Essay Norman Solomon

It’s Time to Engage With the Battle Inside the Democratic Party

Progressives made Trump’s defeat possible. Now we need to challenge Biden and other corporate Democrats before they marginalize the left once more.
[Matt Johnson / CC BY 2.0]

By Norman Solomon

The evident defeat of Donald Trump would not have been possible without the grassroots activism and hard work of countless progressives. Now, on vital issues — climate, healthcare, income inequality, militarism, the prison-industrial complex, corporate power and so much more — it’s time to engage with the battle that must happen inside the Democratic Party.

The realpolitik rationales for the left to make nice with the incoming Democratic president are bogus. All too many progressives gave the benefit of doubts to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, making it easier for them to service corporate America while leaving working-class Americans in the lurch. Two years later, in 1994 and 2010, Republicans came roaring back and took control of Congress.

From the outset, progressive organizations and individuals (whether they consider themselves to be “activists” or not) should confront Biden and other elected Democrats about profound matters. Officeholders are supposed to work for the public interest. And if they’re serving Wall Street instead of Main Street, we should show that we’re ready, willing and able to “primary” them.

Progressives would be wise to quickly follow up on Biden’s victory with a combative approach toward corporate Democrats. Powerful party leaders have already signaled their intentions to aggressively marginalize progressives.

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants,” Politico reports, “had a stark warning for Democrats on Thursday: Swing too far left and they’re all but certain to blow their chances in the Georgia runoff that will determine which party controls the Senate.”

Also on the conference call with congressional Democrats was House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who reportedly declared that if “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.”

Such admonitions were predictable and odd, coming from House Democratic leaders who just saw shrinkage of members of their party due to the loss of “moderate” incumbents as well as the losses of avowedly “moderate” and widely heralded Democratic senatorial candidates in Maine, Kentucky, Iowa and elsewhere.

At the core of such conflicts, whether simmering or exploding, is class war. When Pelosi & Co. try to stamp out the genuinely progressive upsurge in congressional ranks that is fueled from the grassroots, they’re “dancing with those who brung them” — corporate elites. It’s an extremely lucrative approach for those who feed out of the troughs of the Democratic National Committee, the Senate and House party campaign committees, the House Majority PAC and many other fat-cat political campaign entities. Consultant contracts and lobbying deals keep flowing, even after Democrats lose quite winnable elections.

Biden almost lost this election. And while the Biden campaign poured in vast financial resources and vague flowery messaging that pandered to white suburban voters, relatively little was focused on those who most made it possible to overcome Trump’s election-night lead — people of color and the young. Constrained by his decades-long political mentality and record, Biden did not energize working-class voters as he lip-sunk populist tunes in unconvincing performances.

That’s the kind of neoliberal approach that Bernie Sanders and so many of his supporters were warning about in 2016 and again this year. Both times there was a huge failure of the Democratic nominee to make a convincing case as an advocate for working people against the forces of wealthy avarice and corporate greed.

In fact, Clinton and Biden reeked of coziness with economic elites throughout their political careers. To many people, Clinton came off as a fake when she tried to sound populist, claiming to represent the little people against corporate giants. And to those who actually knew much about Biden’s political record, his similar claims also were apt to seem phony.

It’s clear from polling that Biden gained a large proportion of his votes due to animosity toward his opponent rather than enthusiasm for Biden. He hasn’t inspired the Democratic base, and his appeal had much more to do with opposing the evils of Trumpism than embracing his own political approach.

More than ever, merely being anti-Trump or anti-Republican isn’t going to move Democrats and the country in the vital directions we need. Without a strong progressive program as a rudder, the Biden presidency will be awash in much the same old rhetorical froth and status-quo positions that have so often caused Democratic incumbents to founder, bringing on GOP electoral triumphs.

In recent months, Biden showed that he knew how to hum the refrains of economic populism when that seemed tactically useful, but he scarcely knew the words and could hardly belt out the melody. His media image as “Lunch Bucket Joe” was a helpful mirage in corporate medialand, but that kind of puffery only went so far. Meanwhile, the Biden strategists decided to coast on the issue of the pandemic, spotlighting Trump’s lethally narcissistic insanity.

But when it came to healthcare — obviously a central concern in people’s lives, especially amid the coronavirus — Biden largely fell back on Obamacare rather than advocating for a genuine guarantee of healthcare as a human right. Likewise, Biden talked a bit about easing the economic burdens on small businesses and families, but it was pretty pallid stuff compared to what’s desperately needed. To a large extent, he surrendered the economic playing field to Trump’s pseudo-populist blather.

