasio-Cortez joined a group of environmental activists protesting outside Pelosi’s office in Washington, and the presumed future speaker of the House said she was “inspired” by their “energy” and had recommended the House “reinstate the select committee to address the climate crisis”—seen by many on the left as a token gesture.
After last week’s elections, the progressive base of the Democratic Party will welcome more than a dozen new colleagues. It’s too soon to say whether they’ll challenge their party leaders, and even Ocasio-Cortez was criticized for saying Democrats had to fall in line behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his re-election bid.
Still, the fact that she and some of her new colleagues chose to join activists while they were in Washington for Congressional orientation suggested her voice will be impossible for the establishment to ignore.
The question heading into January: Will the outspoken AOC and others like her be able to re-imagine progressivism inside the Democratic Party?
FUTURE OF THE LEFT
Economist Richard Wolff understands why people continue to choose Democratic candidates, especially in the age of Trump. And it has a lot to do with perception.
“It’s not scary to vote with the Democratic Party,” he told News Beat podcast amid the thousands of people who descended upon John Jay College of Criminal Justice this June for nonprofit Left Forum’s annual conference. “It is still—not everywhere in America, but most parts—an okay way to be anti-Trump or anti-Republican. It’s acceptable. You don’t look as though you’re a danger to society. That may change, and Trump and his allies are trying to change that, but so far, no. It’s the least scary, the least upsetting of other people way to express something other than Trump and the GOP. On the other hand, the Democratic Party is deeply complicit in everything that is making young people, working people, African Americans, women and lots of workers beyond that very upset.”
But unlike the millions who cast their vote for candidates with a “D” by their name, Wolff can see through the well-established veneer in which Democrats are viewed as the party of working people, immigrants, and minorities.
“It’s an act of blindness not to see the complicity of the Democratic party, whether it’s in the Clinton welfare reform, or the failure of the Democratic party to really mount any kind of mass opposition to what is the worst tax giveaway to the rich that we had in December of 2017, a lame opposition to the attacks on immigrants that’s [created] no mass movement against an economic system whose levels of inequality are going back to what we had before the 20th century,” he continued. “The Democratic party is complicit. It depends financially on pretty much the same social groups that support the Republicans. It’s terrified of losing that support for fear that in an economy like ours, where the politics are so dependent on the economic wealth, that to alienate the wealth is to self-destruct, which is a belief of the Democratic party.”
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly at The New York Times, and now a columnist for progressive news site Truthdig, sees no correlation between Democrats and the so-called “left.”
“Is the Democratic party anyway represented of the Left? It’s not even representative of the traditional liberal establishment,” Hedges told News Beat podcast in a quiet classroom at John Jay College. “Any other country in Europe, it would be a far-right party. The Democratic party has worked in tandem with the Republican party to eviscerate civil liberties, explode our system of mass incarceration, ripped down the firewalls between investment and commercial banks, destroy social service programs, such as welfare, and of course mount this relentless campaign against, primarily poor people of color by militarizing police in the name of law and order.”
“So I’m just stunned election cycle after election cycle when self-identified liberals and self-identified members of the left, place their hope in the Democratic Party machine, which doesn’t even function if you examine it as a political party,” he continued. “It’s not a functioning political party. It’s corporate money, mass mobilization. People who attend conventions or rallies are a little more than pawns, certainly have no say in the decisions made by the party. Self-selected candidates. If you took away all of the dark and corporate money, all of the Democratic party leadership—Pelosi, Schumer, Clintons—it wouldn’t exist.”
According to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research group where the public can track politicians’ campaign donations, the Democratic fundraising machine raked in more than $1 billion in Congressional races. While the majority came in the form of “individual” donations, $200 million originated from political action committees, or PACs, which, in theory, are not associated with individual campaigns. In practice, one does not have to be associated with a PAC to subsidize political campaigns. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly planned to donate $80 million to Democrats during the midterms.. With the exception of GOP-mega donor and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, billionaire Tom Steyer, the man behind Trump impeachment ads, donated the most to federal campaigns, spending more than $50 million in 2018.
With the financial winds at their back, Democrats outspent Republicans and sailed to victory in the House. The massive fundraising effort is an indicator that the machine has little incentive to address campaign finance rules, which have gone largely unchecked since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United.
In that sense, the future of the Democratic Party doesn’t look very different than the present, or past, for that matter. Hanging over all this is who will emerge from a likely crowded field in 2020 to take on Trump?
“When we talk about what the future of the left is in the United States and what the left ought to be doing, I think we really need to first explain what we’re talking about when we say ‘left,'” said Glen Ford, the executive editor of Black Agenda Report, a member-supported, progressive online video news network, in another classroom at John Jay College. “What are the actual left forces that are out there? And what are they demanding? And both of those questions are very important. I think that what we too often do is make assumptions about who the actors are that we’ll be collaborating with that we then call the ‘left,’ and then say well how should they position themselves? So we get this kind of very sterile, and I think, meaningless strategy of position, which inevitably winds up putting most of these forces that call themselves ‘left,’ from left-liberal to left social democratic, they position themselves then with the Democrats, but just to the left of them, which ironically kind of mirrors or matches what the Democrats do with the Republicans.”
Wolff mentioned Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as a potential challenger to Trump. Sanders, according to various polls, is one of the most popular politicians in the country. He not only caucuses with Democrats, but he ran as one in 2016, eventually losing out to Clinton. Even though the deck was stacked against him, Sanders eventually endorsed Clinton, a move that made many in his movement unhappy.
Now that name recognition is no longer an issue for Sanders, Wolff wonders if he’s put himself in a position to run as an independent if he indeed decides to take on Trump.
“Bernie taught Americans that millions of people think like this. It’s the most important thing he did. He taught millions of people that there are millions of people,” said Wolff. “All those people who thought they were the only one in their family, in their neighborhood, in their workplace, now understand there are millions of us. So now the next question is, How do you organize? Look, Bernie himself has to make this decision. Is he gonna run again, and if he does, as a Democrat or as an independent? Last time he ran as a Democrat because in his judgment he couldn’t have gotten any attention at all. It’s hard enough as a dissident Democrat, but now he’s the most popular politician in America. Everybody knows who that is. Well, is that enough? He has to answer that question. But the left, in general, has to answer that question. We see what Bernie can do. We see what we can do outside the party. And the question is: How do you organize that?
“I will say and there’s no way to over-emphasize this, that that’s our big problem right now,” he continues. “We have to organize.”