By Jake Johnson
Jun 25, 2016
In 2013, President Obama, speaking at a fundraiser in Medina, Washington — home to a small community of wealthy donors — expressed a sentiment that has become all too common among Democratic Party liberals.
"I'm not a particularly ideological person," the president said in a reassuring nod to those made anxious by Republican hysteria suggesting that Obama, despite his calm exterior, is in fact a raving revolutionary.
While not particularly remarkable, given the current temperament of the Democratic Party, Obama's casual, throwaway line is rather instructive: It describes quite well the shifting foundations of American liberalism.
Liberalism has become a political framework that, as Emmett Rensin has written, "insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from 'imposing their morals' like the bad guys do."
Since the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democrats have become increasingly anti-ideological (in word), opting instead for an approach cloaked in the garb of objectivity and pragmatism: No longer, for instance, would liberals favor, in principle, labor over business.
Simultaneously, however, despite liberals' professed disdain for political doctrines, a new ideology arose in the place of the New Deal tradition, an ideology that would ultimately come to infect both of America's major political parties: Neoliberalism.
And with the rise of neoliberalism came an aversion to the politics and projects of the left, including its persistent support for the working class, its focus on rising income inequality, and its opposition to the entrenched free market consensus.
Bill Clinton, the embodiment of neoliberalism's rise to prominence, insisted that it was necessary to end "the era of big government" and to embrace the "third way," a path that would navigate smoothly between the competing visions of conservatism and pro-labor progressivism with the ostensible goal of transcending partisan squabbles altogether.
Riding the tide of an evolving Democratic Party, liberals came to embrace the riches of corporate sponsorship, abandoning, as a result, the party's working class base.
And while many on the left were enthusiastic about the election of Barack Obama, he has insisted all along that he, himself, is no leftist — no break from the trends set into motion by Bill Clinton. Rather, as he noted in 2009, he falls firmly in the camp of the neoliberals.
"I am a New Democrat," President Obama declared, a statement that should have done away with any illusions, still harbored by some, that the president is a leftist at heart — that is, if some of his key appointments had failed to do away with them already.
Although the Democratic Party — the vehicle through which the left forced many important reforms throughout the 20th century — has continued its rightward drift, the left has refused to go away. And in the face of intolerable income inequality, some of the left's core messages are hitting home.
When Bernie Sanders burst onto the scene in April of last year, his candidacy was widely dismissed. Hillary Clinton, everyone knew, was already the nominee — despite the crucial fact that no one had cast a ballot.
At the end of the process, however, the picture looks nothing like analysts predicted it would: Though Hillary Clinton has effectively won the Democratic nomination, Sanders, that obscure democratic socialist from the small state of Vermont, far outperformed anyone's expectations, winning 22 states and sparking a movement that will set out to continue far beyond this race.
Yet despite the support he has garnered and the enthusiasm his campaign has generated among both new voters and longtime Democrats, from the beginning Sanders faced near-total opposition from the Democratic establishment — including politicians, top Democratic donors, and major media outlets.
"The elite freeze-out of Bernie Sanders," writes Matt Karp, "is without parallel in modern party history."
This opposition (in contrast with overall public opinion of Sanders, which is favorable) has not been due to animus toward Sanders, personally — rather, it sprang from the Democratic Party's disdain for the left, for the ideas that the Sanders campaign has pushed on the national stage for more than a year.
The Democratic Party often purports to fight for the issues the left holds dear — a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare, a robust labor movement, and more democratic politics (namely through the removal of corporate interests from the political process).
But as we have seen over the past several decades, this is a facade.
Democrats did not merely stand by and watch as Republicans destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, and passed disastrous trade deals: They have been at the front fighting, with impressive gusto, for the interests of corporate America and against the interests of those they claim to support.
President Obama has carried the baton with his endorsement of and aggressive lobbying for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that, if passed, would grant corporations unprecedented power and influence.
Though her rhetoric has shifted drastically in the face of pressure from her left, Hillary Clinton represents more of the same — another self-styled progressive whose campaign is heavily bankrolled by some of America's largest financial institutions and whose agenda focuses almost entirely on tempering the expectations and ambitions of Democratic voters rather than pushing them upward.
Though Clinton has attempted to position herself as a pragmatist, she has repeatedly demonstrated that her deep commitment to pragmatism is really a lack of commitment to progressive causes — a lack of commitment that applies to the Democratic Party, broadly.
The campaign of Bernie Sanders has laid bare this reality. As Matt Karp argues, "the Sanders campaign has offered a valuable reminder of how few professional Democrats are willing to fight for a social-democratic platform — and how many are eager to fight against it."
Sanders, by aggressively fighting for progressive causes, has pushed liberal hypocrisy out into the open.
Hillary Clinton has frequently touted her history of fighting for universal healthcare. But when confronted by a candidate who brings an ambitious proposal to the national stage — a proposal supported by most Americans — Clinton turns her back, insisting that it will "never, ever come to pass."
Barney Frank has long been an outspoken opponent of America's corrupt campaign finance system. Today, he equates criticism of Hillary Clinton's fundraising with McCarthyism.
The media has followed suit: The Washington Post has run article after article lambasting Sanders for running a campaign that cynically preys on the hopes of the masses. The New York Times, replete with voices similar to that of Paul Krugman — who has offered take after take lamenting that Sanders just isn't very serious and that no serious person supports his agenda — and Vox have fallen in line behind the liberal consensus, as well.
Not content to attack Sanders's platform, liberals have also, on many occasions, expressed utter contempt for his supporters, often pushing some version of the narrative that falsely characterizes backers of the Vermont senator as racist, sexist, "Bernie bros."
(They forget, of course, that in doing so they, as Wendi Muse observes, erase from view the people of color and women among Sanders's supporters.)
One commentator anticipates the day when Democrats can finally shed the mask of progressivism and "gleefully and comprehensively trash" those who dared to back a democratic socialist for president of the United States.
And high-ranking Democrats have been further angered by the idea that Sanders would actually hold to his promise to remain in the race through the Democratic convention in order to continue pushing his ideas and to keep pressure on the wavering establishment.
Because Sanders has remained consistent in his denunciations of "establishment politics and establishment economics," Democrats have undergone a much-needed period of intense scrutiny from their left, from a movement that embodies the mass politics they long ago abandoned.
But as Matt Taibbi notes, they are likely to miss — or disregard — all of the lessons that could have been learned.
These are lessons that, if taken to heart, could prove significant for millions of Americans being crushed by a political system (and thus an economy) that answers predominantly to the desires of the few.
The party apparatus has been resilient, however, and elite liberals have fervently resisted the suggestion that the Sanders agenda could be influential in shaping the party's platform in any meaningful way.
But as Taibbi writes, "This inability to grasp that the problem is bigger than Bernie Sanders is a huge red flag."
Progressives are, in many ways, winning the war of ideas. Democrats have closed their eyes to this reality, seemingly content to believe that neoliberalism, with a few adjustments, is adequate to address the problems we face. It's not.
As Lily Geismer has written, "A party without a working-class core can’t be expected to improve the prospects of the working class."
Instead of devoting their efforts to a party that has lost its way, many are voting with their feet, demanding a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, tuition-free public college, an end to corporate-negotiated "trade" pacts, and a crackdown on Wall Street fraudsters.
Democrats have been slow to respond — and quick to attack those on their left who offer ambitious solutions.
On the other hand, Democrats have been quick to recognize the blindingly obvious collapse of the Republican Party. But if they don't soon confront the deep flaws and extensive failures permeating their own party, they may soon be looking back, as Republicans are today, asking what went wrong.
And the left will be there to answer the question.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent