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The Era of “Centrist” Establishment Democrats Is Over

This is not a moment for threadbare timidity, but for bold moves in a better direction.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands off to the side as other leaders speak during a press conference at the Landsdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Virginia, on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

What do you call a “healthy economy” that almost no one is experiencing personally? I call it a made-for-TV sham.

“President Trump’s strongest case for reelection remains the country’s healthy economy, but the potency of that issue for him is complicated by a widespread belief that the economy mainly benefits people already in power,” The Washington Post reported on Monday morning. “This sentiment runs the deepest among Democratic and independent registered voters, but also exists among a significant slice of Republicans. About 8 in 10 Democrats and more than 6 in 10 independents say the country’s economic system gives an advantage to those already in power, while nearly a third of Republicans share that view.”

The cognitive dissonance baked into that first sentence is worthy of immediate note. Exactly what “healthy economy” is the Post talking about? Unemployment is low because people need three jobs to stay above water. Wages have only just begun to catch up with the actual cost of living, and only in certain places where the minimum wage has been raised. Health care is murderously expensive, and student debt went over $1.5 trillion in the first quarter in 2018. The stock market is breaking records, though, and the rich people on TV all seem pretty happy (Mr. Bezos, your table is ready).

After that strange declaration, the article goes on to describe how most people very correctly don’t believe a word of it, including more than a few Republicans. These people live with eyes wide open in a country where a serious illness can devour their financial future, where higher education is almost completely out of reach due to cost, and where having a job is no guarantee that workers can support their families. Millions of them got screwed this tax season by Donald Trump’s big rich-people giveaway tax bill, and eye their empty mailboxes and depleted bank accounts with ever-increasing wrath.

Those people — not these semi-covert white nationalists running around yelling about migrants and MAGA and more guns while clutching their Bibles without a hint of irony or shame — represent the actual interests of working people. One important reason the will of most people does not hold sway in this nation is because they stopped believing they had any power in the current system, and have a strong argument to support that conclusion.

Given the choice in 2016 between a shopworn Establishment Democratic message and the loud guy from TV, 49 percent of them stayed home. “Nope” beat Trump and Hillary Clinton’s combined popular vote totals, perhaps the largest canary in the deepest coal mine in modern U.S. history. Even I, a man who is positively evangelical about the power and necessity of voting, have trouble blaming them for not participating two and a half years ago. Not choosing, when the available choice is no choice at all, is a political statement Henry David Thoreau would recognize on sight.

The mathematics of that Post/ABC poll are glaring: 80 percent plus 60 percent plus 33.3 percent equals a coalition of voters who could, if properly organized and motivated, win any election put in front of them by historic margins. Why, then, is the Democratic Establishment so bound and determine to foist yet another right-bent “centrist” nominee on an electorate that sees through the economic fraud being foisted on them disguised as a “healthy economy”?

Many voters properly blame their circumstances on Republicans, with their supply-side economics and the inequality that always rides sidecar with such vividly failed ideas. I use the term “failed” loosely, because it has worked out swimmingly for their billionaire supporters and donors. What do we make, however, of three decades worth of “centrist” Establishment Democrats who dragged the party far to the right in the hope they might win more elections? What is the point of winning if the end result delivers such mediocre, and often even harmful, results?

Sure, we had 16 years of Presidents Clinton and Obama, but their victories came with a steep cost. For every Family Medical Leave or Affordable Care Act, there have been brutal crime bills and deep cuts to the social safety net. Accepting the Republican premise that the country requires austerity because we are broke, and not because of right-wing budgetary vandalism, threatens to bring the entire infrastructure of the New Deal crashing down.

Worse, these Establishment Democrats often make the most eloquent arguments for disregarding the ideals their predecessors actually fought for and preserved. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein and all the others who have had the run of the party since Ross Perot fired George H.W. Bush are deeply complicit in causing the anger underscored by that Post/ABC poll. They were, and remain, groomsmen and bridesmaids at the unholy union between Republican Party greed and Democratic Party fears.

There can be little doubt that much of the problem here stems from the fact that too many Democrats have far too many of the same big-dollar donors as Republicans. It is no small wonder they are pushing many of the same pro-wealth austerity-laden policies; many of them are cashing the same checks.

Even now, I can hear the “Yeah, but” chorus clearing its collective throat. “Yeah, but only a centrist Democrat can defeat Trump in 2020!” goes the inevitable refrain from people who believe this because “centrist” Democrats told them so. The actual truth is that those in charge of the party want to remain in charge of the party, which means they will keep on doing what demonstrably hasn’t worked because it works just well enough for them to be able to hang on to their jobs.

The Post/ABC poll sings a different tune. The “I can win!” argument from “centrist” Establishment candidates like Joe Biden failed spectacularly in 2016. It is easy to blame Hillary Clinton for losing to the worst presidential candidate in modern history, but the fact is the Democratic Party lost that election because its nominee peddled a message that was burdened by the party’s shabby record. People stayed home on Election Day because of that as much as anything else, and if that same shabby message is the Democratic Party hood ornament for “Whoever/Whoever 2020,” people will stay home again.

Right now, more than ever, people want to hear new and innovative ideas about health care, debt forgiveness, racial justice, free college education, climate justice and many other projects that have stagnated in our current right/far right political status quo. This is not a moment for threadbare timidity, but for bold moves in a better direction.

“The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor,” said Helen Keller during the part of her life they don’t teach you about in school. “The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands — the ownership and control of their livelihoods — are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”

Keller wrote that more than 23 years before the New Deal. Today, more than 70 years after FDR wove together the first strands of the country’s social safety net, her words ring true once again. The people, by and large, are hip to the jive now. Attempting to sell them more of the same old incrementalist GOP-lite retread ideas is a bland recipe for chicken-fried defeat.

If a sick person can be healed but isn’t, if a hungry person can be fed but isn’t, if a homeless person can be sheltered but isn’t, and if the only reason they remain sick, hungry and homeless is the profit motive of the system, that system is broken. If tens of millions of people hear about the booming economy and see none of its benefits, that system is broken.

One must bore through miles of rhetorical sediment to plant this core seed of truth within the minds of many who have been trained from birth to believe capitalism and democracy are one and the same, but it can be done. If the Post/ABC News poll has the right of it, that seed has penetrated and begun, at last, to germinate. Establishment Democrats have not yet gotten the message, but the mass of Americans desperate for new ideas and relief from the old ones will not wait forever for them to figure it out.

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