How is it that not just one but two of the top three Democratic contenders this year are progressives, and both seem to be gaining on centrist corporate Democrat Joe Biden? Why is this election different from all other elections?
Three reasons, I think: First the American economy has become so totally rigged against ordinary working families that the political logic of a progressive populist nominee finally broke through the usual blather about needing moderation to win, especially after Trump rode the fake populist horse to victory in 2016.
Second, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, each in their own way, are unusually gifted leaders. Sanders is revered as a truth teller who tapped pent-up frustrations in 2016 to the point where he very nearly wrested the nomination from Hillary Clinton, one of the best bolstered front runners of all time—this despite the liability of being a 74-year-old professed socialist.
As for Warren, she may be the most effective leader at narrating the lived pocketbook grievances of ordinary people and at bridging schisms of race since maybe Bobby Kennedy in 1968. One of these two could well get the nomination, if they don’t turn on each other, which is a topic for another column.
But the third difference between this and other postwar elections is that the structural obstacles to nominating a progressive are at last being breached, and it’s worth taking a moment to review those structural barriers. After all, exactly one progressive managed to win the Democratic nomination in the past half century, and that was George McGovern in 1972.
He was trounced by Richard Nixon, then at the peak of his wily powers. But the lessons of 1972 do not apply today because we have nothing comparable to the party schisms of the Vietnam era.
Though Democrats (and the country) have been crying out for a progressive nominee, as people’s economic prospects steadily dwindled since the late 1970s, all of the party’s recent standard bearers have been centrist or at best tepid center-left. The reason is that all of the structural factors militate against nominating a lefty.
Money talks loudly in politics, and the last thing big money wants is a progressive populist. Centrist candidates can gesture left to win votes, but do nothing serious to challenge business hegemony once nominated or elected.
Further, the conventional wisdom reigns, with the media as echo chamber. Progressive candidates, like Dick Gephardt in 1988, get trashed by the press as protectionist demagogues. Everything Gephardt said that election about East Asian mercantilism was vindicated. He was too right, too soon.
Looking back at every nominating contest since 1972, the relative centrist won the nomination, and in three cases the election. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 then lost the presidency in 1980; Walter Mondale in 1984 ran as the candidate of budget balance, as urged by his adviser Robert Rubin. He lost 49 states. Michael Dukakis in 1988 had been a superb governor, part liberal, part technocrat, but didn’t have a populist bone in his body. Bill Clinton in 1992 became the ultimate deregulator of Wall Street. Gore in 2000 kept tacking between his own moderately liberal instincts and the pulls of the DLC and the funders.
In 2004, John Kerry was liberalish, but his top adviser on economic issues was the same Robert Rubin. And in 2008, Obama ran more as a foreign policy progressive, but when it came time to govern he hired the Clinton economic team and bailed out rather than cleaned out the big banks. And then we got Hillary Clinton, which in turn led to Trump.
All the while, the economy was turning more and more brutally against working people, who accurately perceived that neither party was serving their interests. There were also some unfortunate accidents of history, from Bobby Kennedy’s murder, to the death of Paul Wellstone in a plane crash, to the fact that John Edwards, the self-appointed populist in 2004, turned out to be a fake.
As it happens, I’ve written three books, beginning in 1987, warning that the Democratic Party was setting itself up for defeat by getting captured by financial elites and neoliberals. The first, The Life of The Party, explored just how the Democrats has been corrupted by the DCCC and the DLC and neoliberal ideology, and urged the nomination of a pocketbook progressive.
The second, Obama’s Challenge, in 2008, observed that history had handed Obama a chance to be a transformative president a la FDR but warned that the Obama was at grave risk or being captured by the usual suspects. One chapter was called “Audacity Versus Undertow.” Thank God he didn’t appoint Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to run economic policy. Whoops.
Now I’m out with a new book, The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy. The fate that I’d been warning about—the turning of exasperated working people to a neo-fascist—finally happened. But this time, we actually have the prospect of nominating a progressive and winning an election, not only to take back the economy but the democracy as well.
We had better succeed this time, because the stakes are higher then ever. A fourth book about democracy and the Democrats, written in Trump’s second term (if we still have a free press), would be a real downer.