How the Democratic Party is Losing the Left

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How the Democratic Party is Losing the Left

In 1968, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination posed an interesting problem for the Democratic establishment: What to do with his delegates? Kennedy had run on an anti war platform, drawing a sharp contrast between himself and the Johnson administration’s foreign policy—namely the Vietnam War. In hindsight, the obvious choice would have been to give the delegates to the other anti war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, or hold a special election to allow the voters to choose between the remaining options. Additionally, young people were fervently against Vietnam, as legions of their peers were returning from that foreign land in the form of folded flags and body bags. One would expect the party to recognize the importance of appealing to future generations.

And yet, those delegates were left uncommitted, and Hubert Humphrey, who many saw as a likely continuation of Johnson’s policies, was able to secure the nomination even though a majority of voters voted for anti war candidates. As a result, the 1968 DNC was the most contentious since 1948 when the ‘Dixiecrats’ staged a walkout over Harry Truman’s civil rights agenda.

While all of these events were going on, on the other side of the aisle was a man nobody on the left liked. Richard Nixon was a race-baiting demagogue who made his appeals to his “Silent Majority”—white southern conservative working class. Promising to clean up the streets and restore order, Nixon was a force to be reckoned with.

The Democratic establishment cost itself the election by ignoring the changing winds, opting for continuation instead. Having its preferred candidate get the nomination was surely cold comfort for losing the general.

Walking through the halls of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia at the 2016 DNC, listening to the convention speakers on strategically-placed television monitors, and talking with Bernie Sanders delegates, I could not but feel a sense of continuity…or perhaps it was historical deja vu. The party establishment it seemed, had once again, seriously miscalculated given that we now know from the Wikileaks DNC email releases, that there existed a culture of bias during the primary, for Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders at the highest levels of Democratic leadership.

Since 1968, American politics have drifted to the right thanks to a competition for southern votes between both parties. That’s because when the “Solid South” turned solid red, the New Deal coalition which had given the Democratic Party electoral dominance for the previous generation, fell apart. Faced with diminishing prospects thanks to a south, resentful over the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and aware of its political capabilities, the party turned right.

However, today, southern votes are no longer the key to winning elections—as evidenced by the 2012 election where it voted unanimously against President Barack Obama and still lost. This year, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist outperformed the now Democratic nominee against her Republican rival, and was the most popular candidate among independent voters according to polling by IVN’s Independent Voter Project. Sanders took what began as teacher protests in Wisconsin and became the Occupy Movement, and turned it into a fully formed political revolution with hundreds of thousands of followers who are running for all levels of government office around the country.

Although the days where the south could turn an election are over, you would never know it listening to the rhetoric used at the Democratic National Convention, which many have said would have been more at home at the Republican National Convention. Most of the major themes throughout the four day event were reminiscent of the Bush Era GOP as family values, religiosity, military supremacy, and American exceptionalism all took center stage.

I must admit that the chanting of “USA” drowning out “No More War,” following former Gen. John Allen’s (ret. USMC) proclamation that “We will defeat evil,” was somewhat alarming…

Of course, the central message throughout the entire convention—canonized in the slogan “Stronger Together”—was inclusiveness. The party of the New Deal and the War on Poverty had become the party of “We can all agree we’re not Trump.”

That said, this appeal to the right only invited the protests which occurred on all four days of the convention, inside and out of the Wells Fargo Center. There is too much daylight between progressives and neoliberals and neoconservatives on the social justice issues defining our current political era. Efforts to create the impossible/false unity resulted in progressive voices being underrepresented, and their concerns disregarded.

As Jason Thompson, a Bernie delegate from Arkansas put it, “There’s no room for our revolution in this counter-revolutionary party.”

Such sentiment is understandable when one considers the fact that though Sen. Sanders, despite the odds stacked against him, won 43 percent of the vote in the primary, most of convention speeches neglected to discuss political and economic inequality—the issues he brought to the fore. Progressive voices were difficult to find in the lineup of speakers. Sanders surrogate Nina Turner was also bumped from the lineup on day three of the convention, while Occupy-buster Michael Bloomberg, and former Reagan adviser, Doug Elmets, were given over 10 minutes each.

Emmett Rensin of The New Republic, the neoliberal Politico Magazine, in his recent piece titled, “What Does the Democratic Party Stand For Now? Good Question,” captured the situation best when he wrote:

The flexibility of the Democratic Party, its capacity to negotiate the competing interests of all Americans, to produce a national program that is perfect to no one but “good enough” for both is central to its strength.

But in Philadelphia, this flexibility felt stretched to its limits, giving way to contradictions of vision that make it difficult to determine what to trust, what to believe will be taken seriously, what will be betrayed.

For the party only now emerging from the shadow of Ronald Reagan, featuring conservative voices so prominently at the apparent expense of progressives suggests a renewed push to the right. More importantly, because this is the chosen course even after the email leak, it reveals that the neoliberal party establishment has little interest in working with the left beyond the immediate goal of defeating Donald Trump, leaving open the question, “What happens when Trump is gone?”

If the events in Philadelphia and the trending of the hashtag ”#DemExit” are any indication, the uneasy/impossible alliances formed this year will dissolve, and the party will split, and—unless something drastic changes—the Democrats will lose the left, and cost themselves electorally for a generation.

Update: A previous version of this article said that Kennedy’s delegates were awarded to Humphrey when in fact they were left uncommitted, splitting the anti war vote.

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