by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“I will not live my life for any other person, nor ask another person to live his life for mine.”
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
“We just keep winning, winning, winning,” President Donald Trump boasted at a campaign-style rally shortly after Republican Congressional candidate Karen Handel decisively beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election in Georgia — the fourth time in a row a Republican had kept a House of Representatives seat from flipping Democratic. The election occurred on the eve of another announcement in the history of the Republican Revolution: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s promise that his house’s version of the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare,” would finally be revealed to the world after it had been drafted in secret by 13 Republican Senators — all of them male, and all white except Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Forget just about everything you’ve read about the “disarray” of the Trump Administration, the discontent of the so-called “moderates” in the Republican Party and the historically low “approval” ratings President Trump has reached in opinion polls. The Republican Revolution — essentially a back-to-the-future campaign to return the U.S. to what it was in the 1880’s, when corporations and their wealthy owners ruled everything and frequently purchased public office just to make themselves richer; workers didn’t have the right to organize into unions; workers’ health-and-safety laws didn’t exist and neither did environmental protections — is continuing despite the speed bump it hit in the Senate when McConnell’s health-care bill couldn’t attract enough Republican votes to pass.
The Republican Party has been determined to return the U.S. to the economic law of the jungle at least since the 1930’s, and arguably since the 1890’s, when pressure from the original Populists forced the government to confront, and occasionally even do something about, the excesses of unbridled capitalism: the increasing inequality of wealth and income, the treatment of workers and the environment as expendable commodities, the open purchasing of influence and power in the halls of government. It’s fascinating to me that American political commentators are so ill-informed about their nation’s history that President Trump continues to be described as a “populist” when he’s exactly the sort of politician the original Populists organized to oppose: a privileged rich person who bought public office to make himself richer.
It was during the 1930’s, with Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic Congress vastly expanding government’s presence in the economy, guaranteeing workers’ rights, creating Social Security to end poverty among senior citizens, and passing laws like the federal minimum wage and the Wagner Act, which gave workers a legally enforceable right to have unions and strike for better wages and conditions, that the Right-wing reaction went into overdrive. The arguments of the anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal and anti-progressive Right have a familiar ring today: government was getting too big, too involved in the inner workings of the economy; taxes were so high they were penalizing entrepreneurial success and handing money to people who didn’t deserve it; and only by returning to the order and discipline of the Free Market could economic recovery be achieved.
Among the propagandists for the Right who emerged in the late 1930’s was a woman writer and refugee from the Soviet Union named Ayn Rand. Her first novel, We the Living (1936), was an autobiographical story about her life in Soviet Russia and her deepening conviction that any economic system other than total lassiez-faire capitalism would produce the devastating privation and dictatorial authority she had seen first-hand in the Soviet Union. Along with the “Austrian School” economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, Rand developed a political philosophy she called “Objectivism” but which is usually known today as Libertarianism.
The fundamental tenet of Libertarianism is that the individual is supreme, and people essentially owe nothing to each other. In Rand’s two most important works, the novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), she created stories in which heroic capitalists representing untrammeled individualism did battle with evil collectivists in government and wimps in the private sector who were willing to compromise with them. Contrary to the public image of Rand as a fierce defender of capitalists, there are as many capitalist villains in her books as there are capitalist heroes, and what separates the two are their attitudes towards government: Rand’s bad capitalists seek special favors from government, while her good capitalists either ignore government completely or treat it as just another customer.
Rand was so convinced of the superiority of her capitalist heroes over the common run of humanity that in her books she constructed plot lines in which her heroes lost all their money — and then, through a combination of hard work and brute strength and power, got it all back. She even believed the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism was so powerful it could literally change the laws of physics; John Galt, the legendary figure around whom the plot of Atlas Shrugged is built even though he doesn’t appear until the very end of the book, invents a super-motor that runs on air. And she established a black-and-white Manichean view of society in which the handful of people at the top who build and run successful enterprises are the “makers,” and everyone else — workers, pensioners, the old, the disabled, as well as ordinary people who aren’t at the level of brilliance of her heroes — are “moochers” and “takers” out to shame, blackmail or force the “makers” to support their wimpy little undeserving carcasses.
