The Democrats: Anger in a Different Key

low-angle black and white photograph of a startled-looking Hillary Clinton
For years, the Democratic Party has pursued a comfortably centrist agenda while relying on identity politics to sustain its popularity.  It has pursued social good without much regard for economy or efficiency, and, primarily for that reason, has alienated many business interests and ordinary, thrifty, business-like people.  In Illinois, the good that individual Democratic officeholders seek to do hardly makes up for the many instances of criminal corruption and abuse of trust that stain the reputation of the party.

Though Democrats purport to fight the scourge of poverty and ignorance, that goal has lost its urgency, the how of it suffocated under layers of bombast and bureaucracy.  Even health-care reform, which has given millions of Americans better access to medicine and stands as this era’s chief domestic initiative, has driven up premiums and supplied fresh evidence of federal ineptitude.

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s merits (and they are many), she personifies the compromised condition of the Democratic Party.  Like her party, she wants to be all things to all people.  That very characteristic disables her from accommodating and channeling the ire festering in the hearts of the Democratic electorate, the ire that is powering the “Feel the Bern” movement.

However worthy her intentions, Clinton cannot step out of her skin.  She can’t disavow her wealth and celebrity, can’t ditch her myriad A-list connections, can’t dis-entrench herself from the inner workings of her party.  She can’t re-imagine Democratic ideology for fear of upsetting the apple cart that’s carrying her along.  And she can’t set herself at odds with the past without diminishing the legacy of her husband, Bill.   Being so closely identified with the ex-president is proving a big liability.  All these factors prevent Hillary Clinton from being the change agent Democratic voters want and need.

Bernie Sanders represents this constituency, which amounts to approximately 43 percent of all Democrats voting in this primary season.  Sanders doesn’t want to please anyone, and he (like Trump) isn’t very concerned about the tenability of his program.  Sanders’ goal is to redefine the purposes of the Democratic Party.  Sanders’ voters will be lost unless someone else comes along who can do this well.

It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is ripe for radical reform.  It could transform itself into a proponent of internal economic growth, with a focus on the intensive cultivation of the nation’s human and physical capital.  It could be a party of peace, a party of green.  Once upon a time, the Democratic Party stood for reform, retrenchment, and economy.  Could the right leader make the Democratic Party great again?

Image:  “First Lady Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Tom Foley,
and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt speak at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol,”
1993 photograph by Laura Patterson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
For more information click here.



Our Political Parties Are Behind the Times

REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups.  A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.

Clinton vs. Trump
Clinton would win

Clinton vs. Cruz
Clinton would win, but more narrowly

Clinton vs. Kasich
Kasich would win

Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Kasich
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Cruz
Sanders would win

These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus.  On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she.  His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.

Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally.  She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat.  She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.

Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties.  Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing.  Clinton is electable, but Sanders is even more electable than she.  Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this.  They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to.  They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.

On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large.  The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP.  Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail.  Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward.  Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.

Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.

Bernie Sanders’ Strong Hand

Of the remaining presidential candidates in either party, Bernie Sanders has the most power to influence the outcome of the general election.  He will not become president but can determine who will.  He has a strong hand, which his ongoing campaign is only strengthening. In the end, he can play it a number of ways: he can support or sink Hillary’s bid for the presidency, he can use the moment to force change within the Democratic Party, or he can direct the popular energies he’s mustered into starting a new third party.

Let’s be honest about Bernie’s status within the Democracy.  The establishment hates him and only wants to minimize the threat, practical and ideological, that he embodies.

Until recently, Sanders had some chance of pulling even with Clinton in numbers of earned delegates won through the primaries.  The presidential nomination remained out of his reach, however, because the super-delegates, who express the will of the Democratic establishment, were never going to abandon Clinton in order to back him.  Why would the middle and upper tiers of the Democratic hierarchy anger and betray Clinton, diminishing their chance of retaining control of the White House, and further destabilize their party for the sake of an interloper generally viewed as having no chance of winning?  Yet Bernie Sanders continues to run.  The more delegates he amasses, the greater his independent power, the greater his influence and authority.

Already a one-man movement, Sanders could bolt and run as an independent, though he has said that he won’t.  His candidacy has exposed the bland decrepitude of the Democratic party, the public’s yearning for a bold alternative, and voters’ tepid support for the competent Hillary.  Bernie himself enjoys a surprisingly fervent following and has proved surprisingly good at raising money.  He can afford to compete in every remaining primary, which is giving him valuable information about the nature of the electorate and where support is strongest for his ideas.

The Democrats cannot allow Sanders to leave the Party, for he would draw off a huge number of disaffected voters whose support Hillary Clinton will desperately need.  Because Sanders is committed to keeping Cruz or Trump out of the White House, he has said he would ‘certainly support‘ Clinton if she is nominated.  As long as the Republicans run one of these candidates, Sanders will feel bound to support Clinton’s run.  Making this pledge was unfortunate, increasing the likelihood that, in the end, Sanders and his supporters will be co-opted by an establishment that, in its coldness toward him, has already shown its staunch resistance to change.

