(This is a joint post by Douglas and Cato)
American liberalism died at 8:41pm EST on November 8, 2006.
It was at that time that the Associated Press called the U.S. Senate race in Virginia for Democratic nominee Jim Webb, giving the Democrats their 51st seat in Congress’s upper chamber and unified legislative control for the first time since 1992. This might seem a confusing time for liberalism to be dying, but it comes into focus a bit once you get below the partisan numbers. We will discuss this a little more later, but it makes sense to first discuss the long illness to which independent liberal politics in the United States eventually succumbed.
It was a slow death, one that began not long after the 1984 presidential election. Despite the electoral humiliation at the national level dealt to party nominee Walter Mondale, all was not lost for the Democratic Party. After all, they scored some victories in gubernatorial races, they still controlled the House of Representatives, and a 36-year old Congressman from Tennessee named Al Gore ascended to United States Senate. But for liberals within the party, the gig was up.
And what a gig it was. As the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party since Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1932 in the wake of the Great Depression, American liberalism (or, perhaps more accurately, left-liberalism, which stands somewhat opposed to the classical liberalism of John Locke) had several accomplishments to speak of. It had successfully navigated a moderating approach throughout the 1930s between an increasingly radical and strong left, consolidated in radical parties like Communist Party USA and unions like those of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the reactionary right wing backed by the bosses who got the country mired in the Depression to begin with, avoiding a complete breakdown of the American system of government through palliating the misery caused by the Depression without fundamentally undoing the employer-employee relationship that defines capitalism to this day. In the 1940s, aggressive state investment and nationalization turned the US economy into the arsenal for the Allies to defeat fascism in battle across Europe and Asia. Spam fed the Soviet Red Army as it broke the Third Reich’s military at Stalingrad and Leningrad, and American bullets were loaded into British guns at Normandy and the Netherlands.
These successes drove former radicals like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers away from socialism and firmly into the liberal camp. With the aid of the government, the labor movement had its Left purged and marginalized, bringing it permanently into the liberal Democratic fold and providing a base upon which the Democratic Party could chart a course of political dominance at a federal level. This strong political base allowed liberals to chalk up several other major victories that reshaped the country, usually only after they were driven into doing so by direct action. The best example of this dynamic is the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, where the Civil Rights Movement was able to force Lyndon Johnson’s hand into acting after the Selma to Montgomery Marches ended in blood and horror because of the brutality of Bull Connor’s police.
However, starting in the 1970s and culminating in 1984, Democratic governors from the South and the West were eager to position themselves as the future of a party that had been dominated by its Yankee contingent since the end of the Civil Rights era. The businessmen who donated large amounts of money to these emerging politicians and to the party itself felt alienated by the increasing influence of labor and civil rights organizations, and wanted the party to move away from a reputation cemented by a line in Mondale’s party nomination acceptance speech in San Francisco:
“Let’s tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
A lot of this rightward drift by the Democrats was driven by the fact that the liberal base inside the party was eroding during the 1980s. Unions had started their long, grinding decline from their peak of counting 35% of the American workforce as members. On top of that, Black voters, who favored the kind of public investment liberalism had historically fought for, faced down a War on Drugs that was designed to marginalize them electorally. This marginalization, through things like felony disenfranchisement, combined with the decline of labor to narrow the base for liberalism, making it easier to contain inside of the Democratic Party. Once George Meany had put the movement on the wrong side of the Vietnam War question and the notoriously overblown Hard Hat Riot seemed to indicate that the rank and file was with him (it wasn’t), it severed the possibility of the anti-war left making common cause with the labor movement inside the Democratic Party. Subsequently, part of the Democratic right ran into the GOP’s arms, drawn in by its emerging hippie-hating, socially conservative nationalism. The ones that remained behind with the Democrats, however, started to work to take control of the party.