One cannot understand the Republican Party of today without understanding the philosophy of Ayn Rand. When Paul Ryan, currently the Speaker of the House, was Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, it was revealed that every time Ryan hired a new member of his Congressional staff, he gave them a copy of Atlas Shrugged and told them to read it as an indication of what he wanted from them. Romney himself expressed the Libertarian credo more simply and comprehensively than Rand ever did on May 17, 2012, when in a private fundraiser for his fellow 0.01-percenters in Florida that was secretly recorded and released four months later, he said:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That — that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
GOP Health Plan: Libertarianism in Action
A lot of the commentary on the U.S. Senate’s proposed health care bill since it was released on June 22 has called the legislation “mean” and “cruel.” It’s focused on the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projection that if it’s passed 22 million Americans who are now covered by health insurance won’t be. Many of the comments have noted that the bill goes far beyond a “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act to attack the very basis of Medicaid, the government program passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that offered health care for the poor and gave state governments basically whatever they needed to cover everyone they decided should qualify. Both the House and Senate Republican health care bills would eliminate this guarantee and instead cap federal funding at current levels, adjusted for overall inflation — which would dramatically diminish the money available for Medicaid coverage over time because health-care costs are going up several times faster than anything else.
Well, as computer geeks say, to the Libertarians who currently control the Republican party, those aren’t glitches: they’re features. The Republican health care bills gut Medicaid and slash health-care funding to finance huge tax cuts for the rich because that’s what Libertarians believe government should be doing. To a Libertarian, it’s none of government’s damned business to guarantee health coverage to all its citizens. In the Libertarian world, health care is just another commodity: if you can afford it, you should have it; if you can’t, you should do without or beg for help from families, friends or churches. Former Republican House member and Presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas), father of current Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), angrily told off Democrats when, during the debate on the Affordable Care Act, he said that government had no business funding health care for people who couldn’t afford to pay for it. Told that people would die if his attitude became law, he came back by saying when he grew up that had been the law and no one had died for lack of health care. There’d always been a private source generous enough to cover the cost.
The Libertarians in charge of the current Republican Party see the attack on the Affordable Care Act as simply the first step in an overall challenge to the entire concept of social insurance in the U.S. They already persuaded Democratic President Bill Clinton to eviscerate the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program — the one usually colloquially known as “welfare” — in 1996, renaming it “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” and insisting that recipients work for their benefits. Now they’re after the Big Three of the entitlement state — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and they see getting rid of the Affordable Care Act as the first step towards bringing an end to social insurance in the U.S. forever.
They’re aware it’s going to take them a while to build up enough political capital to take down Social Security — especially since so much of the Republican base is concentrated among older Americans for whom Social Security is literally the difference between life and death — so they’re willing to do it in increments. Indeed, the biggest surprise about the Republican health care bills is that they were willing to leapfrog over step one of their anti-social insurance campaign, the low-hanging fruit of the Affordable Care Act, and go right into step two, the attack on Medicaid. The drafters of the current Senate bill have found themselves caught between conservative pragmatists like Ohio Governor John Kasich, who came out against the bill because his state took advantage of the Affordable Care Act’s opportunity to expand Medicaid and use the money, among other things, to address his state’s epidemic of opioid addiction, and hard-core Libertarians like Charles and David Koch, who’ve threatened to finance primary challengers against Republican Senators who vote for the bill because they don’t think it’s harsh enough.
Not that the Senate health bill is likely to stay dead. When the first version of the House legislation was abruptly pulled from an expected floor vote in March because there weren’t enough Republican Congressmembers on board to pass it, Democrats and progressives prematurely celebrated a victory. But in May the Republican leadership was able to grab the votes they needed from so-called “moderates” even though the second version of the bill was a harsher attack on the social insurance state than the first had been. Among other things, it allowed states to let private health insurers discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions — a particularly nasty bit of legerdemain America’s for-profit health insurance industry practiced for decades that essentially locked people out of the health-care system for life if they happened to have had an illness that was going to be too expensive for the for-profit insurers to finance treatment.
