The Democrats pull their act together

July 12, 2016

Paul Heideman and Danny Katch argue that the Democratic Party has emerged from the challenge of Bernie Sanders campaign united behind a pro-business agenda.

BERNIE SANDERS is scheduled to appear on Tuesday alongside Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, where he is expected to formally endorse her campaign as the Democratic nominee for president.

Clinton will no doubt graciously thank Sanders for his support and--after months of dismissing his proposals as utopian nonsense--praise his campaign for bringing up important issues about economic inequality that she will vow to carry forward through November.

For his part, Sanders will probably make both a positive and a negative case for his endorsement of the candidate he spent the last year portraying as the epitome of the rigged system that was the target of his "political revolution."

The negative case will be the need for Democrats to unite to stop the odious Donald Trump from becoming president. The positive case will be that Clinton is not the same person that Sanders decided to run against last year--because she has been pushed to the left by him.

"I think it's fair to say that the Clinton campaign and...our campaign are coming closer and closer together," Sanders said over the weekend, in reference to Clinton's recent call for free college tuition for all those making less than $125,000 a year and support for adding a "public option" to Barack Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act,

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

It's better that Clinton has felt pressured by the Sanders campaign into making proposals she clearly would rather not have made. But we shouldn't be under any illusions that Clinton intends to actually fight for anything that would affect the bottom lines of the pharmaceutical and financial companies that have given her substantial donations over the years.

As Sanders said to Clinton in a debate back in November: "Why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something. Everybody knows that."

So no, Hillary Clinton hasn't really changed over the past year, and the fact that Sanders is endorsing her--pretty much right on schedule, two weeks before the Democratic Party Convention--belies the months of breathless accounts from drama-seeking campaign reporters: OMG, did you see how Bernie didn't endorse Hillary when he lost California? Rude!!

IT SHOULD also give pause to those who believe that the Sanders campaign revealed deep fissures inside the Democratic Party that could possibly open it up to a left-wing takeover.

There may have been times over the past year when it felt that way to Hillary Clinton, who spent years laying the groundwork for a cakewalk to the party nomination in 2016, only to be blindsided by a little-known Vermont senator promoting a vision of social democracy that Clinton thought had been killed once and for all during her husband Bill's presidency in the 1990s.

It's also true that Sanders' surprising success seems connected to multiple crises for mainstream political parties around the globe--all of which have been implicated in driving through austerity in the years since the Great Recession. The resulting political instability has led to the emergence of more radical left-wing and right-wing parties and leaders across Europe.

But that comparison is more revealing that some seem to realize. For even as political systems and parties across the world continue to be shaken by one crisis after another, the Democrats have been much more successful at absorbing the radicalization expressed by the Sanders campaign

In Britain, for example, the two major political parties that have dominated the system for many decades, the Conservatives or Tories and the Labour Party, are deeply fragmented.

Insurgent elements in the ruling Tories campaigned for "Brexit" in the UK referendum on the European Union, successfully defeating Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign for Remain. But now, Brexit supporters like former London Mayor Boris Johnson are fleeing political responsibility as fast as they can, unwilling to attempt to enact the policies they supported.

Meanwhile, Labour's left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn--who was voted by party members into the top leadership post last fall, has survived a coup attempt organized by the wing of Labour associated with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. There may still be another leadership election for Labour, but the coup largely fizzled when most of the plotters decided against challenging Corbyn.

In France, the ruling Socialist Party is led by President François Hollande, who has the lowest approval ratings in the history of modern France. Attempting to impose a deeply unpopular neoliberal rewriting of the French labor code, he and the mainstream of the Socialists are risking a split with the party's left wing. In next year's presidential election, Hollande and the SP will likely to come in behind the far-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen.

Across Europe, hard right anti-immigrant parties have risen to ruling or leading contender status in Hungary, Austria, Poland, Switzerland and Denmark, while strong new left-wing parties have emerged in Greece, Spain and Portugal. In every case, the growth of these left or right formations has come at the expense of longstanding parties of the center-right and center left.

By contrast, the Democratic Party--which has been in charge of implementing bank bailouts, drastic austerity measures and the endless "war on terror" since Barack Obama took office at the start of 2009--has maintained a remarkable degree of internal cohesion and discipline.

While the Sanders campaign has accomplished many things, throwing the Democrats into crisis simply is not among them.

FOR ALL the tensions between the Democratic Party's voter base and its leadership revealed by the Sanders campaign, the party is looking remarkably solid.

Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming choice of the party establishment, won a convincing--though certainly closer than she would have liked--victory over Sanders in the primaries. She now leads Donald Trump by a comfortable margin in polls looking ahead to the November election.

