The schism within the Democratic party is no better illustrated than two signs that were on display at a recent Unity Tour event in north Texas. The first sign came from the organizers of the event itself. Displayed on the two television screens adjacent to the stage was an outline of the continental US with the words “Come Together Fight Back” superimposed across the front. The second sign came from a man in the crowd. Printed across this sign was: “Had enough? Vote Democratic.” The catch was that over the word “Democratic” he had pasted a Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign sticker. In other words, the sign now read: “Had enough? Vote Bernie.”
Despite the intention of the tour, it remains clear there is little unity between the reformist wing of the party led by Sanders and the existing powers that be. The reformist wing of the party has lost nearly every attempt it has made to gain institutional power within the party. It has been acknowledged with some concessions: items on an unenforced party platform or the reinstatement of the Deputy Chair position within the national committee. But as for the actual position of the party, it remains clear the leadership’s concessions end at the symbolic. The existing program of neoliberalism—one that is favorable to wealthy, corporate donors and investment firms—remains in place. Tom Perez may claim it is time to come together to defeat Trumpism. But when he can’t even say Wall Street is part of the problem, it’s clear the rich and upper-class in the party leadership and donor base still have unquestioned control.
Having secured their institutional power from any challengers, the existing Democratic leadership just has to wait out Trump. Most of their biggest donors are under no real threat from him anyway. Besides the embarrassment he may bring to their ilk, the corporate class will do just fine under his rule.
Unfortunately for the old guard, Bernie Sanders remains a popular figure—in fact, he’s the most popular politician in America. So while Sanders-esque policies are a step too far for the existing leadership, they cannot completely ignore his existence or popularity. Now a party figure like Gilberto Hinojosa—who only months ago made his contempt for Bernie’s attack on the Democratic status quo clear has to act as though they are of the same mind.
But the contradiction between these two political visions is clear. Sanders’ vocal support for a universal healthcare system cannot be reconciled with the Democratic leadership’s desire to do nothing beyond saving the ACA. Sanders can talk about returning to the principle of one-person one-vote but the Democratic Party has benefitted from SuperPACs on a national level and aren’t about to undermine their own donors. A new “New Deal” doesn’t go far enough to combat the structures of global capitalism—but Sanders is articulating a vision of politics that is functionally different from the kind of neoliberalism that has become the Democratic party’s bread and butter. Further, it shows people the choice doesn’t have to be between the status quo or Trumpism.
Just as they can wait out Trump, the leadership also has the resources to wait out any kind of Sanders insurgency. The party has not been averse in the past to having candidates speak like populists. Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both campaigned on solving economic issues afflicting the middle and working classes but they often governed in complete opposition to their rhetoric. Given there are no other viable electoral avenues in the US currently, the Democratic party knows that running as the lesser of two evils can and likely will yield favorable results again as people continue to get poorer and prospects continue to dim—even if it is as far away as six to eight years from now. So Bernie can speak of taking on the billionaires but it’s acknowledged that that won’t really be on the Democratic agenda in a substantive way even if the rank and file voters want it.
It would be easy to say the existing leadership of the party is reading the room wrong, that they are simply missing there is an appetite for policies at least attempting to be redistributive in a country where massive wealth inequality is the norm, that they understand that people like Bernie Sanders but not why. But this is wrong. Even mildly redistributive policies—like Sanders’—are going to be met with inevitable hostility from the upper classes. Politicians who receive campaign funds from lobbyists representing pharmaceutical and insurance companies will be hostile to single-payer proposals, for instance. It’s not a mistake, it’s not idiocy—it’s the pursuit of class interests.
Much effort has been exerted to wed the language of social justice and corporate profits. Being a CEO can now be “empowering.” Brands use social justice imagery in commercials to sell soda and beer. Diversity is celebrated among weapons manufacturers while their missiles and planes are used in a brutal starvation campaign against the Yemeni people. But one cannot stand for both wealth and social justice. The lie of the existing Democratic program is that it can at once represent the people fighting to earn $15 an hour while giving speeches with a $400K price tag to Wall Street banks.
The Democratic party has aligned with finance capital and corporations so they aren’t going to go out of their way to step on their toes any time soon. While New Deal policies may have been permitted to fight off the spectre of Soviet communism until the end of the Cold War, the now hegemonic nature of capitalism means the owners of capital see little reason to make this kind of concession now.
The unfortunate reality is that the Democratic Party is not going to be the vehicle for change. The leadership of the party that oversaw its overwhelming defeat on the national and state stages nevertheless retains power. The chances to push the party to the left were always minimal; neither Sanders nor the Democratic party expected he could build something lasting beyond the primary campaign. But now the opportunities to change the party from within have diminished even further.
The Democratic party can’t be changed from within. There must be pressure from outside: not only on the Democrats, but on the American political landscape as a whole. Perhaps the opportunity lies in Cornel West’s support for a new party. Perhaps it lies with parallel organizations, at least one of which grew out of Sanders’ campaign. Regardless, the need to build organizations outside of the two parties with a focus going beyond winning elections has only become more urgent. Wherever the path forward lies, it cannot be one where we count on the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.