On the Looming Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party
Just over two years after the inception of Occupy Wall Street, and one year after the corporate media wrote it off as dead, an unabashed progressive, Bill de Blasio, took the movement’s rhetoric and mobilized the 99 percent to give him a landslide victory over four decades of class war against poor and working New Yorkers. Mayor de Blasio’s progressive campaign rhetoric could have come from the Occupy movement’s “human microphone,” and no amount of Koch brothers funded attack ads could derail the zeitgeist that drove de Blasio and a strong contingent of progressive city council members (including at least one Occupy veteran) to victory. This election foretells a changing political tide that promises to swell thousands of miles beyond New York, ultimately forcing the Democratic Party to rethink who its masters are.
Media pundits were quick to write off de Blasio’s victory as an anomaly, citing New York City as a liberal bastion. But that overlooks the last five mayoral elections there, four of which were won by Republicans (Giuliani and Bloomberg), with the fifth won by a Republican turned independent (Bloomberg again), adding up to 20 years of conservative rule.
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The reality in New York City is much more complex. The current class war against poor, working-, and middle-class Americans began in New York around 45 years ago, at a time when New York led the country in providing quality-of-life services to its population, including free higher education, rent-controlled and subsidized housing, free museums, and comprehensive cheap public transportation. Its politics were dominated by strong unions, in the private as well as public sectors. This all changed in the late 1970s as corporate forces laid the groundwork for the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”
The suburbanization trends of the 1960s, subsidized by federally funded highways, took its toll on New York, which lost one million mostly middle-class residents, leaving the city, by the mid-1970s, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Federal economic help from the Republican White House was tied to making New York a laboratory for corporate privatization and government austerity programs. A century-old tradition of free higher education was over as public schools and housing budgets were slashed. This was the run-up to the Reagan Revolution, leading to three decades of tax cuts for the rich intentionally engineered to decimate government budgets, even during times of prosperity, and force the austerity experiment on a national scale.
Working Americans suffered for decades, watching their share of the pie shrink as a new gilded age enriched an oligarchy that more and more came to dominate political discussions and debates through its domination of the corporate media. References to social class disappeared from the American lexicon just as class-based social exploitation once again emerged as a determining factor in the American experience.
Then along came the Occupy movement, at just the moment when an as-yet relatively uncensored social media environment came to dominate youth culture. The 99 percent meme summed economics up in four syllables, and, for the first time since the 1960s, discussions of social class broke through the corporate media and took center stage.
At the same time, trustifarian hipsters were colonizing large swaths of Brooklyn, while Russian billionaires were driving Manhattan real estate prices into uncharted territory. Also entering uncharted terrain were the numbers of New Yorkers, many who had lived in the city for generations, who were homeless. Over 21 percent of the city, 1.7 million people, were and are living below the federal poverty line. This includes just under one third of all children in the city. At the other end of the spectrum, recent Census documents show that the wealthiest five percent of Manhattan residents earn over 80 times the mean income of the poorest 20 percent of the population. There is money in New York, but it’s being hoarded by the beneficiaries of a generation’s worth of tax cuts, while the average New Yorker can’t makes ends meet.
The thing about an urban economy that condemns most folks to lives of economic stress is that it creates one hell of a class-conscious electorate. That de Blasio won really shouldn’t be a surprise. That he won with three quarters of the vote, however, is pretty impressive in American politics. At this point, even if de Blasio transformed, as so many politicians who talk a good line to get elected do, into another Obama, or even a Bloomberg, the message of his landslide election—of the viability of a candidacy centered on fighting inequality—will be politically transformative on a national level. The writing is on the wall. If you want to win elections, do the math. As young people age into the voting population, the emerging electorate is more diverse, more socially liberal, and more class-conscious.
Republican politics will likely continue to be dominated by wingnuts seemingly genetically engineered from the DNA of Satan and Zippie the Pinhead. Hell, the supposedly sane wing of the party thought Chris Christie was their best shot at winning middle-of-the-road voters. There just aren’t any visible Republican politicians who seem qualified to operate an elevator without either robbing its inhabitants or crashing it into the basement floor. The party is split between two factions: shills for various corporate interests, and throwbacks to the dark ages.
Democrats are demographically poised to win national elections—if they can deliver coherent populists who can connect with a diverse, economically exploited populace, a.k.a. the American people. This is a big if. Big business and finance has funded the Democrats along with the Republicans, hedging their bets. And since the Clinton era, Democrats generally have served their corporate masters dutifully, with rare exceptions such as Paul Wellstone, and now Elizabeth Warren and de Blasio. Just like the Republicans are duking it out between the Taliban and oil factions, fighting for the soul of their party, the Democrats too have an internal battle looming. This one’s between the new populists, folks like Warren and de Blasio, and the corporate toadies, better known as the Democratic Leadership Council, or the Clintons.
The DLC, also known as the Republican wing of the Democratic Party, came into being during the Reagan presidency to fight against social justice initiatives, instead supporting neo-liberal trade policies such as NAFTA and a Reagan-lite economic agenda. They’ve dutifully served their corporate masters by keeping the left wing of the party at bay while squeezing in a quasi-Republican Clinton presidency as a placeholder between the Bushes. In doing so, however, they drove progressives right out of the party, either to third parties or straight to political disgust and disengagement, in the process stripping the party of what little soul it had while assuring a Republican presidential victory in 2000.
Their candidate for president in 2016 will likely be Hillary Clinton. And the effect of such a candidacy would be to drive the new generation of progressives out of the party, effectively taking control of the party, but ceding control of national politics to a Republican economic agenda, stewarded either by themselves or by the real Republicans. The difference between them and the Republicans is that they don’t smell too rank, taking a more electable 1980s approach to social issues, rather than the 1950s approach apparently preferred by Republicans.
They still might not be electable, since both progressives and Republicans want to see change. And for the majority of Americans suffering under economic apartheid, so what if Hillary won? There’s just not enough there to get you out to vote on a rainy day. Hillary Clinton is a former director of Wal-Mart, for god’s sake. And she was a director at precisely the time when they were gobbling up small American towns and doubling down on sourcing their goods to the worst sweatshops on earth.
The conventional wisdom in the corporate press is that Hillary will be unbeatable in the Democratic primary, so why even bother having a primary? And it’s time for a woman president, who, according to a largely white male punditry, has to be Hillary, even if her DLC economic policies continue the feminization of poverty in America. Time magazine’s David Von Drehle, in writing last week’s cover story, cites an anonymous but allegedly existent “veteran Democratic strategist” saying, “I think if another woman ran against Hillary, she would bring down the wrath of women around the country.” Really?
Von Drehle goes on to claim that his Deep Throat was “echoing a widespread view inside the party that Clinton earned another shot at history when she surrendered gracefully to Barack Obama.” But in reality there was nothing graceful about the 2008 presidential race. The “first woman” vs. “first black” president tropes took center stage in the media’s horse race election coverage, obscuring the politics of both Clinton and Obama, when in essence both represented remarkably status quo milestones in history. Why can’t the first woman president be a true economic populist? How about a Third Wave feminist with appeal to poor and working-class women? How about a woman who doesn’t earn $200,000 a pop to speak at Goldman Sachs meetings?
If any such women are thinking about running, Time’s Von Drehle warns, “One widespread forecast holds that Clinton is poised for a cakewalk of historic proportions.” Really? Perhaps Von Drehle’s sage needs to factor the de Blasio landslide into his forecast.