The Senate is likely to pass a health-care bill similar to the one Mitch McConnell abruptly pulled from the calendar on June 27. It will, as President Trump suggested, include a few more dollars to buy off this or that Senator from this or that state. Just as the House bill included a pathetically inadequate sum to help people with pre-existing conditions get coverage despite its abolition of the guarantee under the Affordable Care Act that insurers couldn’t discriminate against them, so the Senate will likely throw a few extra dollars at Senators whose states have higher-than-usual rates of opioid addiction and who are worried about the decimation of substance-abuse treatment that will otherwise happen as Medicaid, which funds quite a lot of it, is cut back.
But make no mistake: barring an absolute rebellion among their constituents back home and a willingness on the part of Senate Democrats to shut down the Senate completely until the bill is finally and definitively withdrawn, the Senate will pass some version of the anti-health care law, the House will approve it (likely simply adopting whatever the Senate passes so they don’t have to deal with the delay and additional uncertainty of appointing a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill), Trump will sign it into law and, as he has promised, the Affordable Care Act and its promise that someday Americans, like their counterparts in every other economically advanced country, would have universal health care will be dead.
Then the Republicans in Congress will be able to move to what they’ve loudly proclaimed is their next legislative priority, so-called “tax reform,” which in practice will mean another huge tax cut for the rich on top of the huge tax cut for the rich they’ll have just enacted as part of the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. They will do this as part of the Libertarian ideology that the rich are the most deserving members of society and therefore deserve the lion’s share of wealth and income, and that any attempts to tax them to help the not-so-rich is not only bad public policy but downright immoral. They will also do this as part of another bit of ideological myth they’ve adopted: the idea that tax cuts for the rich will give rich people more money to invest in the economy and therefore will stimulate economic growth.
This myth has had many names: in the late 19th and early 20th century it was called “trickle-down economics.” In the 1980’s it was called “supply-side economics” and in the 21st century it’s usually been referred to as “unleashing the private sector.” The reason its advocates have to keep changing its name is that every time it’s tried, it doesn’t work. It was tried right after the Civil War and produced the “Panic” (19th-century speak for “depression”) of 1873. It was tried in the 1880’s and produced the “Panics” of 1893 and 1897. It was tried in the 1920’s and produced the Great Depression.
It was tried in the 1980’s, and the only reasons it didn’t completely tank the economy the way it had in the 1870’s, the 1880’s and the 1920’s were, first, President Ronald Reagan and Congress authorized such a massive increase in military spending it stimulated the economy and helped make up for the otherwise devastating effect of the tax cuts for the rich. Second, Reagan was enough of a Right-wing pragmatist (instead of a Right-wing ideologue) to pull back on the tax cuts and authorize a tax “reform” in 1986 that was precisely that: a scaling back of the earlier tax cuts for the rich and a genuine attempt to produce a fairer tax system for all. But in the 2000’s it was tried again, and this time it helped produce the economic meltdown of 2008.
To sum up, the Republicans are on an ideological mission to re-create the U.S. as a Libertarian utopia, which is what they thought they were doing back in the 1880’s before all those pesky populists, socialists, communists, progressives and liberals got in the way. In her books, Ayn Rand actually named the 1880’s as America’s golden age, and it’s become clear from the way President Trump has actually governed (as opposed to the meaningless promises he made on the campaign trail) that the 1880’s are the time during which he believes America was “great” and to which he promised to return us when he said he would “Make America Great Again.”
Though Trump didn’t run for President as a Libertarian, he’s been governing as one because Libertarianism feeds the two things most important to Donald Trump: his fortune and his ego. Libertarianism tells billionaires like Trump that not only does he deserves to be rich, his wealth marks him literally as a superior specimen of humanity who should be recognized as such by the rest of us. It also generates public policies that will make Trump and his fellow 0.0001-percenters richer. Indeed, while other people — including other sorts of conservatives — bemoan the increasing inequality of wealth and income, not only in the U.S. but the entire world, Libertarians regard economic inequality as a good thing because it means the “makers” are getting more of what they deserve and the “moochers” — the people Mitt Romney denounced as expecting the government to take care of them and being unwilling to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” — get the pittances that are all they deserve.
