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Donald Trump is not the only politician targeted by the blossoming progressive resistance movement in the United States. Establishment Democrats are now openly worried about being held accountable by left-wing activists when they cozy up to industry or aren’t steadfast in their opposition to Trump. The fact that nervous senior Democrats felt compelled to ask Bernie Sanders to “urge activists to redirect their anger at Republicans instead of at moderate Democratic lawmakers,” as The Washington Post reported, is evidence that the strategy is working.
The shock and awe of Trump’s presidency is no doubt a central reason for the nation’s collective anger and organized discontent. Democrats, however, would be wise to remember that what has come to be known as “the Resistance” did not spring up from nowhere the day Trump was sworn in as president. The Sanders campaign, the ongoing Movement for Black Lives and the Occupy movement, for example, grew well beyond expectations and emphasized structural problems that both parties were complicit in. With so much at stake, and armed with an increased consciousness of interlocking issues of class, race, gender and more, activists are taking action.
A chief concern is that the Democrats, compromised by private capital and broadly supportive of the neoliberal model, will serve as a weak opposition party and continue to ignore (and even attack) progressives. Indeed, some Democrats and pundits are already leaning on the dubious assumption that strongly opposing the GOP will somehow be “helping Trump” in the 2018 mid-term elections. The left, accordingly, is pressuring congressional Democrats in both red and blue states: to obstruct Trump’s appointments, militantly oppose his agenda (including a movement to impeach) and to embrace more progressive policies. This tactic, organizers argue, will not only strengthen the opposition to Trump, but also help sustain a movement that will long outlive Trump’s presidency.
“The issues we are protesting are not just partisan issues,” said Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin in an interview with Truthout. “Immigration and mass deportation, support for an interventionist foreign policy, its connection to Wall Street and support for the neoliberal policies that have hurt so many Americans — the Democrats have not been strong on so many of these issues.”
“We Won’t Tolerate Your Betrayal”
One recent example of this dynamic occurred on February 17 when climate denier Steve Pruitt was confirmed to head the EPA, with the help of two Democratic votes in the Senate. Pruitt has devoted just about his whole life to waging war on the EPA, having sued the agency five times. Progressive organizations and activists responded with extreme frustration.
“We will be holding accountable those senators from both parties that voted to confirm Pruitt. We are putting those senators on notice: We won’t tolerate your betrayal of the planet and the public trust,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement shared with Truthout (emphasis added).
Progressives specifically called attention to the two Democratic senators who enabled Pruitt’s confirmation: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia). On social media, Manchin was called a “sellout” and a “traitor” who supported an “enemy against the environment.”
Where will this justified anger lead? Some suggest complicit Democrats should face primary opponents in coming elections. Moumita Ahmed, an organizer for Millennials for Revolution who served as a Sanders delegate during the presidential primary, told Truthout that a Democratic Party filled with politicians like Manchin will repel a generation of activists away from the party.
“These two Democrats aren’t just anomalies. Their vote shouldn’t be justified,” Ahmed said. “If we are to engage millennials to vote Democrat, we have to vote out the corporatists like the Manchins and the Heitkamps.”
Some Democrats, however, think organizers should be careful with the likes of Manchin and other red state senators. “These activists are familiar with the state of West Virginia, right?” quipped one former congressional staffer, in an interview with Truthout. Manchin, up for re-election in 2018 in a state where Trump got 69 percent of the vote, has been described by the conservative National Review as “the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senator.”
Activists insist, though, that complicated electoral politics do not justify voting in unconscionable ways. Plus, not every target of progressive activism can use red-state demographics to defend their votes. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency thousands of protesters arrived at the home for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), whom the left has long distrusted, urging him to “Just Vote No” on Trump’s appointments. Schumer has supported several Trump appointments. Soon after he “put out a statement that hinted Democrats might filibuster Trump’s nominee [Neil Gorsuch],” observed an article in New York magazine. “Maybe all those signs and spines are getting through.”