Looking ahead, we need vigorous successors to the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s that were asphyxiated, politically and budgetarily, by the Vietnam War. Set aside the phrase if you want to, but we need some type of “democratic socialism” (as Martin Luther King Jr. asserted in the last years of his life).

The ravages of market-based “solutions” are all around us; the public sector has been decimated, and it needs to be revitalized with massive federal spending that goes way beyond occasional “stimulus” packages. The potential exists to create millions of good jobs while seriously addressing the climate catastrophe. If we’re going to get real about ending systemic and massive income inequality, we’re going to have to fight for — and achieve — massive long-term public investments, financed by genuinely progressive taxation and major cuts in the military budget.

With enormous grassroots outreach that only they could credibly accomplish, progressive activists were a crucial part of the de facto united front to defeat Trump. Now it’s time to get on with grassroots organizing to challenge corporate Democrats.

12 comments

  1. I think this is a questionable strategy. Even if you got somewhere, which would be hard, you would still face the hatred of half the country. A third party strategy would be even harder, but it has the possibility of attracting enough support to make real changes.

    1. “Progressives would be wise to quickly follow up on Biden’s victory with a combative approach toward corporate Democrats. “
      Absolutely. Combative. With spine and teeth – signifying that mousey silence or mealy mouthed pitches —for harmony and peace is to stick your head in the Old Guard/Corporate Democrats’ maw and have it mashed into oblivion again —isn’t going to happen again.
      Standing strong and not taking any crap is the only way 1) to garner the People’s respect and trust; 2) to claim the authority of your intent and purpose for the People; 3) to signal to the Corporate/Old Guard that you are defining yourselves and will not tolerate being used as a patsy for the failures of their own shallowness, bullying, uncooperativeness, and self-service at the expense of the peoples’ real needs and the climate’s exigencies.

  2. Progressives certainly should push the feckless corporate Democrats in the direction of the glory days of FDR and LBJ (minus the war). But they face an uphill challenge. Pelosi and the rest of the so-called leadership in the House have made it clear that they don’t even want a hint of progressive politics. They are using the Georgia Senate runoff(s) as an excuse, but if you think they will suddenly reverse course in February, I have a bridge for you.

    Couple that with their thinner majority and the Blue Dog Democrats, getting anything progressive passed in the House will be an uphill battle, then McConnell will make sure it dies in the Senate. The best they could do is pass lots of really great progressive legislation, make a lot of noise about it, then blame the Republicans for killing it. That’s something they’ve done before. But they aren’t likely to go that far.

    Another 2 years of their abandonment of the working class will give the populist right time and energy to mount a stronger campaign and regain control of the House. In 2024, we will have no viable Democratic presidential candidate (Harris? Are you kidding?) and the Republicans will be locked and loaded with another right-wing populist – but one with intelligence, political skill, strong ideological beliefs, and knowledge of government.

    The only hope for progressives is to abandon the Democratic Party en masse immediately and form a progressive coalition and do their best to elect Congress members and Senators from their ranks in 2 years. It’s a tall order, but we have to stop banging on the locked door of the Democratic Party and find an open window.

  3. “Progressives would be wise to quickly follow up on Biden’s victory with a combative approach toward corporate Democrats”…..ABSOLUTELY! Clearly. The heart and soul of Democratic purpose lies in the Progressive insistence that government respond decently and competently to the deep needs of the People. “a combative approach” is required. Absolutely! Cowering, passivity, and especially silence and/or weak kneed remonstrance to the Old Guard/Corporate Democrats’ attacks, blaming, and disparagement of the Progressive is to allow them to define who you/we are! . That time is over! Progressives must arm themselves with clarity, teeth, voice, spine, inspiration, determination and brilliance to confront – every time – the Old Guard attempts to evade their “come to Jesus” moment of accepting their own culpability by dumping undeserved blame on the Progressives. It’s time the Progressives begin envisioning claiming their rightful place as the head, heart, and voice of the Party. Progressives are the truth-seers and truth-tellers. Authentically serving the People.

  4. “Now we need to challenge corporate Demoks” is to be interpreted as such: Now we can all kick back and take it easy again, because the status quo of camouflaged privilege and slave labor will be preserved, by the well-oiled functioning of the Demok party and its dutiful slave forces.

    Be sure to bid up the price of your California real estate to keep your privilege on solid ground! Nurture compassion for the short little latinas picking your cardboard-flavored tomatoes and scrubbing the scum off your toilet bowls. Ahh the spectacular beauty of “life goes on” at the 21st century pinnacle of western civilization. Catastrophic success beyond imagination. Authoritarian orgasm beyond the infinite.

    Fortunately the people still have everything totally positive coherently integrated with anarchism. Quite a spectacular whole, total positivity with the balanced equality and autonomy of anarchism. The vision is coming together nicely and the more it develops the more amazing it is.

