Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware

Any minimally plausible Democrat, perhaps even one as hapless as Joe Biden, would have easily trounced Donald Trump in 2016.  Hillary Clinton had to outdo herself to lose.

It is almost an article of faith in progressive circles that had Bernie Sanders been the nominee, as he might have been had the Clintons and the DNC not put the fix in, he too would have kept the Trumpian menace at bay.

To be sure, for as long as he was in the House and then the Senate, Sanders was a Democrat in practice, but an “independent,” indeed a “socialist,” in theory.

One would have thought that this would be an issue in a campaign to become the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer.  As it turned out, though, hardly anyone cared.  Why would they?  The Democratic Party is too feckless either to elicit or to deserve loyalty.

With an election looming, its flacks on cable news networks and in print and digital media are talking up a storm, as only they can, about how wonderful the Democratic Party — or at least its “democratic wing,” as Paul Wellstone called it – is.  They praise it for siding with the people against the special interests, and for standing up, Superman-style, for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Students of political discourse can debate whether these contentions are best described as “crap,” “bunk,” “balderdash,”  “hokum,” “malarkey,” “poppycock,” or plain old fashioned “bullshit.”   I’d say that any and all of those terms are apt, and that the only good thing about being a Democrat is not being a Republican.

There is, of course, a debate to be had too about how much, if at all, Sanders was an exception to the rule.  It has been going on since even before he decided to run against Clinton, and it continues to this day.

My view is that, to some extent, he was an exception.  I am not alone in thinking this, and there were and still are many Sanders supporters who make Sanders out to be even less like a mainstream Democrat than I do.

Democratic Party operatives evidently agree with them.  This is why they would prefer that Sanders just go away or, failing that, retreat back into the margins like, say, Jesse Jackson did after he ran twice for the nomination in the eighties.

It is therefore far from obvious that Sanders would have been the Democratic nominee had the Clintons and the others allowed the process to be more (small-d) democratic.

Had voters had as much control over the choice of a nominee as they had back in 1972, when backers of George McGovern prevailed over the party establishment of the time, it would be a different story.  But those days are long gone.

The party establishment muffed it back then and immediately determined – never again.  Thus, over the years, they have seen to it that, should the need again arise, they would be able to tamp democracy down enough to keep voters more progressive than themselves – in other words, most Democratic voters — from disturbing the status quo.

Their defenses are hardly mutiny-proof.  They were more than adequate, however, for putting the Sanders rebellion down.

Nevertheless, it was not impossible two years ago that Sanders might have succeeded in sending Clinton packing.   He certainly had plenty of popular support cheering him on.

Had he somehow managed to become the nominee, would he be president now?

On the face of it, the answer ought to be Yes.  There is even a case to be made that he would have done better against Trump than a more conventional Democrat.  Biden, or someone like him, would have nothing more to run on than Trump’s vileness and the preposterousness of the very idea of a President Trump.   Sanders had a more positive vision.

Therefore, by virtue of the ideas he campaigned on and stood for, he could have brought otherwise disaffected workers – white, as well as brown and black – on board.

Corporate media have taken to deriding white workers, forgetting apparently that beyond the status anxieties their pundits blabber on about, that they have class interests that would govern their voting behavior more decisively than they currently do, if they had ways to express them electorally — something or someone to vote for.  

In recent years, all they have had is Democrats; and that doesn’t begin to cut it.

This is why I think he might well have won.  We can never know for sure, of course; we can only speculate.

To that end, it is well to keep what happened to McGovern in mind.  His was, after all, the last campaign in which progressive insurgents working within the Democratic Party unequivocally prevailed.

Of course, as everybody knows, he lost big time — everywhere except in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Adding insult to injury, he lost to Richard Nixon, a man every bit as villainous, though a lot smarter and more competent, than Trump, who would resign just two years later in disgrace.

McGovern’s defeat left a bitter legacy that survives to this day.

Since then, any and all signs of radicalism in Democratic Party ranks have been quashed virtually without objection, the party’s feeble left wing was effectively purged, and efforts to suppress all but the mildest challenges to mainstream views have generally prevailed.

Thus when the Sanders campaign foundered, Sanders himself hardly complained; and, after what amounted to a brief cooling off phase, many of even his most ardent supporters followed his lead.

Since the McGovern debacle, the conventional wisdom has been that the more Democrats resemble Republicans, the better they will do.  Despite having been proven wrong countless times, that notion is hard to shake.

However, with the rise of the Tea Party and now with Trump’s hostile takeover of the entire GOP, it has become impossible to subscribe to that position whole-heartedly.  No Democrat nowadays wants to be, or seem to be, at all like Trump or his supporters.

Therefore the conventional wisdom now is that, to win, Democrats should position themselves slightly to the left not of actually existing Republicans, but of where they imagine pre-Trump Republicans would now be.

