Note: I consider this a working draft. I go out on all kinds of ledges here, saying what I really think. I am very interested in your thoughts. Please comment here, not on Facebook.
I understand why Penn and Stein feel that Democrats ought to move to the center. There is a vacuum there at present. But not because the Democrats have moved to the left. Rather, the entire spectrum has slowly been skewing to the right over the last thirty years. I argue that it is this unreflective and reactionary pull to the right (some kind of gravitational response to the Republican party’s moves, first toward the religious right in the 80’s, and now toward a kind of religious and political fundamentalism, which folks much smarter than I have likened to fascism) that is the actual cause of the Democratic party’s inability to capture the enthusiasm and support of what should be their base. I argue that most of the progressive wing of the Democratic party is not trying to lose us in the weeds of socialism but is just trying to pull us back left of center.
In the 80’s, the Republican party either courted, embraced, or was overrun by socially and religiously conservative ideology. Similarly, throughout the late 80’s and 90’s, the Republican party (and the Dems too, but that is another story) allowed itself to be thoroughly co-opted by big (I mean enormous) money, and huge multinational corporate and financial entities and their agendas. In the decades since we have seen a slow erosion of the Republican Party and its core principles. Do not confuse the current incarnation of the GOP’s deregulation and privatization frenzy with traditional conservative free-market thinking. I can remember decades ago studying philosophy and political theory when arguments for free markets were made because they were believed to bring about the greatest good for an economy. And the “greatest good” for an economy was understood to include how that economy functioned for the majority of people living in it — not just for an oligarchic few. The current GOP Healthcare Plan, the abdication of leadership on Climate change, the move to deregulate all industry and to privatize public education and resources like those in national parks are not careful, measured, strategic free-market initiatives meant to drive our nation’s economic engine towards a prosperous future for all Americans. The current Congress and Administration have in fact given up all pretense that this is their aim. No rhetoric coming out of current Republican leadership is even giving lip service to the “trickle down” benefits of any of these current initiatives.
Now the Republican Party has arrived in this strange morally bankrupt place where the only guiding principles it recognizes reflect the interests of a very particular, narrowly-construed, fundamentalist flavor of Christianity* and the profit and loss statements of major shareholders in huge multinational corporations. The Republican party of the 115th Congress and the Trump Administration are overtly rejecting such fundamental public values previously held in common by Americans as a whole – regardless of party – including a free press and public education. Perhaps the most damning evidence of the Republican party’s wholesale abdication of itself to these 2 narrow special interests (Fundamentalist Christianity and Huge Global Corporations) is its bewildering (stupefying) lack of concern or even curiosity as to whether and/or how our national election may have been influenced by a foreign power.
Please allow that to sink in for a second. Let’s do a thought experiment. Pretend you just now returned to Earth after a 25-year absence. Pretend that you had no communication or information about anything happening on Earth since 1992. Pretend you just found out that there was credible evidence that a foreign power (the Russians, even!) had tried to interfere with our presidential election. Wouldn’t you expect that Americans would be universally appalled and infuriated at this? Wouldn’t you expect the United States government to investigate and discover to what degree their institutions are compromised? Wouldn’t you expect leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties to be falling all over themselves to prove who was the most loyal, patriotic American in the endeavor to root out foreign (commie) influence in our democracy? Of course, you would.
So why aren’t the Republicans concerned? The easy answer is, they won the election. But I contend that this is not the real reason. I can sit here at my desk and imagine a plausible scenario in which the current administration and Republican leadership wrap themselves in the flag and spew fiery, patriotic rhetoric and go about the business of an “investigation” while at the same time controlling the process and information in such a way that whatever is discovered is not allowed to delegitimize the current Republican presidency. Close your eyes. Do another thought experiment. I wager you can imagine that as well. I bet you could even write the kind of quote Ryan or McConnell or a Republican president might release under these conditions. However, in this case too, the current Republican leadership is not even bothering to pretend they care. The curtain has been pulled back folks; we can clearly see who is at the wheel. The reality is that these enormously monied private interests (individuals, families, corporations, financial institutions) don’t care. And neither do Fundamentalist Christian political interests. Those parties are only served by being in power and furthering their self-interested agendas with that power. They have no moral qualms about how they got that power.
