Fire and Brimstone at the O.K. Corral, known today as the Democratic Party

Yes, Putin’s hackers would love to see Trump reelected. And it’s also true that unknown to us there may be a new Giuliani-led team of huckster guerrillas sealing dirty deals behind the scenes in order to bring the Democratic Party (DP) down.

But no matter how true these things are, responsibility for the party’s current predicament — i.e., that it’s doing a lousy job of preparing for the November showdown with Trump — lies in its own hands.

As CNN’s Chris Cillizza pointed out by summarizing the obvious, tensions have mounted within the DP as the party struggles over its direction in the lead-up to its convention and the 2020 election.

The rise of Sanders — and the considerable concern within elements of the Democratic Party about nominating a democratic socialist — means that this primary season is going to be very long and likely very nasty, as the party dukes it out over what its present and future should look like.1

Of course, when Cillizza suggests there is “concern within elements of the Democratic Party” about Sanders’ growing strength, the elements to which he refers are the DP’s leaders.

Regarding these leaders and their acolytes, and contrary to what their sound-alikes in the media insist, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which develops party strategy and oversees its organizational activities, isn’t primarily worried about Sanders’ electability and democratic socialism. Instead, its panic has been ignited by fear of the dialogue the Sanders’ movement has already started about not only how to jettison Trump, but also about what’s wrong with US politics in general. This second part of the dialogue — the one which concerns the funding and control by elites of the current two-party political system — is not a discussion the DP leadership wants to have with us — i.e., its rank and file, its non-member sympathizers and potential independent converts. Instead, they resist such dialogue at all costs.

Given this, it was no surprise recently when James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former campaign manager and current party gadfly at large, did his best to undermine Sanders’ status as a top-tier candidate, not by debating him on the issues, but by trying to frighten voters away. To do this, hyperbolic language was his choice of weaponry as he denigrated Sanders’ supporters as an “ideological cult” and proclaimed, “There’s no chance in hell we’ll ever win the Senate with Sanders at the top of the party.”2

During the same span of a few weeks, Klobuchar and Buttigieg participated in the official primary debates by imitating two ventriloquist’s dummies sitting on the DNC’s lap while mouthing for viewers the CNC’s anti-Sanders sentiments. In keeping with the CNC’s mindset, these sentiments were frequently expressed in a recycled red-baiting style unearthed from the US’s smear-tactic arsenal from before the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, thirty years ago. Consequently, Klobuchar denounced the Vermont senator simply because “having a Democratic socialist on the top of the ticket” is anathema to her, unacceptable.3 No discussion  of his capacity to lead a mass movement against Trump, no pondering why polls show him as the “most trusted” candidate, only that his candidacy is unacceptable by definition — i.e., as determined by notalgists interested in resurrecting old cold war models for how to defame those with whom you disagree.

During the debates and elsewhere, Buttigieg also played his role of ventriloquist dummy well.  Referring to Sanders’ so-called socialist radicalism, he warned that the DP doesn’t need a “candidate who wants to burn this party down”4 with his allegedly alien ideas.

Why such fierce resistance to Sanders?

The simple answer is that the more the Sanders’ movement grows, the more we all (the DP rank and file and also the public) learn about how much the DP leadership itself, not outside forces, is responsible for the party’s current instability and loss of national appeal. Hence, the reason for the DNC’s desire to undercut the pro-Sanders upheaval’s success.

Take the DP’s apparent failure to learn anything from the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections, each of which was groundbreaking in its own way. In both campaigns a first-time presidential candidate won. In both campaigns the candidate employed untraditional methods to secure victory.

Although Trump and Obama were polar opposites philosophically, there is one characteristic they shared — i.e., a gut instinct which told them that in the current era a history-making campaign isn’t rooted in selecting safe-bet candidates, but rather on building a grassroots movement around a candidate whom people on the ground, as opposed to party leaders, believe can best articulate their views.

This idea that masses of voters — i.e., grassroots volunteers and activists — should drive the campaign is the exact opposite of the so-called “pragmatic” candidate approach suggested by the DP leadership. Their tactic stresses that the best way to get out the vote in 2020 is to cautiously select a lowest-common-denominator candidate whose lack of controversial characteristics hopefully will preordain her/his victory.

Yet in spite of the fact that this method (epitomized by the Never-Trumpers) didn’t work against Trump in the 2016 primaries nor against Obama in the 2008 primaries when he was attacked by the more traditional establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, the DP leadership and its media enablers are currently pushing the DP in precisely this direction. As noted above, this is because of their anti-Sanders animosity, an animosity which, as it grows ever more fanatical, reveals a disturbing possibility: that the party’s centrist cabal would rather lose the 2020 election than accept the party’s reinvigoration with new blood and new ideas.

