Beneath the daily manic grotesques of the Trump presidency, a sea change has been building in US politics. The partisan polarisation of Trump’s Washington masks the reality that a broad majority of Americans favour an activist government that will begin to relieve the burdens they face and the challenges the country can no longer duck. And beneath the tired posturing of televised presidential ‘debates’, newly-awakened progressive movements are challenging the failed neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party establishment.
The context for the 2020 election is the failure of both major political parties. The end of the Obama years witnessed the bankruptcy of the neoliberal, centrist politics of the Clinton ‘New Democrats’. In 2016, the rejection was complete. Republicans secured majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and put the most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential polling in the White House. They also gained nearly a thousand legislative seats in state legislatures, taking full control in dozens.
Trump peddled a right-wing populist promise of change, railing against corrupt politicians, ‘stupid trade deals’ and ‘endless wars’. Although he retains the loyalty of about 40 per cent of the electorate, his failure is increasingly apparent. His tax cuts worsened inequality, the endless wars continue, his bungled trade policies have ended in a manufacturing recession. His divisive race-based slurs of about immigrants, Muslims and Black people alienate most Americans. His purblind denial of catastrophic climate change mobilises a growing opposition, particularly among the young. And even with unemployment near record lows, wages are still not keeping up with the cost of basics like health care, housing and education.
Progressive movements are proving the motor force of change. This began under Obama, exemplified by Occupy Wall Street indicting the one per cent – and giving Obama his core message in his 2012 re-election campaign. Black Lives Matter put America’s racially biased criminal justice system in the dock with mass civil disobedience protests in cities across the country. The Latino uprising raised the plight of the children of undocumented workers. Liberal social movements have been winning the cultural wars, even as Republicans sought to roll back progress. Workers and unions have begun to stir. Fast food workers demonstrated in the Fight for $15 (a $15 minimum wage). Teachers in conservative ‘red states’ walked out, forcing Republican legislators to increase salaries and funding for schools. General Motors workers completed the longest strike against an auto company since the 1940s.
Inside the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders’ stunning primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election helped galvanise and educate a new generation in a direct challenge to the Democratic Party establishment. Sanders’ unexpected run was based not on his good looks or smooth patter, but his integrity and ideas. His call to build a ‘political revolution’ inspired activists across the country. Democratic Socialists of America gained 50,000 new members and is now the largest socialist organisation in the US since Eugene Debs in the early 20th century.
Our Revolution, an offshoot of the Sanders campaign, built volunteer chapters in a dozen states, focused on driving progressive initiatives, taking over the local and state Democratic Party structures, and electing progressives at state and local levels. Progressives have been running for office at all levels, with independent groups such as Justice Democrats helping to organise primary challenges to conservative Democrats standing in the way. Chapters of People’s Action, a national network of community organising groups, began recruiting and running insurgents for state and local offices. New and old web-based, multi-issue activist groups – like Moveon.org, Democrats for America, Indivisible – grew in numbers, developed local chapters and mobilised to push both against Trump and for more aggressive reforms.
The ‘off-year’ elections in 2018 displayed the new reality – and the first fruits of the organising on the left. Trump mobilised his base – and his opposition. The result was the highest off-year turnout since 1914 and sweeping Democratic victories in both the House and state legislative races. In the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus – energised under the leadership of co-chairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal – grew to 98 members, about 40 per cent of Democratic representatives. Its members chair 13 major committees, providing a platform for hearings on major reforms. Progressive insurgents – most notably Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Ayanna Pressley – knocked out long-standing Democratic incumbents in primaries, a warning that others could not ignore.
The House of Representatives proceeded to pass core elements of the progressive agenda – comprehensive election reform, a $15 minimum wage, universal day care, immigration reform, criminal justice reform and more. At the state level, progressive Democrats began challenging Republican cuts in education and social welfare programmes and driving support for renewable energy and criminal justice reform.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries provide a good measure of the progress of the left. The early months of America’s extended presidential contests feature two races: the ideas primary – who will frame the agenda debate; and the crucial money primary – who will raise the campaign funding to be competitive. The most progressive candidates – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – have dominated both.
In the ideas primary, Sanders’ economic bill of rights has been complemented by new focus on structural change to empower workers, break up monopolies and curb inequality. Sanders has continued to educate Americans about the extremes of inequality and the corrupting hold of big money – of ‘billionaires and millionaires’ – on our politics. Both Sanders and Warren have championed a bold ‘green new deal’ to address the existential threat posed by climate change. Both argue forcefully that while Trump is a menace, the corruption of our politics and the rigging of the rules began long before his presidency.
In the money primary, Sanders and Warren have demonstrated that it is possible to be financially competitive through small donations. Whether this is remotely possible in a general election remains to be seen but their commitment to small-donor fundraising gives voters a clear indication that they can’t be bought by entrenched interests and big money.
The debate within the Democratic Party is not yet won. Buoyed by name recognition and his association with Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden remains in the race, offering little more than a return to the Obama years. Biden and other more cautious politicians – Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in particular – have pushed back hard against the cost and plausibility of bold reform, particularly Medicare for All.
The viability of the majority coalition that Democrats aim to build is still up for debate. Despite Sanders’ and Warren’s success in the money primary, the Democratic Party and its candidates are raising more and more money from the very wealthy and from the affluent ‘knowledge class’, while Trump’s Republicans are raising record amounts in small donations. Deep-pocketed Democrats have already threatened to sit out if Sanders or Warren get the nomination. Democrats now represent all of the ten richest congressional districts in the country and 41 of the richest 50. That lends itself to a politics far removed from the Sanders-Warren worker-based populism, an Obama-esque mix of social liberalism and economic neoliberalism. Whether the left can remake the Democratic Party remains to be seen.
What is clear is that there is a broad majority of the country that seeks bold activist government to address real needs and sides with liberals in the culture wars. The old bipartisan establishment – the Clinton New Democrats and the Bush Republicans – has failed most Americans. The Trump insurgency has proved to be both a con and his presidency dangerously incompetent. The left is on the rise, driving the debate in ways not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The outcome remains in the balance.
Robert L. Borosage is a writer, activist and co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future
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