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How We Wound Up in This Mess: Democrats Ceased to Represent Ordinary People

Danny Katch Nov 20

Issue 219

A week before Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania, a major strike began in Philadelphia. Members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234 walked off the job to fight pension caps, massive health care cost increases and weak safety provisions that allowed bus and train workers to be forced to work with as little as nine hours between shifts. 

Back when she was fending off a left-wing primary challenge from Bernie Sanders, Clinton made sure to visit a picket line of striking Verizon workers in New York City. But now that Sanders was long defeated, she had a different strategy, one that was articulated by former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chair Ed Rendell, who told the Washington Post, “Will [Donald Trump] have some appeal to working-class Dems in Levittown or Bristol? Sure. For every one he’ll lose one and a half [to] two Republican women.”

As a result, even as her campaign furiously worked to turn out the Pennsylvania vote, Clinton ignored a strike on the part of a largely African American workforce in a city that is a main Democratic stronghold in a key “battleground” state. You may have heard how that turned out. 

Trump’s shocking victory is being widely described as an upsurge of a disaffected white working class driven by racial resentment, but the numbers tell a more complicated story. The Republican vote was slightly less in 2016 than 2012 and 2008, while the Democrat vote fell off a cliff — down four million and ten million respectively from Obama’s totals four and eight years ago. Clinton lost the vital states Michigan and Wisconsin because Democratic turnout dropped dramatically in majority non-white cities Detroit and Milwaukee — and because smaller cities that had twice supported Obama this time went with Trump. 

None of which is to say that racism is not a key element of this election. Trump channeled anger and anxiety over the injustices of 21st century American capitalism into the most open embrace of white nationalism of any president since the civil rights movement. The victory of a man who flirts on Twitter with the nouvelle Nazis of the alt-right has already emboldened a wave of stories of harassment and threats against people of color in “red” and “blue” states alike. Equally frightening is the confidence that rapists will take from the fact that the country just voted a sexual predator into a position long-promoted as that of national father figure. 

The tens of thousands who have already taken to the streets against Trump and the growing talk of large-scale protests at his inauguration show that many people want to take action against his reactionary agenda. But for those actions to be guided by effective strategies, we need to understand how we got to this point. 

Hillary Clinton was both a target of unwarranted sexism and a terrible candidate. Even leaving aside her center-right record as a senator and Secretary of State, this is someone with horrible political judgment. She spent the years leading up to her presidential run raking in cash from private speeches to bankers in an era of white-hot rage at Wall Street. That the Democratic Party felt so confident ordinary people would agree it’s “her turn” is an example of the party’s profound arrogance and disconnect from the American people. The political establishment of both parties have now been defeated by Trump. 

Barack Obama may be seen as a saint in the coming months in comparison to his successor, but history may one day see his presidency as the final straw in the discrediting of the postwar two-party system — precisely because, after decades of rising inequality and declining faith in political institutions, he inspired people to have faith in it one last time. Instead, he delivered more of the same: bank bailouts, worker sellouts, and an economy so precarious that almost half of the people in the richest country in the world live on the edge of financial crisis, unable to handle a one-time, $400 emergency expense. 

The breathless reports of job growth and economic progress regularly touted by liberal pundits, have little bearing on the lives of most Americans, whose household income is lower today than it was in 2007, even as the costs of rent, child care, college and yes health care continue to climb. Obama remains personally popular, but the failures of his administration have left a wreckage of dashed hopes and bitter cynicism, creating a climate in which a con artist and pathological liar can strike tens of millions of people as the only guy telling it like it is. 

But this election isn’t just an American story. The years since the global Great Recession have seen economic crises morph into political crises across the world. Frustration with political systems that have overseen endless austerity has led to a turn towards authoritarianism in the Philippines, Turkey and Russia. Across Europe longstanding parties of the moderate right and left have been discredited; challenged by parties of the xenophobic far right, such as France’s National Front and the Freedom Party in Austria, and the radical left, such as Greece’s SYRIZA and Spain’s Podemos. 

This polarization hasn’t hit the United States in the form of major new parties. Instead it has been shoehorned into our rigid political system, creating crises inside what radicals have sometimes described not as two distinct parties but two wings of the capitalist party. While Trump was taking the Republican primaries by storm, Bernie Sanders was drawing huge crowds — and votes — for what he unashamedly called socialism (even if a few generations ago it would have been called New Deal liberalism). 

One of the key stories of 2016 is that the Republican Party was too weak to prevent Trump’s right-wing populism from taking over, while the Democrats closed ranks to protect U.S. capital from party voters — referred to as the “Red Army” in leaked emails. Once Sanders was defeated (and largely disappeared inside the smothering embrace of the Clinton campaign), the door was wide open for Trump to pitch himself as the voice of revolt against a Wall Street status quo well-represented by Clinton. 

In the immediate wake of Trump’s victory, first thoughts will be defensive: preventing deportations, protecting against hate crimes, protesting the inauguration of the Rapist-in-Chief. But beating Trump and Trumpism over the long haul will require playing offense. The Sanders campaign showed that tens of millions of people — including white working class men — will rally behind a socialist calling for wealth redistribution and speaking out against the politics of scapegoating. How to rebuild that momentum and connect it with protest movements like Black Lives Matter and the pipeline war at Standing Rock will be key questions, as will the debate over whether our efforts should focus inside a Democratic Party whose leadership cursed Sanders and enabled Trump. But if there’s one overriding lesson to be learned from this endless campaign, it’s that the left can’t beat the right by retreating to the center.

Danny Katch is the author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2015).

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