It is said that Wall Street Democrats hope to throw a wrench into Bernie Sanders’ second run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. No doubt Bernie has his detractors on the Street. And no doubt they will do whatever they can to prevent his nomination. He’s not their cup of tea. But it’s easy to overstate the problem. There’s no sign that the people who matter and will decide who is at the top of the ticket — Democratic voters — are saying “Anybody but Bernie.” The mood among Democrats is clearly one of excitement at the pool of presidential aspirants and a desire that each candidate, including Bernie, be given a full and fair hearing in a wide open presidential primary.
Of the candidates likely to run only a few will receive an enthusiastic review from Wall Street, if we judge them by their present political positions. I doubt if any Democrat aspiring for the nomination will run as a Bill Clinton Democrat. Why would they? The times have changed and the party of Roosevelt and Obama is tacking in a progressive direction. Democracy, equality, robust reform, and, above all, thumping Trump concentrate the minds of Democrats, not austerity, unregulated markets, tax cuts for the rich, and triangulation, as was the case in the Clinton era.
Clinton Democrats haven’t entirely disappeared for sure. But their ideological and practical dominance of the party is over due to three interrelated factors. First, their role in facilitating financialization, capital and job flight, deregulation, and the economic earthquake a decade ago that left millions unemployed, dispossessed, and living precariously badly blemished their resume. Second, their readiness to “reform” welfare, institutionalize a punitive and racialized criminal justice system, pursue “soft” austerity in conditions of mounting economic inequality, and make ideological concessions to the right devalued their political and moral authority. Finally, the emergence of muscular and competing movements and coalitions during this same time narrowed the space and support for their brand of politics.
On one side of this shifting landscape of struggle is right-wing extremism. This socially diverse and deep pocketed reactionary movement — and it is a movement — is the old kid on the block. Its ascendancy into a political and ideological powerhouse in the Republican Party and national politics dates back to the election of Ronald Reagan. Since then it has extended and consolidated its power, but not along a straight line, not without a changing mix of power centers and leaders, and not without recalibrating its politics to changing circumstances.
Of particular note was its shift a decade ago toward a more extreme form of its extremist politics. The assault on democracy and democratic rule was intensified. Racism, misogyny, and xenophobia became overt and unabashed. A purging of GOP moderates in favor of more extreme candidates began in earnest. Truth became expendable and lies commonplace. And plutocratic politics and economics commanded center stage without apology. If the Republican Party had any governing values and principles that collided with this new mode of thinking and practice, they quickly became casualties of this recalibrated extremism.
What triggered this turn to a more strident form of extremism goes beyond a quaking economy and the right’s normal fears of higher taxes, broad scale empowerment of women (including ending abortion restrictions), tighter business regulations, a liberal dominated Supreme Court, immigrants crossing the border, the normalization of gay sexuality, an overreaching federal government, and the corrosive influence of libertine, snobby, godless, race-mixing coastal elites. The precipitating factor was the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency of the United States. The optic of a Black president and his family walking onto the stage at Grant Park in Chicago on election night in 2008 not only ginned up the right’s longstanding fears and worries about a Democrat in the White House, but also tapped into its deepest anxieties of an emerging society of multi-racial equality, in which the socially constructed sense of white superiority and the racialized advantages of white people would disappear, while the assignment of people of color, forcibly if necessary, to subordinate and unequal positions across society would be eradicated. In short, the specter of equality, real and material, and ushered in by a Black president haunted this angry, white, and mainly male movement.
Not surprisingly, the resistance to the new president came fast and furious. Crass racist invective filled the air. Congressional Republicans went into their obstructionist mode of attack. And a whole panoply of organizations, networks, media outlets, and right wing leaders took their extremism to a higher level. Over the next eight years, this tiered, well funded, and loosely coordinated resistance in different ways and on different platforms became with a vengeance the political pitchforks and organizing vehicles against the new president and the majority that elected him. By the end of his second term, much of this incendiary, motley crew at the mass and leadership level were more than ready to embrace — and not simply for tactical reasons — a candidate and then president with right wing authoritarian impulses. And the only thing that has changed since Trump’s inauguration is that nearly every dissenter in the Republican Party to Trump’s politics at the time has been absorbed into his machine and come out the other end supporting his racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and authoritarian mode of governing.
