A Change in the Weather

Kerri Evelyn Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. New York, August 2018.

Could there be a more fundamentally depressing thought than that the Democratic Party might somehow contrive to run Joe Biden for president in 2020? Yet, even in the season of change that has seen an unprecedented number of women (and women of colour) elected to Congress, it remains the case that the indefatigable Mr Biden is a leading contender.

The media certainly sees him as such. As a white male getting on in years, one with a long track record of moderation, he’s just the sort of candidate that the media outlets from CNN leftward would love to cover. But a return to the nostrums that carried the Democrats along since the end of the Carter Administration doesn’t seem to be on the cards just now.

It’s hard for people in the mainstream of American politics to know what to do these days. Ever since Donald Trump knocked the norms of the public sphere into a cocked hat, it’s been hard to know exactly how to move forward. This is particularly true for those on the leftward end of the spectrum.

The normal tools and weapons of political discourse no longer seem to be of use. Employing rational discourse seems paltry when confronted by a president who lies compulsively, and with a broader republic and electorate who have shown by their actions that class and race consciousness trump (so to speak) any other issues in political discussion.

In times of trouble, it is normal to grasp for something safe and familiar. Mr Biden is nothing if not that. His defining quality, if one can call it that, is centrism. Now 76, Biden recently told a meeting of the US Conference of Mayors, “I like Republicans.” Which is fine, so far as it goes.

Politics doesn’t need to be about personal animus, although Mr Trump seems determined to move things in that direction. But the underlying point being made was that it was necessary to get back to the politics of an earlier era, one in which bipartisanship was a serious possibility.

But the idea that rebirth of some sort of golden age of civil discourse could be within reach if only one were sufficiently dedicated to bipartisanship flies in the face of the new Republican class consciousness. The resistance to participation in the actual public use of reason among conservatives did not rise in parallel with Mr Trump. Congressional Republicans spent the entirety of the Obama administration in a posture of war.

It is probably the case that if Mr Obama had proposed a measure declaring that the sky was blue, Mr McConnell would have led his troops in a crusade to show that such a belief was a fundamental tenet of Sharia Law and that only anti-colonial socialists would dare to propound such nonsense.

Mr Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has not so me been to transform it, as to validate the public expression of views previously alluded to with a nudge and a wink.  Racism has exerted a gravitational influence on the Republican Party politics ever since the early 1960s, over and above the degree to which it is an underlying premise of American public life more generally.

The defining feature of Republican politics in the Trump era is the solidarity shown by notionally more civilised elements of the party (the wealthier, educated, suburbanites) with the unabashedly racial populist wing.

The longing for collaborative centrism among conservative Democrats is predicated on the belief in a past that never quite existed. This not only the case because of the myriad ways that Trump and the Tea Party have changed the Republicans. It is also the case that the Democrats themselves are in a process of transformation. The left wing of the Democratic Party, driven into hibernation since Michael Harrington urged his fellow democratic socialists to vote for Carter “without illusions” in 1976, is now rearing up.

For long it has been the case that the Democratic Party got the same treatment that the British labour movement got from Tony Blair: we’re not going to do anything for you, but vote for us because we’re better than the other guys. This made sense in the era of the Cold War when anything on the left was likely to get tarred with the brush of concession to actually existing socialism. But with communism dead, and millennials starting to flex their collective political muscle, there is a sense among many on the left that a new day is dawning.

The prospects for this new dawn can clearly be seen in the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The first term representative from New York’s 14th district has already done a lot to refresh the persistent stagnation of the Democratic Party. Although she is an avowed democratic socialist (and thus at least nominally subject to the worst slings and arrows of everyone from the Blue Dog faction of her own party and everyone further right) she has already managed to carve out a strong position, creating a number of strategic problems for her opponents.

