Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Well, the Democratic Party’s candidates for President — or at least 20 of them — got to get out of what has increasingly looked like a clown car and actually talk to voters on TV June 26 and 27 in Miami, Florida. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) co-sponsored the debate with three NBC-owned TV networks — NBC itself, MS-NBC and Telemundo — and set up the rules by which the candidates would have to demonstrate enough nationwide support, either by poll numbers or donations to their campaigns, to qualify for the events.
That’s two events because the DNC decided to have separate debates on each night, with 10 candidates on Wednesday, June 26 and 10 more Thursday, June 27. The apparent intent was to avoid what the Republicans did with a similarly packed clown-car’s worth of 17 candidates in 2016 — pick out the 10 leading candidates for the main-stage, prime-time debate and relegate the others to a kid’s-table undercard debate in the afternoon.
But when four of the five leading candidates — former vice-president Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced “boot-a-judge,” by the way) — ended up on the second-night stage, the first debate on Wednesday started to look like merely the warmup act.
It gave especially short shrift to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) just when she was starting to rise in the polls from third place to second, behind Biden but ahead of Sanders. Though the DNC officials insisted that the assignments were “random,” it certainly seemed like the DNC, which in 2016 blatantly rigged the process against Sanders and in favor of Hillary Clinton, wanted to trash the chances of Warren, who’s just as progressive as Sanders but seems to know the political process a lot better and has done a lot more work to translate their shared left-of-center ideas into actual policy proposals.
Warren dominated the first hour of the first night’s debate but then barely got called on in the second half by moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd — though she recovered long enough to give an eloquent closing statement calling for an America where the economic and political systems aren’t blatantly rigged by and for the already super-rich.
What mostly got reported out of Wednesday’s debate was an arcane argument between two of the lesser candidates, both from Texas (a state so deep-red Donald Trump would have to be caught on tape having an orgy with a seven-year-old boy and a goat to lose it), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Congressmember (and failed U.S. Senate candidate) Beto O’Rourke over whether immigrating into the U.S. without proper documents should continue to be a federal crime or whether it should be reduced to the civil offense it used to be.
And what mostly got reported out of Thursday’s debate was a carefully prepared assault on former V-P Biden by Kamala Harris, who comes from an African-American background but frankly doesn’t look like it. (The first time I heard of her and saw her photo, I assumed from her skin color, her very un-Black hair and nose, and the name “Kamala” that she was [East] Indian.)
One of Biden’s talking points has been that he’s the candidate who can do the most to preserve and extend the legacy of African-American civil rights activism. Not only was he the vice-president to the first African-American President in U.S. history, his poll standing among Black Democrats is 45 percent — over 10 percent higher than his support among Democrats as a whole.
But Harris, following Republican strategist Karl Rove’s tactic of attacking the opponent where he (or she) seems to be strongest, tore into Biden for having opposed the use of busing to integrate schools in the 1970’s. Harris said that she herself had been part of the second class bused from Berkeley’s low-income Black neighborhoods to schools in more affluent white communities, and added that she believed she got better opportunities from that education that enabled her to go to college, become an attorney and serve as district attorney in San Francisco, attorney general of California and ultimately a U.S. Senator.
I missed the first 45 minutes of Thursday’s debate — I was still on my way home from work when it was going on — but I got home in time to hear the Harris-Biden exchange. My heart sank. Frankly, in the argument between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden over busing, the real winner was … Donald Trump.
As an elementary-school student in the mid-1970’s, Harris may not be old enough to remember the hideous damage “busing” — both the word and the concept — did to the Democratic Party. But I do. It tore apart communities in cities as different as Los Angeles and Boston and led to former liberal and progressive allies not only rhetorically but sometimes physically attacking each other. “Busing” was one of the key racist code words by which the Republican Party was able in the 1960’s and 1970’s to break apart the New Deal coalition and win the white working class away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.
As I’ve argued in these pages before, the Republicans put together a Right-wing coalition that has mostly, though not totally, dominated U.S. politics since 1968 by tapping white working-class prejudices about race and culture and saying the Democrats had sold out the white working class to protect racial minorities, feminists, hippies and Queers. Every Republican who has won a Presidential election since 1968 — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes and Donald Trump — has done so in part by manipulating white working-class anxieties with words like “busing,” “welfare queens,” “illegal immigrants” and the like.