On the other side of this new terrain of struggle are popular-democratic and progressive coalitions and movements. They too have earlier antecedents, not least the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Both energized a massive, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-class grassroots coalition on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During the same time period, other social movements also challenged the status quo, captured the imagination of millions, and left a mark on popular thinking. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. Marriage Equality and Me Too to name a few. And then there is the web of too numerous to mention social justice movements and organizations on the city and state level that, inch by inch and cumulatively, have left a progressive and egalitarian imprint on the national level of present day politics and popular thinking.
But what dwarfed this surge of activism was the outpouring of opposition to Trump’s presidential bid. And when the unexpected (and unthinkable) happened, this loose, energetic, and diverse coalition that opposed Trump the candidate scaled up and out to resist Trump the president. It became the drum major for democracy, justice, equality, a humane immigration system, and decency, while resisting the wrecking actions, authoritarian power grabs, and plutocratic policies of Trump and his acolytes. In the center of this resistance were women — in cities and suburbs, in the working class and other democratic movements, and in the Democratic Party, as activists and candidates. From Inauguration Day to the Blue Wave last November — a wave that badly weakened Trump who up to then had had no or little institutional opposition to his policies and authoritarian governing style — women — Black, Brown, and white, young and old, gay and straight, urban, suburban, and rural, veterans and newly active — were the engine and glue of this resistance.
Three years ago Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, notwithstanding some notable shortcomings, rode this surge of activism as well as gave it new momentum, reach, and ambition. While Sanders didn’t win the nomination, his candidacy was impactful in many ways. Sanders nudged the political discourse in progressive directions, his voice gave a lift to the language of class and class politics, and his candidacy breathed life into what had been an outlier in U.S. politics for decades — democratic socialism. Moreover, an unintended and ironic consequence of his campaign was that Bernie, a life-long independent and socialist, turned the Democratic Party and the terrain of electoral politics into places of engagement for the politically disenchanted and the ideologically left.
Bernie, however, is now 77, which is a disadvantage when many voters believe it’s time for a generational shift to younger candidates. Likewise, many voters understandably hope that a women and/or person of color will be at the top of the ticket. This hope is important, symbolically and substantively. Representation of the historically locked out matters, in fact, it is essential across the institutional structures of our society, if the country is to reach its most noble ideals.
While Bernie is the only declared social democrat in the field, he isn’t the only progressive. That label fits a number of candidates. Even moderates in the field are leaning progressive. The overarching challenge, as I see it, for Bernie and the other presidential hopefuls, is to make a case that their candidacy offers at once the best chance of arousing and uniting a multi-racial majority to hand Trump a humiliating defeat, and then steering the country in a new direction that accents substantive equality, robust democracy, planetary sustainability, and a peaceful, non-violent world.
At this moment I don’t believe it’s obvious which candidate stands at the head of the class. The primaries should make this clearer. In this pressure cooker, voters will expect to hear not simply where candidates stand on a range of issues, but also — and this may figure larger in voters’ calculus — what their values are and what their vision for the country is. The public will have a chance as well to take measure of the candidates’ intellectual depth, political acumen, and story telling abilities.
No less important, primary voters will be able to ascertain each candidate’s potential to inspire and win the support of the main social constituencies that decide elections. Voters will also have the opportunity to observe how each candidate performs under the lights and in the glare of the right wing attack machine. And, probably above all, they will gain a sense of each candidate’s readiness to go toe to toe with Trump.
I have no idea who will capture the nomination, but I do hope it is somebody who embraces progressive politics. I’m suspicious of the argument that says only a moderate who promises a post-Trump return to “normalcy” can unite the country and win the presidency. A more persuasive argument, to me, is that the candidate who moves beyond political incrementalism and convincingly articulates a dynamic vision, if not a detailed plan that mends and renews our democracy, addresses the embedded inequalities in our politics, economy, and society, and offers a robust response to a worsening climate crisis, migration, and other problems in our shrinking global village stands the best chance of defeating Trump — not to mention assisting the Democratic Party’s indispensable and companion effort to regain control of Congress and state governments across the country.
If a candidate wins the nomination who doesn’t fit that resume, I will be disappointed, but I will nevertheless happily do my small part to bring her or him across the finish line a winner, and continue the struggle for a better country and world.