Democratic Leadership Under Pressure – Which Way Forward for the Left?
In the last two months, millions have made it clear they are prepared to stand up and fight back against a president they do not see as legitimate. The key question being asked by progressive workers and youth is how to defeat Trump’s agenda.
The stalling of Trump’s travel bans in the courts as well as the huge difficulties the Republicans are encountering in repealing Obamacare show that they are vulnerable. Trump’s support for a “repeal and replace” that would lead to 24 million losing health care and his viciously anti-working class budget proposal are exposing his lying claim to represent working people. Trump’s approval ratings are now down to 37%.
But decisively defeating Trump and the Republicans will require that the movement keeps up the pressure in the streets and goes further. Socialist Alternative has argued for bringing the social power of the working class to bear in a more decisive way through strike action. On May 1, we are likely to see massive demonstrations of immigrant workers and significant political strike action.
But the movement also needs a clear fighting program and determined leadership. It is natural that large numbers will look first to the Democratic Party leadership to use their positions to stand up and fight back. There has been intense pressure on the leadership of the party to hold the line against Trump by opposing all of Trump’s reactionary cabinet appointees and filibustering his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. In coming weeks, there will be demands that the Democrats make good on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s threat to shut down the government if the Republicans go along with Trump’s budget proposals.
Meanwhile thousands have gone to Republican representatives’ townhalls around the country to rail against them about health care and other issues. It is clear that a “Tea Party of the left” is emerging and there are various groups discussing standing candidates in the 2018 Congressional primaries against Democrats not prepared to fight Trump down the line.
We agree completely that the Democrats should be put under pressure to resist Trump. And up to a point, this pressure can work. But the question is, how far can the party’s leadership – which is deeply beholden to corporate interests – actually be pushed?
Have they learned from their loss to Trump after rigging the primary to stop Bernie Sander whose call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” inspired millions? In the general election, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton chose to focus on Trump as an existential “threat to the Republic” rather than campaigning on demands that would speak to the needs of working people like a $15 minimum wage or free college. This allowed Trump to demagogically portray himself as the defender of the “forgotten men and women” against a corrupt establishment.
The Democrats are continuing with the same type of approach that lost them the election with their obsession about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. They hope that the Trump administration will either implode or be so damaged by scandal that they will sweep back in 2018 to take back the House. This could work but it is a dangerous game.
Trying to Contain the Left
The revolt against Trump and the experience of the mass movement is leading many people to the conclusion that struggle can defeat Trump and we don’t need to wait until 2018.
Rather than seeing the politicization and radicalization of sections of their base as an opportunity to build a movement to defeat Trump’s agenda, the Democrats see it as a serious headache. A leading House Democrat, Adam Schiff, put it this way: “The radical nature of this government is radicalizing Democrats, and that’s going to pose a real challenge to the Democratic Party, which is to draw on the energy and the activism and the passion that is out there, but not let it turn us into what we despised about the tea party” (Los Angeles Times, 1/31/17). By this, he means they want to ride the wave without being forced to the left.
Indeed, the energy and activism is reinforcing the support for the left, centered around Bernie Sanders and to a lesser degree Elizabeth Warren. Sanders is the most popular politician in the country but after supporting Clinton he finds himself in a contradictory position. The discredited Democratic leadership which used every means available to stop him last year now needs him to provide badly needed cover.
Nevertheless, Sanders continues to show what a fighting left could do if we had our own political party. He has led the charge in bringing the fight against the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare into the “red” areas of the country. He is effective because he links his opposition to the Republicans’ attacks to the call for Medicare for all – to a real solution to the health care crisis. He directly addresses the concerns and fears of working people while making bold proposals for pushing back against corporate power. This is what the Democratic leadership is unwilling and incapable of doing.
A People’s Party?
The recent election for Democratic National Committee chairperson brought this internal conflict to a head. Keith Ellison was backed by Sanders as well as a section of the establishment seeking to co-opt the left while Tom Perez, who eventually won, was backed by the Obama wing. In the wake of losing a rigged vote, Ellison promptly agreed to the offer of vice chairman in the name of unity but the issues will not go away.
The left, following Sanders, seeks to turn the Democrats into a “People’s Party.” They want a political force that can give voice to and help galvanize the movement. We totally agree. But what would this actually require? First of all, that the party and its candidates refuse all corporate money. Second, that they adopt a platform that truly speaks to the interests of the 99% and, critically, that the party’s elected representatives must adhere to this platform. Finally, a People’s Party would have have to build a mass membership with the democratic participation of members.
The corporate “centrists” will resist this to the death. Even if the left were to overcome all the institutional obstacles and somehow take over, the outcome would be a split with most of the existing leadership leaving. One way or another a new mass, membership-based left party will have to be formed.
What is different now is that hundreds of thousands of radicalized workers and youth are on a collision course with the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party. Many are already drawing further conclusions reflected in the growth of socialist organizations like Socialist Alternative and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Even in 2017, further steps can be taken towards a new party. Ginger Jentzen of Socialist Alternative is running for Minneapolis city council and her campaign is catching fire. There is evidence of others on the left preparing to run in local races. Unfortunately, most of these campaigns will take the path of trying to use the Democratic Party as a platform. But, if these campaigns were to run independently, on a bold platform, rallying the thousands of energized activists, it could help lay the basis for a new party in this country that could be a powerful lever in the fight against the right and the billionaire class.
An immediate step would be if socialists came together to run ten or more strong independent socialist candidates across the country in 2017. These campaigns could galvanize the left on the road to building a much bigger socialist force that will contribute to even bigger developments in the next period.