Backing the Winners

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Women's March on NYC, January 2019.

News broke late Friday that Robert Mueller had finally delivered his report on the investigation into Donald Trump’s electoral campaign. No one but the report’s authors and the Attorney General’s office knows what’s in it, but ignorance never stopped an American from sounding knowledgeable.

Not entirely lost in the news was an announcement made earlier on Friday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that it will blacklist any firm that works with any candidate mounting a primary challenge to an incumbent Democrat.

The Democratic Party currently has (at least) 99 problems, but it is working hard to ensure that an importunate challenge from its leftwards edge is not among them.

The issuing of this edict was not lost on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is, if you will, the poster child for exactly the sort of thing that this rule was intended to prevent.

Her primary victory over Democratic insider and party favourite son Joe Crowley in the primary was the kind of thing that makes the risk-averse running dogs of the DCCC turn away from their vichyssoise in fits of dyspeptic despair.

The fact that Mr Crowley managed a very soft landing with a gig at the toney lobbying firm of Squire, Patton, Boggs cuts little ice. AOC is simply not the DCCC’s kind of people.

Ocasio-Cortez released a series of tweets in response which, typically, cut right to the chase:

Typically, AOC’s commentary is moderate and well-considered. The American political system is composed primarily of safe seats. Party competition happens mostly above and below the level of the congressional district.

The Democrats complain bitterly about gerrymandering, which certainly is a problem. But their biggest problem is that they lacked the aggression and brazenness of their opponents and so came out on the short end.

In mentioning the “big money lobbyist donors”, Ocasio-Cortez also scratches the surface of the underlying structural problem of American politics, although as a member of the Democratic Party she can’t really call it what it is.

The Democrats are a vote-accumulating institution without a distinctive ideology. What ideology they do have is essentially what arises from a process of trying to triangulate which positions of their financial backers play best with the absolute centre point of the US electorate.

The Democrats were not always this way, which is not to say that they were ever much better than they are.

In fact, for a large proportion of their existence they were much worse: the party of apologists for the Jim Crow system in the south, eventually grafted in the manner of Frankenstein’s monster onto groups of northeastern liberals and western populists who shared their social politics, while (usually) rejecting their abhorrent views on race.

There was a period, between the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, when the party authentically evinced the sort of liberal populism that its better angels had long espoused.

It is worth recalling that, in 1976, even a staunch leftist of the stripe of Michael Harrington was willing to call for democratic socialists to vote for Carter, “without illusions” to be sure, but with at least some hope that he might be prevailed upon to move things in the right direction.

All this came crashing to a halt with the election of Ronald Reagan. This represented a true sea change in American politics, the first real flowering of attempts by the right wing of the Republicans to remake the party in their own image.

These efforts had at first foundered with the failed Goldwater candidacy in 1964 and the collapse of the Nixon Administration under the weight of Watergate in 1974. The victory of the affable, red-baiting former actor in the elections of 1980 was the harbinger of a rightward shift in American politics.

The response of the Democrats to the change in the political landscape was to tack to the right, seeking to occupy the real estate in the centre evacuated by their opponents in the hopes that the electorate would eventually rejoin them there at some later point.

The Clinton Administration was the apotheosis of this strategy. Lacking anything in the way of firm principles and riding the formation of the tech bubble of the mid-1990s, Clinton grafted moderate social liberalism onto an economic politics slightly to the right of Reagan’s.

By his second term, he had completely befuddled the Republicans (mostly by repackaging their policies as his own). They were reduced to pedalling bizarre conspiracy theories (the Vince Foster suicide) and investigating the Lewinsky affair.

The attempts by Republican congressmen to seem to care about the violation of Ms Lewinsky would have been humorous if they were not utterly grotesque. But even that was a moral step about the attitude of most Democrats, which mixed the insistence that it hadn’t happened with the contention (often delivered with a nudge and a wink) that it wouldn’t matter if it had.

By that point, the Democratic Party was well on its way to being what it is today: the unapologetic left wing of finance capital. Its commitments in this regard are clothed in the garb of a rugged pragmatism, nowhere more perfectly illustrated than in the Aaron Sorkin nauseous political pantomime The West Wing.

Sorkin’s favourite figure was (and is) the policy wonk with the heart of gold, the politically astute plugger who might have some sympathy for the views of political naifs, but who has the good sense not to get too wrapped up in them when the rubber hits the road.

And so we have today’s Democratic Party. Having managed to botch the election of the first female to the presidency, they were prepared to retrench along the most non-threatening blue dog lines and allow the most incompetent man in politics to self-immolate in the course of innumerable investigations and scandals.

But the Democrats were thrown a curveball by the midterm elections, which produced a number of candidates unwilling to toe the line and serve up the political Wonder Bread of the Democratic centre.

The election of AOC, Ilhan Omar, and the rest of the non-white and (predominantly) non-male freshman faction tossed a spanner in the works of Nancy Pelosi studied policy of don’t say anything controversial and let Trump and his people hoist themselves on their own collective, idiotic petard.

Pelosi, whose claims during the campaign to be progressive distorted the meaning of the term beyond all possible recognition, wanted the spotlight on Mr Trump while the Democrats worked quietly and assiduously for the good of their major financial supporters. The last thing on earth that she or anyone else in party leadership wanted was a public spat on the merits of unquestioning support for every act of the state of Israel.

The DCCC’s limitation of preferred vendor status to firms willing to let the gerrymandered dogs lie is the logical outgrowth of the party’s need to limit the political damage. It is also deeply undemocratic.

In practical terms, it means that incumbents are no longer required to be responsive to their constituents. Any worries about declines in turnout and voter engagement that this might raise can be allayed by the promise that Donald Trump will make practically anyone look like the lesser of two evils.

At a broader level, it illustrates exactly how fundamentally out of touch the party is with the demographic transformations going on in the America electorate.

The Democrats are desperate to chase the votes of suburban whites, both those who are notionally blue collar and those further up the income distribution. Their offer to people on their leftward wing is, as it has been for the last two decades: “The other guys are worse, so you’re just going to have to put up with the fact that we’re not going to do anything you want.”

But that part of the electorate is in the process of dying. The organised bread and butter labour movement, which for decades could reliably deliver the votes of moderate conservative white working-class voters, was dealt a mortal blow during the Reagan Administration and is now (and for the foreseeable future) moribund.

The Ward and June Cleaver-type families are going away too. What is left is a younger generation of technologically astute, racially mixed voters who have heard the same old song from the Democrats for so long that it just sounds like background noise.

Younger, more progressive Democratic politicians like AOC have started the process of engaging those voters. For the DCCC, the goal is to hum loud enough to forget that they exist.

Photograph courtesy of Dimitri Rodriguez. Published under a Creative Commons license.