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Image: DonkeyHotey / CC BY-SA 2.0

Political commentary regarding the 2016 presidential election season has centered around what the GOP is “going to do about Trump.” The GOP has been very open and vocal as to their plans, assuring its elite base that a contested, brokered convention is the plan for this summer’s Cleveland Republican National Convention should Trump prevail, fueling anger at the national party for working against the preferred candidate of their Tea Party working-class base.

Supporters of the Democrat Party have been rejoicing in the conundrum in which the GOP finds itself, not only celebrating the class warfare that is tearing the Republican Party from within but also fooling themselves into believing that they are immune from the same anti-establishment fervor that has become a hallmark of the 2016 presidential election season. They are not, as the issue of superdelegates in the primary campaign has exposed the core conundrum for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party: that income inequality and the working-class struggle cuts across the ideological spectrum.

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Listen Liberal: What ever happened to the party of the people?

“What I’m getting at is that liberalism itself has changed and the Democrats aren’t who we think they are. That’s the answer to basically every question you want to raise about them for the last 30 or so years,” said Thomas Frank regarding his just published the book, “Listen, Liberal,” the subject of which is the Democratic Party’s failure “to do anything really meaningful about income inequality.”  He is also known for his work, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” where he documented the battle between the “mods” and “cons” within the GOP that is now manifest in the “white working-class struggle” that is the Trump base.

In “Listen, Liberal,” Frank argues that the Democrats are within the throes of their own ideological battle, the premise being that the party is no longer of the working class, rather throwing allegiance to a “professional class” that is predicated on a misguided American myth that we operate a Horatio Alger meritocracy instead. Similarly to what C. Wright Mills expressed 60 years ago in “Power Elite,” Frank believes the Democratic Party is captured by Ivy League university classmate “creative class professionals” who, though largely never having been part of the working class — eating organic food without getting their hands dirty — feel ingrained to the core that they know what is best for the common person.

Frank describes two hierarchies in America in “Listen, Liberal”: one of money and big business (the Republican Party) and the other of professional status (the Democratic Party). Both are forms of economic prosperity doctrines to justify success that forget that not all people are suited to academically prepared “professional” positions of “value,” leading to what Frank sees as contemptuous “attitudes toward working-class people in general and organized labor specifically.” Assuming it ever was in the first place, the Democratic Party is no longer a working-class party, instead composed of a bourgeois professional class that overvalues symbolic positions of misplaced failed merit, speaking for the commoner with all of the conviction of a Hobbesian conservative.

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Progressive handbill from 1912

I’ve felt this way about the Democrats my entire life and have pined for viable third, fourth, and many more parties to appear. The LaFollette Progressive Party a party born of Republicans then sustained by Democrats, was the last third party of national significance and was most effective 100 years ago in response to the last Gilded Age, leading to labor rights, banking and trade regulation, open government, and New Deal reforms that have since slowly been chipped away by the establishment of both parties. The very root of the party and its followers was a disdain of the influence of corrupt party politics and how they worked against the interests of working class for their own enrichment and aggrandizement.

I swelled with contempt for the Republicans, and I am proud to say I have never voted for any of their candidates. However, I see the rise of the Trump and Tea Party support an indication that there are more people like me who are searching for a viable, affirmative voice in our political system. We are working-class people who wish to have the security of a meaningful job, a healthy environment, and a bright economic future for our children. We are tired of tax and resultant social policy that favors the wealthy and their corporations. We want an affirmative voice in the American political process and are tired of voting for the lesser of two evils.

Incrementally, Democrats became Southern Republicans while rust belt union employees turned their allegiances away from working-class solidarity, buying the anti-union rhetoric of the Republican party. That was countered by the Democrats with their support of the North American Free Trade Act, turning formerly solidly blue states to purple and red concomitant with historic low numbers in state legislatures. In Utah, Republicans run largely unopposed, and elections are sometimes not even held.

We have a duty to shock unjust incrementalism. Not every generation is given such an opportunity to reset a system whose social contract has been broken. There are a great many professional-class baby-boomers who had an opportunity during the 1960s and failed to bring about lasting social change. Instead, they became part of the professional class of which Frank speaks, justifying their privilege based on the establishment’s meritocracy with support of incremental change that does not provide any threat to the status quo that has existed since their childhood, forgetting about or outright justifying their “merit” in an unjust social network and a political ideology that justifies the plight of the poor in our country and world.

