The Democratic Party is not big enough for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They embody mutually exclusive visions of the economic policies the party should pursue and the ethical rules which it should follow. Accordingly, efforts to tamp down or paper over disagreements between those who supported Clinton in the primaries and those who supported Sanders are doomed to fail and shouldn’t even be attempted.
The war for the party’s soul will continue to the great benefit of Republicans until one group triumphs either by convincing a large portion of the other or by driving it out of the Democratic party altogether. If the pro-Hillary factions leaves, it will be reminiscent of the party’s cleansing in the mid-20th century. By the late 1960s, most southern racists and many pro-big business lawmakers and voters had defected to the Republican party in the wake of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society.
If the Sanders faction peels off to form a new stand-alone party or to join an existing minor party like the Greens or the Working Families Party, two outcomes seem plausible. The new progressive or coalition party generates a critical mass sufficient to win elections and supplant the Democrats as one of the two major parties much like when the Republicans replaced the Whigs in the 1850s. Alternatively, the progressive party peters out quickly and corporatists continue to control both major parties.
The worldviews of the pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders supporters are simply incompatible. During the primaries, Clinton claimed to favor an incremental approach to change and, with respect to a few social issues, her record demonstrates such a commitment. Over time, she came to support gay marriage. When it came to criminal justice issues, she tried to walk back the lock ‘em up and throw away the key rhetoric she and her husband championed in the 1990s.
But Clinton never evinced a credible willingness to take on America’s remarkable wealth inequality – the greatest in the world. To the extent that she argued for a more equitable society, both her long record in government – especially support for “free trade” pacts and opposition to breaking up the big banks – and frequent fundraisers with financial industry titans undermined her credibility. Divisive and arguably dishonest rhetoric portraying Bernie Sanders as unconcerned with racism and many of his supporters as sexist characterized her campaign during the primaries.
After clinching the Democratic nomination, Clinton pivoted right on economic matters as most expected. She chose Tim Kaine, a determined centrist, to be her running mate. While Kaine was not a terrible choice by any means, he was hardly an economic populist and generated no excitement on the left. Much worse, in the eyes of progressives, was picking former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to head her transition team. Salazar left the Senate in 2013 to open a Denver office for international law firm WilmerHale. There, he represented oil and gas companies and lobbied for corporate clients on behalf of the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Sanders argues, and his supporters believe, that economic and social justice are inextricably linked. Unless, their thinking goes, the Democratic party vigorously champions both, it cannot compete successfully over the long-term for white working and middle-class voters. Republicans are simply too adept at exploiting people’s innate fears and prejudices.
Moreover, says the Sanders wing, the Democratic party cannot be an arrant defender of the 99% if its candidates seek and accept financing from corporations and the superrich. There’s simply no way to square this circle. Internal divisions will rip the Democratic party apart unless a significant number of populists abandon it or win over frenemy corporadems.
Establishment Democrats and moderate to left-of-center party loyalists may push back against this conclusion. Their version of “why can’t we all just get along” is likely to include the following chestnuts. We agree on much more than we disagree. Hillary voted with Bernie 93% of the time. Bernie didn’t care about racism and sexism so if you supported him you probably don’t either. Whatever our differences may be, we must all come together in opposition to the common enemy Trump.
Here’s why those arguments don’t work. We actually disagree more than we agree. In addition, the more important an issue the likelier we disagree. Regarding Clinton’s dependence on large contributions from a small circle of wealthy donors, the Sanders side views awarding special access to economic elites as both inherently corrupting and, for Democrats, political suicide. By contrast, even after the devastating loss in November, Clinton backers, including inner-circle confidant David Brock, are looking for new ways to connect bundlers and hyper-wealthy individuals to Democratic candidates.
Clinton’s supporters seem comfortable with her close ties to Wall Street and her reluctance to embrace legislation and policies that gore the rich person’s oxen. By contrast, Bernie’s refusal to take any corporate financing at all attracted millions to the Sanders standard. His standard stump speech which included attacks on “free trade” and private prisons a call for tuition-free public colleges and universities and more generous social security reflected an absence of concern for Wall Street’s interests.