But is this the right lesson to draw? The answer depends on why McGovern lost so badly?   Was it because he was too far ahead of the voting public?  Or, as I believe, did he lose because the Democratic Party sabotaged his efforts?

I think that party bosses – the word is apt because, back then, they were Mayor Daley crude, not Bill Clinton slick – did what they thought they had to do in order to keep their power intact.  If that meant suffering a major electoral defeat, it was worth it from their point of view.

Would something like that have happened had Sanders been the nominee two years ago?

We can never know for sure, but it is a question that genuine progressives running on the Democratic line would do well to ponder.

They might also ponder what if, instead of jumping on board the Clinton bandwagon, Sanders had bolted the party, hung tough, and run for president either as an independent or on the Green ticket?

Had he done either, he could have brought many, maybe most, of his supporters along.

Running as an independent was not much of an option. It would have required considerable time and effort just to get on state ballots.  Over their many years in power, the duopoly parties have seen to that.

On the other hand, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, did say, at one point, that she would gladly step aside were Sanders wiling to take her place.  The offer was not hers to make and would surely have encountered opposition from the rank-and-file.  But it is an intriguing thought.  Had Sanders run against Trump and Clinton as a Green, he would have given the Green Party its best, perhaps its only, chance ever to come in from the margins.

In the long run, splitting the Democratic Party would be a wonderful thing indeed; the world would be a better place without Democrats.  It would be better still without Republicans too.  Our duopoly party system is a curse we bear.

In the short run, though, the situation is complicated – because had Sanders not gone over to the enemy (Clintonite) side, blame for Trump would fall on his shoulders and, worse, on the movement he launched.

We now know, of course, that Clinton assured her own defeat and therefore Trump’s victory.  But perception is all.  It wasn’t clear until late at night on Election Day that Trump would be getting more Electoral College votes than she.  Even earlier that day, nobody would have believed it.

And so, Sanders and the movement his campaign launched would be vilified in ways that McGovern never knew and that would far exceed the still on-going vilification of Ralph Nader for his temerity in running for President on the Green ticket eighteen years ago.

From what Spinoza called “the standpoint of eternity,” splitting the Democratic Party would be an unalloyed blessing.  However, from any politically pertinent vantage point, it would have been a disaster.

This is why significant challengers to the Democratic Party mainstream can expect Democrats to mobilize all the forces of hell – to coopt them, if possible, and to destroy them if cooptation fails.  From the Party’s leaders’ point of view, cooptation is best; they need all the votes they can get. But, as it was in 1972, maintaining control is more important than winning.

This is not just a problem in presidential elections; it goes all the way down ticket – to the contests that the coming midterm elections will decide.

The GOP establishment strayed from a similar understanding – and is now paying the price.  They let the lunatics they brought into the party take over the asylum.

Democrats are generally the less politically savvy duopoly party, but not on this; they know enough not to make a similar mistake.


Women, “millennials,” “persons of color,” and others energized to run against the party of Trump, along with more seasoned House and Senate members who, like the newcomers, are Democrats for want of a better alternative, will therefore have to defend themselves – from the Democratic Party.

The only way to do that is to be and remain steadfastly principled.

This doesn’t preclude tactical compromises with mainstream Democrats when the need is urgent, as it is in these upcoming elections, where anything less than a humiliating repudiation of Trump and his party would be catastrophic.

It would mean at least two more years of disasters happening and waiting to happen – of irreversible environmental devastation, of hot and cold wars on the brink of spinning out of control, of rampant corruption, and of support for misogyny and nativist and racist rage.  It would lead to yet more economic inequality and social fragmentation; and it would license increasingly frequent and severe assaults on the rule of law and on basic rights and liberties.

Something only slightly less onerous will be our fate in any case – not so much because Democrats are onerous too, but because our founders worked hard to assure that democracy would not come easily to these United States.

Thanks to the Constitution they wrote, removing Trump by impeachment and a Senate trial will be difficult even if that yearned for “blue wave” does indeed materialize.  But even were Trump sent packing, the Trump administration would still be there with Mike Pence in charge – an improvement certainly, but not by much.

Better that by far, though, than a Trump Party victory, which would only spur the miscreants on. A sound drubbing, on the other hand, would hobble and demoralize them.

More, much more, is urgently needed, but, thanks to those damn founders, this is the best we now can do. It is better than nothing, however, and is therefore well worth doing. What is bad for Trump is good for the country and the world.

In no time at all now, this election will be over. The 2020 election season will begin shortly thereafter, but before it gets going in earnest, serious political work can resume. The circumstances then will be particularly propitious because, for a while at least, the need for a tactical alliance with the party of Clinton and Schumer and Pelosi and others of their ilk will have passed.

