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In spite of Bernie Sanders’s primary win in Indiana and favored status in West Virginia, recent voting in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and a handful of other states appears to confirm what has long been anticipated: after a spirited campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Vermont senator is falling to earth. One would not want to write off a campaign prematurely—after all, dismissal of Donald Trump by the press and his fellow Republicans paved his road to the GOP nomination—but Sanders himself is retrenching. Staff cuts and campaign statements suggest he is now focused less on the presidency than on dents he can make in the Democratic Party platform at July’s convention.
Thus it is fair, at this stage, to ask what will become of the political fervor Sanders has unleashed. Supporters of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, hope some of that excitement can be funneled toward her general election run, securing a decisive victory and the legislative mandate believed to result. Especially if Trump is on the general election ballot, as seems all but certain, there is no doubt that a significant portion of Sanders backers will vote for Clinton in November.
Yet this lesser-of-many-evils approach only emphasizes the cynical calculus that Sanders’s supporters yearned to escape: the Democrats promise as little as they can get away with and hope the troglodytes parading in the Republican Party are enough to get the base out to the polls.
Bernie Sanders advocates redistributive government, which puts him at odds with the last twenty-five years of Democratic common sense.
But now some activists wonder whether the class anger orbiting Sanders’s campaign can transform the Democratic Party into a tool for movements against economic and racial inequality. An older generation remembers when the Democratic Party brandished its liberal credentials instead of being terrified by them. For these activists, Sanders’s surprising run yields nostalgic visions of “taking back” the party, reviving what they believe was a grassroots politics representing ordinary people.
Like much nostalgia, however, this is naïve. One need look no further than Clinton’s candidacy to appreciate the Democratic top-brass’s aversion to policies and politics centered on social justice. Instead of thanking Sanders for activating new voters and reinvigorating those still sleepy from the underwhelming presidency of Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton accused him of wanting to “shoot” people on Wall Street. Last December, instead of accepting responsibility for the security of its own data, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) smeared Sanders and falsely accused him of breaking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign secrets. Clinton has reluctantly appealed to Sanders’s supporters by referring to herself as progressive and declaring that the middle class needs a raise. But mostly she and the Democratic hierarchy have mocked Sanders for supposedly promising “free this and free that and everything”—a criticism she rejected when it came from Jeb Bush’s lips. Clinton has campaigned relentlessly on the improbability of universal health care and criticized Sanders for suggesting that there be free tuition at public universities and colleges.
This is not just a case of Clinton failing to detect which way the wind is blowing in American politics. As a steward of American capital, it is her responsibility to attack the idea of social entitlement. It was her husband and campaign surrogate who clearly articulated the politics of the “new Democrats,” when he declared that the “era of big government is over.” Sanders advocates redistributive government, which puts him at odds with the last twenty-five years of Democratic common sense. Hillary Clinton is not fundamentally opposed to the use of the government treasury for any and all social entitlements, but her refusal to embrace serious redistributive policies for the benefit of poor people shows that she sees her future job as her husband saw his in the ’90s: to crush, or at least ignore, the proposition that the public should provide for people’s needs.
This does not make Clinton a conservative Democrat; it just makes her a Democrat. Since her husband’s first term, the Democratic Party has successfully molded itself into a small-government, pro-privatization, law-and-order party. As then-Senator Joe Biden put it while celebrating the 1994 Crime Bill:
Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties. . . . The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.
Today the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled the party to walk back some of that rhetoric. But there is little reason to believe this is a genuine retreat rather than an exercise in political expediency. Biden was speaking to a deeper truth about how the party wanted to be known: as tough as the GOP, not socially liberal or especially concerned with the interests of minorities.
This is not just old news. Decmocratic veterans nationwide continue to push a regressive agenda. Consider Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, once a party kingmaker and now one of the most reviled public officials in his city. He earned his ignominy by covering for police criminality and attempting to dismantle public education, a process that included the largest mass school closure in American history, in 2013. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles has cracked down on the homeless, confiscating their property, including the “tiny homes” that were doing what the city wouldn’t—house homeless people. In New York City, mayor Bill De Blasio betrayed his supporters in the criminal justice reform movement by pledging to hire 1,300 more police even as crime continued its historic downward trend. In San Franciso, Mayor Ed Lee promoted a “Twitter tax break”—a payroll tax exemption lasting six years and intended to keep tech companies in San Francisco—which cost the city $34 million in 2015 alone. Meanwhile, San Francisco faces a $100 million budget shortfall, and Mayor Lee is calling for across-the-board spending cuts from city agencies. With Democrats scaling back services—excepting, of course, law enforcement—and pushing trickle-down economics, who needs Republicans?