With respect to military adventurism, there again is much to choose between the candidates and little overlap. While Clinton recoiled at being called a hawk and her supporters view her as a hard-headed realist, Sanders supporters perceive her to have been a neo-con imperialist carrying water for multinational corporations. Simply put, there is a yawning gulf between how Sanders and Clinton supporters view her foreign policy record.
As to the common enemy argument, most of Bernie’s supporters concede that, compared to Trump, Hillary was the lesser of evils. But they posit that her positions, votes, and actions, harmed most Americans and thereby paved the way for the demagogue Trump. In support of this argument, they note that the bottom 50% of Americans saw virtually no improvement in their living standard since Bill Clinton took office and a decline over Barack Obama’s Presidency.
Clinton’s backers frequently argue that Bernie’s focus on economic injustice bespoke an indifference to racism and sexism. Bernie’s supporters acknowledge that Bernie didn’t build sufficient trust within African-American communities to persuade black voters to forsake the more familiar Clintons. Nevertheless, progressive Democrats contend that Clinton’s dependence, and the dependence of many other Democrats, on corporate financing to underwrite campaigns means they can never be true allies in the fight for economic and social justice.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – the Democratic Congressional Committee’s fundraiser par excellence in the early 2000s – oversaw decimation of Chicago Public Schools and covered up the execution-style killing by Chicago police of Laquan McDonald. Emanuel’s support for charter school operators, to the detriment of the local public school system, becomes explicable when one considers his business relationship with Illinois’s Republican governor Bruce Rauner.
Rauner is a multi-millionaire with close ties to charter-school operators. He has profited handsomely from investments in for-profit schools. Charter schools likewise invested heavily in Emanuel’s election and reelection.
Hillary Clinton championed “three strikes and you’re out” legislation in the 1990s and opposes marijuana legalization. Three strikes and the war on drugs have driven the obscenely high incarceration rate of African-Americans over the past 20+ years. The Democratic base hates both. But Clinton’s support for these expensive counterproductive policies is understandable given that both the private prison industry and banks financing that industry like Bank of America have helped bankroll her political campaigns.
Florida Congresswoman, former DNC Chair, and staunch Clinton supporter, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz solicited hundreds of thousands in contributions from the financial services industry. She then attempted to delay implementation of regulations on payday lenders which the industry vehemently opposed. Payday lenders prey disproportionately on women and minorities and have a destabilizing effect on Latino and black communities.
Just as the Democratic convention was set to begin, Wasserman-Schultz resigned in order to promote party unity. Establishment Democrats lauded her leadership and Hillary Clinton hired her immediately. But progressive Democrats, in the main Sanders supporters, “booed [her] off the stage in Philadelphia” when she tried to speak to the Florida delegation. Reconciling the conflicting ideologies laid bare by the Democratic primaries proved impossible. Like it or not, the party will have to choose a Sanders-like brand of progressive populism or Clinton’s compassionate corporatism.
The two factions – progressive populist and corporatist – can work together on discrete issues. Immigrant rights, racial justice, women’s and reproductive rights, all come to mind. In the end though, the close ties between big business and corporate Democrats make them, at best, unreliable allies with progressives.
Those social justice Democrats whose primary concern is racism or sexism or homophobia fear that a progressive populist President backed by majorities in Congress may not address discrimination or may be unable to change the hearts and minds of bigots. The question group identity voters must ask, though, is not whether raising taxes on the rich, repairing the safety net, and bringing good working-class jobs back will guarantee social justice. Instead, they need to ponder whether there is any other way to bring it about. History says no. Warming hearts and opening minds is surely difficult even in economically just societies, it is well-nigh impossible where the rich and powerful lord it over everybody else.