How to deal with the Democratic Party then will depend on how things look once the dust has settled.  Very likely, it will then be timely, at least for a while, to target the actually existing Democratic Party for the enemy it is.

To that end, some things are already clear.

For one, it will probably not be a good idea, right away, to undertake efforts to split the Democratic Party by encouraging progressives to leave it – either by joining the Greens en masseor by starting up something new. I have already floated the idea that this would probably have been unwise even in the summer of 2016, when Sanders, having been locked out of any real chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, could have made it happen.  At this point, it is simply unfeasible.  As a long-term goal, the idea is impeccable, but between now and Election Day 2020, there is no way to make it happen.

Neither will it be a good idea to take self-identified “democratic socialists” to task for not really being socialists – in other words, for not seeking to replace capitalist with socialist production relations or forms of ownership, and for not seeking to undo capitalists’ power.

Socialist aspirations have been bred out of the American people and indeed of people all over the world. Only vigorous movement building, protracted struggles, and the passage of time can bring them back.  Unless and until that happens, socialism will be little more than an aspiration and a philosophically compelling idea.

But some reasonable facsimile of European social democracy, or, in a more American vein, an up-dated version of New Deal – Great Society liberalism, would not be at all out of the question — if and only if neoliberal austerity politics is confronted head on.

The goal for now must therefore be to deal both Trumpian nationalism and neoliberal globalism mortal blows; and to organize around the idea that the state is good for more than just correcting market incapacities and imperfections – that it is also useful, indeed indispensable, for diminishing inequality, advancing social solidarity, and laying the foundations for a genuinely socialist turn.

For the sake of those goals, now is a time too to insist that our elected representatives support unions – not just in words, the way Democrats always do, but in deeds.

Decades ago, when the labor movement was flourishing, unions provided some workers a semblance of real democracy.  Democrats worth supporting should be, at the very least, democrats to that extent.  Obama and Clinton were not; Sanders almost certainly is.

But if only because, in 2016, he came up far short in another crucial respect, and probably still would, he is no paragon even for a social democrat.  The same holds for Elizabeth Warren and other major figures in what politically illiterate media pundits call “the Democratic left.”   It is too soon to tell where the newcomers stand, but it is worrisome that not one of them, so far, has been eager to tell.

True socialists are internationalists.  So-called “democratic socialists” can and should be as well.  So should all Democrats worth supporting, whether they call themselves “socialists” or not.

Because the McGovern campaign came out of an antiwar movement much of which had come around to genuinely anti-imperialist and internationalist perspectives by the time McGovern ran, his candidacy and the people it brought on board were, at least for a while, committed in principled ways to opposing the kinds of nationalism that Trump supports.

Democrats worth supporting can and should be at least as internationalist as that.

They ought, of course, to support fair trade, not neoliberal trade policies like NAFTA and the TPP, notwithstanding how nowadays even they look good compared to what Trump promotes under the cover of “America First.”

And, far more than Obama or even Al Gore at his best, they ought to support cooperative efforts to combat global warming and other planetary ailments that know no national boundaries.

Trump thinks only of winners and losers; the idea of mutual gains from cooperation seems never to have penetrated into the emptiness beneath his skull.

Mainstream Democrats and many pre-Trump Republicans know better.  Even so, they put the interests of their paymasters and of the special interests to which they are politically beholden first; in a way, they are America Firsters too.

The newcomers had better do better than that, and so should their co-thinkers already on Capitol Hill.

They had better be able and willing, for example, to resist the temptation to prostitute themselves, Nikki Haley style, to the Jewish and Christian Zionist lobbies.  This is important not just for the sake of basic political morality and justice but also because otherwise there would be no hope at all of bringing peace to that troubled quarter of the Middle East.

If Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labor Party and perhaps, before long, the next Prime Minister of Great Britain, can support justice not just for Israeli Jews, but for Palestinians too, in the face of the ferocious, unseemly, and thoroughly disingenuous opposition he has lately encountered, progressive American politicians can too.

When it comes to striking a blow against Trump and Trumpism this November, even mainstream Democrats can be on the side of the angels.  But for advancing even a mildly progressive agenda that sustains notions of an affirmative state, supports workers right and interests, and upholds basic principles of international morality, they emphatically are not; they are not as bad as Republicans, but they are part of the problem too.

Therefore, if they cannot be won over, they must be defeated.  There is no other way.

Calls from Michelle Obama and from sententious New York Times and Washington Post columnists for niceness, for “going high when they go low,” are typical of the kinds of crap, bunk, balderdash, hokum, malarkey, poppycock, and bullshit that comes as naturally to Democrats as vileness and obduracy comes to Republicans.

Republicans fight fiercely. Regardless of their connection to the Democratic Party, progressives who don’t want to be completely useless can and should do the same.

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).