In their attempt to unseat a President who managed to win largely by convincing working-class white voters — especially in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio that had particularly suffered from the deindustrialization of America and the mass export of jobs to lower-wage countries and low-paid “illegal” workers in this one — that he was on their side, the last thing the Democrats should be doing is dropping words like “busing” into their debates and thereby reminding white working-class voters why they stopped voting for Democrats and started voting for Republicans in the first place.
It’s 1896 All Over Again
One of the most bizarre things about modern-day U.S. political commentary is how every time there’s an open contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination, pundits and the chattering classes seem to “discover” all over again that there’s a conflict within the Democratic Party between moderate centrists and Left progressives. There’s a conflict, all right, but it’s nothing new.
It really began in 1896, when the Democratic Party was in the minority almost everywhere in the U.S. but the South, which was still essentially fighting the Civil War and saw the Democrats as their instrument for keeping African-Americans as close to slavery as they could. Elsewhere in the nation the Civil War’s victors, the Republicans, dominated politics so completely that between 1860 and 1892 the Republicans won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats’ two, and held Congressional majorities through most of that time as well.
In 1896 the incumbent President was Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who had won both the elections the Republicans had lost (as well as a third election, in 1888, in which he’d won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison — sound familiar?). It was a time in which national politics were controlled almost outright by the giant corporations that ran the economy in the new industrial age, came together to form monopolistic “trusts” and destroy potential competition, and treated the political system basically as a store in which they could “buy” favorable policies by donating to politicians’ campaigns and often by running for — and essentially purchasing — elective office themselves. It was also the era in which the U.S. Congress passed its first restrictions on immigration, including banning a whole country — China — from sending us immigrants.
Indeed, I’ve been arguing ever since Donald Trump emerged as the alligator who ate all the other Republican Presidential candidates in the swamp in 2016 that the answer to Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question to him — just when does Trump think America was “great,” and to which he wants to return to “make America great again”? — is the 1880’s. At the time there were no restrictions on corporations’ ability to pollute the environment, low-ball workers’ wages and subject them to dangerous conditions, block workers from organizing unions, merge into giant trusts to keep anyone from competing with them, or pay politicians what amounted to outright bribes to maintain their “freedom” to exploit everyone else for their own gain.
Though the Democrats had gained a Congressional majority in 1874 and the Presidency in 1884 largely by exploiting public revulsion over the Republicans’ political corruption, once in office they behaved pretty much the same way. Like his Republican predecessors, President Cleveland called out the National Guard and other federal forces to break strikes. He ran an economic policy that focused on keeping inflation low instead of expanding economic opportunity by putting more money in circulation. The result was a nationwide “Panic” — 19th-century speak for “depression” — that hit in 1893 and lasted at least five years.
Americans who were getting hurt by these policies responded politically by forming the Populist Party in 1892 (which makes it especially ironic that a President like Trump who’s on the opposite side of all the major economic issues from the original Populists keeps being called a “populist” by political commentators who don’t know the term’s history). The Democrats of the 1890’s regarded the emergence of the Populists as an existential threat — could they annihilate the Democratic Party the way the Republicans had with the Whig Party in the 1850’s? — and they split over the question, beat them or co-opt them?
In 1896 the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination was between moderate Grover Cleveland and progressive William Jennings Bryan. Bryan has become one of the most misunderstood figures in American politics because late in life he embraced the cause of Fundamentalist Christianity and tried to block the teaching of evolution. But his 1896 campaign was a slashing attack on the power and privilege of giant corporations, and a call for coining silver in order to expand the money supply and therefore stimulate the economy.
Bryan’s religious conservatism informed and reinforced his political progressivism in ways that would seem inconceivable today. Running 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore had political rights under the U.S. Constitution, Bryan argued that corporate personhood was literally blasphemy. If you believed, as the Declaration of Independence said, that people were “endowed by their Creator” with the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it followed logically that only God-created persons — human beings — held those rights; not person-created “persons,” corporations.
Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution stemmed in large part from his political progressivism. In the 1880’s social theorists like Herbert Spencer argued that the human race was still evolving and that rich people were actually superior beings — the fact that they were rich, Spencer argued, demonstrated their superiority and therefore their entitlement to most of the wealth and income. Invoking Charles Darwin’s explanation of how evolution worked, Spencer said, “The millionaires are the product of natural selection” — and a horrified Bryan rejected not only Spencer’s gloss on evolution but the evolutionary theory itself.
