If the Democrats want to reach disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters and working-class voters leaning toward Donald Trump, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was the absolute worst person to give a prime-time speaking spot to at the party’s convention in late July.
Seriously, why would a party whose nominee confessed in her acceptance speech that “we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through” showcase its support from the billionaire who broke a strike by school-bus matrons making $11 to $14 an hour, and then crowed that he had crushed “the special interests”? If they believe black lives matter, why highlight the mayor whose stop-and-frisk policing policies were arguably more racist than Rudolph Giuliani’s? And if the Democrats want to persuade the Rust Belt’s resentful dispossessed that they’re not a bunch of nanny-state elitists, why promote a plutocrat who enacted laws against cigarettes and soda?
Hillary Clinton pitching her campaign to ‘moderate’ Republicans who see Trump as dangerously irresponsible is politically logical. In the French presidential election of 2002, center-right candidate Jacques Chirac won more than 80% of the vote when all parties outside the far right united against the blatantly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen. But it means she is less likely to pursue a pro-labor agenda that might offend the wealthy. Less likely to speak to the millions of Americans who feel that the economy is just broken for them, while billionaires amass unprecedented mountains of moolah.
For all the talk about Clinton as a pragmatic progressive who “gets things done,” her ideas about reducing economic inequality have one major flaw. She frames the solution in terms of “breaking barriers,” of “giving people the opportunity to reach their God-given potential.” The problem with this is that not everyone can be a doctor, lawyer, or software engineer. If 100,000 more people went to law school this September, most of them would end up doing document-review temp jobs for $15 an hour. We need to be a country where cab drivers, home health-care aides, and supermarket cashiers can make a decent living.
The Clinton camp’s philosophy amounts to an oddly corporate version of identity politics, in which giving a more diverse group of people the opportunity to enter the upper class is more important than whether all workers make a living wage. Like the identity-politics wing of the left, they seem to hear the phrase “working class” as referring solely to straight white cisgender males—as if black home health-care aides, Latino construction workers, and South Asian taxi drivers weren’t included. By doing this, they essentially write off the white working class, leaving it open to Donald Trump’s socialism-of-fools combination of racism and you’ve been-screwed economic rhetoric.
This election could mark a depressing realignment of American politics: The Democrats as the Corporate Diversity Party, and the Republicans as the National-Socialist Party, denouncing “crony capitalism” while telling white workers they’ve been stabbed in the back by the elite who coddle terrorist Muslims and drug-thug Mexicans.
The Republican establishment’s problem with Trump is that he speaks in explicitly racist language instead of plausibly deniable code words. The GOP achieved its political success over the last 50 years—controlling the Presidency and/or at least one house of Congress for all but four years since 1980—by turning the George Wallace voters of 1968, the Southern and some Northern whites who split off from the old New Deal coalition to support the segregationist, into “Reagan Democrats.” Does the party establishment think these people passionately care about “reforming entitlements”? No. They don’t want their Social Security cut.
Bernie Sanders has been the first major-party presidential hopeful since the Reagan era to focus his campaign on undoing the damage done to working people since then, the first to argue that the system is rigged against working-class people and needs dramatic change. It’s understandable that some of his followers show signs of a personality cult. At the “Bernie or Bust” rally in Philadelphia during the convention, one man was wearing a jumpsuit covered with multiple images of Sanders’ face, and a number of the 500-odd people there carried signs accusing Clinton and the Democratic National Committee of outright stealing the election from him.
Sanders would likely be the first person to argue that he is not the Messiah. He has praised the Midwestern socialist Eugene V. Debs for telling his supporters in 1906 that “if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.”
It’s not a waste for radicals to get involved in elections. It’s the forum where most Americans view politics, and it’s the means to translate movement ideas into legislation. “People in the streets” are meaningless symbols unless they catalyze change. Hillary Clinton was right when she said that the 1960s civil-rights movement needed a Lyndon Johnson as well as a Martin Luther King, because Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enacted. (On the other hand, if the Civil Rights Act had been introduced by the Clinton or Obama administrations, the ban on segregation in public accommodations would probably have been watered down to tax incentives for restaurants to serve black people.)
Sanders did way better than anyone thought he could. He lost largely because he didn’t win two crucial Democratic blocs: Most labor unions lined up behind Clinton before a single ballot was cast, and black voters, except those under 30, voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. He might have changed that if he’d started running earlier. As it is, he pushed a lot of ideas that the corporate Democrats would rather avoid into the political mainstream.
“It didn’t start with him. It’s not going to end with him. He mobilized more people than we’ve ever seen on the progressive side,” Stefanie Hahn, a 39-year-old union nurse from Berkeley, California, said during the Philadelphia “Bernie or Bust” rally. “What we’re going to do is use this energy and use this movement to continue to fight for the causes we believe in and to put progressives into office.”