Doomed, delusional, divided and corrupt: How the Democratic Party became a haunted house

Conflicted about ideology and identity and deeply compromised by history, the Democratic Party is built to lose

Published September 22, 2019 12:22PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

Face to face with what looks an awful lot like the rise of American fascism, the Democratic Party has a historic opportunity — and a historic responsibility. It has repeatedly proven itself to be unequal to the task, to a comic and pathetic degree. 

Democratic congressional leaders, Democratic presidential candidates and the party’s true-blue believers keep wandering through familiar patterns, like someone in a dream state out of a Kafka story or a surrealist film, clinging to the fading hope that this time around the nonsensical narrative will reach a satisfactory resolution. If you tried to design a center-left political party trapped between the traditions of social democracy and classical liberalism, unclear about its core beliefs and equally terrified by both its most vicious opponents and its most ardent supporters — in other words, a party perfectly positioned to capitulate to tyranny with nothing more than a few disapproving whimpers — I hardly think you could do better than the one we’ve got.

I’m not just talking about the endless, dispiriting dithering over whether or not to impeach the obvious criminal in the White House, although that has been both patronizing and cowardly, a combination most often achieved by parents with something to hide. (Something, of course, that the kids already know). 

That particular failing was thrown into strong relief this week after reports that President Trump tried to arm-twist the president of Ukraine into digging up (or perhaps inventing) damaging information on Joe Biden, approximately the 10th scandal of Trump’s presidency that would have ended the career of any normative, old-school politician. Even mainstream congressional Democrats and sympathetic media commentators have begun complaining openly about the leadership’s inaction — but there is no serious indication anything will change. With the Iowa caucuses now 16 weeks away, Nancy Pelosi has pretty well accomplished her goal of running out the clock on impeachment.

I’m also not just talking about the party’s steadfast refusal to adopt coherent, progressive and broadly popular positions on issues like health care, gun control, marijuana legalization and electoral reform. But it’s important to grasp why Democrats in power won’t embrace those things — as opposed to embracing them on the campaign trail, which really doesn’t count — because the reasons go well beyond ideological confusion or political cowardice and into deeper, darker places. 

Over the last 40 years, the Democrats have become an increasingly awkward coalition of affluent, cosmopolitan whites and urban people of color, and have largely abandoned their previous mistrust of corporate power, Wall Street and big capital in general. Go down the list of powerful congressional Democrats — especially the committee chairs and members of leadership — and pay attention to where and how they raise money, and who their major donors are. The corruption is widespread and deeply rooted, and it cannot be dislodged simply by anointing a reformer or “socialist” as the presidential nominee. If anything, that should be the end point of a renovation or redemption project that has not happened.

I’m not just talking about the peculiar fact that the 2020 Democratic campaign will likely boil down to a contest between three white people in their 70s, each of them with glaring and obvious flaws. I’m not talking about the unresolved post-2016 tactical and ideological struggle between “progressives” and “moderates,” which was a long time coming and is now playing out in the nomination contest. I’m also not talking about the exaggerated infighting on the left between supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which represents both substantive and symbolic divisions — and which, on both sides, also represents a profoundly unrealistic view of the nature of political power.

Those things can all be pulled apart and argued over individually, of course. But I am truly and honestly not arguing here for the victory of a particular candidate or faction or strategy. I don’t know how impeachment would turn out, and neither do you. I have no idea whether Sanders or Warren or Biden or Kamala Betogieg is the best bet to defeat Trump next year, and nobody else does either. That leaves us with the radical proposition that people should support the candidate they like best and we’ll see what happens, which I realize is deeply unsatisfactory punditry.

But all such questions, when considered piece by piece, ignore the deeper underlying narrative that frames them in the first place. They all signal toward the Democratic Party’s remarkable ability to manufacture defeat, even (or perhaps especially) when objective conditions seem overwhelmingly favorable to victory. The real problem here, I’m afraid, admits of no easy solution: The Democratic Party comprises a wide range of views and voices, some of whom are vigorously trying to change its direction. But all of them are trapped inside a haunted house. Troubled by the ghosts of the past and clinging to useless rituals, Democrats appear largely unable to perceive actually existing reality or react to it appropriately.

This is not exactly a new idea. In political science, it’s expressed through the concept that the relationship between our two major parties has become asymmetrical: Democrats cling to norms and standards of a bygone era, Biden-style, and also, by their nature, are driven by principles of dialogue, reasoned discourse and compromise. LOL! Republicans are totally over that shit, and have gone full-on ruthless culture war, a dynamic explored by Salon's Amanda Marcotte in her book "Troll Nation": They know they can’t win a fair fight on issues and policies, but when it comes to semiotic battles rooted in racism, nationalism and cultural division, they consistently hold the upper hand.

That’s a useful construct, but I suspect it doesn’t go far enough, in that it still appears to rest on the assumption that our political system more or less works, or almost works, or at least could be made to work with some structural improvements that compel the Republicans to stop being so nasty. That’s the fundamental premise of virtually everyone in the Democratic Party. I believe it’s completely wrong. I believe it's not just wrong but dangerous, and not just dangerous but doomed. It threatens to sink democracy with passivity and politeness. (If, that is, democracy hasn’t been sunk already.)

