After seeing Gretchen Whitmer, the winner of the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary, referred to as the Establishment candidate, I’m thinking the term ought to be retired. The term can easily cause a lot of mischief, confusing more than clarifying political dynamics, relationships, and challenges at a moment when we need clarity and unity.
But here’s the problem. The biggest troller of the term is the mass media, over which few of us have any control. It loves headlines and stories that give the impression that a war is raging within the Democratic Party between its old guard and its insurgents.
It was in this framing that Whitmer found herself cast. She was the Establishment candidate, while her main opponent Abdul El-Sayed was the Insurgent who enjoyed the full support of Bernie Sanders and the newest star in the political galaxy of the left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But Whitmer in any fair accounting doesn’t easily fit this political casting. In case you haven’t heard, she was one of the main oppositional voices to the Tea Party when it took over — thanks to gerrymandering among other things — the Michigan state legislature in 2010 and then wreaked its havoc on the people and state of Michigan. In taking on that battle, this “candidate of the Establishment” not only gained a wealth of real experience, but showed her political moxie and intellectual mettle in the trenches against an unrelenting and vengeful foe. This will undoubtedly serve her well when, as appears likely, she is elected governor in November.
What is more, this “Establishment candidate” earned the support of nearly every social constituency and leader of the people’s movement in Michigan. All but one union supported her, not to mention — and it does go unmentioned — a vast array of other organizations, which accounts for her sizeable victory against Abdul El Sayed, who, it should be said, was the first Muslim and Egyptian-American to run for governor in the United States.
She also ran on a progressive program, even if she didn’t pass all the programmatic litmus tests prescribed by a few on the left. While there were policy differences between her and El Sayed, who inspired lots of new voters and likely has a bright future in politics, it is a stretch to say that their political positions were miles apart.
Finally, and not least, this “candidate of the Establishment” is on track to be the second woman governor in Michigan’s 181-year history. No small achievement, but also not surprising at this moment when women are reshaping the landscape of struggle and politics in a democratic-liberal-progressive direction.
What underlies this mistaken framing is a failure to appreciate that the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a democratic-liberal-progressive direction.
In other words, today’s Democratic Party isn’t the same party as in the Clinton years, even the Obama years. The constant refrain on the left castigating Democrats for their “neoliberal” pedigree is to some degree a straw man insofar as much of the party has moved away from that political model. Bernie Sanders and the millions who voted for him can claim some credit for this shift, but broader changes in the economy, politics, culture and popular thinking figure prominently in any explanation of this phenomenon.
And, of course, there is the Trump effect. It has forced millions of people to think and act anew as well as drawn them into the orbit of the Democratic Party and electoral politics.
Indeed, while candidates, like Octavio-Cortez have understandably captured the headlines and buzz in the mass and social media, what is striking, and potentially transformative, is the spontaneous growth of new electoral formations and a flood of new activists, often women and not always young, into the Democratic Party. Herein lies the main reason for a Democratic victory in November.
Many people on the left whose politics are informed by realism as well as revolutionary ardor are a part of this unmistakable, if still developing and uneven, process. Most do so with the hope — not of splitting and taking over the Democratic Party — but of uniting its various trends around a progressive/democratic/social democratic vision and values, while addressing in the near term the immediate and overarching task of our times — the rollback of Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box in particular and in the public arena generally.
For too long the left has been as much on the margins as in the thick of U.S. politics. And this is in part of its own doing. No one forced it, for example, to sit on its hands and keep its distance from electoral politics, apart from Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs, as the extreme right was doing the opposite. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the right wing committed resources, fielded candidates, and eventually took over the Republican Party, catapulting itself into a dominant force in the federal government and a majority of state houses. In this position, it proceeded to reshape the politics, economics, and culture of the country. Little did we know that its ascendancy would be the staging ground for Trump’s climb to power.
This indifference to electoral politics on the part of the left, however, is finally melting away in the face of the current, unprecedented assault on democratic values, institutions, and governance on the one hand and the surfacing of new opportunities to participate in the Democratic Party in consequential ways on the other. No longer is it an article of faith for many on the left that an independent party of the left is the sine qua non to transport a besigned country to Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”
Instead, in the spirit of the late socialist leader Michael Harrington, the disposition of many progressive and left people and organizations toward the Democratic Party is: reform it, don’t dump it, make it a vehicle to lay waste to Trump and Trumpism as well as restart the long journey toward equality, economic sufficiency, peace, sustainability, and deep going democratization of the corporate controlled economy and government institutions.
Will it work? Time will tell, but it is a far better alternative than anything else under consideration.