Paul Garver on the challenge for rivals aiming to stop Trump in 2020
In Chartist 282 [pdf] (Sep-Oct 2016), I wrote that Hilary Clinton, then leading Donald Trump by double digits in the polls, might yet be defeated if the Democrats continued to support free trade treaties, neglect the frustration of formerly unionized workers in the industrial heartlands, and campaign against Trump without promoting a convincing program of their own. My worst fears were realized when Trump rode to victory by edging out the Democrats in former industrial areas where disgruntled white voters voted out their frustration. For the 2020 presidential election, I fear the path to hell is easier for the Democrats to follow.
In December, Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives for abusing his office to win political favors from Ukraine. The Republican-majority Senate will probably acquit him, so he will remain in office [they did and he has – Ed]. Following every twist and turn of this distracting story, the media circus will only relent after Trump declares full vindication to his supporters. The real crises facing Americans – climate disruption, a dysfunctional health system, persecution of refugees, growing inequality and racism – will stay in the background.
Struggling for attention, numerous candidates in the Democratic primaries soldier on. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren evenly share the more progressive half of Democratic primary voters. Both are financed by huge numbers of individual donors, supporting ambitious programs like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and free higher education, based on higher taxes of the super-rich.
Many other candidates are vying to be the ‘moderate’ alternative to the democratic socialism of Sanders and the anti-corporate progressive populism of Warren. Joe Biden is the sentimental choice of traditionalists, invoking the good old days of cautious presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Pete Buttigieg seems to be emerging as the most viable of the younger ‘moderates’. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg now aims to buy his way into this role. African-American Deval Patrick, a former cautiously progressive governor of Massachusetts, appears to be hoping to become the ‘next Barack Obama’ following the withdrawal of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.*
Obama himself is an open advocate for a moderate who can beat Sanders/Warren in the primaries and then defeat Trump in the general election. The big Democratic donors, national party apparatus and their propagandists in the mass media (e.g. NY Times, MSNBC) appear consumed by the same search. This presumes that Trump, emerging unbowed from the impeachment hearings with his hardcore base intact, will be sufficiently discredited among Independents and swing voters that he can be defeated – even in the Electoral College, where political geography favours Republicans with their reactionary, racist and xenophobic appeals to older white voters. The most difficult problem is that some 35-40% of the electorate appears committed to Trump regardless of (or because of) his many transgressions.
We on the Left cannot simply dismiss the argument that the Democrats should nominate whoever can defeat Trump by carrying most of the so-called ‘purple’ states won by Obama but later by Trump. However, the ‘pragmatic’ Democratic strategy of opposing Trump without a strong reform program to combat inequality failed for Clinton in 2016 and probably would again in 2020. It would neither motivate younger voters to turn out in sufficient numbers to enlarge the electorate nor, crucially, motivate them to be politically active over the long haul.
Elections in our highly polarized polity are often won by increasing turnout and enthusiasm rather than by persuading a shrinking pool of ‘swing voters’. The Left in and around the Democratic Party, with a different vision from that of the ‘pragmatists’, fights for sweeping programs to energize the progressive base of democratic activists, attract fresh support – particularly from people of colour and younger voters – and eliminate the influence of wealthy donors. Higher participation has accompanied such progressive victories as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a long-term New York Democratic incumbent, Ayanna Pressley, in a Boston area Congressional seat and DSA members to Chicago City Council and state legislatures around the country.
On the presidential nomination the ‘Squad’ is split, with Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar supporting Sanders, while Pressley has endorsed Warren. DSA, PDA and Our Revolution support Sanders; the Working Families Party endorses Warren. Up to and beyond the 2020 presidential election, any possibility of success will depend on durable collaboration between democratic socialists and progressives, both electorally and in the streets. If Sanders, Warren or a centrist Democrat became President, it would require massive mobilizations of progressive social movements to secure radical reforms. But a Trump (or Trump clone) victory would jeopardize democracy and the rule of law: much of our political work could be forced underground to survive.
Recent national polls show Sanders as the only potential candidate to consistently lead Trump. That many of the huge crowd in Iowa recently were there more for Ocasio-Cortez than for Sanders is no problem. He long carried the torch for democratic socialism in relative obscurity but now he is joined by a much younger, more diverse cohort with sweeping goals for transforming American society.
*Since this article went to press, Deval Patrick has dropped out of the race following the New Hampshire primary.