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Why Democrats Really Should Not All Get Along But Sometimes Must Anyway

Photograph Source: DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Martinique Santos – Public Domain

As a general rule, a functional government is better than a dysfunctional one. Nevertheless, the bipartisanship everyone supposedly yearns for is crap. This is obvious.

Intraparty harmony for the actually existing Democratic Party is also crap – not so much before the next election as in the long run. This is less obvious, but no less important.

In both cases, what ought to be obvious is not generally recognized as such. Explanations are therefore in order, especially in the less obvious case.

***

It is plain as can be that the vast majority of positions taken by stalwarts of the Trump Party, formerly known as the Republican Party or GOP, are not worth engaging on their merits. To do so, would be to insult the intelligence or moral decency or both of the American public. The ideas Trumpians spew forth are of clinical, not political, interest.

But because we live under a disabling, duopoly party system, and because the institutional structures of that system remain robust, even as the Trump Party deconstructs, Republican gobbledygook, no matter how idiotic, cannot be ignored.

Even so, assuming our planet survives Trump and his minions, analyses of how the GOP’s intellectual and moral degeneration came about are best left for future historians to ponder. They will have more evidence and the advantages of hindsight.

High on the list of factors that impair thoughtful analyses now is the respectful way that liberal corporate media pull their punches when discussing Republican nonsense. They do disparage Trump and Trumpians, but they nevertheless treat what they say far too respectfully.

Even higher on the list is the fact that the GOP commands a powerful propaganda apparatus through Fox News and other rightwing media. Their mission is to misinform and dumb down, and they do a decent job of it.

It is different with the Trump Party’s duopoly rival, the Democrats. With some notable exceptions (who have nowhere else to go), they too are a deplorable lot. But at least what they have to say can be heard without despairing for the human race.

At this point, most of the action regarding them at the national level centers on the non-debate “debates” of candidates for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

Because nearly everything of consequence is filtered through that prism, the horserace obsessions of corporate media in quest of ratings and therefore advertising revenues are never far off.

This is why, for them, how a candidate performs in debates and at other venues counts for more than the substance of his or her ideas, except insofar as their ideas threaten, or seem to threaten, corporate power itself.

This is not as bad as it might seem because, for the most part, what presidents think matters less than what they do and the general tenor they set, and much less than what “we, the people,” through our elected representatives and through our own collective efforts, force upon them.

To be sure, Trump, like Obama before him, used presidential power to supplant Congressional power in unprecedented ways. Thanks to Republican intransigence, Obama had little choice. Trump, on the other hand, has no excuse because Democrats, like liberals generally according to Robert Frost, are too reasonable to take their own side in an argument.

But even taking the Obama and Trump precedents into account, the power of presidents acting on their own to make change happen is limited.

For fundamental changes especially, the House and Senate have to be on board, and the citizenry, or at least a substantial part of it, must be demanding action as well.

In the now seemingly halcyon days before Trump came on the scene, demanding and receiving servile obeisance from elected legislators in the party he took over, what Representatives and Senators ended up doing seldom correlated all that closely with what concurrently serving presidents wanted them to do.

This will surely be the case again after Inauguration Day 2021, if, as seems likely, Democrats win back both the White House and Senate, and retain control of the House.

Nevertheless, because the Trump phenomenon has disrupted the political landscape to the extent that it has, the next president’s views will matter more than used to be the case — not so much for winning the 2020 election, but for governing from then on.

So far, the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, egged on by Wall Street friendly corporate media propagandists and by the Democratic Party establishment, have been projecting a semblance of ideological unity that is not only wrong-headed, but also unhelpful for clarifying where the candidates stand on what is to be done in a post-Trumpian world.

This would be a complicated question in any case, because while most Democrats are irredeemably awful, the best contenders are not, but neither are they unequivocally on the side of the angels.

Also, some of the garden variety Democrats who might seem set in the “moderate” ways of their party probably have it in them to become less milquetoast under the right conditions.

I will have more to say about this prospect later on.

