The Nature of The Swamp

For Democrats, it used to be easier. 

Step 1: Speak publicly about standing up for the working class, immigrants, social and racial justice, and other issues in order to get elected. Then, fundraise from corporate and other powerful donors at odds with the interests of your voters and safely bet few would notice.

Step 2: Once elected, pursue a legislative agenda which promotes your donor’s interests primarily, while symbolically throwing your voters a bone occasionally to keep them quiet. 

Step 3: Rinse and repeat until ‘retirement’, where you can then become a lobbyist for other candidates in their fundraising for Step 1. 

With this cycle, the Democrats- historically branding themselves as the party of the working class- have thrown workers overboard over time with this formula. Corporate and wealthy-funded Democrats now make up the vast majority of its members, even including most of the House Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). 

When these Democrats are raising money to sustain their campaigns from the most wealthy and powerful sources in America and elsewhere, what does a voter expect them to turn around and do once elected?

Newly elected US Representative Rashida Tlaib, who represents much of the Detroit area, recently commented that “we’re choosing developers and billionaires over real people — the people that actually put us in office.” 

The divide between elected Democrats’ legislative records versus their campaign rhetoric makes it difficult to accurately judge them without doing a fair bit of research, which many don’t have the time for. Consider the recent remarks from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, during an interview for Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche (it’s unclear if he intended for Americans to read it with the unusually frank language he uses about the US political system):

“The Democratic Party, which for 100 years was the party of average people is now the party of the rich.

Donald Trump, who is often seen as this world-changing figure is actually a symptom of something that precedes him that I sometimes wonder if he even understands which is this realignment. He served the purpose of bringing the middle class into the Republican Party, which had zero interest, no interest in representing them at all. Trump intuitive, he felt, he could smell that there was this large group of voters who had no one representing them and he brought them to the Republican side, but the realignment is still ongoing.

In other words, the Democratic Party used to represent the middle class, it no longer does, it now hates the middle class. The Republican Party which has never represented the middle class doesn’t want to. That is the source of really all the confusion and the tension that you’re seeing now.”

Regardless of the highly doubtful likelihood of the Republican party ever shifting its policy to represent the working class, even those on the Fox News Right like Carlson have a sense as to what has happened to the Democratic party over the years. Fundraising from some of the same types of sources as the Republicans, but claiming to represent the average Joe creates inconsistency. 

The Third Way and New Democrat Movements

But systematically undercutting your voters can’t work forever, right? Surely there are bound to be Democratic voters who will catch on to the ruse and spoil the party. For them, you need a cover story- a smokescreen to hide behind. 

Answer: shift some of the messaging to instead appeal to centrists. Centrists, the corporate Democrats argued, are now the key to the electoral strategy. Maintain some of the rhetoric about representing the working class but shift to a more ‘realistic’ or ‘practical’ approach to grab up those voters in the center. Oh and dump those unions and leftists if need be. Move economic policy to the right (in order to capture a larger share of corporate and PAC money) while focusing the messaging on liberal social policies. 

Such was the mantra of both the New Democrat and Third Way Democrats who count among their kin Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Dianne Feinstein, Krysten Sinema, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, and many others

Matt Taibbi wrote in 2017:

Voters for decades were conned into thinking they were noisome minorities whose best path to influence is to make peace with the mightier “center,” which inevitably turns out to support military interventionism, fewer taxes for the rich, corporate deregulation and a ban on unrealistic “giveaway” proposals like free higher education. Those are the realistic, moderate, popular ideas, we’re told.

But it’s a Wizard of Oz trick, just like American politics in general. There is no numerically massive center behind the curtain. What there is instead is a tiny island of wealthy donors, surrounded by a protective ring of for-sale major-party politicians (read: employees) whose job it is to castigate too-demanding voters and preach realism.”

The result? Politically neutered Democratic messaging which tends to be meaningless from a practical policy perspective. Obama ran largely on platitudes like “hope and change”, but what exactly does that mean- what kind of change? You can see the same with Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and on and on. The messaging sounds nice on the surface, but leaves voters lacking any sort of concrete plan as to a candidate’s legislative agenda- you know, the main point of being elected in the first place. 

Money vs People

Partly as a result of the decades-long cadre of milquetoast Democrats offering bland and surface-deep policies, a new wave of elected officials is emerging. Launched in 2017, the Justice Democrats are a new left wing of the Democratic party- the organization itself initially being formed from The Young Turks’ Cenk Uyger,  Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski, and former members of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign team. 

Their main mission? Ridding the political system of money in politics by requiring their members to refuse money from corporate PACs (Political Action Committees). 

Their electoral record in the 2018 midterms was notable for two things: 1) for being mostly a failure on paper, with Justice Democrats losing the vast majority of their elections. This could have been a combination of being a new organization, messaging/policies not being supportive enough, or lacking the large campaign funds available from PACs and wealthy donors. But the silver lining here is 2) the seven candidates that won have been some of the most high-profile congresspeople since. 

The winners were: Raul Grijalva, Ro Khanna, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pramila Jayapal. Their numbers in Congress, although being practically minute, have been bolstered by their actions and policy proposals since taking office. Whether it’s protesting outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, proposing an Internet Bill of Rights, or the Green New Deal, such actions by these new Democrats are scaring much of the rank and file of both parties. 