Barack Obama remains one of the most popular politicians on the national stage, heading toward the close of his term with an approval rating just under 50 percent. To put that number in context, at a similar point in his presidency, George W. Bush was struggling to stay above the 30 percent mark. If Obama could run for a third term, he would probably win.

Look beyond its leading figures at the Democratic Party more broadly, and there is little evidence of the kind of fractures one would expect of a party in crisis.

According to the FiveThirtyEight website's tracking of the endorsement primary, Sanders won a grand total of eight endorsements from Democratic members of the U.S. House and one from a Democratic senator. For all the backing Sanders received throughout the primaries from Democratic voters, he got almost none from Democratic politicians and officials.

The solidity of the Democrats is drawn out even more starkly by contrasting it with the situation of the Republicans, a party that actually is in crisis.

Horrified both by Trump's incompetent campaigning, which could spell disaster for down-ballot Republicans, and his protectionist trade agenda, which wins him no love from big business, the Republican Party has been scrambling since January to find a way to contain the damage caused by their candidate.

Large parts of the party establishment, it seems, have basically written this year off as a lost cause. Many of the neocons responsible for the bloodbath in Iraq have even jumped ship to Hillary Clinton's campaign, which promises as much occupation and destruction abroad as they can handle.

Others are simply sitting this year out. Party notables like Lindsey Graham and Nikki Haley, both of South Carolina, have announced that they won't be speaking at the Republican National Convention.

Currently, the most high-profile speaker so far announced for the convention--just a week away--is Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, whose main accomplishment thus far is the national attention she garnered after releasing a campaign ad bragging about her experience castrating hogs while working on a farm.

Even those Republicans leaders who have reluctantly climbed aboard the Trump train are plainly not happy to be passengers. When Trump accused the judge hearing a fraud case about his Trump University of being biased because of his Mexican heritage, House Speaker Paul Ryan--who had only recently endorsed Trump, after a long delay--accused the candidate of racism. That's not generally how politicians talk about candidates they have signed up with.

In summary, the Republican Party is deeply divided, with a minority of the party officialdom strongly behind Trump, while the majority, including the most powerful leaders, tries to figure out how to muzzle him. Another minority, the Never-Trump brigade, seems on the verge of deciding to sit out this election.

Compared to this circus, the Democrats are a well-oiled machine.

NONE OF this is meant to understate the real tensions that exist between the Democratic Party's base--particularly younger voters who supported Bernie Sanders by huge margins--and its leadership.

As Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham showed in their analysis of the historically high voter abstention rate in the 2014 midterm elections, the Democrats' never-ending embrace of neoliberal plunder has come at a real price--it has become harder to rally the party's voting base behind politicians who make their lives worse.

The massive support for Sanders that seemed to emerge from nowhere was an expression of this, and a Hillary Clinton presidency will, in all likelihood, only exacerbate the conflict. Smooth sailing is certainly no guarantee in the future.

But right now, it is important for the left to clearly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Democratic Party. Despite the way that Sanders exposed her links to the billionaire class, and despite the e-mail server scandal dogging her campaign, Hillary Clinton has the Democrats united behind her.

Even unions that took a stand and endorsed Sanders over Clinton, like the Communication Workers of America and United Electric Workers, are now beginning to fall in line behind Clinton. Since Sanders basically conceded to Clinton in May, the leftward radicalization in U.S. society has found precious little expression within the Democratic Party.

For those enlivened and emboldened by the Sanders campaign, the Democrats' unwavering support for Clinton and the funders she represents illustrates just how difficult it will be to translate Sanders' vision of a transformed party into any kind of political reality. The mass enthusiasm for Sanders failed to gain a beachhead within the party apparatus.

Winning reforms like taxing the rich, single-payer health care or free college will require Sanders supporters--along with everyone else interested in fighting for them--to disrupt politics as usual and force concessions from the rich.

Some of those who overestimate the degree to which the Democrats are in crisis tend to also underestimate the potential power of grassroots movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter--both in laying the basis for the radicalization that expressed itself in the Sanders campaign, and in moving forward.

The explosive response to the gruesome police murders in Baton Rouge and Minnesota shows that Black Lives Matter, for example, is far from finished as a movement. At the same time, it's true that protest networks like BLM have struggled to create large and lasting political alternatives after their initial bursts of explosive demonstrations.

But the lesson we should draw from this is not that activists need to "grow up" and join the Democratic Party. On the contrary, our movements have to figure out how to develop their own political ideas, demands and organizations--instead of relying, consciously or unconsciously, on corporate-funded politicians to turn our anger in the streets into watered-down campaign promises.

Organizing this kind of resistance has never happened within the confines of official party politics in the U.S., and it isn't about to start taking place now.

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