The headline read: “The Democrats’ biggest donor says the party is blowing it and should get behind Bernie’s platform.” In an interview with Mic, Tom Steyer, “a California hedge fund billionaire” who donated $87 million to seven Democrats’ campaigns last year, including Hillary Clinton’s, states his support for Sen. Bernie Sanders and insists that if the Democratic Party wishes to win back the confidence and votes of the white working class, especially in the so-called rust-belt regions, they had better line up behind the platform Sanders is pushing. And they should do so fast. According to the report, Steyer’s immediate goals are the effort to find and run credible candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and, of course, the 2020 presidential election.
A first response may be one of frustration: “Un-believable! Even some billionaires get it, and Democrats’ leaders refuse to understand? How stubbornly and purposefully stupid can they be?”
The Establishment Democrats Dig In
The above headline/report is a contrast to other headlines we might have read about the current civil war inside the Democratic Party, which started right after the hugely embarrassing (and revelatory to the base) defeat that Hillary Clinton suffered at the hands of a most hated character to have run for presidency and won it, in recent memory. Headline of an article by Politico framed it well three days after the election: “Fight erupts among Democrats for control of party in crisis.”
Now eight months later, the struggle for power continues between a platform desired by the party’s social base and that of the leadership’s wishes. One headline from Salon reads: “Why is Donna Brazile still emailing me? The tone-deaf DNC has no credibility.” An article, from The Daily Caller, titled, “Primary Challenger Blames Sanders for ‘Destroying the Democratic Party'”, reports the challenger, Jon Svitavsky, as saying, “Sanders’ divisive rhetoric is bad for the country. [Svitavsky] stated that most Sanders supporters are ‘political neophytes’, prone to anger and violence in the face of dissenting viewpoints.”
Of course, we can always rely on the old guard of any party to want to keep it steady in the same old same old, stay on course, direction; in the case of democrats, always to the right (as Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo-graphics indicated).
A headline from an opinion piece in the July 6 edition of The New York Times, succinctly expresses the wishes of the establishment leaders: “Back to the Center, Democrats.” The article is a great example of the typical rhetorical yarn spun from of a mixture of actual right wing rhetoric and ideas sandwiching leftish sounding phraseology devoid of any genuinely progressive ideas or policies, all the while advising the democratic leaders to ‘reach across the isle’ and to seek a majority by ‘returning’ to the center, declaring that, “Democrats have a chance to reach across the aisle to show they understand that voters like bipartisanship.”
They Got Backward and Forward Mixed Up
If by ‘bipartisanship’ they means the people’s representative shall come together, as they are paid to do, and draw up and enact helpful solutions (as opposed to mean-spirited, extremely harmful solutions like Trumpcare) for the problems people face, by allocating funds to solve those problems, well, sure, all voters and non-voters alike would love to see any amount of such bipartisanship.
But if ‘bipartisanship’ means Democrats bending over even more, so that the people shall get screwed even harder (while the Democrats keep their jobs in the US Congress), that is not something anybody wants.
It is that second type of bipartisanship that brought us the destruction of the welfare-state as we knew it, and the demonization of the poor, poor minorities, the working poor as well as single, working mothers that went along with it. This type of join venture also brought us the destruction of the banking regulations that previously prevented banks from destroying people’s lives and livelihoods by the millions on a cyclical basis. That kind of bipartisanship has also prevented the Congress from enacting any living wage minimum standards nationwide. And let’s not forget the biggest turn of the screw the ‘center’ and ‘bipartisanship’ brought us: the 1994 Crime Bill, signed into law by Bill Clinton, which criminalized the poor and minorities and created the conditions for the fastest and the largest expansion of private prison industry and the school-to-prison pipeline, a legal system of injustice which is now being re-invigorated by the current Attorney General, the racist Jeff Sessions, a very partisan enemy of the people.
The advocates of ‘Back to the Center’ argue that previous Democrat presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama found it possible to get elected on centrist platforms, and that is all we need to know about the value of taking the centrist road. Well, Hillary Clinton too ran on a very ‘centrist’ platform.
The reality we face is that for the Democrats the move forward for the past forty years has been to the right consistently. As poll after poll indicates, when people are asked about their views on specific social and economic issues, the true center, where a majority of the population lives, is far to the left of the current Democratic Party’s positions.
The real ‘going back’ would be to the days of Lyndon Johnson’s aggressive civil rights legislation, now applied to the rights still denied today, not disenfranchisement of minority communities, as is currently under way, and which the Democrats did zero to prevent when they had legislative majorities during Obama’s first two years as president. ‘Back’ would be to FDR’s type of social security contract, which can now be applied wider to include healthcare as a right, and if necessary provided by the federal government; again, something Democrats could have delivered. ‘Back’ would be keeping with the spirit of the New Deal and keeping up with inflation when it comes to wage standards and having a living wage (not a minimum wage) legislative goal. ‘Back’ would be publicly-funded (through high rates of taxation on the rich and the corporations) free public education extended to colleges and universities, as well as massive infrastructure projects that employ millions of people; not further privatization of education system, and definitely not ‘public-private partnerships’ of the ‘center’, which mean private appropriation of the profits and the socialization of the costs and liabilities.