***

The Democratic line, for the time being, is that the candidates running for the nomination differ only in minor respects, that their party is not, as it were, fractured at its core. This is indeed how matters appear, but reality and appearance can and often do part ways.

Reflections upon that ineluctable truth motivated the rise of Western philosophy in Greek antiquity. Similar trains of thought no doubt played foundational roles in other philosophical traditions as well.

The gap between the two is also why we have and need the natural and social sciences. Even the most complete, thorough, and accurate descriptions of how things appear are, at best, only preludes to accounts of how they really are.

Thus, over the past hundred or so years, explanatory strategies in the social and cognitive sciences and in linguistics have relied upon differences between “deep” and “surface” structures, underlying and directly perceivable phenomena, and so on. Marxists have made much of the difference too, as did Marx himself, for example in his account of “commodity fetishism.”

In less abstruse ways, reality and appearance are also often at odds in politics and reflections on politics. There, the problem is further compounded by the fact that the ways appearances are represented are themselves, very often, politically fraught.

With this thought in mind, I would venture that the real division in mainstream American politics is not, as might appear, between Republicans and Democrats. In the pre-Trump era, Republicans and most Democrats were ultimately on the same side. They still are to the extent that Republicans aim at anything beyond pleasing the mercurial whims of their cruel and monumentally corrupt cult leader.

Much less, is there a real divide between a Left and a Right. This is obvious as can be because, notwithstanding the contrary view promoted throughout the corporate media world, there is no politically significant Left in the United States. This may now be changing, but it has plainly been the case for at least the past four decades, and changes so far have been slow in coming.

There are, or course, plenty of “progressives” around; the Democratic Party is full of them. Its Progressive Caucus has always been large; thanks to the 2018 midterm elections, it is now larger than ever.

Like many other words in the political lexicon, “progressive” does not quite mean whatever one wants it to mean, but, often, it might as well. I am reminded of this every time Nancy Pelosi claims to be a progressive herself, and is supported in this delusion by her purportedly progressive Progressive Caucus colleagues and their media flacks.

A contemporary Rip Van Winkle, waking up after, say, forty or fifty years of slumber, would be astonished to find, how tame all these “progressives” nowadays are.

He would remember that, before he fell asleep, “progressive” was used almost synonymously with “leftwing” or sometimes with “radical” or even “revolutionary.”

He would recall how it was Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists and other reds who called themselves “progressives”; how, in some circles, “progressive” was practically synonymous with “red.”

Nowadays, say “red” and the Republican Party is what comes to mind. This is not just because there are so few bona fide reds and “pinkos” now. It is also because this is how it goes in what Gore Vidal aptly called “the United States of Amnesia.”

Indeed, it would be not too unfair to say that, throughout most of its history (it was founded in 1991), all the real progressives in the Progressive Caucus could fit, as per the timeworn quip, into a taxicab with room left over for luggage. A small bus would probably be necessary today, though a few seats would likely still remain empty.

But times are changing – for the worse, if Trumpians get their way in 2020, but perhaps now, at long last, for the better.

After years of neoliberal and liberal imperialist control of the Democratic Party, and of mainstream political discourse generally, people – especially younger ones of all shades, genders, and faiths – are fed up. Their discontent is bubbling up even into the corridors of Congressional power.

Nancy Pelosi and others like her, who would never have made it into the taxicab back in the day, still call the shots. But if the “squad” and others who think more or less like them get their way, and if a genuinely progressive president is elected in 2020, they could become yesterday’s lunch sooner than anyone a year ago would have dared to hope.

***

Within the Democratic Party, the real contest is not between socialists and capitalists or, as NPR and the cable networks especially keep insisting, between “moderates” and “populist” dreamers, or, as they also sometimes say, between sober-minded “establishment Democrats” and “revolutionaries,” self-indulgent fabulists who want to burn the house down in order to build a new one “on the ashes of the old.”

The real divide is over which side the candidate is on, which side in the class struggle. From that vantage point, among the nominee wannabes, there are Sanders and Warren, and then — the others.