And so far, despite all the chattering amongst the commentariat about how Trump’s administration is supposedly disorganized and constantly verging on chaos, Trump is quietly and methodically getting virtually everything he wants. With the aid of Mitch McConnell, he got Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court. He’s reversed President Obama’s policies on the environment, regulation of the financial industry, preserving Internet neutrality and, of course, immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court just handed Trump a huge win on the controversial anti-Muslim travel ban, allowing the administration to enforce virtually all of it. And though the Trump agenda had a setback when McConnell had to pull the Senate health care bill from a floor vote it was certain to lose, no doubt the Senate version, like the House’s, will be back and will pass once enough Senators can be cajoled, bribed or scared into supporting it. Indeed, like the House’s health bill, the one the Senate finally passes will probably be even worse than the one they started with as Trump and McConnell “compromise” to get the most hard-line Right-wingers like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on board.
Republicans’ Full-Spectrum Dominance
The two most dramatic phenomena of the Trump administration are the record of solid Right-wing accomplishments he’s racking up, despite the surface bluster that allows progressives, liberals and Democrats to keep underestimating him (let’s face it, if they’d been right about Trump he never would have won the election) and the near-total impotence of the opposition party to do anything to stop him. The high point of recent Democratic power came in the first two years of the Obama Presidency, when Obama came in with solid partisan majorities in both the House and Senate. Since then, every national election has been a disaster for the Democratic Party. They lost the House in 2010. They lost the Senate in 2014. Even before that, the Democrats had been losing state governments right and left — today 25 states are totally controlled (the governorship and both houses of the legislature) by Republicans versus only six by the Democrats (and, aside from California, all the states controlled by Democrats are small and relatively uninfluential).
The Republicans are on the verge of what President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, called “full-spectrum dominance of American politics.” Because they have been so successful in winning control of state governments, they have virtually unlimited power to rewrite the election rules. They can gerrymander House and state legislative districts with such computer-generated precision it will be virtually impossible for the Democrats ever to dislodge them. They can impose photo-ID requirements, make voter registration more difficult, disenfranchise more people altogether, eliminate early voting, place plenty of polling places in affluent areas and few in lower-income districts, and do all sorts of things to minimize voter turnout so the people less likely to vote Republican — poor people, young people, people of color — won’t be able to vote at all.
Not only has President Trump formed a national commission to investigate “voter fraud” (“voter fraud” is Republican-speak for “letting non-Republicans vote”), the people he chose as its chair and vice-chair are Vice-President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who not only launched an aggressive voter-suppression effort in his own state but was fined $1,000 for presenting misleading evidence in an election-related lawsuit. On June 28, a statement from the office of Vice-President Pence said “a letter will be sent today to the 50 states and District of Columbia on behalf of the Commission requesting publicly available data from state voter rolls and feedback on how to improve election integrity.”
As Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham explained (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/29/trumps-voter-fraud-commission-wants-to-know-the-voting-history-party-id-and-address-of-every-voter-in-america/?utm_term=.657c969f575a), the data being requested by the Commission will include “the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, last four Social Security number digits and voting history back to 2006 of potentially every voter in the state.” What’s more, Kobach has said that all the data the Commission gets from this request will be released to the public — so there will be a publicly available database of every voter in the United States, including their personal identification information and their party affiliation. So much for America’s tradition of free elections and secret ballots — and all this is being set in motion by a President who famously said during his campaign that he would only accept the election results “if I win,” and who has since maintained that he would have won the popular vote for President if there hadn’t been 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes cast against him.
