With dozens of Democratic candidates having entered the presidential race (some dropping out before you were aware they’d dropped in), with the main contenders herded into seven (and counting) televised debates stretching back to June, and with swarms of reporters and pundits descending on the tiniest blip in polls and on every candidate’s minor miscues—this campaign already feels never-ending. But at long last, we’re beginning what matters: Voting!
This year, in addition to our decisions about candidates – and even though it’s not explicitly on the ballot – we voters will be making a fundamental decision about the egalitarian future of our society. The question we face is whether we will continue the same-old, same-old politics of enriching and empowering the few at the expense of the rest of us, or will we pivot to implement the transformative structural changes being pushed by Bernie, Elizabeth, AOC and The Squad, and other progressive Democrats.
As you would expect, Trump Incorporated and his pack of sycophantic congress critters are howl-at-the-moon opponents of Medicare for All, the wealth tax, tuition-free college and trade school, the Green New Deal, universal child care, and the full package of populist policies that would begin reversing the scourge of inequality that continues spreading throughout our land.
But … Democrats?
Sadly, many of them are opposed, too. Not grassroots Dems, of course—not the hard-hit, workaday people who need these reforms. But there’s a gaggle of don’t-rock-the-corporate-boat, fraidy-cat Democrats (mostly old-line pols, consultants, high-dollar donors, and other Washington insiders) who’re presently having a collective fainting spell, declaring that Dems must abandon proposals for big systemic changes.
Why? Because, they exclaim, being so progressive, so plainspoken, so insistent—so, well, so Democratic—is frightening voters. They warn tremulously that proposing major new policies to benefit everyone will let the Trumpeteers paint our candidates as scary socialists. Thus, they lecture, the proper course is to draw back to the corporate-centered, Clintonesque approach of incremental minimalism: an agenda of small, technocratic and legalistic tweaks that won’t disrupt the system itself. This is the responsible path, they assure us, for winning over America’s moderate middle, particularly independent Republicans and white, middle-class swing voters.
- Never mind that there is only a small minority of independent Republicans left in Trump’s party.
- Never mind that the Trumpeteers will shriek “socialism!” at even the milquetoast-iest of Democratic tweaks.
- And never mind that the white middle class is not by and large made up of squishy moderates, but of millions of mad-as-hell, downwardly mobile middle classers who feel abandoned by both political parties and would just as soon blow up the whole system.
Still, the pusillanimous Democratic establishment is trying to push the party’s candidates to surrender their progressive ideals and just tinker around the edges of actual change. For example, rather than offering full-fledged health coverage for every man, woman, and child, these minimalists say the safe political route is simply to criticize Republicans for tampering with Obamacare and leave the current profiteering system of “corporate care” untouched—thus leaving millions of our families with poor to zero coverage. This was the blunt message last fall from Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, chair of the Democratic Governors Association: “When you say Medicare for All, it’s a risk. It makes people feel afraid.”
Afraid? Excuse me, but in my speeches and writings I say “Medicare for All” a lot, and—far from cowering—people rise up and cheer! With many families one medical disaster away from bankruptcy, most Americans (including union members, small business owners, laborers, college teachers, musicians and artists, farmers, and even health care workers), are wondering why Democratic officials haven’t stood up for them. Yet, a few of the party’s presidential hopefuls this year are spooked by the big idea of universal coverage. Former Veep Joe Biden, for one, has been feverishly proclaiming that “the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All.”
Malarkey, Joe! It is simply a ludicrous lie that people will be scared off by candidates who propose decent health care as a right for every American. As a December New York Times poll reported, 81 percent of Democrats (and two-thirds of independents) support the idea of M4All legislation as proposed by Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Hello … apple pie doesn’t get an approval rating that high!
Or take Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a tiny wealth tax on mega-fortunes above $50 million – a tax that would finance education, infrastructure expansion, and other crucial programs to advance America’s common good. Of course, centibillionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos would squawk, but it’s bizarre to hear a clutch of Democratic Party operatives wailing that it scares common folks when our candidates take such “radical” stands. Radical? In the Times December poll, 77 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and—check this—57 percent of Republicans favored Warren’s tax on superfortunes.