The attacks were not long in coming. The standard accusations that she was a socialist flew. These didn’t cut much ice since she (in an ironic similarity to the sitting president) she simply granted that they were true. Then the brickbat really began to fly. Someone on the Republican side dug up a video of her from high school dancing and mugging for the camera. Somehow this was meant to detract from her credibility. In fact, it simply made her seem relatable and genuine.

The poster on Twitter described her as a nitwit, which in and of itself tells you something about their relative locations. “Nitwit” is the sort of thing your conservative, bowtie-wearing uncle calls someone whom he wishes to demean. Perhaps Tucker Carlson took this to heart. For the general public, it was yet another indication that AOC (her initials have now risen to the status of a meme) is fundamentally terrifying to the right.

And not only to the right. Claire McCaskill, the outgoing Blue Dog senator from Missouri offered a parting shot at AOC. McCaskill, a Republican who spent years masquerading as a Democrat, described her nominal party colleague as a “crazy Democrat” and a “shiny thing.” McCaskill then undertook to recite a few lines from the Republican hymn book on her way out the door:

I’m not sure what she’s done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm, but I wish her well. I hope she hangs the moon. But I hope she also realises that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working-class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs, and how we can really stick to issues that we can actually accomplish something on.

It would be hard to find a better summation of the problems of the modern Democratic Party than this. In the twisted language of the Democratic mainstream respecting the white working class voters amounts to a lot of cheap talk to distract while technology and offshoring cause the prospect of any sort of dignified employment spirals the bowl. That and (roughly) three bucks will get you a cup of coffee in most parts of the country, but not much more.

AOC, by contrast, has set out her stall on entirely different territory. Her economic proposals have veered left from the current political local of the Democratic centre, not least in her proposal to raise the marginal tax rate to 70%. The response to this particular proposal has been instructive. Fox news took up the cudgels to make sure that people understood that the proposal would result in their giving up 7 of every 10 dollars that they earned, completely ignoring (and in fact actively obscuring) the distinction between the marginal tax rate and the overall rate.

This and other proposals have led to numerous people in the rightwing blab-o-sphere to claim that AOC is an idiot (about 10 seconds of searching on Twitter will confirm this for anyone who is curious). Of course, she did graduate cum laude from Boston University with a degree in international relations and economics, but perhaps she simply managed to gull the poor, benighted scholars who taught her there. Worrisomely for those in whom this proposal has really put the fear, it seems that a large proportion of the electorate actually agrees with her.

Perhaps more importantly, AOC has shown that she understands millennials far better than the vast majority of her Democratic colleagues and, it goes without saying, any Republican currently in office. Recently she popped into a fundraiser on the Twitch internet platform, during a fundraiser for a British charity (Mermaid) that provides support for TG children, and expounded the virtues of the N64. My colleague and I happened to be watching this at work and she commented (correctly I’m sure) that AOC is probably the only person in either congressional delegation who knows what Twitch is, much less why one should want to engage with it.

AOC is, at this point, the narrow edge of the wedge of the Democratic Party’s rebirth into a grouping that addresses the hopes and dreams of actual Americans (especially those under 50). You can hear the Democratic establishment creaking. So august a figure as Aaron Sorkin, caretaker of the Democratic imaginary during the dark days of the second Bush Administration, took to the airwaves to advise the new crop of Democrats to “stop acting like children.”

Apparently, government should be reserved for arrogant Ivy League-credentialed hacks sitting around uttering sententious nonsense and getting nothing done for anyone who isn’t rich and white along the lines of the Bartlett administration in Sorkin’s iconic West Wing.

What AOC and her fellows can accomplish remains to be seen. They will make mistakes and suffer defeats along the way. But there is also a possibility, maybe more so than at any time since the 1930s, that the Democratic Party might shake off the sclerosis brought on by years of functioning as the left wing of finance capital and actually do some good for people below the top 1% of the income distribution.

In any case, watching both parties squirm in the face of this new challenge provides more entertainment than practically anything else going on in American politics at the moment.

Photograph courtesy of Corey Torpie. Published under a Creative Commons license.