All of these machinations are designed to convert the U.S. political system from one in which any number of political parties can exist but only two really matter, into one in which multiple parties can exist but only one will matter: the Republican Party. Ironically, given how thoroughly Trump has built his political brand by bashing immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular, the model appears to be Mexico as it was governed during the last two-thirds of the 20th century, in which many parties existed but all the major elections were won by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which therefore had a decades-long monopoly on power.
And Trump and the Republicans are able to get away with this long-term because the Republican Party has built a fanatical political base over the last few decades, starting in 1968 (when Richard Nixon and Right-wing independent candidate George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the Presidential vote to 43 percent for Democrat Hubert Humphrey, signaling the end of the New Deal Democratic coalition and the rise of a Right-wing majority that has been the dominant force in U.S. politics ever since) and ending in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan’s victories put the seal on America’s Right-wing political realignment. The Right did it by mobilizing the white working class through appealing to their racist and cultural prejudices, and also by “flipping” the two major parties’ historical positions on civil rights — the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; while the Republicans switched from being the “party of Lincoln” to the party of white racism and reaction — so the once solidly Democratic South has become the solidly Republican South.
Things only got worse for the Democrats and the American Left in general after Reagan got in. One of the biggest things he did was get rid of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” that had previously put restrictions on the extent to which broadcast media could be partisan. The “Fairness Doctrine,” which existed from 1949 to 1987, said that broadcast outlets could only cover politics if they represented both sides of each issue equally. Once Reagan got rid of it, the AM radio band became the virtually exclusive property of the Right, which created nationwide networks of talk-radio hosts who broadcast virtually identical points of view and, despite some individual stylistic differences, read from pretty much the same media playbook. The rise of Right-wing talk radio in 1987 and the formation of Fox News, which brought the same relentless Right-wing propaganda to cable TV, in 1996 has meant that there is a permanent Right-wing media party of immense power to keep both Republican politicians and their voters in line behind an uncompromising ideology combining economic Libertarianism and social, moral and cultural conservatism.
Leftists who write about U.S. media generally analyze it in terms of the corporations who own it, and in particular how many media outlets are merging or being bought out so there are fewer diverse voices and most of the material on the air comes from a handful of giant corporations. This analysis is right as far as it goes, but it vastly underestimates the extent to which, just as American capitalists have two pro-corporate political parties (the hard-Right Republicans and the Democrats, who in European terms would be a center-Right party), they have also organized two pro-corporate media parties. The Right-wing media party of Fox News, talk radio and Web sites like Breitbart, Townhall, and Infowars constantly attack the credibility, legitimacy and even the right to exist of the less ideologically driven “mainstream” media like the broadcast TV networks, more moderate cable networks like CNN and MS-NBC, and newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.
One of the most dramatic developments of the Trump administration has been the extent to which the President himself is a true believer in the Right-wing media party. Richard Nixon deliberately cut himself off from the mainstream media and relied on his staff to tell him what was going on in the world. Ronald Reagan handled the mainstream media the way he handled the opposition party in Congress, basically by charming them. The Bushes accepted the support of the Right-wing media party but they weren’t really of it the way Trump is. Trump not only appointed Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart, as his chief strategist, many of his infamous tweets are based on information from the Right-wing media. He’s made it clear that the only media outlets he trusts are Right-wing ones like Fox and Breitbart; not only do Trump and his press spokespeople, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, constantly dis the mainstream media — the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN in particular — as “fake news,” they’re clearly making policy based on the Right-wing fantasies being broadcast on Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart.
At present, President Trump and the Congressional and state Republicans hold virtually all the political cards in the U.S. They own the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. They have a cadre of multi-billionaire political donors willing to give scads of money to persuade people to vote for the most Right-wing candidates they can find. They have an immensely powerful media party giving Right-wing activists and voters their marching orders on a daily basis. And they have an organized political effort masterminded at the highest level of government to make sure people who wouldn’t vote for them will not be able to vote at all. While nothing in politics lasts forever, the Republican Party is poised to dominate American politics for a generation or more and fulfill their long-standing ambition to re-create the U.S. as a Libertarian utopia and eliminate all social programs and any other policies that might reverse the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S.
The Democrats’ Catch-22
And ranged against the awesome power and influence of the Republicans is a rival major party that has been so beaten down by continued defeats and so staggered by their own overconfidence that they can barely even summon the energy to resist. Since Donald Trump’s election as President, there have basically been two centers of opposition. One has done its job superbly: starting with the women’s marches on January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, and continuing through a series of marches based on human rights, science and immigrants’ rights — including the spontaneous protests at airports when the various iterations of Trump’s travel ban were announced — and the disruption of Republican Congressmembers’ town-hall meetings over the health-care bills, the direct-action resistance movement to Trump has turned out some of the largest and most spirited crowds in the history of American protest.
Alas, social change in a democratic republic does not come about exclusively through direct action, just as it does not come about exclusively through electoral politics. It takes both, and so far the Democratic Party — which, under America’s terrible system of single-member districts and winner-take-all elections, is the only vehicle by which anti-Trump, anti-Republican and anti-Libertarian candidates can actually win public office — has proven itself pathetically unable to amount an electoral resistance anywhere near comparable to the anti-Trump resistance being staged by progressives in the streets. So far there have been four special elections in which Democrats have tried to take seats in the House of Representatives after Republican incumbents vacated them to serve in Trump’s Cabinet — and the Republicans have won all four.
The Democrats’ spin machine has been working overtime, pointing out that these were districts in which the previous Republican members had won by 20 points or more (true) and they came a lot closer than previous Democratic challengers had — also true, but totally irrelevant under the rules of U.S. politics, in which you don’t get any prizes for finishing second. In American elections, a win is a win is a win, and whether you win by 20 points or by two points — or even, as Donald Trump did with the popular vote, you lose by two points but through the quirks of the system you win anyway — you have the same amount of power.
The Democrats have steadily been losing contested elections in the U.S. for at least a decade. It’s becoming more and more clear that Barack Obama’s two Presidential victories were flukes, the first one driven by the near-meltdown of the economy in September 2008 and the second more by voter inertia than anything else. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, the so-called “Obama coalition” was able to elect only one person: Obama himself. The Republicans have pulled together a powerful voter base built around two of the groups that were once bulwarks of the Democratic Party — Southerners and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest — and they’ve done it by embracing those voters’ racism and cultural prejudices.
After 2016 there was a lot of talk among Democrats about what they could do to win back the white working class that deserted them en masse to vote for Donald Trump. The depressing answer is very little. The white working class has slowly been pulled away from the Democratic Party; the people who in the 1980’s were the so-called “Reagan Democrats” in 2016 re-registered, cutting themselves off from their Democratic roots once and for all to make sure they could vote for Trump in Republican primaries — and now that they’ve taken the psychological step once and for all and “come out” as Republicans, it’s unlikely they’ll be coming back. Besides, the only way the Democrats could win them back is to embrace their racial and cultural prejudices — and that would piss off and drive away too many groups that are bulwarks of the current Democratic coalition: people of color, women (especially single college-educated women), Queers and what’s left of the 1960’s counterculture.
A lot of commentators are writing about the war between the conservative and progressive wings of the Democratic Party as if it’s something new. It isn’t. It’s been going on at least since 1896, in which — as in 2016 — the race for the Democratic nomination was between an establishment candidate and a progressive insurgent. The establishment candidate was the incumbent President, Grover Cleveland. The insurgent — the Bernie Sanders of 1896, as it were — was William Jennings Bryan, who because of his prosecution of John T. Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925 has gone down in history as a religious conservative, a prototype of today’s radical religious Right.
Nothing could be further from the truth: the real Bryan was an economic radical who regarded the idea that corporations were persons as literally blasphemous. (His argument was that if you believed the statement of the Declaration of Independence that humans were given “unalienable rights” by God, then those rights applied only to God-created persons — human beings — and not to person-created persons, corporations.) His call for the free and unlimited coinage of silver was, in modern terms, a demand to stimulate the economy and bring about full employment even at the risk of inflation. Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution was a twisted offshoot of his progressive economic ideas; faced with the Libertarians of his time, the so-called “Social Darwinists” who argued that the rich were a higher and more evolved race and therefore deserved the overwhelming share of the nation’s wealth and income they were grabbing by sheer power and willfulness, Bryan decided that the fault lay not only with Social Darwinism but Darwinism itself.