Thank goodness such squeamish, small-ball Dems were not able to nullify big public solutions that Americans desperately needed in the past, such as:
- FDR’s Social Security, labor protections, and farm security measures
- Ike Eisenhower’s massive investment in coast-to-coast interstate highway infrastructure
- the historic passage of Civil Rights, Medicare, Title IX, and anti-poverty programs under LBJ
- and even Nixon’s creation of the EPA and OSHA.
As a South Texas saying puts it: “A grandes males, grandes remedios” – for big problems, get big solutions. Obviously, our society’s problems today—from rampant inequality to climate change—are beyond huge, but how big will Democrats go in addressing these challenges?
America’s political soul
We have one party that has turned full-tilt, bull-goose bonkers, with its leaders going all out to yoke our society to right-wing extremism and plutocratic corporatism. This puts extra-heavy historical significance on the Democratic Party’s current ideological and generational confrontation over the boldness, scope, and urgency of its policy proposals. Rather than the normal familial squabbles among political personalities and factions, the 2020 primaries are of foundational importance, not only battling for the soul of the party, but for the democratic soul of America itself.
At stake is whether the opposition party will, in fact, be in opposition. The great American majority, including most working-class Trump voters, know from hard experience that the system is rigged for corporations and the rich. Will the Democratic Party’s overarching message and candidates—especially those vying for president and congress—finally acknowledge this stark reality? Will they stop pretending that merely returning to the middling status quo of the Obama years is an adequate response? Will they start offering systemic, Rooseveltian changes that help workaday people reclaim their democratic power? Or will the party establishment stifle the grassroots progressive gains of the 2016 and 2018 elections and attempt yet again to tiptoe past voters with another inside-the-beltway campaign driven by and for moneyed interests, vainly hoping to “win” by pointing at Trump and shouting, “We’re not him”?
Unfortunately, all signs make clear that the establishmentarian bloc of the party, along with its supportive pundits and editorialists, are tiptoers. Both in private sessions and public commentaries, they’ve been pressing hard for the party to “think small,” as one columnist put it, and to present a moderate face and inoffensive message to voters in 2020. And, of course, they trash the candidacies of progressive populists, sniffing that Bernie is too strident, Elizabeth too rigid, their backers too boisterous, and both of them too outside the mainstream to win and govern. A former Barack Obama campaign manager, for example, superciliously pronounced Sanders “unelectable,” ignoring the fact that the insider clique said the same thing about Obama in 2008. Then, from out of the past, Hillary Clinton briefly seized the media spotlight in January to hurl a snide bit of personal bitterness at Sen. Sanders: “Nobody likes him,” she snapped to a Hollywood reporter, “Nobody wants to work with him.”
These protectors of the established order warn that party voters must choose Biden, Bennett, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, or some other conventional centrist—someone who won’t spook middle America and can reach across the aisle to build a fantasyland of bipartisanship. And where is this mythical center? The conventional assumption is that there’s a happy, halfway point between conservatism and liberalism, a Goldilocks zone of just-right political balance.
But that’s a phantom zip code with no actual voters in it.
First, the truest political spectrum in our country is not right to left (that’s political theory), but top to bottom (that’s real-life experience, it’s where you live)—and most people are not in shouting distance of the powers living at the top. Second, “mainstream” economic, political, and social policies today are relentlessly plutocratic. Controlled by corporate elites, they are drowning the majority: middle- and low-income Americans. So, it’s absurd (and self-defeating) for Democratic cognoscenti to advocate split-the-difference centrism, as though both the drowners and the drownees have an equal claim to the party’s moral support.
As the old quip goes, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Making real democratic change is messy, confrontational, inherently anti-establishment, often perilous, and fundamentally about choosing sides. Throughout our history—from 1776 forward—we have periodically needed large, disruptive political shake-ups to assure the survival and expansion of the democratic ideals that make America’s social cohesion possible. Those shake-ups have not come from the comfortable center. Indeed, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the rise of labor, the People’s Party platform of 1892, trust-busting laws, the New Deal, civil rights protections, environmental safeguards, same-sex marriage, immigrant justice, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, et cetera, have been won against the adamant opposition of centrists.
