The United States stands at the precipice of so many crises that I cannot hope to list them all here. We seem intent to drive straight off the cliff of imminent climate catastrophe. Our healthcare and education systems balloon in costs, run by and for profit-seeking middlemen rather than the interests of the people that use them. We somehow fail to provide housing and basic necessities for everyone in the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world. Our so-called “democratic” republic exists in name only as a rising right-wing threatens to overturn elections, gerrymander itself into permanent government control, and oppress vulnerable minorities. And, even if we did not face that direct threat, our system is riddled with anti-democratic institutions and afflicted with a preposterous accumulation of economic power that undermines the ideal of one person, one vote.
The productive capacity of the country and the world we live in is historically unprecedented. If we wanted to, we could deploy our resources for the interests of the community and address many, if not all of these problems. But, that is not what is happening. Instead, we see the masses benefit less and less from their unprecedentedly productive labor as the wealthiest horde more and more for themselves. This trajectory is unsustainable for any number of reasons ranging from a systemic legitimacy crisis at the hands of worsening inequality to mass climate destruction.
These are all big problems that require big solutions. To enact the kind of large-scale legislation that is necessary for such socio-economic obstacles, we need state power. So, how are we doing with that? Enter the Democratic Party. Those on the left look to the Democratic Party for solutions to these problems. Historically, the party has occupied the leftmost position in the two-party duopoly. Its base was planted firmly in the ranks of the labor movement and working-class Americans in general. The party achieved decisive majorities on the back of this base. Then, once in power, was pressured by an organized and militant working class into delivering foundational social welfare programs, strengthening unions, building housing, codifying civil rights for minorities, and much more.
None of these efforts were perfect. Some were plagued by horrendous problems which undermined their success like racism in the public housing system. But, the point is that this was an era where the Democratic Party was used as a tool by a powerful working class to fight for their interests. As soon as these movements and sites of solidarity were defanged and dismantled by the neoliberal consensus, these big accomplishments stopped coming. The Democratic Party stopped delivering for them, so the working class began to notice.
The most impressive addition to the U.S.’s welfare state since neoliberalism killed the labor movement came from a congress where Democrats, the party of the working class, held 60 Senate seats and 257 House seats after having won a landslide election on a populist mandate of hope and change as the candidate leading the party proclaimed, “Yes we can!” The new addition to the social safety net was called The Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” Obamacare was a market-based solution that shared many similarities with proposals from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The ACA was absolutely an improvement. But one could not describe it as anything approaching universal healthcare. Nor did it live up to its name and address the affordability of healthcare. This was the last election where the Democrats won power with working-class voters at their back.
Hope and change did not exactly come. And, in the aftermath of his Presidency, Barack Obama’s tone had shifted to one that sounds more like “Here’s why we can’t, but you have to vote for us anyway”. The point of calling this out is not to understate the threat that the GOP poses. On the contrary, blocking them from power is of paramount importance. For now, the Democratic Party is the only way to do that. In fact, the Democrats even sometimes do some pretty good things. The American Rescue Plan has some great provisions, as did the Inflation Reduction Act. Even the milquetoast Infrastructure package included good things. Certainly better than what we would have gotten with a second Trump administration. But, there is an opportunity cost when the Democrats don’t use their fleeting power to make real progress on these issues rather than simply surpass the dirt-low bar that the GOP sets.
The Democratic Party has abandoned the model of class-based politics which led to its aforementioned success and is now sleepwalking into an electoral abyss where governing trifectas will be narrow, and only get rarer as the working class which once formed the basis of Democratic power continues to defect to the Republican Party’s seductive yet vacuous populism. Unless the party can accomplish big things again, it will continue to lack the energy and support to counter rising right-wing populism. We can scold voters for not voting Democrat out of harm reduction all the live long day. But, that is the equivalent of praying (or begging) for an outcome. This is not a strategy. A strategy would be a coherent plan for how we win, hold, and exercise power. Figuring out how to do that is the best way to deny the GOP the majority that Democrats, obsessed with their perceptions of “electability” and “pragmatism,” are rightly terrified of.
Following the turn to neoliberalism, the Democratic Party did see its first trifecta in 12 years with Bill Clinton in 1992. Moderate Democrats make the argument that such moderation was and is a necessary compromise to build a governing majority. They argue that if your party doesn’t win, it is useless. Ideological purity is not worth much if you can’t put that ideology into practice. This is a fine point. Winning is important. If we aren’t trying to win, we have given up. But, this approach to winning is myopic and shortsighted.
