The left Democrat mirage

October 1, 2014

Whatever happened to that rise of liberal Democrats that everyone was talking about a while back? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, takes a look.

ABOUT A year ago, liberal journalist Peter Beinart got a lot of attention with an article he wrote announcing "the rise of the new new left."

Beinart pointed to the election of Bill de Blasio as New York City mayor on a populist platform; the popularity of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); and a congressional revolt against the rumored appointment of Wall Street-friendly Lawrence Summers as Federal Reserve Chair as omens "of what may become the defining story of America's next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left."

To Beinart, these developments were harbingers of a new progressive force in national politics, as the Millennial Generation of young adults--the most multiracial and politically liberal age cohort in the U.S. population--comes to dominate the electorate.

Beinart isn't alone in this assessment. Even the Washington gossip sheet Politico, which usually gives off a smug Washington-insider air, proclaimed over the summer that "[a]n ascendant progressive and populist movement" stands "on the verge of taking over the [Democratic] party."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (above right) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (below)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (above right) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (below)

If it's made it to Politico, the theme of liberal resurgence is only a short step away from becoming conventional wisdom.

What this progressive resurgence might mean became clearer this July, at the Netroots Nation convention, which has become a key gathering place for liberal Democratic Party activists and politicians. There, Elizabeth Warren wowed the crowd. In her speech announcing a list of 10 pledges, such as support for marriage equality and immigration reform, she punctuated each with a promise to "fight" for all of them. To the Nation magazine's Washington editor John Nichols:

What Elizabeth Warren brought to the Netroots Nation gathering was a progressive vision that is of the moment--a vision rooted in the understandings that have been established in the years since the "Republican wave" election of 2010.

As Republicans in Congress practiced obstructionism, and as an increasingly activist Supreme Court knocked down historic democratic protections, Republican governors aggressively attacked labor rights, voting rights and women's rights. Citizens responded with rallies, marches and movements--in state capitals, on Wall Street, across the country. They developed a new progressive vision that is more aggressive and more precisely focused on economic and social justice demands, and on challenging the power of corporations and their political allies.

Sounds good, right? And yet, as of September 2014--one year after Beinart's influential article appeared and a few months after Nichols' piece--liberals are dreading the coming November midterm elections.

Almost everyone, liberal and conservative alike, expects the Republicans to win--the only question is how big. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is gearing up for war in the Middle East, using rhetoric that sounds startling similar to the Bush years, while scrapping his plan to stop deportations by executive action. If anything, the Obama administration looks like it's positioning itself to move further right still. So is there a really a liberal resurgence?

THE FIRST thing to say is that the thesis put forward by Beinart and his like-minded co-thinkers was always based on pretty thin evidence.

Bill de Blasio's "tale of two cities" campaign for mayor that decried the growing chasm between New York's rich and poor certainly did tap into genuine sentiment. But it was also a savvy political move to win the working-class majority in a liberal city tired of a decade of multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg running things. Elizabeth Warren's ascension to the national spotlight as the senator from a state that sent "liberal lion" Ted Kennedy to Washington for almost 50 years is hardly a break with the past.

And while all of the statistics about the liberal attitudes of Millennials are correct, since when have ordinary people's opinions been the decisive factor in determining what policies the Democrats--or Republicans, for that matter--pursue in Washington? It's that very disconnect that led researchers at Princeton and Northwestern Universities to question whether the U.S. could even be considered a genuine democracy.

Not long ago, the groundswell of support for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign convinced many people that a new liberal era was afoot. Obama talked about making it easier for workers to organize for their rights, promised that a "public option" would be available in his health care reform plan, and said his administration would fight for justice for the undocumented in its first 100 days in office. As president, Obama dropped all of these promises.

Obama pledged to be a "transformative" president, and he took office in the midst of the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century--a time when dramatic action was called for. Instead, Obama has been a careful guardian of status quo. "There's a realization," Adam Green of Progressive Change Campaign Committee told the liberal American Prospect, "that this is not a bold, progressive president. He's ultimately not going to be a game-changer when it comes to taking on the powers that be."

If liberals learn anything from the bitter taste Obamaism left in their mouths, it should be that "progressive" and "populist" talk from politicians is cheap--especially when they're running for office. When it comes to actually doing something that might challenge the elites they decry in their campaign rhetoric, most Democratic politicians decide they'd rather do the bidding of their wealthy campaign contributors.

None of that is new to the Obama years. Yet even the most sincere liberals remain trapped within the logic of "lesser evilism," which makes them surrender to whatever the Democrats are willing to offer, for the sake of "party unity" against the retrograde Republicans.

HERE, THE experience of Bill de Blasio's first year is instructive. He came into office thanks to a landslide victory. Millions of New Yorkers hoped he would follow through on his campaign promises to tackle the city's increasingly unbearable economic inequality.