Which brings us back to the present progressive/centrist divide in the ongoing Democratic Party primaries. How to choose sides? It’s not really as hard as it might seem if you ask two fundamental questions about the Big Change ideas being put forth by the progressive movement:
- Who opposes Big Change? The most obvious suspects are the corporate powers presently gouging us and wallowing in trillions of dollars that they extract annually from the established systems of the status quo. These forces include insurance behemoths and other health industry profiteers (No Medicare for All!), fossil fuel monopolists (No Green New Deal!), and superrich tax cheaters (No wealth tax!). They are funding an army of congress critters, front groups, media flacks, lobbyists, political action committees, academic hacks, et al. to push a multitude of strategies intended to demonize, dilute, sidetrack, and ultimately kill all proposals by democratic populists.
Less obvious are the self-perpetuating forces of the Democratic establishment: The corporate executives and lobbyists who, as consistent fat-cat donors, have bought their way in; top national party officials who court and rely on those big-money givers; old-guard political brokers such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC); and the clubby, insider network of campaign consultants, managers, pollsters, media strategists, and other operatives. Pledged to protect the status quo and its own survival, this permanent party apparatus functions not as a people’s political movement, but as a lucrative business: by selling conventional Democratic conservatism, they block any “little d” and “big D” progressivism that dares challenge the corporate order.
If there were any doubts about the party establishment’s opposition to progressive ideas, candidates, and constituencies, the DCCC put them to rest in March 2019 with a formal decree that any political consultant who works with “outsider” candidates – grassroots progressives, that is, who dare challenge sitting members of the House Democratic Caucus – will be cut off from any future work with the Democratic Party. Yes, it’s astounding, but true: In response to the electoral progress and genuine political excitement generated by Sanders, Warren, and such fresh congressional leaders as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, the tone-deaf party hierarchy has created an official blacklist to shield even its most ossified and corporatized incumbents from any outbreaks of democracy.
This same boneheaded adherence to monetized politics is what keeps the “party of the people” wedded to anti-people policies. Leading Democrats pose as progressives while opposing change that would matter to working-class and poor families. As Bobby Kennedy noted while running for president in ’68: “Progress is a nice word we like to use. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”
- Who supports Big Change? The public at large. And not just card-carrying progressives—greens, socialists, community organizers, feminists, climate activists, and so forth—but also many regular, workaday folks of all shades who are just trying to get along, contribute to the common good, and lead a decent life with family, friends, and community. For 30-odd years (some of them very odd indeed) they’ve mostly been shoved aside, knocked down, kicked out, disrespected, and disempowered. So excuse them if they’re not charmed by longtime Democratic Party elites who are asking them once again to get excited about small tweaks that will just tighten the screws on systemic inequality.
A winning platform for these potential voters is one big enough that it could, in Franklin Roosevelt’s inspiring pledge of 1936, “restore America to its own people.” Even the centrist policy group, Center for American Progress, confirmed in a nationwide survey late last year that 70% or more of the people (including most Republicans) agree that:
- College education is too expensive, and states should do more to “help people afford a college education without getting buried in debt.”
- Rich families and corporations should pay more in taxes, and middle class families should pay less.
- Pharmaceutical companies should be “penalized” if drug prices increase faster than inflation.
- Government should increase “good jobs” with a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, including both roads and “expanded production of green energy.”
- We should reduce inequality with a 2 percent “wealth tax” on net worth in excess of $50 million.
- Especially noteworthy: 8 of 10 Democrats, three-fourths of independents, and 49 percent of Republicans say corporations have too much power and should be “strongly regulated.”
As big as we want to be
One of the most insidious ploys of the status quo forces is their campaign to manufacture a non-existent divide: “Sure,” they whisper to progressives, “you’re smart enough to see the need for major structural change, but—psssst—others aren’t. Going big will backfire on Democrats, scaring timid voters away and electing Trump, so go small.”
Bovine excrement! It’s pure political folly to think you can win by hiding what you—and most other people—need and want. If the Democratic Party doesn’t stand up for regular people, why would they stand up for Democrats? As shown in the November 2016 presidential election, a critical number of people the party counts on won’t. Fundamentally, this election is both a chance and a responsibility for Democrats to say unequivocally, and boldly, what kind of country they want America to be.