When Bryan challenged Cleveland for the 1896 Democratic nomination, he won — but the Democrats ultimately lost to Republican William McKinley. The corporate bosses the Populists and Bryan’s Democrats were attacking fought back in the nastiest ways they could. Millions of American workers got notices in their pay packets saying, “Don’t come to work anymore if Bryan wins.” Between 1896 and 1928 the Democrats once again won only two out of nine Presidential elections, and Republicans actually increased the size and longevity of their Congressional majorities.
The Struggle Continues for the Democrats’ Soul
As the Republican Party controlled the U.S. government for most of the first three decades of the 20th century, the battle within the Democratic Party over how to respond continued. In 1912 the Democrats finally elected their first President since Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia but a resident of New Jersey when he ran, largely because that year it was the Republican Party that split between progressive former President Theodore Roosevelt and conservative incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson squeaked out a re-election in 1916 but his involvement of the U.S. in World War I and his desire that this country remain a player in foreign politics after the war helped Republican Warren Harding win in 1920 by promising a “return to normalcy.”
In 1924, after Harding died in office, scandals engulfed his Cabinet and vice-president Calvin Coolidge took over the presidency, the Democratic convention deadlocked between conservative William Gibbs McAdoo, another transplanted Southerner (born in Tennessee but a resident of California) who had been Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury; and progressive New York Governor Al Smith. The convention went to 103 ballots before finally nominating John W. Davis, a Wall Street attorney whose final public action 30 years later would be arguing the racist side before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Coolidge beat Davis in a landslide, and four years later the Democrats nominated Al Smith but split over Smith’s religion — Roman Catholicism — and his support of repealing Prohibition. Republican Herbert Hoover won an easy victory, largely on the strength of an expanding economy — only the expansion suddenly came to a halt in late 1929 with the stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression. The Depression and World War II would make the Democrats the U.S. majority party from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and would tamp down the continuing controversy between the party’s moderates and its progressives.
But the struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul would erupt again in the 1960’s. Northern Democratic Presidents and Congressmembers took the lead in fighting for African-American civil rights and ultimately broke the power of the Southern Democrats — leading to an historic reversal of the two parties’ historical positions on civil rights. The Democrats, who’d been the party of slavery, secession, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (with crucial support from moderate Northern Republicans) and established themselves as the party of civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular.
The Republicans responded with the so-called “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond — the fiercely racist Senator from South Carolina who began as a Democrat, ran for President in 1948 as an independent and later became a Republican. The essence of the “Southern Strategy” was that, now that the Democrats had laid down the banner of Southern racism, the Republicans would pick it up. The “Party of Lincoln” thus became the party of racist reaction — and not just in the South. Northern working-class whites, horrified by the gains African-Americans were making (and convinced they were coming at their expense) and also by the 1960’s counterculture, began abandoning the Democratic Party and voting for Republicans.
Nixon’s victory in the 1968 election — and the emergence of a Right-wing voting bloc that got 57 percent of the vote that year (between Nixon’s 43 percent and racist independent candidate George Wallace’s 14 percent) to the Democrats’ 43 percent — reignited the internal conflict within the Democratic Party: move to the center to win back the white voters they’d lost over race and culture, or embrace the Left? In 1968 they chose the former, nominating Hubert Humphrey in Chicago while police in a city with a Democratic mayor beat protesters to bloody pulps — and Humphrey lost by a margin that, when Nixon’s and Wallace’s votes are added together, indicated a broad rejection of liberal politics in general and the Democrats in particular.
In 1972 the Democrats nominated progressive South Dakota Senator George McGovern after the most promising moderate, Maine Senator Ed Muskie (Humphrey’s running mate in 1968) was knocked out of the campaign by Nixon’s dirty-tricks operation. McGovern lost in a landslide, with just 39 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 61 percent, and the Democratic Party responded quite differently from the way the Republicans had when Right-winger Barry Goldwater had lost to Lyndon Johnson by a similar margin in 1964.