Which brings us back to the Democrats. What did the Democrats – as a party – do in response to this seismic shift in the Republican party? Hmm? I’ll give you a moment. As far as I can tell? Nothing. The problem, as I see it, is not that the Democratic party shifted too far to the left or too far to the center. The problem is that we didn’t move at all. It’s like we were playing a football game against the Republicans, trading yardage, each team occasionally scoring, and nothing too fundamentally game changing had happened for the Dems since, I don’t know, FDR was our quarterback? And for the GOP? Since Reagan was calling the shots. And then slowly, the GOP started leaving the field. Oh, they’re still in the arena, but they’re either immersed in Bible Study and delivering fiery sermons to the crowds in the stands, or they’re upstairs in plush offices making bazillions off of concessions and licensing fees. And guess what? They took the ball with them and now they’re bankrolling the referees. And the Dems are left lost, wandering the field, muttering to themselves. Meanwhile, the folks in the bleachers who actually have skin in the game, who are stuck in the arena, are getting angrier and angrier at both teams.
The Dems are still wandering around that field bickering with themselves because some of them think we shouldn’t have punted on the 4th down and that if only we had been more aggressive none of this would have happened. I voted for Bernie, and I identify as a progressive, but I don’t think a hard swerve left can salvage the situation. Some, like Penn and Stein, seem to think the Dems worried too much about “special teams” and that was the problem. Penn and Stein argue that Dems’ emphasis on “identity politics” has marginalized voters in the party. I disagree. Both Bernie-crats and Centrist Dems miss the point. It is not either/or. The solution is both/and. Working class white voters are not marginalized in the Dem party because the Dem party has chosen to stand for equal protection under the law for all. Working class white voters are marginalized because the Democratic party has not seriously addressed their actual needs in at least 35 years. The economic crises facing rural communities, coal country communities, manufacturing communities and other blue-collar communities did not appear full-blown overnight. They have been a generation in the making. The leadership of both parties has failed to be proactive in helping these communities transition from economies and industries that were inevitably going to disappear. That is how economies and technologies work. Change happens. When railroads became the engine of economic growth, we stopped using canals. When the automobile replaced the horse, we no longer needed blacksmiths but we built roads and motels.
The issue facing the Democratic party is not one of direction: left or center. The issue facing the Democratic party is exactly the same as the one facing the Republican party. It is a question of values. Of principles. Bernie tried, with unparalleled persistence, consistency, and integrity of message, to remind the Democrats that fundamental to our core values is making possible a healthy, quality life for all Americans. That in America, the blessings of first world citizenship (a comfortable home, education, healthcare, employment, the ability to provide for our children now and ourselves as we age) should not be the coveted prize a Darwinistic economy awards a lucky few, but the basics every American should reasonably expect to be able to achieve. But Bernie only articulated part of the promise the Democratic party’s principles need to articulate. His economic message was loud and clear. And I believe that in his heart and mind his vision includes Americans of all races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, etc. However, his reticence in aggressively addressing the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion impact people’s ability to access the American dream meant that he only articulated the economic part of what I believe the Democratic party’s core principles have to include.
What Penn and Stein dismiss as “identity politics” is actually a fundamental American ideal articulated over and over in our founding documents. Whether one is discussing the pay gap for women, police violence against minorities, marriage equality, immigration reform, or the life-threatening discrimination that Penn and Stein reduce to “transgender bathroom issues” what we are really talking about is equal protection under the law. All of us, equally, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Referring to these issues as “identity politics” is just a way of dismissing the legitimate, constitutionally protected claims of those whose “identities” are the very reasons they have historically not been granted the same protections and rights as the white, Christian, landed, men that founded our nation.
I agree with Penn and Stein that Democrats need to work to regain the support of the working class voter. But Penn and Stein’s analysis of why the Democrats lost that support and how to gain it back is mired in outdated assumptions and rests on false dichotomies. They remind me of Republicans who still campaign against now mythical “tax and spend” Democrats – in idiotic denial of the actual financial track records of the last almost 3 decades of Presidential administrations. Penn and Stein’s analysis cedes too much to the conventional “wisdom” (prejudices) of the day; their juxtaposition of “political correctness”, “identity politics” and “large government handouts” with “the basic values of hard work, religion, and family” tips their hand. They have constructed a straw man Democratic Party out of Republican rhetoric, reducing essential arguments about important principles to inflammatory code phrases that play to all our basest instincts. As long as the Democratic Party cedes the language wars, we cannot win. Until we are clear about the unifying basic principles around which we cohere and for which we will unabashedly, unashamedly, and aggressively fight, then we will continue to be irrelevant.
* If you read this essay and are motivated to defend Christianity to me in the comments, please refrain. I am a Buddhist-inspired Jew but some of my dearest friends are Christians of all flavors. I have nothing against what Jesus purportedly taught. If you are Christian and you are offended by what I am saying, or don’t think that there is a very politically active strain of Christianity which is incompatible with some fundamental American principles, then you are lost behind a lens of Christian privilege and it is beyond the scope of this essay for me to try to correct your vision.