The conflict between conservatives and progressives in the Democratic Party flared up again in the 1920’s, another period of conservative Republican dominance, when conservative William Gibbs McAdoo and progressive Al Smith deadlocked for the 1924 nomination. The Democrats ended up nominating Wall Street attorney John W. Davis, who got creamed by Calvin Coolidge in the general election — and who last turned up in the public eye in 1954 when he argued against the civil rights of African-Americans in the Supreme Court hearings on Brown v. Board of Education. The Democrats split in 1948, when progressives upset by President Harry Truman’s embrace of the Cold War bolted and formed their own party, running Henry Wallace, the progressive Franklin Roosevelt had wanted to be his successor, as an independent candidate.
The Democrats split again in 1960 between progressive Hubert Humphrey and conservative Lyndon Johnson before they ended up nominating John F. Kennedy, who had so tiny a political record (he’d technically been a Senator from Massachusetts but his chronic illnesses had kept him away from the Capitol for most of his term) and was so calculatedly ambiguous in his public statements that both sides claimed him for their own. The Democrats split more infamously in 1968, when despite not having run in any primaries, Hubert Humphrey, now representing the conservative party establishment, grabbed the nomination after the death of Robert Kennedy and ended up with only 43 percent of the vote, a harbinger of the Republican realignment that would take place over the next four Presidential elections until Ronald Reagan solidified the Republican Presidential majority.
In 1972 the progressives actually got their candidate, George McGovern, nominated by the Democratic Party. What they didn’t realize was that not only was he the weakest possible candidate they could have put up against Richard Nixon’s re-election bid, but Nixon and his people were well aware of that — so much so that a key part of their elaborate attempt to rig the election, which became known as “Watergate,” was to make sure McGovern got the Democratic nomination by targeting his potential rivals with dirty tricks. Once McGovern went down to a landslide defeat, the Democratic establishment decided that from then on one-fourth of the Democratic convention delegates would be “superdelegates” appointed by party bosses. It was a change meant to make sure no progressive would ever win the Democratic nomination again, and it worked: from Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 through Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016, the route to the Democratic nomination is littered with the corpses of candidates who tried to take on the superdelegate system and lost.
The one progressive who actually made it through the gantlet of the Democrats’ undemocratic superdelegate process and won both the nomination and the election was Barack Obama — only he deeply disappointed the progressives whose hard work had helped win him the nomination by the way he governed. Harvard University political science professor Joseph Nye has drawn a distinction between “transformational” and “transactional” Presidents: between ones who took the office pretty much as they found it and tried to do things within the limits of the existing power sources, and ones who tried to break the rules and achieve sweeping changes. One reason for the bitterness in the 2016 Democratic Presidential race was that the party’s progressives were still upset over the way Obama had promised to be a transformational leader during his campaign, but once in office had governed as a transactional President.
Instead of grabbing hold of the economy and focusing his efforts on creating jobs, sparking an economic recovery that would have actually benefited working people, and punishing the people in the financial industry who had destroyed the economy — the way Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress had done after 1932 — Obama wasted his political capital pushing through a Rube Goldberg plan for health insurance that no one liked. Progressives didn’t like it because it not only preserved private, for-profit insurance companies as the bulwark of America’s health care system, it actually made it illegal not to purchase their product — the “individual mandate” that has remained the least popular part of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”). Right-wingers didn’t like it because it promised a major expansion of the social welfare state that they had targeted for elimination altogether.