The Republicans decided after the Goldwater loss that the problem hadn’t been with their policies, but with him as a spokesperson for them. Instead of retreating from the extreme Right-wing positions of Goldwater, they embraced them and in 1980 won the Presidency with Ronald Reagan running on what was essentially Goldwater’s program. By contrast, after 1972 the Democrats decided that the problem was McGovern’s policies, and the people running the Democratic Party decided to rig the rules to make sure nobody that progressive could get nominated again.
Among the devices they used to do that was the so-called “superdelegates,” party leaders who would be guaranteed slots at the convention and would form a powerful voting bloc against anyone they perceived as too progressive. The Democratic establishment was able to beat back progressive challenges from Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Senator Gary Hart and Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 largely through their control of the delegate selection process. But the bland centrists they ran against Reagan in 1984 (Walter Mondale) and George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice-president and anointed successor, in 1988 (Michael Dukakis), also went down to humiliating defeats.
What’s a Party to Do?
While the Democrats were for the most part abandoning or compromising their most hard-core progressive supporters to appeal to “the center,” the Republicans were doing the exact opposite. During the 1990’s the Republican Party, its corporate funders and a Right-wing media complex they were able to create largely due to Reagan’s deregulation of broadcasting became a devastatingly effective propaganda machine designed not only to keep winning elections for the Republicans but to build a hard core of public support from people who relied on Right-wing media — particularly AM talk radio and Fox News — to tell them how to think about politics and whom to vote for.
So Democrats in general, and progressive Democrats in particular, have waited with frustration while Republicans have managed to push the terms of U.S. political debate further and further Right. Ideas like privatizing Social Security, which were considered totally beyond the political pale when Barry Goldwater proposed it in 1964, have become serious threats. Republicans haven’t won every Presidential or Congressional election since 1968 — far from it — but they’ve adopted a policy of waiting out every Democratic President or Congress and using the anti-democratic features built into the U.S. government by the Constitution to block the Democrats from advancing a progressive or even a liberal agenda very far.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When I was in grade school, high school, and college (where I majored in political science), the conventional wisdom was that the American political system punished parties that tried to be too ideological. If either the Republicans or the Democrats went too far to the extreme — the Republicans too far Right or the Democrats too far Left — the voters would punish them by removing them from office, thereby bringing the overall political system back to the center.
That hasn’t happened partly because the Republicans have built up a political-media complex that has kept their base mobilized, energized and committed. Also, the Republicans have cunningly exploited the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution — the Electoral College, the equal representation of each state in the Senate, and the near-total control of election laws by state government (including the absolute right, recently endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to draw blatantly rigged and uncompetitive political districts so Republicans can stay in power even when overwhelming majorities of voters cast their ballots for Democrats) — to become and remain what historian Leonard Schapiro, writing about the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, called “a minority determined to rule alone.”
Donald Trump is not, as Joe Biden has called him, an “aberration” in American politics. He is the culmination of over 50 years of Republican political strategizing aimed at imposing an orthodoxy on American politics consisting of Libertarian economic policies (an end to government regulation of corporations, including laws protecting workers’ health and safety; an end to environmental protection; an end to all attempts to restrict campaign contributions and all restrictions on rich politicians personally profiting from their offices) and a highly interventionist “big government” upholding “traditional family values” and the tenets of Right-wing Christianity by controlling people’s personal lives in general and their sex lives in particular.
The Democratic voices we heard at the debates are deeply committed to combating this agenda but equally deeply split on how to do so. One of the impressions I got from the debates, particularly Wednesday’s, was that as many differences as there were between the candidates, their similarities more than outweighed them. As Virginia Heffernan put it in the June 30 Los Angeles Times (https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-heffernan-debates-20190628-story.html), “No one attacked FISA judges, Peter Strzok, the corrupt FBI, crisis actors, the satanic media, Sasquatch or the women President Trump doesn’t consider attractive enough to rape.
“No one called the climate crisis a hoax,” Heffernan continued. “No one dismissed the Fourth Estate as fakery. No one used daft playground nicknames that wouldn’t pass muster with Nelson from The Simpsons. Instead, we heard insight and resolve about the humanitarian crisis in Trump’s border camps, about Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, about gun violence and income inequality as clear and present dangers.”
