The only thing more disempowering than watching Donald Trump’s surrealist acceleration of American revanchist conservatism is relying upon the Democratic Party to lead the #Resistance. After Clinton’s misreading of the electorate and colossal failure one would hope that even the most willing corporate servant might understand, even if only cynically, the necessity of a left-populist tack.
But with the nomination of Tom Perez, Barack Obama’s former labour secretary, the party has shown itself more committed to disciplining the Sanders contingent than actually forging a winning electoral strategy. At a time where the democratic base is energised, taking to the streets and packing congressional town hall meetings, the Dems have found a handbrake in Perez who will ensure the steady flow of corporate lobbyist cash and jobs for the consultant class. One only hopes that progressives and the left can channel their ire to run insurgent candidates in the primaries for the 2018 mid-terms.
While Clinton, with her arrogance and campaign of nitwits handing Michigan to Trump, has been a deserving pariah for the left, the election of Perez is Obama’s defining last act before joining the ranks of Silicon Valley and the Davos speaking circuit. Obama’s talents as an orator, campaigner and competent technocrat have allowed him to distinguish himself from the fecklessness that defines the Democratic Party. The affective investment of liberals and progressives in Obama as a figure of hopes and dreams is as alluring as it is shallow. For some liberals, being able to say ‘Barack Hussien Obama is my president’ was palliative enough, even though ‘moderation’ and ‘consensus’ produced a sweeping Republican tide that will undo his achievements.
To use an Obama metaphor, the election between Tom Perez and the progressive Keith Ellison was a war of choice, not of necessity. As Alex Sheppard writes, elected Democrats were coming to terms with the need to reach out to the Sanders base. The Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, perhaps eager to repent his general election strategy of appealing to suburban Republicans, endorsed Ellison as the presumptive front-runner. Ellison was surely the best one could expect of a democrat, an African-American Muslim and mid-Western populist, who was the most vocal of a small number of Sanders-supporting Democrats and who warned against the threat of Trump’s populism. The balance of establishment support and youthful progressives, his unique political identity and acumen all should have been enough to ensure his successfully candidacy.
Tom Perez has brought into sharp relief the competing technocratic and populist constituencies within the party. I hesitate to call it a party because, as Seth Ackerman observed, the Democrats are really just an association of elected office holders with no real accountability to anyone but their donors. The Obama/Clinton wing insist that Perez is every bit the progressive Ellison is while being capable of healing a party divided in the face of a diabolical Trump. But it is instructive to look at exactly what division means in this case. Ellison has staked his campaign on reinstating a ban on corporate lobbyist contributions to the DNC. For the technocrats the idea that lobbyist contributions are a fundamental litmus test is purity politics or violence almost as severe as the ’Bernie Would Have Won’ meme. If there was one lesson to be learned from the Sanders campaign it is that a passionate constituency, small donors and a principled anti-oligarchic politics was the path to victory for the democrats. But even with Hillary’s massive spending advantage over Trump failing in a manner only rivalled by Jeb Bush, the technocrats remain unconvinced.
Perez’s own record is also pretty patchy. He is a former labour secretary unable to gain the support of key unions and he failed to prosecute widespread illegal foreclosures by JP Morgan and others as deputy attorney general for civil rights. Meanwhile, in response to his energised candidacy, Ellison has been smeared as an anti-semite. Alan Dershowitz – who has defended George Zimmermann and Steve Bannon – threatened to leave the party over a potential Ellison chairmanship, which is as ringing an endorsement as one could hope for.
The Dem’s own belief that their party ‘is already great!’ should be a troubling sign for anyone hoping that they will be a useful vehicle for the #Resistance. At a time where there is massive popular disgust with the vulgarian who keeps walking into rakes a la Sideshow Bob, the technocrats see a way back to power in a manner that avoids the grubby politics of popular movements. The former DNC chair and now corporate lobbyist Howard Dean has stated his anxiety about the popular forces attempting to confront Trump through protests:
All these young people, they’re not Democrats. They didn’t come out for Hillary, they don’t come out for lower people on the ballot, they don’t come out for off-years.
For Dean and his ilk the spontaneous marches, with all of their inchoate potential for Nazi-punching and a real left-wing solidarity, are a symptom of Trump’s danger. This type of democrat is less concerned with impending cuts to Medicare and social security than the collapse of decorum and collegiality within the process.
It is here that the ongoing Russia scandals have proved useful. Russia and Trump function as placeholders of contradictory and indeterminate evils that explain away American democracy’s crises of legitimacy. Whatever intentions the Russian state may have had, and I remain unconvinced by much of the ‘evidence’, we are not to understand Trump’s rise as a result of a corrupt, inept and duplicitous political class, but rather of pure treacherous subversion. Michael Flynn’s lies and general incompetency allows democratic lawmakers to pursue a political scandal on the grounds of process – that which is most sacred to the technocrat. Simultaneously, the media is back in the throes of pure Russia-determinism allowing them to rehabilitate the ‘Piss Trump’ dossier and other campaign chestnuts. At the centre of this story are the noble democrats standing for principle and resisting the Soviet onslaught.
The current political moment is fraught with great anxiety around the Republicans intentions to persecute marginalised groups and further deny Americans a right to healthcare, public education and a living wage. The potential is also clear, the crystallisation of a left-wing politics able to identify the political class’s treachery and the universality of struggles for economic, climate and social justice. In this cause, the Democrats aren’t much use.