If one didn’t know better it might seem as if the party’s leaders have accidentally forgotten the lessons to be learned from the 2008 and 2016 election. But there’s nothing accidental about what has happened. On the contrary, the DNC has willfully refused to apply those lessons to the current situation because those lessons raise questions about the DNC’s character.

So, let’s look at 2008 and 2016 to see what aspects of those elections make the DNC uncomfortable.

Obama’s first presidential run wasn’t structured like a typical electoral campaign. Instead, it drew its organizational form from two non-electoral mass movements that preceded his presidency by decades — i.e., the post-WW2 civil rights/black power movement and the pre-WW2 labor movement, both of which had strong leaders but, just as importantly, a coordinated yet highly decentralized mass of supporters who weren’t merely passive followers but rather people who turned themselves into activists for the purpose of improvising innovative new strategies to further their cause. It was this aspect of these movements that Obama, through the use of high-tech (smartphones, laptops, etc.) incorporated into his campaign, thereby uniting tens of millions of supporters nation-wide and encouraging them to launch their own activist groups — ultimately, approximately 35,000 were created — for the purpose of brainstorming and coming up with innovative ways to further the campaign by creating a wave of energy that Obama eventually could ride into office.5

Of course, none of this could have happened without some initial excitement for Obama at the beginning, a catalyst to get the movement off the ground. What triggered this was Obama’s stature as a “different” and charismatic candidate, one characterized by a variety of outsider attributes — e.g., if elected he’d be the first black president; he was the lone antiwar voice among primary foes like Biden and Clinton until they finally adopted a similar position but (unlike Obama) did so for mostly partisan reasons; he represented a generational and philosophical break with the old Washington, heralding the birth of a new political age; and, as the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg suggested, he was, in terms of swag, a trend-unto-himself, a blend of Miles Davis’ “cool” and Bobby Kennedy’s “earnest, inspiring heat.”6

This combination of against-the-odds hip candidate and frustrated voters hungry for substantive change resulted in a level of campaign activism that unleashed, according to a perceptive Wired magazine article, the “creativity and enthusiasm” of grassroots backers to such an extent that “In many ways, the story of Obama’s campaign was the story of his supporters.”7

This view was also espoused by Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network (NDN), who considered Obama’s victory a grassroots upsurge which employed “very modern tools, spoke to a new coalition, talked about new issues, and along the way . . .  reinvented the way campaigns are run.”8

Along with the DP’s rank and file, the DNC was jubilant about Obama’s 2008 win. However, through its actions since then, the DNC, although still celebrating Obama as a party icon, has resisted the use of his first presidential run as a model for other campaigns. At the heart of this unwillingness is the campaign’s grassroots-centered, mass-movement-building character and the DNC’s fear that, if used as a paradigm for other campaigns, it will continue to shift, as the 2008 campaign did, the political emphasis away from the party’s alleged center, the DNC, and toward its periphery, a still-forming army of free-thinking activists who, the leadership fears, will start a wide-ranging discussion within the party about the party’s strategy failures over recent decades and how these errors must be corrected so the party can rethink its future.

This distaste for the new was implicit in the DNC’s prioritization of Hillary Clinton’s campaign over Sander’s movement in 2016. It’s also been on display this year in a variety of ways, including the DNC’s rewriting of its primary rules in the midst of the primaries for the sole purpose of allowing a billionaire to join the contest in the hope that he might prove to be a more effective challenger to Sanders than the other candidates, who haven’t yet risen to the challenge.

Now to the 2016 election and Trump.

Like Obama, although in a right wing populist manner, Trump also launched an outsider campaign. Understanding better than Clinton how fed up voters were with politics-as-usual in Washington regardless of which party controlled the White House, Trump’s candidacy quickly became a rowdy carnival which mocked both (1) Democratic neo-liberalism’s failure to deliver over recent decades on promises made to many of its core constituents (i.e., the poor, women, labor and people of color), and (2) the Republican Party establishment which he derided with scathing language as elitist and condescending toward those whom he called (in his convention nomination speech) “the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.”9

Given this assault against not only the DP but also against his own party’s leaders, many prospective voters heard Trump’s flamboyant denunciations of the political class as a cry for radical people-empowering change. Consequently, as detailed by Anthony J. Gaughan, “Trump’s populist rhetoric and open contempt for civility and basic standards of decency enabled him to connect”10 with a core of supporters in a visceral way because of their rage against what they believed was a bipartisan federal government elite which, no matter how loudly they debated each other along party lines, ruled the nation together on the basis of a shared desire to perpetuate their power at the public’s expense.