To see Bernie get behind Hillary would be disheartening.  It would represent a betrayal of his ideas, ideas the Party has no intention of adopting.  His identity as a change agent would vanish as quickly as it materialized.  So, when it comes to that moment, will Sanders, despite his strong hand, choose to fold?

When A Party Divides: The Democrats in 1860

Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan as cocks fighting to the death.
This masterly drawing from 1860 captures the terror and ugliness of the break-up of the then-dominant Democratic party.  At the time, the Democrats were by far the nation’s oldest political party.  In fact, since the break-up of the fitfully successful Whig party a few years earlier, the Democrats had faced only a fractured opposition, a situation that the emergence of a new, national, anti-slavery party was about to change.  Shortly before this print was struck, the nascent Republican party had met in a convention at Chicago, where they had chosen an outlier, Abraham Lincoln, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats had flourished by being laissez-faire on slavery.  They stood for a limited federal government, which, in their view, meant leaving slavery and slave-owners strictly alone.  The entire party had been organized around the goal of keeping the federal government from ‘interfering’ with slavery, a goal which enjoyed broad appeal in both North and South.  As slavery became more controversial, however, it became more difficult to rally around this leading idea.  Democrats had controlled the White House since 1852, but who could they put up to succeed the incumbent president, James Buchanan, an elderly former diplomat, who alone could conciliate the party’s fractious northern and southern wings?

In the presidential election of 1860, Democrats watched their party collapse, as its leading figures fought one another for the nomination and the power to chart the party’s future.  By Election Day, the Democrats had split into three parts, backing three rival candidates, opening the way for Lincoln’s unlikely victory.

Stephen Douglas, the strongest of the Democratic contenders, was so controversial a pick that the Democrats’ first nominating convention in Charleston, adjourned without selecting anybody.  Douglas had kept his lead through 18 ballots but could not muster the support needed for victory.  The party convened a second time in Baltimore, where Douglas was finally nominated. His opponents rebelled.  Fire-eaters who wanted a more vociferously pro-slavery candidate bolted to form the Southern Democratic Party, choosing Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.  A third faction, alarmed at the prospect of a national schism over slavery, eschewed these choices, banding together to form the Constitutional Union party, with Tennessee’s John Bell as their nominee (and the northerner Edward Everett as his running-mate).

The Democrats’ crisis hinged on a failure of leadership and ideology.  The party’s main idea was exhausted and untenable, while its chief figures, though able and patriotic, stubbornly clung to incompatible strategies.  None had the genius, nor the humility, to reconcile the party’s increasingly discordant aims.  Even as the crisis unfolded, observers knew it signified diminishing prospects for ‘the Democracy.’  The party was going to be smaller and weaker, a reality that the creator of the Currier and Ives ‘cartoon’ captures very effectively.

In the ensuing election, Lincoln would win, though receiving just 39.8 percent of all the votes cast.  The Democratic vote would have swamped him if combined.  Douglas won 1,380,202 votes; Breckinridge, 848,019; and Bell 590,901, for a total of 2,819,122, whereas Lincoln polled just 1,865,908.  He won in the North but nowhere else, leading Southerners to style his an illegitimate presidency.  By Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern states had begun to secede.  With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American civil war got underway.

Democrats felt justified in breaking with their party, but, in all of American history, no election-year choice proved more costly.  The Democrats feared the end of slavery, but, had they ignored their differences and rallied around Douglas, the transition to freedom might have been far less catastrophic and bloody.  Lincoln would not have been elected, and the Civil War as we know it might not have occurred.

As it was, an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives.  The Democratic party was dishonored and eclipsed.  It was not until 1885, with the victory of Grover Cleveland, that a Democrat again occupied the presidency.

Image from this source.

The cartoon, published just after Stephen Douglas’s nomination at Baltimore, portrays the struggle within his party as a life-or-death blood sport.  The triumphant ‘Illinois Bantam’ (Douglas) crows over a prostrate ‘old cock’ symbolizing President Buchanan.  The old bird is dying, his great size signifying the power of a united party.  Douglas, flush with victory, boasts of his ability to beat both Lincoln and Breckinridge, the head of the strongest rival Democratic faction.  But just as the victorious Douglas is much smaller than the tough old bird he defeated, so Breckinridge is much smaller than he.  The ‘Kentucky chicken’ looks openly afraid as his handler puts him in the ring.  On the left is a philosophical figure who might represent the machine politicians of Tammany.

The Un-Democratic Party

Voters milling around on the street where election results are being announced.

It’s fascinating that, though Bernie Sanders has won one primary election and only narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in two others, Democratic party rules give him next-to-no chance of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee.  These circumstances justified the headline of Monday’s lead article in the New York Times: ‘Delegate Count Leaving Sanders With Steep Climb.’ Continue reading

Why Hillary Should Declare, “I’m Worth It”

Who can stand the sexist attacks on Hillary’s speaking fees?

The questions aim to make voters aware that, while not in office, Hillary accepted huge fees for speaking to audiences that included big banks.  Like many effective campaign tactics, however, questioning the legitimacy of her fees also serves other, less-than-creditable ends.  The questions implicitly cast aspersions on Hillary Clinton’s essential worth, on her value as a veteran stateswoman, and on the integrity of the speaking engagements themselves.  The issue is a classic ‘dog-whistle’ tuned to the frequency of the envious and chauvinistic.

