It is scary to think that a weakened, defeated Democratic Party, led in Congress by Wall Street’s favorite Democrat, Chuck Schumer, will be one of the few things standing between the public and the Donald Trump agenda. But this is reality heading into 2017.
A minority party, however, doesn’t have to be entirely toothless. The GOP helped force numerous concessions from President Obama when the Democrats controlled Congress: the gutting of the public option in the Affordable Care Act; the passage of trillions in spending cuts (including cuts to student aid, Medicare and Social Security) during debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations; and the permanent entrenchment of almost all the Bush tax cuts. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Democratic Caucus may be relegated to playing defense, but they don’t have to be bad at it.
But given how timorous and deferential the Democrats were as a majority, there is rightful concern over what kind of fight they will put up now that they have little power. Facing constant pressure from corporate lobbyists, they have a ready-made excuse for inaction.
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But there is reason for hope. Unlike in the past, the most popular senators — namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — are also currently the most progressive ones. The public, and the Democratic base in particular, is broadly supportive of public health care, of taxing the wealthy, of confronting the perils of man-made global warming. And in the aftermath of the Sanders campaign, the existence of millions of activists willing to fight for progressive change cannot be denied.
Accordingly, the grassroots will seek to organize and pressure the Democrats to use whatever tools they have, however limited, to spare the country the worst of the Donald Trump agenda. This is especially true on issues, such as the supreme court and climate change, where the consequences of Trump’s policies will reverberate well past his tenure in office. Many of these battles will be losing ones, no doubt, but, a failure to militantly oppose Trump and the GOP will be seen by many voters as a form of complicity.
When Minority Parties Succeed
There have been instances of a minority power successfully challenging the majority using a combination of the limited tools at its disposal, such as the filibuster, and by rallying the public to pressure the majority party. For instance, in 2005 George W. Bush, fresh off re-election, attempted to privatize a sizable portion of Social Security. Had he succeeded, the impact on the retirement accounts of Americans would’ve been devastating, particularly after the stock market crashed in 2008.
At the time, though, Bush seemed poised for success. “The Republicans had substantial majorities in both houses of Congress, including 55 senators,” wrote Peter Ferrara in Forbes. “Everything was poised for fundamental, sweeping, historic Social Security reform through personal accounts. But it never happened.”
So how did the Democrats stop it? First, they were united in opposition, giving Bush no possible avenue to win new votes. “Despite White House staff fantasies, not one elected Democrat rose to endorse personal accounts in return,” Ferrara wrote. This also made it so Bush could not claim his plan had bipartisan support. “Voters don’t often follow policy specifics, but if there is some bipartisanship, they are more likely to support it,” said Jon Walker, a policy expert and former writer for Firedoglake, in an interview with Truthout.
As Democrats renounced “efforts to shift part of Social Security into private investment accounts,” The New York Times reported in 2005, public support dwindled and it became “politically impossible” for Republicans to move on the reform. In fact, the issue became a liability for the GOP. “The Republican proponents of individual investment accounts do not want to talk about the idea now, in an election year. It is the Democratic opponents who want to force the debate,” the Times article reported.
The Republicans abandoned the plan — Bush’s signature legislative effort of his second term, the loss of which he laments to this day. A minority party managed to succeed despite having little institutional power and probably benefited from it in the subsequent midterm when it took back Congress. In the difficult aftermath of the recent election, it is important to remember that these kind of victories are indeed possible.
Stopping Trump From Attacking the Safety Net
The Bush-era Social Security example may help guide today’s Democrats. Trump pledged throughout his campaign to preserve safety net programs, but his actions so far suggest he was not being sincere. It will be incumbent on Democrats to counter the charge led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as the likely plans of Trump’s Health Secretary pick Tom Price, who has expressed a desire to destroy Medicare. It is crucial that Medicare and Social Security are protected in this country, which still ranks in the bottom third in social welfare spending among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“It is critical that the Democrats stop the Trump-Pence-Ryan regime from privatization of [the] social safety net — programs like Medicare and Social Security are at serious risk,” said Donna Smith, executive director of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), in an interview with Truthout. “There is no tenable way for the Democrats [to make compromises with Trump and the GOP] on issues of economic justice without further alienating the base of working-class Democrats.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in vowing to protect Medicare from the Republican cuts, also referenced the Social Security example as a potential model. “At that time, we committed to each other that we would be unified and disciplined,” Pelosi said. “The opportunity that we have now is the equivalent of the opportunity we had in ’05.”
But some fear the Democrats will not be as militant in their opposition to Trump as the GOP was to Obama — that they will “be the better party,” as the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe described it.