Although Trump is a racist president who displays no hesitation in his attacks on latinxs, blacks, darker-skinned immigrants, Muslims (from the Middle East, Africa, etc.), a significant percent of his appeal during the 2016 campaign cycle wasn’t merely race-based and anti-immigrant, but was also rooted in US class divisions, particularly the working class’s loss of economic power. In pursuing this track, he talked about aspects of recent history DP leaders didn’t want (and still don’t) to discuss openly. Consequently, Trump repeatedly harangued audiences with assertions that labor’s supposed protector, the DP, had played a major role in undermining workers’ economic security over previous decades.

Many of these workers instinctively understood him because of their firsthand experiences of abandonment by the DP. In spite of this, the party refused to reevaluate or openly discuss the decisions which caused this abandonment. Consequently, the DNC continued to lead the party deeper into ineffectiveness and self-unawareness. Therefore, if the party wants to win the 2020 presidential race, it must first understand what events in party history precipitated this alienation from so many working families. Only then can it select a candidate and platform that may reverse this trend.

First, let’s survey how the party drove a wedge between itself and the working class. To do this, we can look at the period 1978-2017, which provides a good glimpse into this evolving tension, covering, as it does, a time span during which organized labor and union benefits (e.g., healthcare, pensions, workplace protections, wages, etc.) suffered a catastrophic stretch of major blows and losses.

During this cycle, three Democratic presidents — Carter (a single term), Clinton and Obama (two terms each) — supported labor in minor ways but, more importantly, played an active role in boosting policies which pushed unions into an irreversible tailspin by slashing their memberships by over fifty percent from approximately one-quarter of the workforce down to 11.9 percent.11 Tragically for working people today,  both those who do and those who don’t belong to unions, organized labor’s era-defining shrinkage from 1979-2017 radically reduced the number of better paying working class jobs available to job-seekers and thereby became a driving factor in what is now one of the nation’s hottest-button issues: the continually increasing income equality between oligarchs and everyone else.

How did this happen?

Let me begin with Carter, the first Democratic president during this time-frame.

Carter’s deregulation of three significant industries — air travel (Airline Deregulation Act, 1978), the railways (Staggers Rail Act, 1980) and commercial trucking (Motor Carrier Act, 1980) — weakened the earnings, workplace protections and job security of those industries’ workers. But this wasn’t all. Carter also supported the Chrysler bailout which seemed on the surface to benefit the company by keeping it afloat while simultaneously preserving union jobs. Unfortunately for the corporation’s workers, however, the bailout agreement included a labor-management “cooperation” component, that saved the company and its shareholders but cost workers 60,000 jobs12 while those who retained their jobs endured heavier workloads, speedup and diminished benefits.

Making the Carter-sponsored bailout even worse was the fact that it set in motion a series of labor-management cooperation contracts within the industry in the 1980s. Although these contracts often specified job savings and company commitments not to close plants, the contracts were filled with sufficient loopholes to offset these apparently “airtight” promises. For instance, in 1984 the United Auto Workers leadership in its Contract Highlights,1984 told the membership that the proposed contract which they were submitting to them for ratification contained “an unprecedented job security program with far reaching protections against job loss.” Yet in 1986, two years after its 1984 ratification, GM showcased what “job security” really meant when it announced plant closures which would entail 30,000 lost jobs.13

Carter’s role in laying the groundwork for the DP’s transition away from labor also undermines today’s DP narrative that Ronald Reagan in 1981 started a new anti-labor epoch — one which still hasn’t ended — when he fired 11,000 air traffic controllers. But as the facts show, this isn’t correct. It’s  Carter, the president who preceded Regan, who gets the credit.

Bill Clinton later followed in Carter’s footsteps.

Clinton’s support of NAFTA was a giant slap in the face to organized labor and the working class. It signaled the DP’s embrace of pro-corporate trade legislation that Republican presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush had supported before him, but were unable to get through Congress. In keeping with this, NAFTA’s repercussions moved the DP further to the right on union issues and job security than ever before. Under NAFTA, ultimately 700,000 jobs were relocated to Mexico,14 pressuring US workers who still had jobs to make wage, benefits  and safety concessions in order to keep them. A new template had been created:  all demands for greater worker protections were now met with the same corporate reply:  either shut up and accept what you have or we’ll relocate elsewhere and you’ll have nothing. More openly than at any time in the previous half-century the DP shifted away from labor and embraced Big Money and Wall St.