What these ‘Back to the Center’ ideologues try to conceal is that we have been promised all kinds of things by the Democrats, under the ‘Lesser Evil’ banner, for the past thirty-some years and we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper in the hole. After so many years of it, it is natural for the people to feel we have been led down the figurative alley and now find our collective face pressed down in the mud; screwed by the Democrats. Eventually we must either wise up and go elsewhere politically, or we just give up and stay home on election days. People have a right to get tired of getting fooled.
Inequality, Not Jobs, Stupid!
In his interview with the Mic, Steyer states an obvious fact: “There is an absolute, unspoken war between corporate interests and the American people.” Coming from a hedge fund billionaire, it sounds radical, but he’s saying something painfully obvious to a majority of the working population. Steyer has enough sense though not to stop there and to add another fact known to economists ranging from Marxist professors all the way to chief economists at the World Bank and the IMF, and amply documented by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It is inequality rather than jobs alone that must be the main issue the Democrats need to address.
That, however, is the one thing Democrats cannot address and simultaneously continue to be Democratic Party USA. Addressing inequality in a meaningful way is the antithesis of today’s Democratic Party’s most basic social function.
Steyer argues, “Before you freak out on the jobs question, which everyone loves to do, understand that we [only] have 4.3% unemployment.” We can disagree on the actual unemployment figures, and we can rightfully point out that even a thing like unemployment is not equally distributed among all communities, but the point is valid enough: There are jobs available, but they are mostly poorly paid jobs. The more significant fact in this relation is what historical income data tell us: the actual purchasing power of a majority of working Americans has declined compared to 1968, and consistently so since then; by as much as 35% if you’re a minimum wage earner (see, The federal minimum wage hit its peak purchasing power nearly 50 years ago).
So, why would some hedge fund billionaire advise the Democratic Party’s leadership to line up behind Sanders’ platform? Has he turned socialist since the disastrous loss of Hillary Clinton?
It could be that Democrat donors see two sociological trends: 1) the fact that socialist ideas as well as ideals are gaining popular acceptance on a mass scale once again, and 2) the fact that, at some point, enough people will realize the Democrats are forever corrupted and beyond hope; they are then likely to vote for a third party that does represent their interests and has established a nationwide presence.
These billionaire donors to the Democrats also know one other thing. Just as the Republicans can lie through their teeth to their lower class voters while keeping a self-righteous straight face, so can the Democrats. Democrats can ‘adopt’ Sanders’ platform and, like many times before, promise all kinds of goodies they don’t intend to deliver, but keep promising that things are being done about people’s problems, committees are being formed to study the problems, discussions are being had behind the scenes which could deliver promising signs down the road, at some point soon enough for our kids to enjoy. Just be patient, and proceed along with hope.
They can meanwhile continue their march forward to the right, implementing actual policies beneficial to a minority at the top, blocking policies detrimental to the same, through their inaction, by forming even more study groups and exploratory committees; all the while soliciting corporate input on how to make any and all legislation as friendly as possible to their top donors (as their Obamacare did with a curtsy bow to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries); or, they’ll do their ‘Republicans won’t let it happen, so drop it’ dance.
Opening for the Socialist Left
There is a lesson to be learned from a situation in which billionaires are panicking to an extent that they are pushing the Democratic leaders to line up behind Sanders’ platform (just in rhetoric, in my opinion). Socialists must take this as a sign that the ruling class is deeply worried about the actual possibility of a third party of the real left putting an end to the Democratic Party’s charade, by exposing on a massively public scale Democrats’ main function: to act as a stop, as a buffer, as a deflection device against any organized popular oppositional force. The Democrats can only do that by absorbing and swallowing whole any oppositional rhetoric, while killing its real social content and its potentials for growth.
They have done it before. They did it to Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition, which received 21% of the popular votes during the primaries in 1988, but only got 9% of the delegates (sound familiar?). Despite that, Jesse Jackson stayed in the party instead of splitting and starting a brand new party of the left. His campaign received about seven million votes that year. That’s a huge human presence, with enthusiastic energy, for starting a new party. At that time the Rainbow coalition consisted of a lively and highly energetic coalition of labor, environmentalists, civil rights activists, women’s rights activists and student activists, many of them on the socialist end of the spectrum.
Imagine if that coalition had done its historical duty and split from the Democratic Party to form a strong party of the left with nationwide presence! By now it would have been in existence for nearly thirty years, having changed the political landscape in the U.S. dramatically. Such a political party would now be in a position to protect the people from the rabid right wing in power, and in fact may have prevented it from gaining so much power in the first place; unlike the Democratic Party, as Ralph Nader suggested, which is utterly incapable of defending anybody’s rights in any meaningful way.
Here is the key lesson: If the Democrats cannot perform the political function of absorbing and choking oppositional ideas, i.e., if they cannot play their singular role within the larger political super-structure in the U.S., the lines of class struggle will become clearer from the perspective of the working classes.
Such a political reality is not something the American ruling class wishes to materialize. As long as the political domain of ideas and policy suggestions can be reduced and limited to only those issues the Democrats and Republicans bring to the table and agree or disagree about, the Republicans can continue to lead this dance of charades and dictate the ‘center’, while the social base of both parties can be played for suckers and looted bare naked.
Socialists and socialist-oriented left must see the current moment as one in which the Democrats are closer to losing their main political function. It is up to the socialists to take advantage of the crisis within the Democratic Party, and to push harder to raise people’s demands and organize themselves so that larger portions of the Democrats can peel off and have a home to defect to. A positive future for the left is now possible, and the billionaire’s panic is the proof of it.