Among the others, Joe Biden is in a class by himself. The problem with him is not just that he is doddering dodo who passed his sell-by date years ago. It is that he and Sanders and Warren are on different sides in an ever-unfolding class divide, and that unlike some of the others vying for the nomination, he will never change.

Neither will the vast majority of elected Democrats, or Tom Perez and the other members of the Democratic National Committee. Neither will their media flacks, who make the liberal cable news channels and NPR unbearable, even for background noise.

As in 2016 when the Debbie Wasserman Schultz DNC might as well have been part of the Clinton campaign organization, the Perez DNC, aided and abetted by MSNBC and CNN, are doing all they can to make Bernie Sanders a marginal candidate.

They are doing their part too to marginalize the voices of two contenders who have something worthwhile to add to the “conversation” going on in those infernal debates. Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang.

In the race for the White House, both of them would probably be non-starters for other reasons anyway, and neither of them seems up to the task of taking the country in a new direction. But Gabbard wasn’t even allowed into the debates, because she didn’t quite meet one of the DNC’s vaguely specified standards, and Yang only got in at the last minute. Evidently, unconditional basic income is less threatening to the stewards of the status quo than talk of a foreign policy that is less bellicose than America’s long has been.

This is not surprising. The almighty military-industrial complex holds sway everywhere; politicians question its probity and value, even if only faintly, at their peril. On the other hand, while unconditional basic income has raised interest on “both sides of the aisle,” it is still considered an impracticable fringe idea, the sort of thing one can get away with discussing, but not doing much about.

I would feel worse about the DNC’s exclusion of Gabbard and near exclusion of Yang, were she less inclined to use the debates to champion the military and to thank herself for her “service,” and were he less eager to praise capitalist entrepreneurship and, as per the current euphemism, “the business community.”

But what the two of them have to say is eminently worth discussing. If somebody must be marginalized, let it be Mayor Pete, Mr. Middle-of-the-Road, or Kamela Harris, a good choice for leading the FBI but not much else.

However, this is hardly the worst thing about the debates so far. It doesn’t begin to compare with how the moderators have managed to keep the discussion away from topics where Pelosi Democrats fear to tread.

It was no paragon either, but the environment policy forum, broadcast on CNN several weeks ago, where informed citizens, not conformist “journalists,” got to ask the questions, was a lot better.

Environmental issues have been largely ignored in the debates so far, notwithstanding their urgency. If only someone would point out how the environmental harm the U.S. military does, even when it is not killing or maiming anyone or otherwise making life on earth less secure.

But even the best Democrats don’t want to get into that. Indeed, they are not eager to discuss foreign and military policy at all.

When there was brief attention paid to such issues at the most recent debate in Houston, what we got from the contestants, including Sanders, was superficial and misleading jibber-jabber that informed citizen questioners would never have let them get away with.

They would never have allowed them, for example, to rail against “the Maduro dictatorship” in Venezuela without mentioning the American role in driving that country to ruin, not even bothering to point out that the United States actively supported two attempted (and failed!) coups in that beleaguered country in just the past two decades.

Rather than broaching any topic that might put the calamitous consequences of U.S. imperialism in focus, the reliably servile Jorge Ramos of Univision preferred to get a few digs in at two more of imperialism’s similarly problematic victims, Cuba and Nicaragua.

That was it for foreign and military policy. Nothing on the blank check the United States gives Israeli governments to deny basic rights to Palestinians, and to ethnically cleanse even more of the Occupied Territories than the Israelis already have. Nothing about how the Israeli-Saudi-UAE de facto alliance is trying to force the United States into a war with Iran that even Trump understands would be disastrous.

There was no critical discussion either of “Russiagate” or of how demonizing Russia has become a Democratic Party project, making for at least one area in which Trump and his GOP may actually be the lesser evil, even though listening to their miscreant Senators question Corey Lewandowski this week, one would never know it.

And although some attention was paid to immigration and the refugee crisis on the southern border, there was no serious discussion of the countless ways that the United States helped bring these crises about.

