Democrats’ dilemma

“Tremendous success tonight,” tweeted United States President Donald Trump on November 6. “Thanks to all.” At a press conference the next day, Trump scrolled down the list of the Republicans who had won and those who had lost. “Mia Love gave me no love,” he said of the Congresswoman from Utah, “and she lost. Sorry about that, Mia.” Of Peter Roskam (Illinois), Barbara Comstock (Virginia) and Erik Paulsen (Minnesota), he said that they did not want “the embrace”, which referred to Trump’s embrace. Barbara Comstock would have won her race, Trump said, “but she didn’t want to have any embrace”. He meant that they had not adopted the Trump agenda and did not want him to campaign with them. The Trump brand, he said, is a winning brand. Everything else was a failure.

The government at the federal level in the U.S. is divided between three chambers—the executive (the President), the legislature (the U.S. Congress) and the judiciary. Trump remains in power until 2020. He has already appointed two right-wing judges to the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, which will now be reliably conservative for a generation. Trump has also filled the lower courts with his people, rushing to build a wall against liberalism. In this midterm election, Congress—which is made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives—split power, with the Senate remaining in Republican hands and the House going to the Democrats. A projected wave of Democratic victories did not take place at the Senate level, but it did happen in the House.

Women’s representation

It was in the House of Representatives, with 435 seats, that the most dramatic changes took place. The Democratic Party gained over 30 seats to take the majority. Thirty-four women won seats to the House, which means that the 116th Congress will have the greatest number of women ever. Sharice Davids (Kansas) and Deb Haaland (New Mexico), both Democrats, will be the first two Native American women to be in the House of Representatives. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) will be the first Muslim women there.

Both Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) are members of the of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They are not the first socialists in the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate. Senator Bernie Sanders, who was re-elected to the Senate from Vermont, is a socialist. Victor Berger and Meyer London, both of the Socialist Party, were Congressmen a hundred years ago. More recently, Congressman Ron Dellums (California) and Congressman Major Owens (New York) were members of the DSA. At the State, county and municipal levels, the DSA won 40 seats. “Each of these candidates ran against corporate-backed Republican or Democratic political establishments on inspiring platforms demanding an end to austerity and oppression,” said the DSA. “We are building a pipeline from local positions all the way to national politics.”

None of the candidates backed by Sanders’ grass-roots organisation Our Revolution was able to win. But the impact of Sanders’ run for the presidency two years ago continues to shape politics at the local level. It pushed many people to run on a more robust Left agenda and not just as anti-Trump candidates. Left-leaning Democrats who are not in the DSA and would not consider themselves socialists did win office across the country. They stood for what they believed in and built a majority based on that. There is an appetite in the U.S. for candidates to talk about public health care and more funding for public schools as well as for workers’ rights. Candidates who spoke openly for a Left agenda that includes these issues found receptive ears.

End of triangulation

But this forthrightness is not the culture of the Democratic Party, just as it was not the culture of the Republican Party for a generation. The habit of “triangulation” had taken hold in the culture of U.S. politics. Rather than build a political vision from a set of values, the professional political operatives developed their agenda from the techniques of polling and wedge issues, using divisive tactics based on fear to drive people to the polls to vote for their candidate and to discourage their opponent’s voters from coming to vote. There is an ugliness in triangulation, the politics of trying to win above all else with no honest discussion of the agenda that one would like to adopt. The entire policy slate of neoliberalism was brought into government through this cynical use of the electoral process. Bill Clinton (in the U.S.) and Tony Blair (in the U.K.) were the masters of this kind of politics. They wanted to project empathy with the citizenry at the same time that they enacted policies that undercut society. No wonder that a generation lost faith in politics and developed cynicism as it’s attitude to government.

Trump, and others like him, have broken with the politics of “triangulation”. He does not care about the political operative. Trump’s agenda might be wrong, but at least it is clear. He says that the workers in the U.S. have lost out to trade deals and immigration, which is why he compulsively speaks about these issues and drives policies on them. Whether he is right or wrong, whether he lies or tells the truth, he sticks to these two elements of his message. Trump has built a base—at least a third of the voting population—that has a religious connection to him and to his statements. The language Trump uses on trade and immigration is straightforwardly racist, which allows him to nourish that old seam of racism that has never really been exorcised from U.S. society. There is no syrupy talk of diversity from Trump. He hits his message hard and stays with it.

When Trump says that Mia Love and Erik Paulsen did not “embrace” him, he means it personally as well as politically. They did not “embrace” his politics of forthrightness, his agenda on trade and immigration, and also his agenda on Trump. After the attack on the U.S. in 2001, George W. Bush asked: “Are you with us or against us?” When Bush said “us”, he meant the U.S. Trump’s “us” is personal. He means Trump. And he means the agenda on trade and immigration, which is crystallised in the phrase “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). If you are not with MAGA, he says, then you will lose.

The Democratic Party does not have a similar project. It drifts between an inchoate liberalism that does not clearly stand with workers and oppressed minorities and a dislike of Trump personally. It is hard for the Democratic Party to create the kind of energy that Trump has produced in his base unless the Democrats come before the people with a clear and emotive agenda. Triangulation—expressed in such phrases as “public-private partnership”—has been exhausted. It no longer has the appeal that it did in the Clinton years. An agenda, such as the one put forward by the DSA’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, that calls for the defence of workers’ rights, universal health care, better public schools, more investment for public transportation, higher taxes on the wealthy and more restrictions on finance capital, has a chance of creating the kind of militant base of the Left that has been lacking in U.S. politics for generations.

Hillary Clinton ran on the agenda of anti-Trump. In two years, when the next Democratic Party candidate runs for President, will they also merely have an anti-Trump posture? Or will they be able to lean on an honest politics that stands for something and not just against someone?

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