One might protest that Democratic officials have generally been more critical of the latest excesses of campaign finance law than have been their GOP competitors. But these words don’t reflect principle. When it comes to absorbing corporate money and accompanying influence, the Democratic Party takes a back seat to no one. The party’s largest corporate donors embody the greed that courses through the financial and industrial economy: Goldman Sachs, AT&T, Bank of America, JP Morgan, and General Electric hedge their bets by giving almost equally to both parties. Lockheed Martin and Walmart veer toward Republicans but still give millions to Democrats, just in case. In the midst of the primary season, the DNC changed the party’s rules to allow presidential candidates to accept more money from lobbyists and political action committees.
The corrosive influence of money in politics is hardly a revelation, but it is sobering to observe it at work in an organization that claims to champion the welfare of the downtrodden. Take the Congressional Black Caucus, which used to refer to itself as the “conscience of the Congress.” The CBC PAC and its politicians politicians have received some of their largest donations from Walmart, General Motors, and Coca-Cola. Is it any wonder that the caucus has been almost absent in the fight for a higher minimum wage, even as more than half of black workers make less than $15 an hour?
Citizens angered by inequality and injustice should not be stifled by the pressure to organize through the Democratic Party.
Indeed, this campaign season has been a lesson in just how conservative the Democratic Party actually is. Hence Clinton’s unofficial campaign slogan of “no we can’t” and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s calm admission that unpledged superdelegates “exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”
The two-party system itself preserves the Democrats’ conservatism, which suggests that the party is not likely to change before there is a legitimate challenge from its left. Until then, the Democratic leadership can remain confident that its base has nowhere else to go. Thus, even when Democrats push policies that harm their constituents, they can expect little protest from the major liberal organizations. For example, when the Democratic Party promotes so-called education reform policies that are hostile to teachers unions and negatively affect black students, officials themselves receive almost no resistance from teachers unions or the NAACP.
In fact, the opposite occurrs. While rank-and-file teachers oppose significant aspects of the reform movement, including the Common Core standards and the intensifying regime of standardized testing, their union leadership dutifully lines up to back the Democratic Party. The American Federation of Teachers endorsed Clinton as early as July 2015; the National Education Association followed suit in October, with no debate or discussion among its members. The civil rights establishment is largely silent on education policy, but, when it does get vocal, it tends to support reformers. This is not surprising considering that the NAACP and Urban League have received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, which champions charter schools, standardized testing, and privatization. Notably, education reform was the key agenda item of former Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The party’s conservatism radiates outward, as its constituency learns to fall in behind its positions.
This makes the party difficult to capture, as the Tea Party had captured the GOP at one point. Yet the appeal of such a strategy is longstanding. The same question returns eternally: How to transform protest rabble into respectable politics? In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the move to integrate the New Left into the Democratic Party was heralded as a sign of maturation for the counterculture. But as the movements in the streets subsided and activists entered the electoral arena, they imbibed party norms and became less militant. In 1984 and ’88, the Rainbow Coalition led by Reverend Jesse Jackson was supposed to get tough with the Democratic Party and demand a seat at the table for black voters. Instead, the party got tough with black and other progressive voters by insisting that they take a back seat to the paty’s conservative wing, represented by Bill Clinton. And let us not forget that it was Al Gore, running against Michael Dukakis for the Democratic Party nomination in 1988, who introduced Willie Horton into the post–Civil Rights lexicon of racial symbolism, helping to derail Dukakis’s campaign and reinforce the era’s demand for crime-control politics and policies.
Given the resilience of party conservatives, their history of both rebuffing challenges from the left and absorbing the challengers themselves, it is hard to imagine a takeover strategy bearing fruit. This brings us back to Sanders and the most unfortunate aspect of his campaign: he is running as a Democrat. As a consequence he will, at some point, be asked to throw his support to Clinton. (Already he has agreed to back her in the likely event that she is nominated.) For Sanders, who has spent his entire political life working with and on behalf of Democrats, this is perhaps no great sacrifice.
However, the intractability of the Democratic Party is not the only argument against moving from protest to polite politics. The assumption that doing so is preferable or important underestimates the critical role protest plays in generating progressive change. When activists recall a Democratic Party that cared about ordinary people, what they really have in mind are the social movements and revolts that forced the party to respond to the needs and demands of those on the streets. There would have been no New Deal without the Hoovervilles, rent riots, sit-down strikes, and Communist Party activism of the 1930s. There would have been no Great Society without Civil Rights protests in the South and rebellions in more than two hundred cities across the country during the 1960s. Even Richard Nixon, who won office appealing to a racist “silent majority,” waited out his first term before he began dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state, lest he provoke protests.
As the great activist and historian Howard Zinn put it, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” He didn’t mean that elections are irrelevant, but he emphasized what citizens do to shape their world. The anger about inequality and injustice in the United States, which has been given some voice by the Sanders campaign and most certainly by the Black Lives Matter movement, should not be stifled by the pressure to organize through the Democratic Party. It can’t be done. The movement for equality and justice should continue to organize independently and fight for its agenda regardless of what party sits in office.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
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