What we did get, though, was a half hour or so of candidates proclaiming to the world how “resilient” they are. That time could have been so much better spent beginning necessary discussions of extremely pertinent questions; among others what the candidates would do if Trump refuses, as he well might, to leave office peacefully, or if his base, with or without his encouragement, foments civil strife. There could well be murder and mayhem ahead; it would be good to know what Democrats are thinking of doing about it.

And while there was much discussion of how best to defeat Trump, much of it wrong-headed because inspired by persons interested mainly in restoring the pre-Trumpian order – in other words, the conditions that made Trump possible and even inevitable — there was hardly any talk at all of de-Trumpification.

The candidates have been silent on that, but at least one influential Obama Democrat, Eric Holder, has made no secret of the fact that he wants the next administration to repeat the Original Sin of the Obama era: leaving Bush-Cheney war criminals unpunished for the sake, as Obama put it back then, of “moving forward.”

The former Attorney General had a lot to do with that misbegotten policy, and he is back at it already now: saying that, for the sake of the country, Democrats should announce that Trump will be given a get-out-of-jail free card when he leaves office. Considering the source, this is not surprising. Even so – how low can a liberal get!

Because Bush and Cheney got off scot-free, Obama was free not only to become the Deporter-in-Chief, but also, with his murderous drones, to substitute extra-judicial killing for torture and indefinite imprisonment in Guantanamo and other “black sites.”

He was also free to rev up the Bush-Cheney war on whistleblowers and other investigative journalists whose truthful reporting embarrassed him and his administration.

To this day, Trump has yet to be as lethal a president as Obama was, but he is many orders of magnitude crueler and more corrupt. If he gets a pass the way Bush and Cheney did, one can only imagine what hell there will be to pay down the line.

And then there is the judiciary. There, Trump, aided and abetted by Mitch McConnell, surely one of the most noxious Senators in modern times, has done harm that even a Democratic landslide in 2020 will not begin to repair. It will take a generation or more.

One good use to which the upcoming debates could be put would be to get discussion of the federal judiciary and especially the Supreme Court into the national conversation. We shouldn’t have to rely on press reports about a previously unknown sexual predation of Brett Kavanaugh’s to get that issue raised.

Hardly anyone still alive was politically conscious when FDR tried and failed to “pack” the Supreme Court in order to save the New Deal. Ever since that scheme failed, it has been taken for gospel truth that the very idea, no matter how worthwhile and urgent, is political poison. Perhaps in Trumplandia today, it no longer is. Perhaps instead it is an idea whose time has come.

***

Whomever the Democrats nominate, the Republicans will be running against AOC and Ilhan Omar; and the policies the Democratic candidate proposes, whatever they may be, will be disparaged as “socialist.” If only they were!

Even so, it does matter who the nominee is; it matters that it is Sanders or Warren.

Of the two, I am inclined to favor Sanders because he comes closer than Warren to naming the enemy – not so much when he goes on about “the billionaire class,” but when he rails against “the system.”

He, not she, calls himself a “socialist”; bravo to him for that. In truth, though, his “socialism” does not amount to much. It is basically New Deal – Great Society liberalism brought up to date; or, what comes to more or less the same thing, it is an American version of mid-century European Social Democracy.

Real socialists want to change underlying property relations – by de-privatizing ownership of major means of production. Socialism Sanders-style could lead to that; in some of the Nordic countries whose “socialism” Sanders praises, that used to be the hope. But, in our neoliberal world order, that notion has fallen into desuetude even there. This is bound to change eventually, but Sanders is hardly the one to change it.

At a policy level, Sanders’ “socialism” and Warren’s “capitalism” come to much the same thing. This is why it is difficult to choose between them on policy grounds. It is less difficult on a more theoretical level. He, more than she, would have citizens understand that, as a later-day James Carville might put it, “it’s the system stupid.”

We no longer have a suitable vocabulary for identifying the system’s real beneficiaries, the class enemy as it were. For sound theoretical and historical reasons, Marx and Marxists after him called the enemy “the bourgeoisie.” The term is misleading and antiquated however, but it is still the best we have.