As part of this shift, and also as a continuation of Carter’s affection for deregulation, Clinton teamed with Wall St. to placate its desire for a relaxation of the economic fetters that allegedly stifled it. Hence, his vigorous support of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act, “one of the most far-reaching banking reforms since the Great Depression,”15 which loosened restraints on companies in the financial sector (commercial banks, securities companies, insurance firms, etc.), thereby allowing them to more easily build concentrations of wealth through investing in each other, program and activity sharing, and consolidation. All this helped pave the way to the bubble economy that burst in the late 2000s, wreaking tens of millions of lives, many of them already on life support as the result of the downturn in workers’ wages and the loss of better-paying jobs.

But the DP’s process of distancing itself from  labor wasn’t over yet.

The situation, though, did look like it had improved when Obama campaigned in 2008 as a devoted labor supporter. As he told the  Building Trades National Legislative Conference in April of the that year, “Politics didn’t lead me to working folks; working folks led me to politics.”16  This sentiment in combination with the swag in his walk and charismatic I-know-what-you-feel style attracted many workers to his campaign. It paid off during the election. He clobbered McCain by 18 percentage points among union voters.

Unfortunately, during his two-term presidency Obama frittered away that support with a lackluster performance on a variety of labor-related issues. The bold strategizing of his 2008 campaign was gone. As with other issues he ran on — e.g.,  antiwar promises, the fight against racist police violence, the need to reign in Wall St. — once in the White House he brought neither an organizer’s inventiveness nor an inspiring speaker’s rousing words to his proclaimed desire to support labor.

One example of this was that although in 2011 Obama ostensibly backed the tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers and their supporters who staged giant rallies to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union right-to-work law, his opposition was soft, although the law itself was anything but soft. As Robert Samuels described in the Washington Post, the law decimated local unions, eviscerated their memberships and required “most public employees to pay more for health insurance and to pay more into retirement savings, resulting in an 8 to 10 percent drop in take-home pay.”17 Consequently, workers and unions nationally were frightened that Walker’s success, if unchallenged, could spread momentum for similar efforts in other states.18  In spite of this, Obama’s support for the protestors showed its true colors when he ignored the unions’ and other demonstrators’ requests that he come to Wisconsin to stand with them in solidarity. He stayed away instead.

In a similar vein, Obama did little to show any pro-labor political will when it came to his support of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a federal bill designed to help workers by limiting companies’ power to disrupt union organizing attempts at their workplaces. But as in Wisconsin, his support was lethargic.19  He refused to place the full weight of his presidency behind the bill and fight for it tooth and nail. He continued to back EFCA, but not hard enough to pass it without major concessions or make any enemies.

In contrast to this, however, Obama was perfectly willing to make enemies on the labor side by aggressively placing his full weight behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his attempt to forge a NAFTA-like trade agreement for nations with borders on the Pacific ocean. Not surprisingly, the TPP was opposed as vehemently by labor as its NAFTA model had been and for the same reason:  failure to adequately protect workers’ jobs. It was one more step on the DP’s road away from the working class.

The  labor-related patterns just described — Carter’s, Clinton’s, Obama’s — provide a brief schematic of how the post-1960s DP evolved from its once strong relationship with labor (1930s-1950s) to a more token one that has lost its hold not only on white workers but on workers of color also. Consequently, it wasn’t the Republican Party but the DP itself that orchestrated its 2016 defeat, a loss not in small part traceable, as I have just shown, to the party’s methodical pursuit of policies over the last five decades that purposefully abandoned its allegiance to labor, thereby leaving an angry restless working class looking (justifiably) for a fight. Ironically, many of these previous DP sympathizers, having thrown up their hands in disgust with the DP, voted against Hillary Clinton who was one of the many DP leaders who didn’t merely passively watch, but actively worked to bring about, the party’s ever-increasing distance from the working class.

Not only have tens of millions of working families been backed into a dark economic corner as a result by the policies that created this mess, but tens of millions more have suffered the additional, but interrelated, burdens produced by being the target of racial, gender, cultural, religious and other forms of bigotry.

Yet in spite of there being so many of us who are tired of Washington’s elites — worn out by their love affairs with Wall St., their comfort with wage-gaps, their endless white supremacist solutions to everything, their chronic political double-talk, their two main parties’ refusal to think outside of the box and come up with daring but creative ideas to solve the problems facing us —  in spite of all this, in spite of our numbers and our anger, we remain unheard.

And so here we are. It’s fire and brimstone time at the OK coral, and the OK coral is the Democratic Party.