The formation of the Democratic Policy Commission within the party — and the Democratic Leadership Committee outside of it — were a part of the attack on liberalism, aiming at sidelining figures like Jesse Jackson. By taking up the banner of a ‘third way’ between liberalism and conservatism, these ‘New Democrats’ introduced neoliberal ideas first championed by politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher into the party. It took a while, but success came seven years later, as another young Southerner named Bill Clinton ran to, “end welfare as we know it,” in 1992. His victory and presidency, where he fulfilled his promise in the form of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, marked a definitive break with the liberal politics of the New Deal Coalition. By the time Clinton left office in 2001, the Democratic Party had been remade in his image. It would be neoliberal in orientation, with a liberal wing tolerated but not given too much power.
With the dawn of the new millennium, liberal politics in the United States found itself on its back heel. The Clinton impeachment hearings saw liberals fall into lockstep with moderate Democrats in an united front against Republican overreach. While the coalition ended up victorious — the impeachment was defeated, the Republicans became the first non-presidential party to lose seats in a president’s second midterm election since 1822, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned in disgrace — it did little to revive the fortunes of liberal politics. The liberal candidate in the 2000 Democratic presidential primaries, U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ), failed to win a single contest against now-Vice President Gore. While Gore decided to go with the optics of distancing himself from Clinton, he embraced his boss’s political ideology: he supported continued welfare reform and using the considerable budget surplus to pay down debt rather than spend on social programs.
The 2000 election has gone into political lore for any number of reasons, but what is important here is that you see the beginning of the end of an independent liberal politics in the United States. Ralph Nader’s campaign for president attracted nearly three million votes from people who were fed up with the post-Mondale rightward drift of the Democratic Party. One might conclude that, in response to such a scenario, the party might have considered supporting policies to get those voters back onside, such as supporting a living wage, admitting the mistake of welfare reform and pledging to reverse it, or putting an end to destructive free-trade agreements. What we got instead was four years of recriminations towards anyone who had deigned to support a candidate more in line with their values.
In addition to that, there was the empty pleading for those dissenters to return to the Democratic Party without having any of their concerns addressed. One particularly pathetic instance of this came on the July 30, 2004 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher and documentarian Michael Moore literally got down on one knee and begged Nader not to run for president in 2004. Symbolic of the kind of single-minded focus that dogged liberal Democrats between 2000 and 2004, Maher reached into Nader’s hand and snatched the copy of BusinessWeek that Nader had been holding — the cover asked “Too Much Corporate Power?” — and slammed it on the table in order for viewers to watch the cringeworthy groveling unimpeded.
When the September 11th attacks rocked the nation, liberals failed to distinguish themselves once again as the nation embarked on a war footing that continues to this day. The Authorization of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) passed on September 14, 2001 with only one dissenting vote: U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who feared that the overly broad language in the AUMF would give the Bush administration power far beyond the stated purpose of pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This trend would continue with the passage of the PATRIOT Act a month later; though there was more liberal dissent, large numbers of liberal darlings in the House and Senate cast ballots for the bill. Subsequently, the 2002 midterm election saw the Democrats defeated, as they lost control over the Senate under a haze of militarism stirred up in the advance of the Iraq War.
Despite all this, however, the focus on Nader from liberals continued. By the time the Democratic Party settled on its candidate, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the anti-Nader effort was in full swing. Within the Green Party, activists formed “Greens for Kerry” and Nader’s 2000 running mate, Minnesota-based environmental activist Winona LaDuke, endorsed Kerry along with dozens of people who had served on Nader’s Citizen Committee in 2000. This, combined with the legal challenges brought by Democrats in a number of states, ended any hope of a substantial left-wing challenge to the Democratic presidential nominee. Nader would be on the ballot in nine fewer states than in 2000, and — after being denied the Green nomination — would be forced to run under a collection of different political groupings in each state (for example, he was on the ballot in Minnesota under the “A Better Life” label, while being on the Independence Party’s ballot line in New York) and even different running mates (Jan Pierce was his running mate in Alabama and New York, Karen Sanchirico in Idaho, and Peter Camejo everywhere else).
