After watching two nights of Democratic primary debates, I felt like I needed more than my regular shower. The party increasingly is far-left, divided between the identity politics’ wokeness of candidates like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Senator Cory Booker and the economic leftism of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
While there was a lot of smoke, some jabs, catfights, and some comic relief by New Age guru Marianne Williamson, the most striking thing is how much the entire group agreed on ideas that, only a few years ago, were fringe positions: eliminating fossil fuels, “Medicare for All,” robust government-financed health care for illegal aliens, a weaker border, and more gun control.
Sanders the Insurgent
The 2016 loser, Bernie Sanders, has a lot to do with this state of affairs. He electrified the Democratic party in 2016 with his insurgent campaign. The Vermont socialist railed against inequality, in favor of debt relief, and against the crony capitalism of Wall Street, which he blamed with some justification for the 2008 economic crisis. He also criticized his opponent for her foreign policy, which started wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, in spite of Obama’s 2008 promise to avoid “stupid wars.”
Hillary Clinton, as the heir-apparent to the Obama presidency, was a technocratic neoliberal. Her policies fit her personality—a tinkering, busybody, elitist, with a managerial view of things. She was leftist on various social issues like taxing the rich, abortion, gay marriage, and paid family leave, but she had little negative to say about globalism, corporate America, or the failure of the Obama regime to prosecute any significant players in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.
Indeed, Obama, like George W. Bush and John McCain, supported the TARP bailout and appointed Wall Street darling, Tim Geithner, as the head of the Treasury Department. Obama was ultimately reelected, and Hillary tried to ride his coattails to victory. This technocratic neoliberalism won victories for Bill Clinton and Obama, and it shared with mainstream Republicans a belief in globalism, the security of capital, mass immigration, and the need for a cooperative relationship between government and big business.
Obama’s leftism really showed in his second term, and this alienated a lot of his more moderate white supporters, some of whom bolted for Trump. He embraced identity politics just as cities were being burned down by Black Lives Matter activists, and this was simply too much for Middle America. At the same time, he did little to repair his relative aloofness from economic issues, which affect poor and middle-class Americans alike. Big business obliged by becoming more “woke,” as we see with the umpteenth corporate celebration during Pride Month.
Sanders made Hillary work and threw a monkey wrench into things. He challenged her and Obama’s cozy relationship with the increasingly socially left world of corporate America. And he tapped into the radicalism and alienation of a great many Democratic Party activists and young people burdened by low wages, student loans, and other challenges. His far-left economic views were big tent, comparatively speaking, as poor whites can get in on the act in a way they cannot where the chief criterion of being underprivileged is sexual orientation, minority status, or something else that is immutable.
Authentic Leftism or Fake Moderation?
The Democrats are united against Trump. He represents everything they hate, both in style and substance. The chief question many of their voters are asking in this primary is: who can beat Trump? Who can unite the party’s far left, its various ethnic constituencies, and also appeal to middle-of-the-road voters?
Before the debates, it appeared Biden would be their man, trying to recapture lost white voters who defected to Trump while retaining some of the Obama magic of 2008. But he appeared listless and confused during the debate. As with Hillary, his repetition of the party’s increasingly far-left shibboleths does not appear entirely authentic. He used to be a champion of the working class. For him now to paint himself as “woke” simply does not sell, as Senator Kamala Harris’s abusive guilt-by-association attack at their debate made clear.
The mood of the party’s voters is out of sync with its procedures. While some voters are purely ideological and indifferent to losses, the entire Democratic Party’s primary system, including its use of “super delegates,” is designed to prevent an extremist candidate from winning the nomination. They do not want a repeat of the George McGovern debacle in 1972. The voters may be ideologically left-wing, but they know there are moderates, independents, and even Republicans who are not crazy about Trump that are up for grabs. These various swing voters tend to move one way or another based on various factors, including nonpolitical ones.
The Democratic Party’s usual M.O. has been similar to that of Republicans: the “bait and switch.” While Republican presidents promise to be conservative and tend to move left, Democrats promise to be moderate and also move left. The winning Democratic candidates have looked presidential—Clinton, Obama—and run as nonthreatening everyman types committed to “our values” and “working families,” even as they push partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, transsexual health care, replacement immigration, and all the rest once in office. It’s a scam, but at least it’s a rational one that recognizes the variety of the electorate.
Sanders’ shabby treatment by the Democratic National Committee—exposed by Wikileaks and exploited by Trump—along with Hillary’s loss, have encouraged many Democrats to conclude that going moderate or neoliberal is not a winning strategy. They say that the party needs to be more authentic and propose radical solutions to real problems that people are facing, the kinds of economic stagnation Trump addressed with his immigration and trade policies.
If nothing else, Hillary showed that bland centrism does not necessarily win, and Trump, while the opposite of everything most of these folks hold dear, showed that an unconventional candidate deemed an extremist by the media and his party can win. The near-victories in gubernatorial races by Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia have further buoyed the left wing’s faith in authentic ideological purity over centrism. Like the far right wing of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party’s far left is getting tired of broken promises made during the primaries.
The 2020 Democrats’ Inauthentic Extremism
The 2020 lineup seems to be a new approach. They all sound like true believers, totally indifferent to the message of the Trump election and how it revealed a nationalist strain among Americans. Seduced by the louder voices on Twitter, changing demographics, and the fear of a far left revolt in the primaries, the various candidates’ approaches suggest that even the party’s leadership class have concluded the way to win is to go far left on the full spectrum of issues. This is a risky strategy.
In addition to appearing totally off the reservation, the bigger problem the Democrats have is how unpresidential the whole lot of them looked. The “optics” of two nights of debates with 10 people on stage, each person vying to outdo the other in terms of his ideological conformity to the censorious voices of far-left politics, does not show the strength of vision that Trump showed in the 2016 Republican primary. They are each trying to conform perfectly to the fickle winds of political correctness. And they’re each tainted by the weirdos up there with them. They’ll be further tainted by the gratuitous and extreme statements many of them will make in their effort to obtain the nomination.
They’re followers all—except for the vanguard candidate, Bernie Sanders. And his hectoring style, while from the heart, is far from charismatic. More important, unlike Bernie himself, each of these candidates is so in bed with lobbyists, various business interests, and their own records of more ordinary positions that they’re open for attack for failing to be as extreme as possible by the young turks who grew up with all of the far-left insanity of the Obama-era Democratic Party.
Bernie may have lost in 2016, but he won a Pyrrhic Victory. His socialism has been adopted in greater or lesser fidelity by nearly every candidate in the Democratic primary, and while his schtick hasn’t aged much better than he has, his un-American socialist ideas will live on in one way or another in whoever wins the Democratic nomination.
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Photo credit: TKT