1890s France was in the midst of an extraordinary cultural renaissance. Perhaps best known for its impressionist painters, the “Belle Epoque” saw great intellectual ferment in literature and music as well. Surely, all that beauty should have led to more mutual acceptance and inter-religious tolerance. Instead, the Dreyfus affair and the resulting wave of anti-semitism tore asunder the “center of world civilization, culture, and l’amour.” Littlefield, Oh What a Lovely War (1963).
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus an obscure Jewish officer was accused of treason. Despite obviously flimsy evidence, what remained of the French nobility and the Catholic church joined with the reactionary elements in the army to denounce Dreyfus and to whip up hatred against Jews among the masses.
Fin-de-siècle France seemed an especially unlikely site for mass anti-semitic hysteria. A century earlier the Revolution emancipated French Jews. The Code Napoléon guaranteed religious freedom from the Atlantic Coast to the Black Sea. After Napoléon’s armies were defeated, France became a haven for eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms.
But the French economy since at least 1870 had not been performing nearly as well as her artists. The Bourse crashed in 1882. French GDP dropped over the next decade. Concomitantly, the banking industry reeled from crisis to crisis jeopardizing the savings of millions of small depositors. By 1900, France had fallen behind Germany and the United States as well as Great Britain in wealth and power. This economic instability may account for the outsize influence of Edouard Drumont an anti-semitic publisher who riled up the masses before and during the Dreyfus Affair by contrasting the wealth of Jewish bankers with the poverty of French workers.
Ten years after the Dreyfus Affair roiled France, England was facing an outpouring of racism and anti-semitism. By 1900, England’s economy was, as France’s had been over the previous three decades, in decline. Domestic manufacturing was being undermined by cheap products from overseas. Workers were locked in competition for scarce jobs. Despite the flood of relatively inexpensive imports, inflation further reduced the buying power of the poor and workers.
In response, the British government enacted the 1905 Aliens Act which severely limited the number of Jews who could enter Great Britain and also kept out those who lacked both financial means and the ability to gain employment. Riots against Jews and immigrants followed the introduction of the legislation into Parliament. Historian Ruth Brown calls the Aliens Act essentially a piece of class legislation. Growing competition for jobs as well as scarce and expensive housing became increasingly evident during this period. Both Liberal and Tory politicians attempted to conceal their abject failures by blaming immigrants for these injustices.
For an American example of the symbiotic relationship between exploitation by economic elites and racism, one may want to examine the American south in the years immediately before the Civil War. President U.S. Grant’s description of poor whites is instructive:
The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children . . . were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre — what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave owners, as poor white trash.
Yet these victims of a profoundly evil system were gulled into endangering, and often sacrificing, their lives on behalf of the beneficiaries of that system.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment are direct beneficiaries of the current unjust system. They have become rich and powerful by accepting the blandishments of multi-millionaires and billionaires. Deft and likable Democratic politicians including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may ride corporate largesse to the White House. They may even enact progressive legislation, like the Affordable Care Act, that eases some burdens. Ultimately though, their inability or refusal to take on the “malefactors of great wealth” and privilege empowers reactionary forces that elect regressive administrations. Presidents like George W. Bush and Trump then do their utmost to consign the corporate Democrat’s good deeds to history’s ash heap.
There is not enough room in the Democratic party for those who backed Sanders and those who supported Clinton in last year’s primaries. Their prescriptions for the party’s resurgence are too divergent. Clinton and those with her argued that Sanders wasn’t sufficiently committed to social justice in part because he talked so frequently about economic injustice. Team Sanders responds that regressive economic policies that both Clintons (and Barack Obama fitfully) embraced are somewhat responsible for any recent rise in racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant attitudes among the white working class and, by extension, Trump’s triumph.
For decades, Clinton has demonstrated fealty to big money. Many of her supporters believe this is savvy politics and essential to victory. Progressives contend that any Democratic victories gained via reliance on corporate financing are Pyrrhic. Ultimately, progressive populists and Democratic corporatists do not not embody two sides of the same coin but different currencies altogether. Unless the latter leave the party or change their ideology, the Democratic party may win some elections but cannot regain long-term ascendancy.