Kerry, of course, was all too comfortable with the jingoism of the day: recall his sailing into Boston Harbor for the Democratic National Convention with his friends from the Vietnam War before entering the convention site, making a military salute, and stating, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty!” The focus on defeating Bush had become all-encompassing for American liberals, so much so that just seventeen months after taking to the streets in demonstrations against the coming invasion of Iraq, they were willing to back a candidate that only promised to prosecute Iraq “more effectively” while refusing to commit to reining in the worst excesses of the burgeoning security state.
Ronnie Dugger, the founder of the Texas Observer and one such liberal, summarized the quadrennial refrain that we have come to expect from Democratic liberals in his Nation article “Ralph, Don’t Run”:
“Given the GOP sweep in the midterm elections, progressives and populists must position themselves to play a pivotal role in the next presidential contest. As we demonstrated in 2000, we are a fragmented political force, divided between those who supported, however reluctantly, the Democratic choice, Al Gore, and those who backed the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. But the Bush disaster, compounded now by the meltdown of the Democratic Party on November 5, is an emergency. We cannot afford another division in our ranks that will bring about the election of George W. Bush in 2004.”
It is telling that the “pivotal role” to be played by progressives and populists in 2004 was to fold themselves completely into the Democratic Party, rather than the pursuit of an independent politics that might play some role in moving American politics as a whole to the left. Later on in the piece, Dugger states that, “[o]ur job is to defeat Bush, not elect him,” a statement that reflects the extent to which endless electoralism had become the only game in town for Bush-era liberals.
Despite liberals chalking up a couple of policy victories in the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, like derailing Bush’s planned privatization of Social Security, they also faced two significant setbacks. After the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Bush successfully appointed Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court. By the time this came about, however, it took place under a giant shadow for the right. Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and 1500 people while the Bush administration did virtually nothing (and the storm damage was subsequently used to reshape that city along right-wing lines). The Iraq War had dissolved into a violent sectarian civil war that had overwhelmed any political stability established after the invasion. On top of that, the corruption scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and Mark Foley spread the cloud beyond the administration and over the Republican Congress itself.
The Democrats, sensing an opportunity, pounced. Making the election into a referendum on how the Republicans had run the Iraq War and prominently centering Gold Star Mom and anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan, the Democrats ran aggressively against Iraq War boosters. Inaugurating a new fifty-state strategy under former Gov. Howard Dean (D-VT), the Democrats successfully regained control of both the House and Senate in a clear fashion. This, however, was not necessarily a victory for liberals.
Stepping back a bit, it is important to note who the Democrats had decided to run in certain districts. Perhaps the best example of this class of politicians is Heath Shuler. Running in the 11th Congressional district of North Carolina, Shuler is best known as a star quarterback for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s football team and as one of the biggest flops as a player in the NFL. After he had prospered upon retiring from football by going into real estate investment, Shuler was recruited to run in 2006 as part of the fifty-state strategy in far western North Carolina. His local roots and name recognition helped him successfully rout the Republican, incumbent Charles H. Taylor, a deep-pocketed businessman who ended up spending at least $2.2 million of his own money trying to beat Shuler.
Upon taking office, Shuler proceeded to rack up a voting record that was about as illiberal as one could get. He voted against expanded hate crime legislation. He voted for anything that even remotely looked like an anti-choice bill. He voted against the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. He voted against the auto bailout. After the 2010 midterm defeat, Shuler challenged Nancy Pelosi for the minority leadership and lost. As a Congressman, he lived in The Fellowship’s C Street house with hard-right Republicans like Mark Sanford of South Carolina and John Ensign of Nevada. The only major liberal legislation that he supported in his time in office was the Employee Free Choice Act. After redistricting made it impossible for him to win reelection in 2012, Shuler went on to work as a lobbyist for Duke Energy, which has subsequently been poisoning various parts of North Carolina with coal ash.