In many respects, but mainly at a cultural level, bourgeois society, the real deal, was finished years before the nineteenth century ended. It wasn’t exactly revolutionized away; it splintered and morphed into various societal configurations that could hardly have been predicted in 1848, when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.

But Marxists and many others as well continued to use the term for want of a better alternative.

Asian Marxists, including the Chinese Communists back when they were more than Communists in name only, kept the term alive until well into the final decades of the twentieth century. The class enemy outside the West was never exactly a bourgeoisie in the European sense, but that never seemed to matter.

More remarkably still, non-Marxist but far-left Social Democrats in the Nordic countries and elsewhere sometimes continue to draw contrasts between themselves and their “bourgeois” electoral rivals.

In that spirit, I would say, for want of a better way to make the point, that Warren’s political orientation is more bourgeois – or more bourgeois-friendly — than Sanders’, and that I would prefer that he get the nomination on that account.

For what it is worth – probably not much because the differences are more atmospheric than real — he is more authentically on the left.

This is certainly the conventional wisdom in bourgeois media. It is why The Washington Post and New York Times, NPR, and especially MSNBC and CNN – tolerate Warren, but cold-shoulder or even deride Sanders every chance they get.

Not that they love Warren all that much. If they did, they would save everyone a lot of trouble by just letting Kamela Harris’s and Mayor Pete’s and Corey Booker’s candidacies die on the vine instead of propping one or more of them up whenever the opportunity arises.

Most likely, the polls will indicate that they will all continue to be non-starters; and so, since Sanders, despite having ultimately supported Clinton in 2016, seems less amenable than Warren, a former Republican (back when that party wasn’t anything like as odious as it has since become), to back peddling on threats to their interests, they will likely just let her get the nod, and then, in due course, do their best to water her politics down.

I am assuming, of course, that long before it comes to that, the sheer preposterousness of a Biden candidacy will do him in.

As for the others, because they are basically centrists, not ideologues, they could go either way. That is what centrists do; when the Zeitgeist takes a left turn, they follow. Until the 2018 midterms, it seemed that the Zeitgeist had been veering rightward forever. And whenever it looked like it might be faltering, an Obama or a Holder would arise to keep it on track. But that was then; now times may be changing.

Thus the debates, even in horserace mode, could be good for something after all: determining which, if any, sufficiently malleable centrist might make a good running mate for Sanders or Warren. Media have lately turned on Castro and O’Rourke, basically for not making nice to Biden, their true favorite.

Either of them would be good choices. No doubt there are also others, as good or better, who tried and failed to make it into the debates or who, for one reason or another, decided not to try at all.

***

I prefer Sanders because his political orientation is clearer than Warren’s, but the tide now seems to be flowing against him and for her. I could live with that. There are several undeniably good, though not compelling, reasons why she would be a better choice.

There is, first of all, her age. She is seventy; he is seventy-eight. As a septuagenarian myself, older than Warren and younger than Sanders, I can speak with some authority on the subject.

For everyone who lives long enough, there does indeed come a time when the wisest and most dignified course is to pass on the torch, but exactly when that time comes differs from person to person.

Ronald Reagan was seventy-three when he ran for his second term. By then, or shortly thereafter, his debilities were apparent to anyone who cared to notice. By the time he left office, his handlers had their hands full keeping his advancing senility secret.

Unlike Biden, whose decline began from an already low plateau, and perhaps Trump himself — though, with a mind as vacant and unstable as his, how can one tell? — neither Warren nor Sanders seem even slightly impaired. Quite to the contrary, they both seem to have just reached their stride.

But for change, especially big change, to happen, eight years is better than four, and for anyone in his or her seventies, the sad fact is that long time horizons are problematic.

In eight years time, Warren will be roughly the age Sanders now is, and Sanders will be well into his eighties. By then, he could still be sharp as a tack, and she could be in decline, or they could both still be in their primes, but the probabilities suggest otherwise.

Also, her election in 2020 would finally put to rest the “glass ceiling” excuse that Team Clinton dredged up in 2016 to account for Hillary’s loss to a vile, ignorant and generally unfit buffoon.