To illustrate why, let’s look at how American electoral politics have progressed since the Democratic Party’s return to power in the 90s. Following Clinton’s victory, the party had control of the government for two years. They then lost the House and Senate in 1994. The party had held control of the House for 58 out of the last 62 years, and control of the Senate for 52 of them. Democrats would not control the House until 2006 or the Senate until Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008. Since Obama lost that trifecta, Democrats had not controlled government until the 2020 election with Biden’s evenly split Senate, and extremely narrow House majority. And now, following the 2022 midterms, the government is back in divided control.
Where is the glowing electoral track record of moderation? The strategy has periodically denied the GOP power but demonstrated an incredibly weak capacity to hold onto it. The problem with this strategy is a lack of any sort of vision or confidence in a progressive agenda. There is an acceptance that the country is conservative and that we can only win on those terms. This is not a theory of change. It is a theory of harm reduction that fails even at that as Republicans continue to win and move ever further to the right by doing the work to convince the country of a vision.
This is a downstream effect of a party that is chasing rich suburban former Republican voters at the expense of an appeal to workers. Proponents of this strategy will point to the successes the party has had with using suburban votes to compensate for working-class losses. But, what they miss is that a changing coalition has consequences. A progressive social democratic program is one of redistribution, taxation, and decommodification. The Democrats are trading a base that has an interest in such an agenda for one who is already doing well, would have their taxes raised to fund social programs, and have a predisposition to more conservative economics. This is a group that does not identify with organized labor or class-based solidarity. They are not going to be the base that fights for the agenda we need. And the class that could and would if we put in the work is being alienated from the party that supposedly advocates for them by an asinine elitist brand. This brand is the result of choices, not just bad luck.
This Democratic direction of the past three decades has failed to deliver the political power necessary to halt the advance of the far-right even on purely electoral terms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Even on the rare occasion where control of government is won, the power is then wasted through inaction. Such inaction only makes it easier for the GOP to win control back. Common excuses for this is that it is simply unreasonable to expect them to accomplish the necessary policies when they have such narrow majorities which contain conservative Democrats that are necessary to pass anything.
The flaws with this argument are two-fold. Firstly, progress in these areas is of the utmost importance. The goal of our political project is not to win more blue ties in Congress for the sake of itself. The goal is to make that progress. If the composition of the majorities we win is inadequate for that goal, this is a pretty severe mark against the current way of doing things. Especially when, as in 2008, the majority was larger than Democrats can reasonably expect to win again with their current coalition. Secondly, there have always been conservative Democrats. Obviously winning the most seats in Congress is important. But once you’ve got the seats, giving up on an agenda, shrugging, and saying “we just need more votes” is, again, begging for an outcome rather than deploying a strategy. Every time there has been transformative legislation passed in this country, there has been a more conservative contingent that needed to be persuaded to vote in favor. But, how do we do that?
Here is where self-identifying pragmatists have a point. We cannot just rely on a Democratic president or congressional leadership to apply the pressure necessary to force them into line. Why would they? They have no reason to. It has become far too easy for Democrats to sit comfortably as an opposition party when they are out of power, win or minimize losses occasionally on empty promises and reactions to Republican extremism, and then roll out the list of reasons they cannot do anything. Political change is won through leverage, not asking for favors from career politicians. Where the apologists of their inaction are wrong is when they suggest there’s nothing we can do about this problem but vote for them more. This is a deeply cynical “strategy” that misunderstands where political power comes from. The same phenomena of rotating villains and lack of a will can occur no matter how large the majority is. We watched it happen for the last two years with an almost evenly divided House and Senate. But, the same thing happened in 2009/2010 with a Democrat-dominated one.
This is where we circle back to the issue of class, and the base behind the party. As the Democratic Party shifts away from the working class, it is becoming obvious that there is no leverage behind Joe Biden’s often touted “most progressive Democratic platform in history”. There are no teeth. It costs the party nothing to claim such policies when there is no force pushing them to enact that agenda. Instead of this kind of pressure, we just have voters who cast a ballot every two years and trust the party to do good things if they have the ability.
The way to build the world we need is not to continue down this path. It isn’t to move to the center in a Sisyphean pursuit of that extra forever-unobtainable vote which would solve all problems. This begins with demanding more from the Democratic Party and calling out their deficiencies, and failures. We cannot assume they will benevolently bestow transformative policies just through business as usual. They are a tool we can pressure with leverage. That leverage comes from rebuilding labor unions which can make demands and credibly threaten general strikes. It comes from building member-run and funded party surrogates like the Democratic Socialists of America in tandem with those unions and creating a brand for them distinct from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Our project must be one of building the organized class power that will be the foundation of the next political era in this country. It won’t be easy, and we don’t have all the answers. But, we do know that it is necessary and that the Democratic Party will not do it for us.
Featured Image Source: Mother Jones