The political center, the Democratic Party, and taking racism out of the shadows
June 17, 2017
1. The notion that Democrats are clinging to the political center strikes me as problematic. Things are clearly changing in the Democratic Party and across the country, and have been for a while now. The party’s election platform reflected these changes as did Hillary’s campaign. Free trade, unregulated banks, and austerity aren’t the toast of the party as they had been. Instead, the conversation is trending in a progressive direction, even if what is doable legislatively is very limited for the moment. And without question, Bernie Sanders and his campaign had a considerable hand in this process.
Furthermore, at the local level, new faces and energy are filling the rooms at Democratic Party meetings. And perhaps to the surprise of some, the party’s leadership in Congress has conducted themselves quite well in difficult circumstances.
That said, much still needs to be done. And the immediate challenge is to unite its various currents against the Trump-right-wing-authoritarian juggernaut — and especially in next year’s elections, while, at the same time, contesting in a cooperative spirit over program, policies, and priorities and rebuilding the Democratic Party in urban and rural America alike.
What isn’t of any value is over-zealous efforts to call out the “center” or to isolate the “left. The unity of one with the other, notwithstanding political tensions, is especially imperative in present circumstances.
2. It is said by some on the left that the political center in U.S. politics has disappeared. Some say it is “imaginary.” I find that to be a harmful notion if taken seriously. The country is polarized in many ways, but it doesn’t follow that tens of millions comfortably fit on the progressive-left end of the political spectrum. I wish that were the case, but I don’t see the evidence for it. In my own interactions, which I realize can’t be generalized, people hold very contradictory — some disturbing — positions on a range of issues. Few possess a consistent and articulated progressive-left worldview. Many are of mixed, even warring, minds. Most don’t like Trump, but more than a few are suspicious of “big government,” worried about taxes and terrorism, and on issues of race, gender, and immigration the conversation can become problematic.
To say otherwise in my view comes from a radicalism that is in too much of a hurry and too anxious to reach its final destination as well as isolated from everyday working class life. It fails to understand that the maxim”haste makes waste” can ring true in politics.
Now don’t get me wrong. Progressive messaging and candidates are a indispensable piece of the puzzle, but only a piece. It will also take millions of conversations on people’s doorsteps and elsewhere and involvement in seemingly mundane day to day struggles — not to mention a left that has majoritarian politics on its mind.
3. Bernie Sanders’ speech at the recent People’s Summit in Chicago sounded a lot of right notes, but I couldn’t help noticing that he largely reduced racism to simply a tool of division and disunity in the working class movement. I have heard others on the left, usually advocating a progressive populism, do much the same.
What goes unmentioned in this narrative is that racism is also a material reality that leaves people of color in subordinate positions and discriminated against in every sphere of life. What also is missing is any mention that racist ideas are pervasive, crude as well as subtle, reach people in both direct and roundabout ways, and rest, in the last analysis, on the systematic reproduction of the conditions and substance of racial inequality. Without the latter, the popularization of racist thinking would have an infinitely harder time finding a receptive audience.
It also dodges the relative, but real, advantages conferred on white workers due to their whiteness, even in this period where broad decline in living standards across large sections of the population, including white workers, has been a defining feature. This isn’t to suggest that racism doesn’t confer by far its greatest on the 1 per cent nor that white workers aren’t disadvantaged in innumerable ways due to racism, but to understand its durability any analysis can’t stop here. It has to take into account as well the relative advantages received by white workers and people for no other reason than the color of their skin.
Finally, an appreciation — let alone a deep one — of the unmatchable political experience, political/strategic clarity, and dynamic role of people of color — and especially African American people — in the working class and broader people’s movement over time is nowhere to be found in this narrative.
How do we explain this blind spot? If it is simply an oversight, it is easily correctable. But if it expresses a political-class strategy that considers issues of equality other than divisions along income lines a hindrance to the formation of common class interests and a broad popular coalition against Trump in the near term and corporate capitalism in the longer term, it’s a much more serious problem that should be squarely faced.
For unless it is, it becomes virtually impossible not only to grasp the present moment and how we arrived here, but also how to extricate the country from the current mess and onto a new political trajectory.
4. In his review of the production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” now staging in Central Park. New York Times op-ed writer, Ross Douthat writes that Trump’s presidency is but the latest expression of “a creeping Caesarism in the executive [that] has been a feature of our politics for many years.” I find this highly misleading and disingenuous. Trump and Trumpism constitute a break from past politics – a rupture. Trump constitutes a danger to democratic governance that we haven’t faced ever before. He’s not typical, but atypical. Trump may be a symptom of the larger crisis and longer term trends, but his combination of megalomania, authoritarianism, and plunder with no governor of labor and the earth’s natural systems, is his unique staple and our worst nightmare. If he is a creature of anything, it is, first of all, the rise of the right and its racist, nativist, misogynist, anti-democratic, homophobic, and anti-working class posture and politics. But, at the same time, he is a unique and unprecedented threat to the fundamentals of democracy and life itself.
5. Speaking again of Douthat, in another oped in the NYT he argues that both sides of our polarized political climate are to blame for the violent rhetoric and violence. He mentions Kathy Griffin in the same breadth with Sean Hannity. On its face it may sound sensible to many readers, but if set against the actual record of the past 40 years, its intellectual dishonesty and political opportunism is unmistakable. No one — and Douthat has to know this — comes remotely close to approaching what the extreme right has done to poison the atmosphere and politics of the country. Its stock and trade has been racism, misogyny and sexism, nativism and anti-immigrant incitement, homophobia, anti-unionism, hyper nationalism, and violence.