The United States is past due for a woman president, but does anyone really think that she lost because of her private parts, not her politics and general ineptitude? Many less “evolved” countries have, for many years now, elected females to their highest offices. Could America really be that different, that much more retrograde, than they? It isn’t in other respects that bear on sexual politics, so why in this one?

Clinton’s excuse might have passed muster forty or fifty years ago, but in 2016 it was a joke. Warren’s election next year would force even the most obtuse Clintonite to come to that realization.

If only her other obviously lame excuse, Russiagate, could be so easily dispatched!

There is another consideration that weighs in her favor too. In 2016 and for many years before that, genuine anti-Semitism – which by now only hardcore Zionists and the willfully obtuse confuse with anti-Semitism – was, for all practical purposes, a dead letter in the United States and most other Western countries. It is alive and kicking now, however; brought back to life by Trump’s malign machinations and his, and his minions’, flirtations with fascist political movements around the world.

In these circumstances, nominating a Jewish self-described socialist with a Brooklyn accent could hardly be “good for the Jews.” For decades now, that timeworn expression, and the thought behind it, could not be uttered without irony; Trump has made it timely again.

These are good reasons for going with Warren over Sanders, but they don’t persuade me – largely because defeating Trump is only part of what true progressives need to do now. There is undoing as much as possible of the harm he has done and will go on to do until he leaves the White House, and, as long as our duopoly party system survives, there is the radical transformation and reconstruction of the Democratic Party.

It was hard to imagine that Trump could win in 2016; today, it is even harder. If Congressional Democrats seriously investigate Trump’s many “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as they are finally beginning to do, and if, as is likely, the economy heads south in time to affect next year’s election, it will be harder still.

Unfortunately, though, there is more than enough desperation and stupidity out there in the Land of the Free to make it unwise not to get cocky.

But it is even more unwise to think that “electability” should be the only, or even the main, consideration in choosing a nominee.

Even if it were, it is far from obvious what would then follow. At present, both Sanders and Warren, along with all the other major Democratic contenders, are polling higher than Trump. As he continues to mentally decompose, and as the extent of his corruption becomes more widely known, this is not likely to change.

Democrats have it in them, though, to be wooly-headed, foolish, and self-destructive. They could nominate Biden or some other “moderate” like Buttigieg or Klobushar. It is hard to imagine any of them, even Biden, losing to Trump. But then it is still hard, even three years later, to wrap one’s head around Clinton’s loss. In the Democratic Party, fecklessness rules; defeat is therefore always a live possibility.

This is why, as in the popular fronts of the 1930s, when bourgeois and workers’ parties joined together to fight fascism, all anti-Trump forces must join together to work in concert now.

However care must be taken that what ought only to be a tactical alliance not coalesce in ways that would restore the old order, empowering the class enemy in the process.

Because he is more authentically on the Left, I think Sanders would be better for that than Warren, better for acknowledging the difference between reality and appearance within the Democratic fold, and better for championing the still small but growing genuinely progressive faction within the Democratic Party.

Trump Party ideas are not worth taking seriously; the Trump Party is worse than theat. It is not worth hating. Like Trump himself, it barely even merits contempt.

Pretty much anybody should be up to the task of putting Trump and his party in their place.

But if the Democratic Party is ever to become, as they say, part of the solution, and not still a problem in its own right, it needs the most authentically progressive leader possible in the very necessary fight that will come once Trump is gone. So does the country, if it is to start moving forward again.

Sanders isn’t great for that, but he is the best we’ve got. The polls suggest that the younger voters are, the better they understand this. Like the best minds of my generation long ago, they are wise not to trust anybody over thirty who tells them different.

But Warren may be better able than Trump to mobilize a broad coalition, especially with bourgeois media intent on keeping support for Sanders down, and she is probably OK too.

With an engaged citizenry keeping her on track, she could well turn out to be as good as Sanders at causing the Democratic Party to resume and perhaps even exceed the very best in its New Deal-Great Society past.

That would not by any means be enough to put democratic socialism, the genuine article, on the agenda, but it surely would be a significant, and perhaps even necessary, step in that direction.

More articles by:

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).

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