I’m not sure whether to call the contention that democracy is kinda-sorta-maybe functioning normally — in the face of literally all the evidence, not just here but around the world — cynical or childish. I'm not sure whether it's driven by misguided faith or by a self-interested desire to preserve power and privilege. (Those things feed into each other, to be sure.) This article of faith or doctrine of blindness gets expressed in its most comic and pathetic form, of course, in Joe Biden's campaign. The former vice president has assured us that Donald Trump's presidency is an "aberrant moment in time": Apparently Trump came out of nowhere and has no history; once he is gone, Republicans will experience an "epiphany" and normal politics of bipartisan comity and compromise will be restored.

As I've observed before, this fails to answer the question of what kind of normalcy we are to imagine, and when or where it can be found. Fortunately, former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden adviser and surrogate, answered the question in a recent interview with Michael Scherer of the Washington Post. (Kaufman only served in the Senate as Biden's appointed successor, after the latter became vice president in 2009.)

“To get back to where we were on November 1, 2016, is going to be a herculean effort. You are going to need somebody who has a lot of experience, who has bold, realistic policies and who knows people around the world. ... After four years of Trump, we are going to face a really difficult time rebuilding the country.”

There you have it: Read it and weep, if you have tears left to spare. Kaufman’s warning about “a really difficult time” aside, November 2016 was apparently the lost golden age of American politics, or at least the only one Joe Biden is willing to promise. Now, as I recall that distant era, it featured total legislative paralysis, endless investigations of a minor foreign-policy debacle in Libya, a Supreme Court nominee under blockade by the Senate and the majority party in both houses of Congress gripped by paranoid conspiracy theories. But at least the president wasn't a racist, lying fuckwad trying to impose a discount-store police state. It's an inspiring vision! 

Unfortunately, if understandably, a large proportion of the Democratic base has been so thoroughly abused and gaslit and terrorized — both by the ruthless, vicious opposition and by the self-abasing leadership of its own party — that it’s willing to settle for that. I mean, I get it: Democrats understand either consciously or instinctively that the odds are rigged against them, and the pragmatic response is to lower your expectations into the basement and pursue a short-term victory at almost any cost. So let’s at least get this terrifying idiot out of the White House and replace him with a vaguely normal adult; all that stuff about the dying planet and economic inequality and Medicare for All (not to mention trying to build or restore a functional democracy) will just have to wait.

If it’s easy to mock the Bidenites for their weird combination of delusional fantasy and defeatism, it’s harder and more painful to observe that this syndrome is found throughout the Democratic coalition, if in subtler form. As I suggested earlier, supporters of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have fallen into a top-down, shortcut-to-power fallacy, which is conceptually related to the Bidenite delusion. In this version of the future, electing a progressive reformer or a socialist “revolutionary,” as the case may be, will somehow be enough to uproot a deep-tentacled system of privilege and power, and make up for decades’ worth of Republican institutional conquest and Democratic capitulation.

Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign was a historic moment of rebirth for the American left and injected unexpected new energy into the Democratic Party. Historians and political scientists will be unpacking its effects for decades. While Sanders appears unlikely to win the 2020 nomination, his second campaign is still remarkable for its diversity, its ideological clarity and its grassroots, working-class support, something no other candidate comes close to matching. But Sanders’ importance has nothing to do with a hypothetical Sanders presidency, in which virtually every element of his grand agenda would either be defeated in Congress, watered down and pulled apart, or dismantled by the radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court who are now amusingly described as “conservatives.” 

Much of Elizabeth Warren’s appeal lies in the fact that her ambitious agenda of sweeping regulatory reform — “I’ve got a plan for that” — sounds a lot more practical and realistic, and that she possesses expert-level knowledge of the legal, financial and legislative systems. But the same caveats apply when it comes to Congress and the Supreme Court: No one who has observed the recent history of Washington can take seriously the prospect that she could get these plans passed, at least not without seeing them riddled with lobbyist-written loopholes and compromised away into near-meaninglessness. Furthermore, legalistic regulatory reforms dictated from above — which are often poorly understood by almost everyone, including the legislators who vote on them — are not generally an effective mechanism for social change. For one thing, they are easily undone by the political opposition whenever it regains power, as the Trump administration’s brief but exciting history has shown us.

To a significant extent, the Democratic Party’s problems go deeper into the past than we can possibly catalog here. This is a party that came into existence in the 19th century as the populist voice of the “common man,” in opposition to the Northeastern business elite and the old Anglo-Saxon power structure. But it was overtly aligned with white supremacy for more than a century, and did not finally snap the tether until Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. In less than a generation after that, it abandoned all pretense of a class-based, populist orientation and effectively became the party of the coastal elite (or at least of its liberal faction), constructing a power-sharing arrangement around elevating members of previously excluded or marginalized groups into that elite.

This is a long-term institutional crisis that no presidential candidate and no articles of impeachment can address, especially not within a degraded pseudo-democratic system in which most voters literally do not count, thanks to extensive gerrymandering and the Electoral College. Redeeming, reforming or reshaping the Democratic Party is an urgent and necessary task, one that many activists both inside and outside the party are energetically pursuing. But it cannot be accomplished overnight, even though time is running out for American democracy — and there is no obvious way around that contradiction. Right now, the grim fact is that the Democratic Party has been constructed to lose, and we should stop acting surprised if it keeps on doing so.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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