Heath Shuler is the prototype of a lot of the right-wing Democrats that were put into Congress by the 2006 midterms, and all of these views were known before they were run as candidates. This bulge on the Democratic right organized into a caucus inside the Democratic Party that was but the latest home of the right-wing of the party. Called the Blue Dog Coalition, it continually agitated against most liberal priorities and gave aid and comfort to the Republicans as they called for ‘entitlement reform’ and scaremongered about the national debt (worth noting: Shuler was the caucus whip). It continued the Clinton-era project of dragging the Democratic Party further to the right. A member of the Blue Dog caucus was responsible for the Stupak Amendment, which very nearly derailed the Affordable Care Act. Worse, the Blue Dogs largely fell into line with the Bush administration’s Iraq War surge and his warrantless wiretapping program.
This was the devil’s bargain presented to liberals in 2006. Help elect and reelect a whole streak of reactionaries to Congress who have a (D) after their names or else you’ll still be in the wilderness. And liberals, God help them, decided to accept it.
If 2006 is when liberalism went into the belly of the neoliberal whale, 2008 was when liberalism started to get digested. The Obama administration proceeded to give liberals a victory with one hand and take something with another. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2008 was a stimulus plan full of direct government investment…that was weighted towards continuing tax cuts. The Patient Portability and Affordable Care Act was a health insurance program that would significantly shrink the ranks of the uninsured…but wasn’t truly universal and had several major carve-outs that benefitted drug companies and insurance companies. The Obama administration finally put the National Labor Relations Board back into business by sitting a quorum on it…but did not even quarter-ass trying to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and said sweet fuck all nothing when Scott Walker started a wave of state and municipal union busting that spread from Wisconsin to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The Obama administration formally ended the Iraq War…but expanded drone strikes, waged a war of questionable legality in Libya, misused the AUMF that Rep. Lee was so worried about in 2001 to expand American participation in the Syrian Civil War, and did not close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
All the while, you saw liberals trip over themselves to fend off any criticism of Obama. Some of this was part of a deliberate approach by the administration: overall shitty human being Rahm Emanuel notoriously created a ‘veal pen’ (in the words of Jane Hamsher) as Obama’s first Chief of Staff. Composed mainly of liberal groups that the administration had strong ties with and whose stated purpose was to coordinate messaging, it ended up being a way of securing the President’s left flank and containing any bold notions of liberal organizations doing anything other than pushing what the administration was willing to agree to. The rest of it was caused by lingering political trauma from the Bush years. Eight years in the wilderness, away from power, had given the country two wars, flagrant tax giveaways to the wealthy, and an economic collapse, therefore we cannot afford to be publicly critical of the President lest we risk his re-election.
This dynamic only gained more steam after the half-disaster that was the 2010 midterm elections, which saw the Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives under a resurgent right wing wielding acidic attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The next two years of gridlock and institutional dysfunction deepened these fears amongst liberals, and they were not lessened by Obama’s successful reelection campaign in 2012. This siege mentality breeding a lack of coherent, principled criticism internal to the Democratic Party ultimately created a self-fulfilling prophecy that culminated in the loss of the Senate in the 2014 midterms to the Republicans.
That siege mentality has intensified and continues to this day. The Democratic primary race of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) throws it into stark relief. Initially welcomed by liberals as a harmless way to expand the debate of the primary in advance of a coronation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the tune quickly changed when he nearly won Iowa and blew Clinton out in New Hampshire. Clinton and her allies in the commentariat proceeded to open up on him from the right. Deriding everything from his single-payer health care plan to universal tuition-free college to his support of calls for a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, they even trod into the territory of making shit up, In the debate just before the Michigan primary, Clinton accused him of refusing to support the auto bailout that saved Chrysler, General Motors, and the UAW. This smear precipitated the single biggest surprise of the whole primary, where Sanders engineered a 22-point swing to win in Michigan. This stunning victory gave him sufficient momentum to keep going to the convention.
Even still, it was not enough for Sen. Sanders to overcome the headwinds he faced, and he ultimately conceded to Clinton. This, however, was not enough for some sections of the pro-Clinton liberal commentariat. That he had dared to persist in the race after they had decided he should drop out was called everything short of an assassination attempt on Secretary Clinton. What’s more, the mild criticisms Sen. Sanders leveled against Secretary Hillary Clinton from her left were pointed to as reasons why Clinton is facing a harder road to victory than she should against a blustering, racist buffoon like Donald Trump.
