Home > Uncategorized > A self-critical look at the Democrats – posted 1/3/2021

A self-critical look at the Democrats – posted 1/3/2021

Any honest assessment of the 2020 election must consider the poor performance of Democrats down ballot. There was an expectation that Democrats would pick up as many as five Senate seats along with increasing their House majority. There was also an expectation Democrats could flip state legislatures. That all failed to materialize.

Some moderate Democrats have blamed more progressive Democrats, citing bad messaging around “defund the police” and advocacy of democratic socialism. For example, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D- Va) publicly blamed progressive Democrats for the loss of House seats. She somehow forgot the critical role progressives played in mobilizing the Democratic vote.

As someone sympathetic to the progressive wing, I would take issue with Rep. Spanberger. Other than opposing Trump, Democrats generally failed to present a strong economic message in 2020. As a result, many voters gave Trump and the Republicans the edge on the economy.

That should be shocking to Democrats. How could it be that Republicans, the party of the 1%, were more trusted on the economy? And truthfully, the Democratic Party has precious little, in a self-critical way, to say about it.

To appreciate the magnitude of the Democratic failure, the full economic picture must be outlined. Even before the pandemic, income inequality had dramatically increased. The households in the top fifth of earners brought in 52% of all U.S. income, more than the lower four-fifths combined, according to Census Bureau data.

Three men, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett own as much as the bottom half of Americans.

From 1989 to 2016, wealth inequality grew so much that the top 10% of families ranked by household wealth (with at least $1.2 million in net worth) owned 77% of the wealth pie. The bottom half of families ranked by household wealth (with $97,000 or less in net wealth) own only 1% of the pie.

Since the pandemic, according to Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies, 657 billionaires have seen their combined wealth go up a trillion dollars since mid-March. But the money these billionaires are making is not being reflected in the pay or protection of the workers who are making these services possible.

Millions have lost jobs and health insurance. Food and housing insecurity have soared. Many thousands face eviction or foreclosure.

In the face of this economic catastrophe, where is the Democratic Party, the party that going back to FDR, was supposed to be dedicated to economic justice and the working class? That party is almost nowhere to be seen.

Thomas Frank, the author of “The People, No”, has the acutest analysis of how the Democrats have failed to step up. Frank argues that it is the Democrats who should be the populist party. He defends the populist tradition and shows how Democrats need to run against plutocracy, elites, and economic inequality.

Too many Democrats are enamored with the idea of being the party of rich suburbanites and the professional-managerial class. They seem to think “the best and brightest” should rule, a world run by preppies. They look to corporate money and Wall Street for support.

I do not find it surprising that many working people supported Trump again. Often it was because of concerns about jobs and wages, bad trade deals, and bringing jobs back to America. Trump is a con man, a racist and a fraud but those concerns are legitimate. Too many Democrats are condescending and elitist in their attitudes toward working people including those who supported Trump.

Of the 74 million people who voted for Trump, almost a third came from households making under $50,000. While there is a hardcore of vicious white supremacists, it would be a serious mistake to assume some of those 74 million voters could not be won back. After all, many Trump voters previously supported Obama. Tons of people have contradictory politics. They should not be ceded to the Republicans. The Democrats need an attractive economic message highlighting good-paying jobs for all workers.

Democrats could begin by putting up more of a fight around pandemic relief. I liked what Rep. Ro Khanna had to say when he opposed the bloated military budget specified in the National Defense Authorization Act. Rep. Khanna said:

“We’re spending money on the modernization of nuclear weapons. And we can’t find money to get food to people who need it? We can’t find money to get more rental assistance for folks who are going to face evictions? We can’t find money to get $2,000 into the pockets of Americans? The priorities are wrong, and so I’m not going to vote to override his veto.”

Chuck Collins has suggested an emergency pandemic wealth tax on billionaires. People who have gotten a tremendous windfall from the pandemic should be helping communities in desperate need. How about a pandemic billlionaire tax funding universal health care during the pandemic?

The pandemic has exposed the underlying contradictions of capitalism. Has the need for Medicare for All ever been clearer? How many millions have lost health insurance in the last year and how many millions lacked insurance even before that? The other ideas promoted by the progressive wing of the Democrats like $15 an hour minimum wage, student loan debt forgiveness, and Green New Deal have the potential to be widely popular.

The Democrats are always afraid of their own shadows. That is not something you can say about the Republicans. Republicans are unafraid to stand behind utterly wacky ideas, including the overthrow of democracy. Democrats could use a backbone.

Republicans will always sling mud, shout about socialism and rely on the Fox News echo chamber. That has become an automatic no matter what Democrat is running. The Democrats need a strong, unafraid message that speaks to the widespread economic fear and insecurity. The pandemic has inflicted long-term damage on millions of workers and Democrats must speak to that need.

In addition to being the party of economic justice, Democrats also need to be the party of racial justice. They should stand in opposition to Trump’s racist appeals against Black Lives Matter and against immigration. Trump has used racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon to destroy working class unity.

While Joe Biden won the presidency and I think progressives should support him and give his presidency every chance to succeed, it was the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 that shows the way forward for Democrats in 2022 and 2024. Bernie’s campaign did not take corporate money and it relied on small donors. That is the right model for Democrats to emulate.

Democrats need to support the labor movement and make it easier for workers to organize. So few American workers are in unions now and that has tremendously weakened the political power of working people. Democrats have had a bad history of making promises to labor that they do not keep. I would cite Obama’s failure to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, an idea he ran on in 2008, which would have made it easier and faster to unionize.

Democrats must also oppose Pentagon militarism, runaway spending defense budgets, and further global interventionism. Too often Democrats passively go along with the most militarist Republicans being afraid to be identified as doves. Instead of empire, our priority should be the well-being of the American people.

The Democrats have many outstanding leaders. Along with Ro Khanna, I would mention Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter, Stacey Abrams, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Past results do not justify a continuation of relying on party centrists who lack any vision.

Thomas Frank has asked:

“For whom does America exist? The billionaires? Its celebrities? Its tech companies? Are we the people just a laboring, sweating instrument for the bonanza payday of our betters?”

If Democrats return to FDR populism, they can retake the majority and move America forward in its best tradition.

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