Reports that Schumer and other Democrats are seeking to “align with Trump,” have worried progressives. “Democratic leaders from Chuck Schumer down need to stop playing footsie with Trump and pretending we can find common ground on some issues without also legitimizing Trump’s bigoted, hate-fueled, un-American agenda,” said Democracy for America’s (DFA) Executive Director Charles Chamberlin. “We expect Democratic leaders to join us in our efforts to defeat Donald Trump’s agenda whole cloth.”
This will be a controversial position if, for instance, Trump proposes an infrastructure program — a scenario in which even Sanders has said he might work with Trump. But it is important to remember Sanders’ senate colleagues mostly lack his Keynesian ideology and are heavily reliant on corporate donors. When they compromise, they do so not only with Republicans but also with industry. Ceding ground to conservatives on spending and taxation can embrace these politicians to Wall Street lobbyists and donors who, still benefiting from the 2010 Citizens United decision, will be a constant source of pressure.
President Obama’s woeful agreement with House Republicans in 2011 that resulted in trillions in spending cuts and no real revenue increases is an egregious example. And this occurred when Democrats controlled the Senate and the presidency. Obama’s decision to “capitulate with the most extreme elements of Congress,” as the Citizens for Tax Justice said in a statement at the time, is a reminder that “compromise” may not just normalize Trump but could also lead to poor policies that benefit Wall Street.
The Public Option and the Myth of Powerlessness
Looking toward the Trump presidency, it is also useful to consider when the roles were reversed. As recently as the 111th Congress, Democrats had a supermajority. And yet, as is noted above, their ability to push through an aggressive progressive agenda was very limited, even in the aftermath of an economic crisis that made real reform, for a fleeting moment anyway, seem like a real possibility.
There are many reasons for this, most notably the parties’ deference to corporate interests. As Walker notes, the “Democrats had made many campaign promises they never meant to keep.”
Several Democrats running for president in 2008 supported a public option to endear themselves to supporters of single-payer. It soon became a major cause for progressives when health reform became a legislative priority in 2009-10. But, while the Democrats wanted to appear to fight for a public option, the reality, Walker says, “is that Obama had already negotiated away the policy to the health insurance industry.”
What followed was a transparent attempt by the Democrats to come up with new scapegoats and excuses to keep the public option out of the legislation. At first, they blamed Joe Lieberman, who refused to provide the 60th vote if the bill had a public option. Progressives countered by suggesting the bill be done through reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes. But Democratic Party loyalists laughed at the notion. Most memorably was Nate Silver’s stinging (and in retrospect, embarrassing) tirade called the “Insidious Myth of Reconciliation,” which attacked Walker directly.
But when Scott Brown stunned the Democrats by winning Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts, Democrats had to use reconciliation to pass health care reform, rendering their 60-vote excuse meaningless. Silver quickly fell in line. Even under reconciliation, however, the Democrats never placed a public option back in the legislation — a transparent “scam” against progressives, as Glenn Greenwald described it. The public option died, not at the hands of Republicans but at the hands of Obama and the dishonest senators who participated in the charade.
As this Democratic infighting occurred, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell must’ve been enjoying himself. “His decision to simply unite his party to oppose everything Obama did meant the Democrats had to take ownership of their policies,” Walker said. “He knew the Democrats would have to make concessions to the [health care] industry, so why allow him to blame Republicans for [the] law’s flaws?”
The example of the public option debacle is instructive because it shows (1) how the Republicans effectively used their minority status to their benefit (and the next election was a GOP wave in 2010 midterms); and (2) the way the Democrats used a perceived absence of power to water down their own legislative agenda to placate corporate donors. These lessons should put progressives on notice that getting the Democrats to work on their behalf will require pressure from the grassroots.
United Opposition and the Supreme Court
The Republicans’ united opposition to Obama, while no doubt obstructionist, paid off for them politically. McConnell used this same strategy to prevent Obama from replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, and it worked exactly as he hoped. Will the Democrats show similar unity in opposition to the GOP? And will it matter?
With control of the Senate — and near unanimity in support for a Scalia clone in the Supreme Court — options are limited. “The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee can grill Trump’s nominee, but beyond that, I’m not sure they can stop the nomination,” said Marjorie Cohn, former head of the National Lawyers Guild, in an interview with Truthout.
But, despite Harry Reid eliminating the filibuster for appointments, the option still exists for Supreme Court nominees. Some reports note that McConnell is reluctant to eliminate the filibuster for this purpose, though some conservatives are pushing him to do so.
The Senate rules are entirely controlled by the Senate Majority Leader, so even if they attempt to filibuster a Scalia clone (or worse) the Democrats can’t stop Republicans from pushing him through by changing the rules. Still, a show of unity against Trump’s SCOTUS nominee can’t hurt: It will unite the public which continues to support the Roe v. Wade decision protecting women’s reproductive rights, unite labor and other progressive forces against the GOP Congress and force the Republicans to spend, rather than hoard, their political capital. McConnell’s decision to deny Obama the chance to appoint a justice was a risky one and if he continues his complete disregard for procedural and constitutional norms in this process, it may hurt the GOP in the coming elections.