The underlying assumption?  Something must be wrong because Hillary couldn’t possibly be worth that kind of money.  Thank god Hillary is running for office!  She’s giving us an opportunity to express our resentment toward women who defy social norms and out-perform men.  How dare she make that kind of money in one day?

What’s clear from Secretary Clinton’s responses is that she doesn’t feel guilty.  She doesn’t feel implicated in the banks’ decision to pay up to hear what’s in her heart and brain.  Thank goodness she isn’t apologizing for the very legitimate demand within the business community to learn from one of the nation’s most experienced leaders.

But Hillary, for the sake of all women struggling against their own glass ceilings, you must go a step further.  You must assert that your experience and perspective on American politics are unique, and that, in the eyes of the market, you deserve your fees.

You might lose the anti-capitalist vote, but you’d win the gratitude of millions of American women who are tired of being treated as though they can’t possibly be worth as much as a man.

Factor Rauner In

After getting off to a wobbly start, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has begun to speak truth to power. While a nervous media has attempted to portray the governor and state legislature as equally responsible for the State’s impoverished condition, he has rightly insisted that the budget is the bailiwick of the legislature.  (Click here for his latest on the budget impasse.)

After years of overspending, mismanagement, and corruption, Illinois government is in the throes of an all-out economic crisis.  Yet the Democratic-controlled legislature continues shilly-shallying.  That body, whose lack of prudence over decades has created this disaster, is still evading responsibility.  Rather than face the music, the legislature’s top priority is shifting blame.

Meanwhile, legislators have failed to kick into emergency mode and make the painful decisions necessary to keep the government running and avoid defaulting on its obligations.  The state can no longer pay its bills and has been without a budget for weeks, with penalties accruing.  Do members of the Illinois House and Senate, whatever their party affiliation, really want to be associated with a bankruptcy?  Do they want to be remembered as the individuals who did nothing, who failed to be heroic, as the public sector’s finances tanked?

To say that the situation reflects poorly on the long-dominant Democratic party is putting it mildly.  Though the self-interested rule of House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton has been unbreakable, some cracks in their monolithic organizational control have begun appearing.  As the crisis builds, some legislators see that, when the state goes down, their careers and reputations will be destroyed too.  Some may begin to buck the status quo.  If only they would break rank, the power of Mike Madigan would at last be destroyed.

Governor Rauner has begun to work these fault lines.  He has wisely refused to be drawn in to the budget crisis (it isn’t his job), thereby exposing the legislature’s ineptitude and lack of resolve.  Mike Madigan has begun looking like a silly befuddled wizard, with an inadequate inventory of smoke and mirrors.  On September 2, he failed to secure enough votes to override the Governor’s veto of a labor bill that would have excluded the governor from negotiations with unions.

The override failed by one vote, and the public has now heard from the brave Democratic legislator who chose to absent himself rather than act as Speaker Madigan’s lackey.  Ken Dunkin, a Chicago-area representative and former chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said afterward that his action was a refusal to ‘wear the jacket.’   Despite being widely criticized by fellow legislators and publicly chastised by Speaker Madigan (!), Dunkin told reporter Charles Thomas afterward that his duty is to work for the economic empowerment of struggling African-Americans in Chicago, a crusade that might involve finding common ground with Governor Rauner.

These developments are sweet to every Illinoisan longing for public integrity and economy, and for an end to Mike Madigan’s iniquitous reign.

Rahm’s Chicago: A Nice Place to Visit

Chicago: The Drive at night, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city!  I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night.  The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride.  The face of Chicago is deceptive, having only grown more beautiful with time. Continue reading

The Democratic Party of my dreams

I’m still waiting for a breakout Democrat to cast the party along new lines. I’m tired of the old Democratic party, which still plays identity politics, makes bad bargains with public resources, and is generally very loose with money. I’m tired of big government that’s inefficient and behind the times.  I want a small powerful government that does things well.

I’m waiting for a new Democratic party to come along, that’s resolutely focused not on unions but on all who work.  Most workers are not, and may never be, organized.  For their sake, the party needs to demand corporate responsibility and corporate investment in our citizens and our native economy.  I’m waiting for a new party that cares about industry and sustainability, that’s ardent and uncompromising about making high-quality, next-generation goods here in the States, and that believes in the collective capacities of the citizenry to take the US economy higher.

I’m waiting for a party that’s proud of universal health coverage, that insists on quality public education, and favors everything local and green.  I want a party that’s candid about globalism’s dark side.  That wants to curtail immigration sharply for a while, in order to take into account all who are here, strengthen our civic fabric, and restore American citizenship’s prestige.

I’m waiting for Democrats who will demand peace: who will foreswear the siren song, the illusory notion that we can ever really “protect American interests abroad.”  I’m waiting for a party that will respect the sovereignty of other nations and that’s clear-eyed enough to refrain from unending militarism abroad.

I’m waiting, and I’m sure that a large population waits with me.