This narrowing of this race between Clinton and Trump even has liberal commentators by the score turning against the long time bête noire of conservatives: the media. Even people of significant stature are getting in on this whole act, like Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics laureate Paul Krugman. And so this is where liberalism has come to die, not with a bang but a whimper, lashed to a vessel that takes it further and further from where it wants to be but unable to cut itself free for fear of being forced to tread water while it reorients itself.
There can be absolutely no doubt that 2016 is an election that will start a realigning process in American politics. The failure of the GOP political establishment to contain a insurgent fascist in their midst indicates that the Republican Party is potentially not long for this world. The malignantly furious energy that Trump has tapped into will not be quelled by a loss in this election, and a shrewder, more disciplined politician will come along in 2020 or 2024 and take up his banner, leaving behind a lot of voters who have traditionally found a home in the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party knows this. You can already see it in the way Hillary Clinton is campaigning right now. She is seeking to bring the Trump-skeptical Republicans into the Democratic Party. This is being done largely at the expense of the liberals. People once anathema to any Democrat are being quietly rehabilitated, like Henry Kissinger and Paul Wolfowitz. A more violent, hawkish, and interventionist foreign policy is being planned out, and all of this is being done with one argument thrown at those who protest: “What, you don’t want Trump to win, do you?”
Liberalism is a spent force in American politics. It does not exist as an independent political effort outside of the Democratic Party, and gets marginalized further and further inside the party with every successive election where a Democrat makes lip service to policies appealing to liberals and then refuses to do anything to implement those policies. Liberal powerlessness has allowed it to be wholly absorbed by the neoliberal project, as liberal Democrats have learned not to act in any way that might hinder the neoliberals in the party. This learned helplessness has lead it to be superseded in the streets by a political left that has been coalescing since the economic crisis of 2007. In every way that matters, there are no more liberals operating on the American political scene, only neoliberals who feel some guilt about their politics’ negative effects.
Nowhere is this political capture more apparent than the Democratic Presidential Primary. While Sen. Sanders’ own insurgent campaign has opened up rhetorical space that has been sealed shut since 1988, Sanders’ candidacy does not represent a clear breach between his vision of liberal social democracy and the Clinton’s technocratic neoliberalism, merely a months-long tension that has been resolved for the most part. Regardless, he was not able to overcome the institutional barriers built to stymie him, and it remains unclear as to whether Our Revolution will be able to succeed where he failed (it won’t).
Barring something ludicrous happening, January 21, 2017 will likely end up being the day Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the oath of office as President of the United States, but her presidency will likely be the death-bed for the sixth party system that has governed the country since 1968. By the time she leaves office, be it in 2020 or 2024, the American political landscape will be fundamentally altered by the events set in motion during this election, especially if the Libertarian Party or the Green Party hits the 5% threshold necessary to receive federal funding. Polling averages at the time of writing this has the Libertarian Party’s candidate Gary Johnson at 8% and Jill Stein of the Green Party at 3%.
This poses a question to the Left, one that is as old as they come: what is to be done? There is a lot of disagreement about this one. Some have posited that it is important to vote for the “lying neoliberal warmonger”; some have suggested that a break with the Democratic Party is needed (and make no mistake, the Libertarian Party is absolutely no home to anything left wing). What undergirds both of these pieces, despite being mutually exclusive ideas, is that they represent a break with any pretense towards the liberal tradition that once pulled everything to the left of center into the Democratic Party by default. Conditional and situational support of the neoliberal Democrat at least rejects the basic assumption that the Democrat should automatically have your loyalty in November if you are a leftist, and explicitly organizing outside of the Democratic Party does the same. This kind of rejection is a necessary first step if there is to be an effective Left in the United States.
We need to take advantage of the growing instability in American politics to carve out a place and build institutions capable of taking power. The demise of liberalism presents that opportunity for American socialists to re-form as a political movement and create a separate analysis and identity from an ideology that has kept us captured to warmongers and oligarchs.
This cannot happen soon enough, since there is nothing left in liberalism for any of us.