    You have to participate yourself in this process of building the stable alternative that sticks with us permanently. Fountainheads don’t build your benefits for you.

  5. So many entered this election deeply unhappy with both candidates. Once again the DNC offered up the person they needed, not the one the people wanted. Time for a third party. I’ve heard this many many times from across the spectrum. I congratulate AOC for refusing to be blamed for the failure of the party. I watched Pelosi stomp for the most conservative Democrat (voted with Trump almost all the time) against an amazing Progressive.
    Our voices for a healthier planet and people, livable wages, etc. must be heard. Biden is not our friend. Nor is Harris. We need to be shown a way to bring about change as peacefully as possible, as soon as possible. Change is scary, but it is also imperative and we can survive change.

    1. “We need to be shown a way to bring about change …” you’ve been around the block a time or two, Carol….so you know about change, changing, and changed. We need to learn your knowings. In another time, when people came together, it was understood that each one brought to the others what was missing and altogether made the gathered, Whole. We need you more than ever. And, a personal thanks for showing up here. Oh, and it’s been said that sometimes it’s difficult to know whether this feeling is “scared” or “excitement.” Sky Diving and Spelunking come to mind. Coming down to earth with inspirations; Diving down deeper into the Mystery and rising with the Nothing that wants to become Something. Understandings; insights; intuition; knowledge. Wealth, for sure.

  6. it is quite remarkable how history and sociology are entirely ignored by amerikans—in any case US academics “technicians that serve power with a thin understanding of everything”. R Hofstadter only lie,,,amerikans, among the most xenophobic peoples, rarely read anything unless censored by their professors
    otherwise they would be fully aware that US progressives are more freedom hating and right wing than the conservatives
    there are no cures for amerikans. By 1969 Lewis Mumford was fully aware that amerikans were a shallow immoral cancerous dinosaur that could only be narcotized or euthanized

  7. Does she REALLY believe that ole Bernie was ever SERIOUS?
    Yes, this other “she” knows Bernie was serious “enough” about his vision to propagate it even in places where the soil could be unforgiving. Successfully. That is his “kiss” to millions either too young or old and amnesic to remember the’20’s, ’30’s, ’40’s ’50’s ’60’s – his “kiss” woke them to some sense of their own power in numbers and the righteousness of their desires/needs. Bernie is not stupid; he assuredly knew his nomination was a looong shot; he knew the gold plated teeth he was challenging. No buffoon he, except in the eyes of certain beholders.That said, Caliban you old earthy snorting dog – a pleasure to see what you bring up from the dead alive long buried to play with – with as serious an intent as the dog with a fresh bloodied bone which later, once stripped of its saboroso juiciness, becomes a magic of flinging joy and swishing delight.

  8. I have to have a chuckle at Solomon’s post and the comments that follow – all this stuff said about the DP has been said by the GP for at least a couple of decades, yet time and again, when ot’s crunch time, we are told and “convinced” that because of that awful Rep, sigh, sigh, we have to vote LOTE because “3rd parties can’t win” and they are “spoilers”, so we have to stick with the Dems and then “push them” – the political version of Groundhog Day. It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so destructive of a progressive agenda.

    All that stuff about Sanders. e.g. as “sheep dog”, “Judas goat” – I’ve seen that stuff before on other sites, years ago – nothing new or original here, though the language is more flowery.

    And the “we need 3rd parties” is also an oft repeated refrain – yet when we have a 3rd party on the ballot, and we have had one for at over a quarter of a century, with a full progressive platform re both domestic and foreign policy – we don’t vote for ’em – I have voted 3rd party for Pres since ’96, if more of us had voted in ’00, ’04, ’08 etc. for it in ever greater numbers, we’d have a “green” gov’t by now, whether as Green or a truly “reformed” DP who would have gotten the message – but we chicken out, snowflakes indeed.

    If all that wonderful energy and all those donations wasted on Sanders had been directed toward strengthening and supporting the GP – we could have gone far – Stein was far and away the best candidate on the ballot in ’12 and ’16 – but all the money and enthusiasm was spent on Sanders (that’s what he was there for, to take the wind out of the sails of any 3rd party challenge from the left). If folks want M4A, a GND, out of our wars, etc. it oughta be clear by now they won’t get it from the DP, not even rhetorically. But that stuff has been the backbone of the GP platform for years.

    I have been watching and talking about all this stuff on various “progressive” sites for years – have seen the same stuff, over and over – so folks, it is time, indeed way past time, for folks to put up or shut up …. otherwise it’s just more yadda, yadda, yadda …. which frankly, and sadly, is what I expect …

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