De Blasio did make some reforms. But he backed down on larger questions that would have put him into conflict with the wealthy and powerful. An early symbol of this risk-averse strategy came when he backed down in the face of a Wall Street-funded campaign, supported by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that blasted de Blasio for refusing to grant permission for just three private charter schools to open. As Socialist Worker's Danny Katch wrote:

De Blasio's team tried to portray his surrender as an attempt to avoid a "perilous distraction" so that he could get back to his main focus of reducing inequality. But how is de Blasio going to fight hedge funders and investment bankers over inequality if he won't even stand up to them over three charter schools? Is it possible that we will look back at the ...[charter school] tempest as a tone-setting early surrender, a smaller echo of Obama's decision in his initial months in office to bail out the banks without demanding any meaningful reform in return?

As if to win himself back into the good graces of the right-wing Cuomo, de Blasio played a key role in cajoling liberal and union supporters in New York's Working Families Party to endorse Cuomo for reelection--despite the fact that Cuomo has made himself a pariah with unionists for his attacks on pensions and wages. More recently, de Blasio wholeheartedly supported Cuomo over the more liberal Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary for New York governor. In a sign of how unpopular Cuomo is, Teachout still ended up winning 35 percent of the vote.

All of the talk about a liberal resurgence takes place within the framework of the Democrats as one of two wings of the two-party political system.

Pundits wonder if the "new new left" will transform American politics in an increasingly multiracial, but economically unequal, country. They wonder if a populist might pose a challenge to the all-but-declared 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who is about as conventional, pro-business and hawkish a Democrat as the party has to offer.

Yet because everything remains within the confines of the Democratic Party, it's a cramped and self-limiting debate. The Democrats are a neoliberal, pro-business party that relies on the votes of working people and the activism of liberal "true believers" to get elected--they long ago perfected the art of selling empty promises to their base. Yet as long as unions, liberals and advocacy organizations remain committed to it, the Democrats will always trap them.

Politicians like de Blasio and Warren, who have never made any noise about pursuing a "progressive agenda" outside the Democratic Party, can always be relied on as loyal soldiers in the end.

In fact, this is one of the most important roles they can play in Democratic Party politics. When a right-winger like Cuomo needs to sew up support from unions he bashes on a regular basis, he has to lean on someone like de Blasio to corral that support. And because de Blasio's loyalty is to the Democratic Party first and foremost, he can be counted on to urge his supporters to get behind more conservative Democrats.

IN THE precincts of Democratic Party liberalism, hope always springs eternal. When one hero like Obama disappoints, there's always another one, like Elizabeth Warren, ready to inspire liberals to give the Democrats one more chance.

Like Warren today, Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the 2000s played a similar role.

In their presidential runs, both Jackson and Kucinich won the hearts and minds of the party's most liberal supporters. But both very consciously used that support to urge their followers to, in Jackson's words, "keep hope alive" in the Democratic Party--even if mainstream Democrats ignored every progressive position Jackson and Kucinich raised in their campaigns.

Warren has continued to tell her supporters that she has no intention of mounting a populist challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. So that role may fall to Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has made noises about running a populist presidential campaign on behalf of working people against the Wall Street oligarchs.

At this point, it's not clear whether Sanders--nominally an independent, though he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate--would run as an independent or a Democrat if he does choose to get in the race.

At one level, though, that question is secondary. Sanders has made it very clear that the aim of any campaign would be to "influence the debate"--which means to pressure the ultimate Democratic presidential nominee to take up progressive and populist policies.

As an independent who works with Senate Democrats, Sanders is conditioned to lending his support to their policies, most of them to the right of his declared positions. But on questions like the military budget and support for Israel's recent war in Gaza, Sanders, like Warren, stayed firmly within the Democratic mainstream.

Earlier this month, Sanders told NBC's Chuck Todd that he thought Barack Obama "has been right on some of his ideas," but "he has not tapped the anger and the frustration that the American people feel on many, many issues."

If tapping anger and frustration in the service of the Democratic agenda is really the aim of his campaign, then Sanders is in line with those around the Progressive Democrats of America who are urging him to run for the same reasons.

PDA leader Tom Hayden--who called Sanders the "2016 Democratic candidate we've all been waiting for"--wrote that Sanders, if he ran as a Democrat, would still have "to find a way" to acknowledge Clinton as preferable than any Republican. To which Charles Davis, writing in Salon, responded that this "would be a rather awful and strange tactic for someone who believed they had a serious shot at the nomination; a far better approach, and a more truthful one, would be to campaign on the fact that, from the war in Iraq to the bailout of Wall Street, Clinton has proven that she is not far better than any Republican."

So a Sanders campaign would be a transparent effort to give liberals a stake in the Democratic nomination that everyone expects to go to Clinton. Even if Sanders won a few meaningless platform planks at the 2016 convention, his main role will be like that of Kucinich and Jackson before him--pulling liberals disgusted with their party back into the fold.

One might ask the question: If the Democratic Party is the natural home for working people and progressives, why is it necessary to mount continual campaigns to remind them of this? One might also ask: If this is all that the "liberal resurgence" amounts to, can we really speak of a liberal resurgence at all.

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