But maybe not. When Virginia senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner voted to confirm Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, more than 100 protesters showed up at Warner’s office to show their discontent and pressure Democrats to block his Cabinet choices. The Democrats, however, have not heeded these warnings. As the Washington Post reported, they “appear unwilling to do what their base is asking”:
On Tuesday, the full Senate voted 96 to 4 to confirm Nikki Haley, Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations. Earlier in the day, they voted Haley and three other nominees out of committee — Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Wilbur Ross to serve as commerce secretary; and Elaine Chao to lead the Transportation Department. That followed full Senate votes for Pompeo on Monday and for Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Friday.
This record does not inspire confidence that the Democrats will fight tooth and nail in legislative battles, as Republicans have done in recent years. The GOP, of course, successfully obstructed President Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice, leading some to call it a “stolen seat.” Many are skeptical the Democrats will attempt to do so, even though, when polled, Democratic voters overwhelmingly favored using a filibuster to block Trump’s nominee. A February 7 poll from the Economist/YouGov shows 52 percent in favor, 12 percent opposed (36 percent unsure). Only 19 percent of those under 29 said they oppose a filibuster.
“Progressives need to tell Democrats that if they don’t filibuster the Supreme Court nomination, the base will raise hell,” said Norman Solomon in an interview with Truthout. Solomon is the co-founder of RootsAction, which has been organizing a flurry of petitions online to pressure both Democrats and Republicans to take bold action against Trump. The organization’s efforts include a campaign to impeach Trump.
“The base has to lead, to make the leaders follow,” Solomon said. “Politicians and citizens have different roles. They have some shared goals, but very different roles. Especially during times of crisis as we have now, it is important that citizens act as citizens and use their power to push politicians.”
On the heels of the Trump election, the Sanders campaign, the ongoing Movement for Black Lives, the Occupy Movement and the Great Recession, we are seeing an increase in class awareness across the country, including the ways in which race and class intersect. The public is now more educated about the pervasive role of money in politics and how Wall Street, Big Pharma and others are constantly leaning on Democrats, manipulating them with both carrots and sticks.
“People in general are getting a very quick education. They are reading more, buying radical books, joining more protests,” said Benjamin, whose organization has long protested both Democrats and Republicans. “It is a great moment for education and mobilization and it is important we are reaching beyond partisanship. This is not just about Trump.”
The Great Beltway Fallacy: Capitulation as an Electoral Strategy
On Sunday, the New York Times published an article titled “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” which advanced the argument that progressive activism turns off moderates and helps Republicans. This view that being progressive is a liability, treated as a truism in the beltway and in the dominant media, is advanced during every election cycle, it seems. However, this time around, it is an especially curious position. First of all, the Democrats just lost an election in which they ran a career centrist who helped lead the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, and was awash in Wall Street money. Meanwhile, in recent years, the Republicans have not gone “moderate” — they’ve taken the opposite approach, and have won at every level of government.
The Times piece relies on a few anecdotal examples of “reluctant Trump supporters,” who are turned off by the anti-Trump sentiment on social media and in the streets. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s (FAIR) Jim Naureckas noted on February 17, the article “refrains from taking a broader look at polling, which is probably wise, because doing so totally undermines [the] argument.”
The Times article dismisses the hard word of organizers and struggles of working-class Americans by making a cheap reference to Hollywood liberalism (which, contrary to the ruminations of Bill O’Reilly and friends, does not adequately reflect the American left). It then quotes Ann O’Connell, a 72-year-old retired Trump supporter who said the protests are “destroying the country,” adding that she feels “like we are in some kind of civil war right now.” It is protesters, in this account — not Trump’s bigotry, racist policies, repression and corruption — that are causing bitter divisions. This narrative against progressivism was commonplace during the 2016 primary when, despite overwhelming data suggesting otherwise, pundits and politicians insisted that a democratic socialist would be too left for the electorate.
The Washington Post also pushes this Beltway trope. The headline of an article about the Gorsuch appointment reads, “There’s a Reason the Democrats Probably Won’t Filibuster Gorsuch: Polls.” While the Post correctly notes that Gorsuch has a positive approval rating, it fails to mention that the “polls” show that only 12 percent of Democratic voters support even allowing a vote for Gorsuch, let alone confirming him. The Post, like so much of the establishment, assumes the best strategy is to placate conservatives and moderates. Taking the progressive base for granted is the default setting for the establishment. Yet many still become confused and/or angry when progressives aren’t energized come election time.