To protect this prosperity paradigm, like their Republican counterparts with Trump, Democrat Party elites are pulling all of the rule stops to thwart a working-class uprising in the Bernie Sanders campaign.

“Superdelegates,” unelected party insiders who are allowed a nomination vote at the party convention that is not bound by popular election, are undemocratically siding with Clinton. Said DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.” To drive home the point with a long way to the convention, Clinton has so far won 58 percent of the Democrat primary/caucus votes but has 94 percent of pledged superdelegates.

An interesting exchange that illustrates Frank’s thesis took place between an aged Democratic superdelegate in Alaska and who appears to be a young Democrat voter. Alaska Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Sanders — he won 81 percent of the vote — and the the voter was pressing the superdelegate as to why she was going to give her vote to Clinton. She responded with Frank’s professional-class meritocracy, saying “I am a retired union representative. I put in my time in the trenches for 40 years, and I really object to someone like you who has probably done nothing except caucus telling me what to do. I am voting for the best interests of my country. And that would be Hillary Clinton.”

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Image: DonkeyHotey / CC BY-SA 2.0

As a man of over 50 years with degrees in political science and public administration and having worked for a member of Congress who had a strong allegiance to the Democratic National Convention, I have been referred to by people like this Alaska superdelegate as a “petulant child” and “vicarious voter.” Some have attempted to shame me into believing that a non-vote for Hillary is a vote for Trump. they’ve tried to shame me into believing that somehow we got Bush because Gore was screwed by Nader, as though Gore’s loss wasn’t a product of him being a weak candidate indicative of the next-in-line DNC meritocracy. Nader was an expression of the anti-establishment, progressive sentiment, the lesson of which the DNC has still not learned.

If we were truly interested in democratic ideals, there would be no such thing as superdelegates. There would be no “brokered convention.” Instead, electoral/delegate votes would be proportional to the vote that they received within that party’s primary election or caucus. Not doing so indicates the continued bound allegiance of apparatchiks to a party and its elites instead of the people.

That many of my liberal friends call themselves “progressive” while calling me names without understanding this history of the political party nor what it stood for is a bit offensive. The Progressive Party and its leaders endured and fought against the wrath of the two-party system, advocating an open primary process, forcing the Republican Party into 80 years of legislative obscurity and enabling the Democratic Party to take social and environmental justice seriously enough to create the New Deal. 

Any hint of New Deal progressivism left the party with a capitulation to Ronald Reagan’s Republican party during the Clinton era, an era of “sportsmanship” wherein you sometimes crossed the aisle to support your political opponent even if it meant incrementally watering down the politics and policies that once supported your base.

Each party is invested in incremental change — if at any change at all — that does not upset the status they’ve developed and from which they benefit. Incrementalism does not lend itself to radical change that is sometimes required to protect the interests of the people. In the case of climate change, incrementalism is getting us nowhere fast.

Both parties are composed of elites with self-serving prosperity doctrines: the Republicans through Randian Divinity and the Democrats through a meritocracy of the professional class. The result is that there is nowhere for the working class to forward their struggle within the political system, the structural underpinnings based on a seemingly false choice of nowhere else to go but misplaced angry nationalism with Trump or, as Frank might say, supporting a meritocracy of failure with Hillary Clinton.

Understand that both of the dominant political parties in the United States are under siege by a working class anti-establishment fervor that has been building for decades, and both are using the threat of undemocratic party rules to ensure their establishment candidates and ideological underpinnings are protected.

Regardless of who “wins” or how much worse it can get (catastrophically or incrementally) the question is, “How are we global citizens involved in the struggle of the working class going to respond in 2020?” Certainly a working-class anti-establishment sentiment is underway, unseen in most of our lifetimes.

Progressives (LaFollette) of 100 years ago found a way to bring working people across an ideological spectrum to short-lived but meaningful action and reform in response to the last Gilded Age and their political machines. Can it be done again with more lasting effect?

I think it’s an opportune moment in history.

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