For the last two years, many of us who sincerely wanted Barack Obama to succeed have repeatedly called for the administration and the Democratic leadership to concentrate on rallying their liberal base. It is our belief that elections are won by getting your base to vote, not by taking it for granted and going after that elusive sliver of the electorate misleadingly referred to as “independents.”
In the run-up to the midterms, liberals tried to get the base to the polls by pointing out, quite correctly, what a disaster the Republicans represent for the future of our country. I believe that most of the liberal voters who are well-informed about what is going on in Washington realize the importance of voting. What many such liberals don’t understand is that a large percentage of the base are not particularly well-informed, and need to be rallied and courted in terms of their beliefs and interests in order to be persuaded to vote, especially in a non-Presidential race.
Obama and the Democratic leadership still cling to the Clinton-era strategy of aiming towards a supposed “center’ in order to win “moderates” and “independents” away from the Republicans. They conveniently forget that this strategy lost the Congress in 1994, made the 2000 election so close that it could be stolen, and continued to fail until the implosion of the Bush administration made the resurgence of 2006 possible, followed by Obama’s win in 2008.
Hillary Clinton ran a predictable hawkish, centrist, corporate-friendly campaign in 2008. Obama defeated her by running to her left. The fact that Obama was black was a volatile wild-card element in the primaries, and I think it made the latter stages closer than they might otherwise have been. Such is the sad truth about our country, which has been reinforced a thousandfold by the behavior of the Republicans since Obama’s victory.
Obama was never much more liberal than Clinton. But liberal voters propelled him to the White House. Once he was in there, to the dismay of those of us who are well-informed on these matters, he appointed centrists and Clintonites to almost all his major posts. He kept Bush’s defense secretary, and he even tried to appoint a right-wing Republican as his Commerce Secretary.
The President’s apparent conviction that he could work with Republicans proved false, as is now evident. I find it amazing that he didn't already know this. Eight years of Bush clearly showed the country that the Republicans were all about ruling absolutely, without compromise, and throwing red meat to their base. The Presidential campaign itself was a disgraceful display of racist code words and fear mongering, with Fox News leading the way in branding Obama a radical leftist, secret Muslim, black nationalist, and terrorist sympathizer. The empty suit McCain followed the script, and lost convincingly.
In the last two years, as the Democrats saw themselves losing the PR game to the 24-hour onslaught of Fox and its Republican parrots, the Obama team expressed frustration with the “left.” It seems that the left could never be satisfied, that they were ruining it for the Democrats, looking for perfection instead of progress, and so forth. Significantly, no one on Obama’s team would address substantive criticisms from the left concerning its war and anti-terror policies, which did not reverse the illegal actions of the Bush administration, but continued them and even reinforced them.
In any case, the “left” that the Obama administration complained about was a small group of columnists and bloggers who dared to think independently, and whose influence compared to the right wing noise machine was ludicrously overestimated. But in practice, what Obama did was exactly what Bill Clinton had done earlier—take his base for granted instead of wooing them. After all, the reasoning goes, where else do they have to go? This is, sad to say, very true, but what they don’t take into account is that the base becomes apathetic when its interests are taken for granted. Sure, it’s dumb and self-defeating for the base not to vote—nevertheless this is political reality. If you don’t stir up your base, it will become apathetic and you will lose.
The die-hard Clintonite centrists would of course dispute this point. And admittedly, there isn’t enough solid evidence to prove what I’m saying to be sound political advice. Why? Because it’s never really been tried. Not in the last forty years, at least. “Liberal” became a bad word, and the substance of liberalism was whittled away to nothing. The story of the push-over Democrat, the weak, wimpy, indecisive, cave-in Democrat, was tailored by the Reaganites, and then the Democrats tried the suit on themselves, and it fit.
Obama seems to be taking exactly the wrong lesson from the midterms. Rather than recognize the failure to rally his own base, he seems to believe that the voters are more conservative than he thought, and that he now has to kowtow to the right wing. It’s a spectacle profoundly depressing to witness.
To understand why the Democrats pursue their failed strategy over and over, instead of trying to be a liberal party as they must do in order to win, is not as difficult as it may seem. The simple truth is that they’re afraid of the corporate elites who wield such enormous power in this country. Most of them are tied to corporate money, and would never have been elected in the first place without those millions of dollars flowing into their campaigns. Most of the rich are conservative. It doesn’t matter that they are much more conservative than the majority of voters—their money and power offsets that fact. So the Democrats try to walk a tightrope between their need to appeal to an essentially liberal base and their need for corporate backing. The result is the appearance of constant gutlessness and waffling. The Republicans have no such conflict. The beliefs of their conservative base coincide for the most part with the demands of the corporate elites. So they don’t need to compromise or practice bipartisanship, and they don’t.
On a purely strategic level, the Clintonite strategy is a loser. When a party makes massive political gains as the Democrats did in 2008, they don’t evaporate in a mere two years unless the strategy is fatally flawed. The Democrats can’t rely on the awfulness of the Republicans to keep winning. Once the Democrats are in power, the Republicans can just blame everything on them, and the voters will fall for it. Why? Once again, because the liberal base is being taken for granted, ignored, discounted, and minimized. The Democrats don’t do this because they’re stupid, but because their alliance with the corporate elites makes it almost impossible to stand firmly and equivocally with their liberal base.
The true challenge facing the Democratic Party, then, is quite sobering. In order to win and keep winning, the Democrats will have to defy their corporate backers. They will have to campaign against corporate rule in all its aspects—Wall Street, the banking system, the military industrial complex, and the right-wing corporate noise machine. They will have to do this quite explicitly and without compromise. It might mean going “into the wilderness” as the conservatives did after being slaughtered in 1964, reemerging with a winning strategy in 1980. The alternative is to keep losing.
It seems highly unlikely that this will happen. It’s more likely that the Democrats will continue to try to play their wishy-washy centrist game. Which leaves the liberal base with a stark choice: form their own party, or actively work within the Democratic Party at every level from the grassroots on up to transform it into a truly liberal party. Both are very difficult challenges. But the only other choice, as I see it, is to be crushed by the right.