Battle for DNC Chair: a Proxy War for “Soul of the Party”
Speaking of tropes, we are once again seeing headlines about a battle for the “soul of the Democratic Party.” On some level this fight seems to go on in perpetuity; the same things were said when Howard Dean ran for president, when Ned Lamont ran for Senate and when the Democratic Leadership Council was still a major force in Washington.
But, in the aftermath of the heated 2016 primary and subsequent election defeat, there is no doubt that battle lines are being drawn, with the establishment wing of the party on the one side, and the relatively progressive “Warren Wing” on the other. There is also very real pressure from outside the party among radical activists and socialists, whose politics cannot credibly be called “fringe,” given that a majority of millennials reject capitalism.
The election of the chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which will be decided in the coming days, has become a proxy war for this battle. Early on and with the support of Sanders, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) has been the favored choice for progressives. More mainstream Democrats, however, including much of the Obama White House, are backing one of their own, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
There has been an effort from some liberal commentators to minimize the difference between the two candidates. “[T]here’s truly not much ideological distance between the two. They are both grassroots-minded progressives,” argues David Corn in Mother Jones. But organizers are not in agreement; they know the establishment isn’t challenging Ellison without a reason. “People are saying nice things about Perez, but we know from leaked emails he has been a Clinton operative,” Solomon said. “He represents the establishment wing of the party.”
Among Sanders’ supporters, the DNC is distrusted enormously. Not only did leaks prove the DNC was actively supporting Clinton during the primary (an ethical violation which then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz denied vehemently for months), but Schultz’s replacement Donna Brazile was promptly caught leaking debate questions to the DNC for Clinton’s benefit. Brazile has offered unpersuasive denials but never a coherent response to these charges. She lost her job at CNN in the aftermath but has never apologized or even acknowledged her wrongdoing and remains in place as interim chair of the DNC.
Given the organization’s recent and sordid history, if Perez manages to win there will no doubt be major progressive backlash. Perez has been an outspoken advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is seen as weaker on superdelegate reform and, as Solomon noted, is distrusted by the left for his coordination with the DNC to attack Sanders in 2016.
Ellison, on the other hand, was one of the few members of Congress to endorse Sanders for President, and has been the victim of a contemptible smear campaign by hawkish pro-Israel groups and their allies because he has expressed a modest level of concern for the plight of the Palestinians. An Ellison victory wouldn’t be an earth-shattering leap leftward, but it could represent a real acknowledgment of the progressive base.
“We need to change this country from inside and outside the party [and are] very much vested in the outcome of the race and what it means for the future,” Benjamin said.
Lessons Learned and the Challenge of Resistance
Seth Gladstone, deputy communications director for Food & Water Watch, spoke with Truthout just after Democrats helped confirm Pruitt to EPA, a move he called “simply shameful.” He then made an astute diagnosis of how we ended up in our current conundrum, with an authoritarian president checked only by a party with a history for toothless opposition.
“To a great extent, a lack of meaningful, progressive pressure on Democratic Party leaders over the past few years is what got us into this terrible mess,” he argued, citing the public’s frustration that both parties were deferential to Wall Street and indifferent to social and economic justice. “As a consequence, millions of voters stayed home in November, and our country is now paying a huge price.”
Whether Democrats have learned important lessons from all of this is unclear. But to slow the catastrophic agenda of Trump, Gladstone notes, Democrats must be willing to “resist the Trump-Republican agenda at every turn for as long as necessary.”
Resisting won’t be easy. Trump, the GOP, major power centers of private capital, and corporatist groups like Third Way will all try to benefit from a weak Democratic Party that has enabled them for years. But if the party is successful at all in even minimizing the impacts of Trump, it won’t be merely because of its courage or leadership. It will be because party leaders were dragged, kicking and screaming, by an engaged progressive movement that was tired of being ignored and was ready to fight for real change.