The Republican Party’s power is approaching hegemonic proportions. In the wake of the November election, Republicans now control the White House, both Houses of Congress, and soon will have a majority on the Supreme Court. They dominate thirty-two state legislatures and thirty-three governors are Republican. If the GOP can pick up two more state houses, it will be in a position to call for a constitutional convention. At such a gathering, expect significant increases in the government’s power over individuals and greater limits on its ability to regulate corporations.
Democrats have been losing elections because the two most recent Democratic Presidents along with many senators and representatives have embraced neo-liberal economic policies. These include deregulation, bi-lateral and multi-lateral trade pacts, and bailouts for reckless integrated financial institutions rather than struggling people. The result has been stagnant wages for perhaps 50% of all Americans and a rising sense of economic insecurity and unease about the future.
On Friday February 24 the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted against reinstituting a ban on corporate donations. The following day, it elected former Labor Secretary Tom Perez Chair over Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and several other less well-known candidates. Ellison’s record, unlike Perez’s, demonstrates a strong commitment to economic populism and the working class. Because of these contrasting records, the race was widely seen as a proxy for the ongoing battle within the Democratic Party between its corporate wing and progressives.
Ellison spoke out against the corporation-friendly Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Perez supported it. Ellison urged the DNC to re-enact a ban on corporate donations. Perez opposed such a ban and the DNC ultimately rejected . Ellison was one of the only Democrats in Congress to endorse Bernie Sanders. Perez was a Hillary Clinton surrogate.
Despite the disastrous course the Democrats have steered since their high water mark in 2009, the party evidently lacks the ability or will to change direction. Although voters have decisively rejected neo-liberalism, corporatists retain control of the party.
Today’s progressives face a political situation much like the one abolitionists confronted in the early 1850s when the slavery question began to eclipse all others in American politics. Then, as now, two major parties predominated. One, then the Democrats now the GOP, was unabashedly regressive. One, then the Whigs now the Democrats, was feckless and captive to big business.
At the Whig Party’s 1852 Presidential convention, anti-slavery retired Army General Winfield Scott won on the fifty-third ballot. But, to the dismay of abolitionists, the party platform included acceptance of the Fugitive Slave Law due to lobbying by slave-owning Whigs. This cleavage among the Whigs probably helped Democrat Franklin Pierce, an anti-abolitionist from New Hampshire, thump Scott and send his party on a short road to oblivion.
Within two years, anti-slavery Whigs founded the Republican Party to run candidates in the 1854 mid-term elections. After two more years, the Republican Party had supplanted the Whigs as the second major party although Democrats did prevail in the 1856 Presidential election. But Republican John Fremont’s loss to James Buchanan was by a much narrower margin than Scott’s loss to Pierce four years earlier. This set the stage for Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Given the DNC’s refusal to reinstate a ban on corporate money and its choice of Perez as Chair, today’s DNC seems bent on repeating the mistakes of ill-fated Whigs. Rather than embrace the energy of the progressive economic populists who backed Bernie Sanders for President, the DNC went with the candidate of the affluent and powerful. Under this circumstance, progressives including Bernie Sanders need to recognize that the Democratic Party neither serves our interests nor shares our values. It is therefore long past time to create our own party or join an existing one which does.
There is an understandable resistance to this conclusion. With the assistance of a compliant media, Republicans and Democrats have constructed a truly daunting political Leviathan. Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000, which helped George W. Bush win the White House, remains fresh in the minds of many on the left. Some progressive leaders counsel unity with mainstream Democrats claiming it’s the only way to prevent Republicans from gaining control of two-thirds of state legislatures and thereby the ability to amend the Constitution unilaterally.
But the rapid rise of the then-progressive Republican Party 165 years ago, when it stood foursquare on the side of moral justice, should hearten intrepid progressives. Likewise, Nader’s bid should not scare progressives into remaining in a crumbling Democratic Party. At the turn of the last millenium, Al Gore appeared to the left of both most Americans and the President he had served for eight years.
Since 2000, however, the Democratic Party has become more overtly corporatist while Americans have become more populist. If, as argued here, today’s Republican ascendency results from the Democratic Party’s tilt in favor of corporate interests, the party’s steadfast refusal to reorient itself in a more populist direction will likely lead to more losses in the coming years regardless of whether progressives remain in the fold.
The unforeseen success of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders throughout the 2016 election season demonstrates the hunger for candidates who are not beholden to either of the major parties. Americans under 40, not just millennials, are increasingly bypassing corporate media for news and information. This provides an opportunity for political candidates who are new-media savvy even if they are relatively short on cash.
In light of the documented contempt Americans feel for both major parties, progressive populists led by Bernie Sanders have an opportunity to create a viable pro-people party or to join the Greens who share our values. The alternative is to remain a loud but ignored voice for justice in a shrinking Democratic Party that is largely irrelevant in large swaths of the country. The correct choice seems clear.