There’s a fundamental problem with the Democratic presidential debates. It’s not the number of candidates, the little talk of climate change or the debates’ “divisiveness.” It goes deeper than that. These debates operate on a flawed premise that runs right through the whole primary process: that what the candidates say now reflects how they’ll govern.
We watch them, volunteer our time and money, or fend off our friends’ jabs — all with some expectation the candidates will do what they promise. Even the more learned (or cynical) of us, who hem and haw, “Well, with Congress, checks and balances and whatnot, they won’t be able to do everything,” we still accept this basic idea. We still assume these candidates are running based on their visions for the country — that their vision determines their run. In fact, candidates’ professed “visions,” no matter how left wing, are essentially corporate marketing. They are meticulously designed to help these candidates run and win.
The Two-Party System
We’ve been here many times before. Candidates that talk sweet in the campaign serve bitter fruit in office. Why are we so often disappointed? The common proverbs of capitalist politics offer that all politicians are corrupt; idealism is for the young and foolish; or, my favorite and the most true of the three, that the government is the dependable tool of the rich.
But there’s an even more specific reason for the marketing sell-job of the U.S. election system. The two major parties rest on a contradiction. Their mass bases are working- and middle-class people, but they get funds from and answer to a tiny elite at the top. It’s obvious with the Republicans. They whip up racism, heterosexism and other social “wedge” issues to build a mass base opposed to its own economic interests. But the Democrats operate differently. They position themselves as the “party of the people” (appealing to workers, making progressive proposals) but act in the interests of the rich (lowering workers’ expectations and implementing policies that benefit their wealthy funders).
When capitalist rule is stable, the Democratic Party can deftly navigate between these two opposed classes. It can preach inspiring rhetoric to the base then break its own legs on “bipartisanship,” “pragmatism” and “reaching across the aisle.” In normal times, it can rely on captured social organizations and party insiders to discipline their members. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, these are not normal times.
Over the past 40 years, Democrats have implemented and overseen attacks on workers and marginalized groups. Joe Biden and Bill Clinton delivered the crime bills that caused mass incarceration to skyrocket. Clinton hollowed out social programs under “welfare reform.” Barack Obama has, even now, still deported more people than Trump has — despite running in 2008 as a champion for immigrant rights. This push has created a gulf between the Democratic Party’s popular base and the corporate class to whom it answers. Since the Great Recession and Obama’s indifference to those who suffered under it, that gulf has widened. Movements have sprung up — from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, from Standing Rock to #MeToo and teacher strikes — along with a serious shift to the left, especially among those under 45.
Some candidates have operated as if nothing has changed. Take Biden. Take John Hickenlooper (remember him?). Take, in another fashion, Pete Buttigieg and former contender Beto O’Rourke. These candidates are pushing the same moderate positions that Hillary Clinton did, and Biden remains honest about that. Buttigieg and O’Rourke, meanwhile have offered the same well-spoken “hope and change” trappings of Obama ‘08 and Clinton ‘92 to hide their right-wing politics. Whether they’re good salesmen or not, they fear the party will go “too far left.”
But there are Democrats who have seen the writing on the wall. And as they have prepared and started running their campaigns, they have staked out more progressive positions and rhetoric. Their goal is not to transform the country or build a progressive movement, but to win votes and revive the corporate Democratic Party.
Look at Cory Booker. In the leadup to the 2020 campaign season, he signed onto Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. But as I wrote elsewhere, Booker was also among the top three Senate recipients of campaign money from insurance companies last time he ran for office. Would he really attack the profits of his generous friends?
Kamala Harris, meanwhile, marketed herself as the candidate to talk about racism. In her most dynamic moment during the debates, she challenged Biden’s record on busing and school desegregation. She pitched herself as a fighter “for the people,” yet she has an extensive record of jailing and prosecuting “the people” — mainly Black and poor ones. Based on her recent announcement that she’s ending her campaign, it seems her marketing strategy didn’t beat out her record.
Elizabeth Warren is similarly trying to thread the needle, albeit more to the left than Booker or Harris. She’s positioning herself left enough to capture Sanders’s base, but right enough of Sanders to not alienate moderates and her billionaire contributors. She offers Medicare for All but with asterisks and hedges — a public option for kids, the poor and middle-aged first, then real single-payer supposedly two years later. As Tom Moran wrote, praising Warren’s health care plan, “This is not the year for Democrats to take a risk like this, and Warren seems to understand that now.” She’s not for socialism but for “saving capitalism.”
As a result, Sanders is facing more intense competition on the left than he faced with Clinton in 2016. In response, he is a bit more strident on certain topics like reparations or immigrant rights, where Harris, Julián Castro and others have outflanked him. On other issues, like those dear to the well-organized Palestine solidarity movement, Sanders’s positions have remained where they have been — just slightly to the left of mainstream war-mongering. Though movements are part of the equation, competition for left-wing voting blocs is the main driver for Sanders’s more forceful rhetoric. And while Sanders may lack the big donors the other candidates do, he too has been guilty of changing political positions for the worse to win elections.
Breaking Out or Coming “Home”?
The Democratic Party is not monolithic. There have always been shades of difference, a division of labor, inside the party. Left-leaning faces make speeches; corporate shills dictate policy. Their occasional competition is often over how best to achieve the only political principle that unites them: electing Democrats.
Today, the more progressive wing recognizes the widening gulf threatening the party’s future. It is trying to save the Democratic Party, even as it faces opposition from the party’s right wing. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, left-wing Democrats are “bringing the party home.” Her words echo Dennis Kucinich’s in 2003: “The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What I’m trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy.”
All the while, the corporate forces who run the show barely tolerate the party’s left. Obama recently admitted he would seek to stop Sanders’s nomination if he got too close to victory.
During the debates, many progressives watch with the hope that Warren or Sanders get the jump on Biden or Buttigieg. The problem is, intentionally or not, these progressive candidates are coaxing us back into a thoroughly corporate party, with no guarantees we won’t face the same disappointments as ever. Far from leading us out to found a new party that’s accountable to ordinary people and not just the rich, these candidates are trapping us in.