The Democratic debates indicated that America really is two different countries — as the late columnist Murray Kempton noted as early as November 1968 when he commented on the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace election and called Nixon “the president of every community in America that doesn’t have a bookstore.” Not only do Republicans and Democrats have different positions on issues, they have different sets of values and different ideas of what constitutes “truth” and where you go to find it. Democrats see climate change, income inequality, lack of access to health care, gun violence and authoritarian countries like Russia and China as threats.
Republicans, with Trump as their spokesperson, see the real threats as immigrants, Muslims, people of color and those pesky countries in Western Europe that insist on clinging to the values of liberal democracy. If Trump were a strategic thinker — which he isn’t — he would not only be fêting the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea but working with them to organize a “Black International” to crush the whole idea of representative government once and for all and organize the world on the basis of personality-driven dictatorships.
Trump isn’t that sort of thinker. He’s not Adolf Hitler, who not only wanted to wipe democracy (as well as Jews, Communists, Gypsies and Queers) from the face of the earth but came chillingly close to doing so. But he’s a reflection of an American id that Republican politicians have been appealing to and building as their political base for over 50 years. Anyone who’s listened to Right-wing talk radio heard the “Trump voice” long before Trump himself was anything more than a minor-league developer in the outer boroughs of New York City.
From Joe Pyne and Pat Michaels in the 1960’s to Morton Downey, Jr. in the 1980’s and Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin and Roger Hedgecock in the 1990’s and since, talk-radio hosts not only follow the same scripts but speak in the same tones, denouncing their opponents with snippy nicknames and proclaiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an idiot and deserves no consideration whatsoever. Trump won the election at least in part because he was the first Presidential candidate who talked like a Right-wing talk-radio host — and talk radio and Fox News remain powerful propaganda channels and motivators for the Right-wing base.
The threat is that the Democrats will blow the 2020 elections by refighting their old ideological battles and splintering even in the face of the existential threat Trump’s re-election poses not only to the Democratic Party but American democracy itself. This happened in 2016, when all too many of the Democratic base’s voters either threw their votes away on third-party candidates or just stayed home. The Russians didn’t elect Donald Trump — though their online efforts did pour some extra gasoline on the fires already consuming the Democratic Party. The Democrats did, through overconfidence and inaction.
The worst thing that could happen in 2020 is that the Democratic primary campaign goes on so long and becomes so bitter that the eventual nominee can’t unite the party and appeal to the country. It’s entirely possible that Trump could win in 2020 the way he did in 2016 — with a laser-like focus on voters who still feel disaffected by the Democrats and respond to racial and cultural attacks in enough states to get him an Electoral College victory even if he loses the popular vote (again).
In the same issue of the Los Angeles Times in which Virginia Heffernan published her paean to the sense of normality she got from the Democratic debate, Doyle McManus published the sort of article we should get used to seeing in the remaining 16 months of the campaign (https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-democrats-presidential-campaign-21090630-story.html): one tsk-tsking the Democratic candidates in general, and the more progressive ones like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in particular, for allegedly getting too far ahead of the American people by advocating Medicare for all, health coverage for undocumented immigrants and a $15 per hour minimum wage.
In 1964 Phyllis Schlafly published a book called A Choice, Not an Echo in which she said that if the Republicans rejected the moderate New Deal consensus at the time and nominated a hard-line Right-wing candidate, they would win in a landslide and fundamentally reshape American politics. She was wrong about the immediate battle — Barry Goldwater lost big-time — but right about the overall war.
There is a struggle for the soul of America between the Right’s exaltation of wealth and privilege, corporate power, whites over people of color, men over women, straights over Queers and short-term profits over environmental protection, and the Left’s desire to break down the walls of power and privilege, preserve the environment, use government to safeguard the physical and economic health and safety of the overwhelming majority of people who don’t own the means of production, and make society more equal economically, racially and sexually.
It’s a struggle in which the Left has achieved some small victories but the Right is far ahead in the overall war — so much so that a second term for Trump, especially if the Republicans also regain control of the House of Representatives (which became far more likely after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week giving states the right to gerrymander without fear of being held to account by the courts), will probably end the few gains we’ve won and return women, people of color and Queers to second-class citizenship (or worse).
Which way the Democratic Party goes in this year’s struggle — whether it tries to be “centrist,” compromising, appeasing the forces of reaction; or whether it stands firm but also stands smart and avoids getting sucked into the race-baiting of the past — is key not only to whether they can win next year’s elections but whether they, the American people and, indeed, the whole human race have a future.