Progressives and the Democratic Party Today

The Democratic Party is still in the grip of an old nostalgic fantasy, in which they find a way to entice Republicans to join them in enacting legislation ‘for the good of the country.’

Much of the Democratic Party leadership—including Bernie Sanders— believes that the passage of economic stimulus measures, such as the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, will entice Republicans back into ‘normal’ politics when they realize that these spending measures are popular with swing voters.

In short, most Democrats argue that they must find a way to work with Republicans in order to “get things done.”

But meanwhile, as Democrats dream of bipartisanship, the Republican Party veers further and further away from democracy and towards white nationalist fascism. With military-like discipline, Republicans are methodically suppressing voting rights in every state they control. With lower voter turnout by people of color, Republicans plan to not only retake the House of Representatives but also to keep control of state legislatures in the year that states will undertake the once a decade task of drawing new voting districts using the 2020 Census data. The Republican strategy will be aided by a Supreme Court majority which just finished gutting the Voting Rights Act, and by a flawed Census whose count of the U.S. population was continuously undermined by the Trump Administration. And any Republican who stands in the way (Liz Cheney) is summarily purged from the GOP.

In order to win support for its authoritarian project, the Republican Party is whipping up a racist frenzy with absurd attacks on “critical race theory,” passing (clearly unconstitutional) laws in six states that prevent public schools and universities from teaching about structural racism today or the history of racism in the formation of the United States. Republicans are also passing anti-abortion laws that are clearly meant to invite the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade next term.

The complete breakdown of legislative bipartisanship and the willingness of the Supreme Court majority to undo the most basic legal protections for people of color and women of all races reflects the reality of our time: we live in the midst of an ever-deepening social crisis, and there is no unifying vision capable of pulling Americans together. While Covid made matters worse, this crisis has been unfolding since the 1990s. The crisis is fundamentally caused by neo-liberal policies that unleashed banks to financialize the global capitalist economy. The result has been that wealthy nations are being torn apart by hyper-inequality and the reduction in investments in all institutions serving to unify society, including those providing social safety nets to the poor.

And to be clear about it: Republicans are the ones calling attention to the crisis, and the ones offering a radical vision for a new future. Their racist screed is fueled by attacks on the haughty coastal elites who are driving America into the ground. Indeed, young Republicans proudly refer to themselves as revolutionaries seeking to overthrow a corrupt and outdated system. Democrats are the new conservatives, still enmired in the belief that 20th Century legislative procedures and ideas about the rule of law can save the day.

Republicans are telling white people that the real social crisis they are experiencing is the result of growing numbers of people of color laying claim on society’s resources. They offer a fantasy of America’s past, in which they claim white people lived in peace and prosperity with one another, and anyone who wanted to work hard could get ahead.  This America, they argue, was destroyed by people of color gaining power, and using their influence to undermine America’s ‘traditional values.’ It is worth noting that this argument was first made not by Republicans but by 19th Century Democrats, who in the Reconstruction era made the same appeal to white Southerners nostalgic for the ‘gracious Bourbon life-style’ of the slavers.

It is time for the Democrats to realize that this moment requires them to make a radical break with the past and to embrace a radically different vision for the future. Democrats need to make explicit that they are the party defending the U.S. from fascism. Democrats need to make a clean break with neo-liberal capitalism and embrace social democracy. They need to stand firm on the need for a Green New Deal to address the existential threat of climate change. They need to stand firm against financial institutions and unregulated and untaxed corporate greed. They need to take real steps to end anti-black and anti-immigrant police violence and end mass incarceration.

The defense of voting rights, for example, will require a radical act by Democrats–the destruction of the filibuster rules in the Senate–since not a single Republican Senator will support even this bedrock principle of democracy.  The urgent large-scale effort to shift the U.S. economy away from finance-based investments to investments in production (and green production specifically) will have to be undertaken by Democrats with no Republican support. The efforts to re-orient national security towards the real threats posed by right-wing organizations will never have bipartisan support.

The immediate test is whether Senate Democrats will unite to end the filibuster rules that will be used by Republicans to prevent the passage of the For the People Act, the law that would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

At this point, the pragmatic argument in favor of bipartisanship (embodied in Joe Manchin) is preventing Democrats from going all in on this essential act to defend democracy. Worst of all, it seems very likely that the Democrats only have this year and next to accomplish their agenda before Republicans re-take the House.

The problem, of course, is that progressives simply do not have enough power to force the Democratic Party out of its nostalgic dreams of a return to the past. Most Congressional Democrats still consider winning white suburban swing voters (and to defend the American Dream) to be the holy grail of their politics. Unfortunately, if Democrats fail to enact the For the People Act, we will almost certainly have to endure yet another two years or longer of Republicans returning to power and using that power for the sole purpose of advancing their white nationalist and anti-democratic agenda.

Of course, history is not on the side of white supremacy. And the Republicans know it, which is why they have turned into an authoritarian party.

But the immediate future is likely to produce more of the same dynamic we have experienced since 2008: Democrats win power enough to advance social democratic policies (Obama’s ACA and Dodd-Frank Act, Biden’s efforts to revive U.S. industrial production) and Republicans then sow a racist reaction to halt their efforts, using increasingly repressive means as Democrats gain more voters. This truly is what Gramsci meant when he said, “the old social order is dying but the new has not yet been born.”

We will have to endure more of this dynamic until a coalition anchored by communities of color and organized labor has gained enough power to define the Democratic Party’s agenda and to elect 51 progressive Senators, a progressive majority in the House of Representatives, and a progressive President.

In 2021, it is likely that progressives will continue to be frustrated in their efforts to derail Republican Party extremism. But the main task continues: organize, organize, organize.  There are now many progressive organizations (such as the New Georgia Project and Make the Road New York and Philly) who understand this and are doing excellent work. And with their efforts we are learning that democracy is not defined only by political participation (i.e., the right to vote), but by people learning their power to participate in the making of society itself.

Progressives today must have the discipline to keep building minority communities’ leadership and organization with an eye on the prize of slowly but surely bringing the new American majority into focus. The road will be bumpy, but we know where we are heading. Let us keep our eyes on the prize.

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