Despite Democrats not having the ability to pass meaningful legislation with Republicans in control of the Senate and White House, what these Justice Democrats are still managing to accomplish is noteworthy. 

What is called the Overton Window, or the range of acceptable policy discussion, is starting to move left in part by these new Democrats after decades of being moved consistently to the right after the wake of the New Deal era as a result of the massive counter-offensive by big business and centers of power and wealth. This counter-offensive was written about here

Noam Chomsky put it well when he wrote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

The Reaction

Rashida Tlaib recounts an early Congressional meeting she and Ilhan Omar had with fellow Representative Josh Gottheimer, dubbed a Democratic counter-revolutionary against the incoming Democrats and their progressive agenda. New to Congress and eager to begin networking with party members, Tlaib recalled that Gottheimer brought a colleague with him who brought a “white binder”. The binder reportedly contained a series of articles with Tlaib’s quotations which Gottheimer found “anti-Semitic” and which were presented “as requested by leadership”. 

The specific quotations were not specified, but reports of the meeting indicate an effort to keep Tlaib and Omar in line with the party mainstream, a strategy the establishment Democrats would struggle to employ against these new Democrats time and time again. 

Miles Kampf-Lassin of Jacobin has written a piece concerning this civil war among Democrats, mentioning that: 

 “Mainstream outlets have characterized the conflict as driven by generational tensions, or (on Pelosi’s side) simply a desire to protect Democratic incumbents from criticism. But the feud in fact speaks to something much deeper: Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are pushing for bold, transformational policies that would upend the current economic and political system. That campaign is coming into open conflict with a Democratic establishment that would prefer to just keep things as they are.”

Kampf-Lassin also goes on to write concerning the boldness these new Democrats possess, which flies in the face of their colleagues’ typical behavior:

They understand that Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters in the Justice Democrats don’t just want to knock off a few incumbents here and there; they want to create a political environment in which Democrats who put corporate-friendly policies over the demands of working-class Americans are seen as toxic — and they’re willing to take risks to achieve this goal.”

But worst of all for the establishment Democrats, one of the new Democrats’ key strategies- to rid the political system of corporate influence, appears to be picking up steam:

The recent record shows that the efforts of Ocasio-Cortez and the Left are having an impact. Since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last year, Democrats up and down the ballot are swearing off corporate-PAC money.” 

On the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kampf-Lassin remarks (bold is mine): 

Rather than discussing carbon taxes and meager credits for renewable energy, as had long been the Democratic status quo, policymakers were now debating a wholesale transformation of America’s energy system that would impact nearly every sphere of the economy. While Pelosi scornfully referred to the plan as “the green dream or whatever,””

Ultimately, the author argues, the problem establishment Democrats have with these new Justice Democrats comes down to the allocation of political power: 

But the backlash from Democratic centrists is more than just resentment or jealousy. They really fear a policy program that threatens to shake the neoliberal political consensus that has dominated both parties for the past forty years.”

Nancy Pelosi, as the speaker of the House of Representatives, has been apt to downplay the attention that the Justice Democrats are getting in the media, recently saying of some: “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world.” … “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” “Public whatever” is the kind of language an oligarch or a monarch would use, not a publicly elected official- and oddly enough, her Democratic party is marketed to represent the working class. 

The Intercept reports that In a recent House Democratic Caucus meeting, Pelosi reportedly said 

“Every time I’m attacked, I raise more money,” Pelosi said, looking directly at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drawing huge applause from the caucus.”

But there is another angle.  Yes, much of the establishment Democrats oppose these new Justice Democrats on policy and are used to representing the leftmost boundary of acceptable debate in the US. But a recent report (source: https://theintercept.com/2019/07/16/morgan-harper-congressional-black-caucus-primary/) highlights another crucial motivation for opposition. 

The old political party strategy of Democrats rising from the ranks of politics (for example: starting as office staff, then perhaps running for state congress, afterwards eventually to the national level, while fundraising from PACs and businesses) is being challenged. These insurgent Justice Democrats, the thinking goes, who leapfrog their way into national Congressional seats (remember, Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender before running for Congress), put into jeopardy the ladder system much of these Democrats rely upon. 

When a relatively unknown political candidate can upset a loyal Democrat, who has towed the moderate line for years, that party apparatus begins to break down and lose legitimacy.  And for many of the Democratic staffers, pundits, consultants, elected officials, and donors, this is a fundamental threat to their professional careers. 

Those on the right are also paying attention. Pat Buchanan of The American Conservative recently offered his thoughts on a recent conflict between Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib and establishment Democrats and how it might play out:

Observing the clash between Trump and these women, the rank and file of the Democratic Party are being forced to take sides. Many will inevitably side with the fighters, as Democratic moderates appear timid and tepid.”

The Washington Post is reporting that:

Trump’s tweets “yet again reinforced in the minds of many Americans that the Democratic Party is the party of AOC and Omar,” a Trump campaign adviser tells Power Up.

Many establishment Democrats are now looking over their shoulder at primaries by the Justice Democrats and are teaming up with Democratic leadership to stamp them down- all with the help of Republicans led by President Trump, who recently tweeted for several Justice Democrat members to leave the country if they don’t support the status quo. Shortly afterwards, Trump also tweeted

I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” 

It has taken a mere seven freshmen members of the US House of Representatives to show how Pelosi and Trump are ultimately working for the same team: keep the establishment of power just the way it is.  

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