10 April 2017

A lurch to the Left won’t save the Democrats

By Dominic Green

Political parties never die overnight, and their illnesses are rarely terminal. The strange deaths of the Whigs in America and the Liberals in Britain are strange because they happened at all. The Labour Party in Britain is less sick than suicidal, and may yet recover from the self-harming madness of the Corbyn years.

In America, the Democratic Party is drifting in a similar direction, descending into the kind of feverish hallucinations that, as Labour know, can develop a Momentum all of their own.

In recent years, reality has been cruel to the Dems. The false optimism of Bill Clinton and the false dawn of Obama left the party of the New Deal plighted to Wall Street for funds, and to the fissiparous cant of identity politics for unity.

The membership’s abusive relationship to the Clintons culminated in the nomination process for the 2016 presidential candidate – many of the members wanted Sanders, but the Clinton-aligned Democratic National Committee (DNC) knew better. Of course, it was inefficient of the Democrats to offer a corrupt plutocrat whose husband has wandering hands; the Republicans were able to combine these attributes in a single candidate.

Today, after Clinton’s humiliating loss to Trump, feelings among the Democratic membership resemble those among Labour members as the post-Blairite hangover sank in. It is hard to know whether their shame at having let their principles slip is greater than their frustration at having done so but failed to retain power.

Trump’s victory rebuffed the ideals of the Left of the Democratic Party – which is to say, the most active elements of its membership. Their response has been to double down on the losing bet of 2016 – to fight the populism of the Right with the populism of the Left, to repeat the pieties of identity politics even louder.

Hence the bizarre flurries of enthusiasm for Michelle Obama or Chelsea Clinton inheriting the party leadership. Hence, too, the swell of support for a Democratic politician so unlikely to win a general election that he makes Jeremy Corbyn look like JFK.

Keith Ellison is unelectable not because he is black, or even because he is a practising Muslim. He is unelectable because of his political beliefs.

It is not just that Ellison has a 100 per cent rating from the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America, or that he wishes his party would oppose the Second Amendment and gun ownership. It is not even that in 2007 he co-sponsored a bill to impeach Dick Cheney for “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

It is that Ellison’s opinions, while apparently congenial to the far Left of the Democratic Party, frequently place him beyond the farthest fringe of American attitudes, among the bigots and conspiracy theorists.

In 2007, Ellison compared the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 to Hitler’s response to the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. Hitler, Ellison said, “blamed the Communists” so that he “could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted”.

Ellison also implied that he refrained from endorsing conspiracy theories about 9/11 not because they were delusional and false, but because it was not strategically sensible.  “I’m not saying September 11 was a US plan or anything like that because, you know, that’s how they put you in the nutball box – dismiss you.”

In Ellison’s case, however, it would be more like being returned to the nutball box. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Ellison converted to Islam as an undergraduate. At law school, he wrote articles in the Minnesota Daily under the pseudonyms “Keith E Hakim” and “Keith X Ellison”, defending Louis Farrakhan against accusations of anti-Semitism and advocating for the nutball cult that is the Nation of Islam. In 2006, Ellison, now running for Congress, disavowed these associations and statements.

Ellison, in other words, represents identity politics at its most partisan and alienated. Yet he briefly led the field in the race to be chair of the DNC, and thereby the leading public face of the party.

In the event, the usual skulduggery saw Ellison shunted into second place, in favour of Tom Perez, the Labor Secretary under Obama.

Perez, in contrast to Ellison, represents the other leg of the Democratic coalition, Big Labour. But the unions are not as big as they used to be – and it is hard to use a stool that has only two legs. It is harder still to run for office while wearing two left shoes.

The weakness of the Democratic Party is as much histrionic as it is historic. In 2o16, the sacred totems – the labour vote, the identity politics, the obsessions with race and gender – all failed. Or rather, they worked, but for the Republicans: despite losing the popular vote, Trump won the electoral class by giving the white working class the identity politics of its darkest dreams.

And in a parallel with the UK and Corbyn, the Democrats are not responding to their defeat by aiming for the centre ground where – despite the country’s increasing polarisation – elections are still won (at least if you have a more impressive candidate than Hillary Clinton). They are enacting a kind of ritual purification.

The talk is of “resistance,” as though Democrats are like the French under Nazi occupation or the Sunni Arabs under dictatorship; as though the appropriate response to the successful functioning of the electoral system in 2016 is to derail a train or strap on an explosive vest.

This attitudinising signals virtue to the party membership – but it warns off the floating voters. These have tacked between the two parties since Reagan’s victory in 1980, and it is their votes that will determine the 2020 presidential election.

A Democratic Party led by a moderate could cultivate these voters in the 2018 midterms, which are little more than 18 months away. Perez and Ellison are not that kind of Democrat, and neither is Elizabeth Warren.

The Dems may not be dying, but they are too weak to work – to be an opposition that defends shared principles and non-partisan goals. The party is going through the ideological equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Until it recovers, American politics will lack that essential component of an effective government, a functioning opposition – and at a time when it most needs one.

Dr Dominic Green is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and teaches Politics at Boston College