In this article — no, it’s more of an outcry than an article — I’ve discussed issues the current DP leadership refuses to address. I’ve mentioned these issues because without understanding them in some detail, we can’t be successful in the current struggle to take the White House. The DNC’s lack of introspection is the death knell of this struggle. They can’t be allowed to dictate the outcome of the primaries and/or the type of campaign the nominee should run. The voters must lead the leaders, not the other way around. We the people must be in control, not a self-preserving party elite.

In conclusion —

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that in 2020 the DP can’t afford to run a non-mass-movement type of campaign in its battle to oust Trump and take over the White House.  Such campaigns, which are premised on choosing a lowest-common-denominator candidate least likely to ruffle anyone’s feathers, aren’t in sync with the times, nor are they energetic enough — inspired! enough — to bring to fruition our goal:  a revolution.

The contemporary US is too haywire to be healed by a caution that masks itself as traditionalism, but which is actually a fear of innovative thinking and breaking with the past.

No matter how loudly many DP centrists and leaders shout otherwise, they possess less of a political movement-building mentality than they do a preserve-the-status-quo mentality. They want to win, but to win with the least amount of personal time wasted and the least amount of systemic change, and so their vision entails marching to victory along the route of least resistance.

As a strategy, such a vision entails trying to figure out beforehand the most practical and statistically likely candidate to win the election and then, once she or he is chosen, to funnel the candidate into a campaign run by “safe” establishment thinkers.

Even the quickest look at 2008 and 2016 shows that running for the presidency in this way ignores the level of distrust among the population at large for the standard way of doing things.

No matter what its advocates say, the “safe-bet” candidate scenario favored by the  DNC isn’t in the party’s best interest — unless DNC members know something we don’t:  that if Sanders or another left candidate wins the nomination, party honchos along with most of the current candidates would rather lose the election than unify behind such a candidate, and will therefore undermine such a candidate’s campaign to make sure such a defeat occurs.

We can’t allow this. Not if we want to break free of the we’ll-promise-everything-but-do-nothing mindset the DNC brings to the challenge of improving the nation and the world.

  1. Chris Cillizza. “John King: Sanders Has the Most Cherished Gift in Politics.” CNN. February 23, 2020. []
  2. Bill Scher. “Hey Moderates, It’s Time to Compromise—with Yourselves.” POLITICO. February 12, 2020. []
  3. Devan Cole. “Klobuchar: People Want Plans Not Pipedreams.” CNN. February 16, 2020. []
  4. Kit Norton. “Sanders Spars with Bloomberg and Buttigieg in Nevada Debate.” VTDigger. February 20, 2020. []
  5. Sarah Stirland, Andy Greenberg, Lily Newman, Garrett Graff, and Gilad Edelman. “Propelled By Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency“. WIRED. Accessed February 14 2020. []
  6. Hendrik Hertzberg. “The Spat.” The New Yorker. February 3, 2008. []
  7. Sarah Stirland, Andy Greenberg, Lily Newman, Garrett Graff, and Gilad Edelman. “Propelled By Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency“. WIRED. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Donald J. Trump. “Full Text: Donald Trump 2016 RNC Draft Speech Transcript.” POLITICO. July 21, 2016. []
  10. Anthony J. Gaughan. “Five Things That Explain Donald Trump’s Stunning Presidential Election Victory.” The Conversation. November 9, 2016. []
  11. Eric Levitz. “Democrats Paid a Huge Price for Letting Unions Die.  Intelligencer. January 26, 2018. []
  12. Andrew Glass. “Reagan Fires 11,000 Striking Air Traffic Controllers.” POLITICO. August 5, 2017. []
  13. G.M. and Suzuki.” The New York Times, May 17, 1986. []
  14. NAFTA’s Impact on U.S. Workers.” Economic Policy Institute. 2013. []
  15. Timothy A. Canova. “The Legacy of the Clinton Bubble.” Dissent Magazine. 2016. []
  16. Barack Obama. “Barack Obama Speaks to Building Trades Legislative Conference” (text of speech). Realclearpolitics.com. 2020. []
  17. Robert Samuels.  “Walker’s Anti-Union Law Has Labor Reeling in Wisconsin.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2015. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Richard A. Epstein. “Obama’s Welcome Silence On The Employee Free Choice Act.” Forbes, July 11, 2012. []
Robert Bohm is a writer on culture and a poet. His most recent book of poems is What the Bird Tattoo Hides (2015, West End Press, New Mexico). He has been a political activist since his tour of duty with the army in 1967-68. Over the years, he has worked on wide range of issues, including antiwar, labor, racism and education. He is currently working on a book about the U.S. left's failure to develop new strategies and tactics for confronting advanced capitalism. Of his six books, one is a nonfiction work on India, his wife's homeland where they have spent much time in the southern state of Karnataka. Read other articles by Robert.