The Minority’s Message: “Rigged System” and Structural Reform
The term “rigged system” has been used so much in the last six months that it may now seem meaningless. But the idea that the system is “rigged” is a strong belief among working-class voters. A CNN poll shows 68 percent of Americans “feel the current tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to ordinary workers.”
This sentiment is not going away anytime soon — especially since the Trump presidency would not exist if it were not for an Electoral College system that effectively disenfranchises more than half the country. “A lot of people don’t like to hear this, but going after Trump’s legitimacy as president and citing structural problems with American democracy is one that should be used by Democrats during the next few years,” Walker said.
These structural problems don’t end with the presidential election. Indeed, the GOP’s seemingly iron grip on the House is not because of some mandate for GOP policies. Republicans have effectively gerrymandered the electoral map in such a way that Democrats can lose seats even if they get more votes than Republicans. Walker suggests the Democrats run on these structural issues, including abolishing the electoral college, public funding for elections and campaign finance reform.
“Voting reform should be a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike — particularly after this negative presidential campaign that turned off many voters,” said Michelle Whittaker, spokesperson for FairVote, in an interview with Truthout. “The 2016 election showed that voters want to be heard but our election systems are failing us and [the election] gives the public the impression that the system is rigged.”
FairVote advocates for major reforms to address the problems with our voting system, many of which became evident in 2016. The role of the archaic electoral college in electing Trump is just one of many such flaws. FairVote also documented how the structure of the electoral map often overrides the partisan will of the voters in congressional races. Its analysis of the 2016 election concludes:
The partisan preferences of voters in the last eleven elections favored Democrats six times, including in 2012, and Republicans five times, including in 2014 and 2016. But only three times has one party had a preference edge of more than 52 percent to 48 percent: Democrats in 2006 (53 percent) and 2008 (54 percent) and Republicans in 2010 (54 percent). The fact that Republicans in 2017 will have a secure hold on the House is tied to the fact that the median district is a 53 percent Republican district. All things being equal, therefore, Democrats need to have a particularly strong national advantage to overcome that Republican bias — as they did in 2006 and 2008.
The Battle for DNC Chair
The Democratic Party is to blame for the public’s lack of trust in the establishment, as well. Hillary Clinton was the benefactor of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) that was actively trying to undermine Sanders in the primary. All of this reinforced the popular sentiment that the system works against the will of the voters. The last two DNC chairs, Debbie Wasserman Shultz and Donna Brazile, were both exposed by leaks that showed their complicity in the DNC scandal. Wasserman-Shultz had to resign due to the scandal, and Brazile was forced out of her job at CNN. The Democrats ignore this at their own peril, as millennials, Sanders supporters and many other working-class voters will not forget this recent, painful history.
So, while the DNC chair will not directly handle legislative wrangling, many activists feel that electing Keith Ellison — the only Muslim member of Congress and a strong Sanders surrogate during the primary — to the DNC chairmanship would go a long way toward helping skeptical progressives get excited about Democrats.
“[Progressive Democrats of America] will work to make sure Senators Sanders and Warren know that millions of Americans support their commitment to racial, social and economic justice,” Smith told Truthout. “We will also hold them accountable to the massive movements that have made it clear that the Trump-Pence-Ryan regime does not represent the values progressives hold most dear.”
PDA is not alone. Many progressive groups, writers and politicians are lobbying for Ellison, including Sanders, Warren, members of MoveOn and Democracy for America. Interestingly, establishment figures, such as Schumer and Harry Reid have also expressed support for Ellison, which seems to indicate a broader awareness among the Democrats about the need to placate progressive voters. Troubling, however, is that the lame duck White House does not seem to share this sentiment: The Times reports the Obama administration is trying to rally support for a more establishment alternative to Ellison. Also worrisome is that the Anti-Defamation League and others are attacking Ellison for being too radical, prompting a New Republic article asking if Keith Ellison is getting the Reverend Wright treatment. The Democrats need to use this recent defeat to reconnect with their base; a smear campaign against Ellison would be a bad start.
Resisting the Devils Among Us
“Hell is empty/And all the devils are here.”
These words, written by William Shakespeare for The Tempest, feel prophetic now that America has become the Land of Trump. While things are bad, no doubt, the good news is the way forward is not a mystery, but rather a matter of will.
The public must organize and agitate in opposition to Trump. And a key part of this will be pressuring the Democratic Party to resist corporate pressure and do whatever is in its power to stop his agenda. What they can’t stop procedurally must be opposed from outside Congress by an organized public that has no other option but to try and not only survive the next four years, but also use the occasion to organize a strong resistance to Trump, the GOP and all the devils among us.