Greetings from Finland, where I’m enjoying a week’s residency kindly supported by Arcada University. This Nordic/eastern European perch is an interesting one from which to view the results of our American election.
Let me pick out one aspect for this post.
After last week’s epic disaster, the American Democratic party is entering a period of self-reflection and redefinition. There even are signs of unrest in the apparatus. A key aspect to this struggle is the drive to move that party to the left.
That idea is based on an interpretation of the election hinging on working-class turnout being driven by economic anxiety. People were afraid for their economic future, depressed or enraged at their present and past, and didn’t see Hillary Clinton as the candidate to help out them out financially. This is very different from explanations seeing Trump’s success driven by sexism or racism. It’s also distinct from the Clinton camp’s apparent message that the FBI director made the difference.
You can see these varied interpretations on display in this good discussion between two grand Brown University professors, Mark Blyth and Wendy Schiller (It’s long, but totally worth it, and you can get the outlines by nineteen minutes in. It might be the best reaction to the election so far.)
Let’s turn to the economic view and its immediate political implications. Former secretary of labor Robert Reich makes this left argument. “Wealth, power and crony capitalism fit together. Americans know a takeover has occurred, and they blame the establishment for it.”
The Democratic party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts, and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is on the same page. In a Medium article she clearly argues that economics was *the* driver of the presidential election:
Working families across this country are deeply frustrated about an economy and a government that doesn’t work for them. Exit polling on Tuesday found that 72 percent of voters believe that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” 72 percent of ALL voters — Democrats and Republicans. The polls were also made clear that the economy was the top issue on voters’ minds. Americans are angry about a federal government that works for the rich and powerful and that leaves everyone else in the dirt. [caps in original]
And she slams politicians, implicitly including Democrats, for trying to talk this population out of their belief, and for still not understanding it:
Lobbyists and Washington insiders have spent years trying to convince themselves and each other that Americans don’t actually believe this. Now that the returns are in and the people have spoken, they’re already trying to wave their hands and dismiss these views as some sort of mass delusion. They are wrong — very wrong.
Then she openly calls out Dems: “The American people have called out loudly for economic and political reform. For years, too many Republicans and too many Democrats have refused to hear their demands.”
Warren articulates a multi-point left platform. It includes fending off bankers, protecting Social Security, raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and making college “debt-free”.
To implement these economic-political measures, she also calls for political reform:
The American people sent one more message as well. Economic reform requires political reform. Why has the federal government worked so long only for those at the top? The answer is money — and they want this system changed. The American people are sick of politicians wallowing in the campaign contributions and dark money. They are revolted by influence peddling by wealthy people and giant corporations.
I read this as a slam on the Clinton campaign, which certain raked in epic amounts of money and appeared to be filled with wealthy people trying to peddle influence.
Bernie Sanders, who famously fought Clinton from the left for the Democratic nomination, issued a simular call for the party to move to the left. In that New York Times piece he leads right off with that charge:
Millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own… [M]illions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo.
Sander’s language combines his socialism with appeals to the working class that just voted Trump:
too many Americans were sold out by their corporate bosses. They work longer hours for lower wages as they see decent paying jobs go to China, Mexico or some other low-wage country. They are tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent. Many of their once beautiful rural towns have depopulated, their downtown stores are shuttered, and their kids are leaving home because there are no jobs — all while corporations suck the wealth out of their communities and stuff them into offshore accounts.
His proposals echo Warren’s, both economically and politically:
Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.
And then Sanders puts the Democratic party on notice:
In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.
When my presidential campaign came to an end, I pledged to my supporters that the political revolution would continue. And now, more than ever, that must happen.
Importantly, both Sanders and Warren take pains to acknowledge non-economic factors. Warren:
Democrats’ first job in this new era: We will stand up to bigotry. There is no compromise here. In all its forms, we will fight back against attacks on Latinos, African Americans, women, Muslims, immigrants, disabled Americans — on anyone. Whether Donald Trump sits in a glass tower or sits in the White House, we will not give an inch on this, not now, not ever.
Sanders: “Rest assured, there is no compromise on racism, bigotry, xenophobia and sexism. We will fight it in all its forms, whenever and wherever it re-emerges.” Those words are aimed at their party opponents and their arguments.
One last voice to add is that of Tom Frank, a perennial left critic of post-1990 Democrats. Here’s how he closes a recent screed:
there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. … It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability. Enough with these comfortable Democrats and their cozy Washington system. Enough with Clintonism and its prideful air of professional-class virtue. Enough!
The first battle in this struggle might be fought over nomination the Democratic Party chair, and securing a left ally’s position. Sanders now champions Keith Ellison (House, Minnesota), and listen to his language: “We need a Democratic National Committee led by a progressive who understands the dire need to listen to working families, not the political establishment or the billionaire class.” Let’s see how competitor Howard Dean responds.
Let’s also see if these left Democrats expand their list of demands. Look at them again: protect Social Security, increasing a federal worker minimum wage, protect Obamacare, increasing taxes on the rich. It’s not that ambitious. It’s more like FDR and Obama and a lot less like socialism. There’s nothing about, say, pushing for single-payer health care, boosting climate change efforts, planning for slavery repatriations, or reducing America’s imperial foreign policy. Are these ideas relatively limited because the political situation is so poor for realizing them, or because their proponents are being careful about spooking wealthy Democrats and/or many Americans’ fear of socialism?
We could call this Senatorial pairing the leaders of the Democratic left. And there hasn’t been an opportunity for them to succeed like this in decades. How likely are they to succeed?