Obama’s Presidency was marked by the Affordable Care Act becoming a rallying point for his opposition — particularly the “Tea Party” movement within the Republican Party and in the streets — as well as an economic “recovery” whose benefits went almost exclusively to the richest people in the country. Obama also pursued the disastrous “free trade” agenda that helped U.S. companies ship good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas and devastated entire communities. And, far from bringing Wall Street officials and the financial and banking officials who had wrecked the economy to justice, they were allowed to become even richer and more powerful. The banks that had already been declared “too big to fail” became even bigger, and the people — especially working-class whites — responded by deciding that the Democrats were no longer the party of working people. Instead they were the party of the people both above and below them, the snotty Internet billionaires who talked blithely about “disruptive” business models without giving a fig about the people whose lives they were going to disrupt, and spoiled people of color and other poor people who, in the view of most working-class whites, wanted what they had won with their sweat without being willing to work for it.
That is how Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016: because the Democrats blew their last chance to show that they were truly the party of working people — the two short years, 2009 and 2010, when they controlled the Presidency and Congress, and instead of pursuing policies that would have put Americans back to work they pursued a health insurance reform that just made insurance companies richer and forced people to buy health insurance whether they wanted it or not. They’re not likely to get another chance. Oh, the Democrats may win the Presidency again, but it will be in what political scientists call “deviating” elections. The only three Democrats who’ve been elected President since 1968 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — did it by attracting enough votes from the South to neutralize the Republican advantage in the region. Carter and Clinton did that by being white Southerners themselves and Obama did it by mobilizing so many voters of color, particularly fellow African-Americans, he was able to be competitive in at least some Southern states.
When the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton in 2016 they gave a gigantic finger to the white working-class voters that had once been a bulwark of their coalition. Clinton was about as establishment as they come: she had long since sold her soul to Wall Street for six-figure speaking fees. Working-class America largely hated her because it had been her husband who pushed through the loathsome North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the beginning of the cycle of so-called “trade” agreements that helped grease the skids on which employers slid jobs out of the U.S. and into low-wage foreign countries. Ironically, Trump in office has been every bit as much a part of the Wall Street establishment as Hillary Clinton — he’s at least the fourth President in a row who’s appointed a Treasury Secretary who used to work at Goldman Sachs; he openly introduced Jamie Dimon of Citibank as his advisor in gutting the rules governing the finance industry; and for all his talk about “draining the swamp,” he seems to have dumped the dregs into his government.
But Trump isn’t suffering politically from his fealty to Wall Street and his own class the way the Clintons and Obama have. Against all evidence, his supporters in the electorate still cling to their image of him as a sort of political White Knight, one who by his very boorishness and combativeness will somehow bring about the reckoning that will magically restore their industrial jobs and once again make the economy work for all Americans. One of the things the Democrats keep forgetting about Donald Trump is that his much-vaunted “approval rating,” which has hung around the low 30’s and high 40’s since he’s been in office, is meaningless because a lot of voters who may not “approve” of Trump will nonetheless vote for him.
While Democrats tend to judge candidates on the basis of their personal qualities as people, Republicans keep their “eye on the prize” and judge them by their ideology and what they will do in office. It’s unlikely very many evangelical Christians “approved” of Donald Trump the human being, but they voted for him overwhelmingly because they wanted to make sure the next President would be a Republican who would appoint Right-wingers to the U.S. Supreme Court — and in Neil Gorsuch, Trump fulfilled that promise.
The Democrats lost four out of four special Congressional elections in early 2017 because, while there are a lot of voters in heavily Republican districts who don’t fully trust Donald Trump, they haven’t been sold on the Democrats as a viable alternative either. The Democrats are in a bizarre Catch-22: they can’t win elections until they can convince voters (especially voters who don’t live on the East or West Coasts) that they can be trusted to govern, and they won’t get the chance to convince voters they can be trusted to govern until they can start winning elections.
The Republican/Libertarian revolution may collapse of its own weight, especially if Trump and the Republicans in Congress push it too far. Ironically, they’ve duplicated the mistake Obama and the Democrats made in 2009 — instead of big jobs and infrastructure programs, they’re spending their political capital pushing an unpopular health-care plan. But it will take a much smarter, less naïve and more organized political party than today’s Democrats to take advantage of the opening that will emerge if the Republicans do overreach.