The fall and possible resurrection of the American left

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The Democratic Party is repeating the errors of 2016, assuming that having a demented troll as an opponent is all that is needed to guarantee their boring centrist candidate a win. Twitter Democrats cite polls showing Biden ahead by a handful of points while crowing about the long anticipated blue wave that will give them the Senate as well as the White House and tolerate no challenges to their belief. The fact that Hillary Clinton looked like a guaranteed winner in 2016, with poll numbers that are mirrored this time around does not seem to disturb their smug assurance.

Why this is happening is easy for me, a progressive who would vote with the Democratic Socialists a lot, to explain out of my cynicism. I am not sure that Democrats want to win. Holding power is less useful for fundraising than being in the opposition, especially since those who are responsible for governing have a much harder job than those who only need to complain, and in any case, the Democratic Party shares with the non-fascist Republicans the goal of keeping wealthy people wealthy. Biden’s votes for bankers and his opposition to Medicare for All are exactly the sort of thing that give aid and comfort to those who wish to preserve the privileges of the few.

And then there is the question of what happened between Joe Biden and Tara Reade. The flurry of charges and countercharges have made the situation murky, and as a political matter, whether Reade or Biden are telling the truth is no longer the main point. The reaction of the party faithful and of the candidate, combined with the Third Way Diet Republicanism that I have discussed above and in other articles show that the party is fatally flawed.

This should not surprise me. The Democratic Party adopted progressivism and work for the common people with Franklin Roosevelt and carried it on through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then coasted on reputation through the campaign of Michael Dukakis. In some sense, this had a precursor in the populisms of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, but the Republicans have also had their moments. The reality is that the people have never had a political party that has been consistently on our side. We have been made to depend on waves and movements, rather than on the steady accumulation of progress.

Social Security and Medicare are two examples of high tides that succeeded in transforming public perception of the role of government in guaranteeing a decent life for all, and even those are under daily attack by a large part of the electorate and their self-appointed representatives. Republicans fought the New Deal from the start, and once the reactionaries succeeded in removing the Rockefeller Republicans from influence in the party, their transformation into religious Objectivists made them into organized social Darwinists. And thanks to Bill Clinton and his associates, the Democrats decided that as long as laissez-faire includes abortion and some accommodation to gay people, they like it.

If the American left is going to be a meaningful entity in our politics, we have to be something different from the right wing. And we have to be open about our philosophical differences in addition to debating tweaks to regulations.

The respectable elements of both sides understand that a nation is a combination of individual rights and liberties and of collective responsibilities. The parties emphasize one or the other, and at this point, the people in power in both have abandoned principle in favor of treating these core values as stage dressing while taking care to protect the interests of their donors.

If we on the left are to make a convincing case to America as a whole that our platform is the one that ought to guide the country, we have to restore a belief in responsibility to each other and demonstrate that we will protect individual autonomy for everyone. This will require dropping gun control, since that vies with abortion to be the policy dispute that enrages the middle of the country the most. If we offer a deal to leave gun owners alone so long as women are left free to control their own bodies, we can peel off some number of right wingers whose philosophy is more libertarian than religious. But the bigger change in method must be to stop mumbling when we talk about social programs that do good for the people. Medicare for All, for example, would expand freedom for all of us, and we need candidates who will no longer surrender the field to the Republican framing of the subject. Democrats cannot manage that, since their donors have told them to oppose this kind of progress. Domestic green energy would free us from having to take a subservient attitude to various authoritarian regimes in foreign policy, and devoting a lot more resources to education would prepare more people for jobs in that industry, among many other benefits. Promoting worker rights would wake people up to the reality that most of us are never going to be billionaires and deserve fair treatment anyway.

This case can be made, if only the left is willing to make it. But it will require us to stand up for the values I have named, rather than leaving things to an establishment that has betrayed us.

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