Diehard science-fiction fans will remember the mystical mantra at the heart of the 21st-century “Battlestar Galactica” reboot: “All this has happened before and will happen again.” Democratic Party leaders and members of the mainstream media should keep that sentence in mind during the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Given the events of the past few years, how can a reporter for the Washington Post write a sentence like this after the June 6 primary?
“Democrats increased their odds of picking up three House seats in New Jersey, as candidates favored by the DCCC beat back more liberal alternatives.”
Let’s rephrase that:
“Three candidates who were backed by an organization that lost control of Congress, and who espouse policies that voters have rejected across the country, beat back more liberal alternatives. As a result, their party is more likely to win in November.”
Does this sound right to you?
Democrats rode to victory in 2008 on a wave of anti-Republican sentiment, only to lose power at all levels in the ten years that followed. Will it happen again? Or will progressive insurgents remake the party in a more effective image?
First, a reminder: George W. Bush was a terrible president. Bush left office with record levels of public disapproval. Now, according to recent polling, a majority of Democrats remember him favorably. They are apparently so absorbed in Donald Trump’s story, and the idea of “Trump exceptionalism,” that they fail to see how Republicans of previous years paved the way for both his politics and his dictatorial style.
Like Trump, Bush pandered to evangelicals with oppressive social policies - although unlike Trump, he may have shared their theology. Like Trump, he gave a huge tax cut to the wealthy and corporations.
Bush tried to privatize Social Security, a wildly unpopular move that contributed to Republican Congressional losses. The financial crisis of 2008 also happened on Bush’s watch, offering conclusive proof that the conservative and neoliberal ideology of privatization was a disaster for working Americans.
Bush also did something Trump hasn’t done, at least not yet. Using the most audacious lies in modern American governance, he deceived the country into a disastrous war in Iraq. That war has resulted in well over 4,000 American deaths, along with the deaths of hundreds of thousands – perhaps more than a million – Iraqis. That war cost trillions of dollars and destabilized the entire region, giving rise to ISIS and triggering ongoing conflict in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
Why bring up George W. Bush? Because it was his unpopularity, mendacity, and incompetence that led to the Democratic victories of ten years ago – much as Trump might do this year, if Democrats' hopes come true.
People mourn the loss of “norms” under Donald Trump, and it’s true that Trump is extremely… ah… abnormal. But Vice President Dick Cheney was also abusive toward his enemies during the Bush presidency. Cheney lied shamelessly. Diplomats, intelligence officers, and other government professionals were bent to the administration’s will under Cheney’s totalitarian hand.
Bush lied to the American people, waged war recklessly, governed theocratically, and pursued fiscal policies that enriched his friends, family, and himself.
The national amnesia surrounding Bush got plenty of help from the mainstream media. Bush’s crimes and missteps, as well as his violations of political norms, have been buried in a flurry of feel-good stories about his amateur paintings and his friendship with the Clintons and Obamas.
Nostalgic reporters and pundits have felt free to re-imagine Bush's presidency as a civil and moderate time, although it was neither. Many establishment Democrats have been eager to share that narrative, perhaps because they hope it helps them against Trump.
Our national amnesia also extends to the history of the Obama years. When Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and had a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the Senate.
But Obama and the Democrats in Congress adopted a “centrist,” corporate-friendly line, both rhetorically and economically. By the time Obama’s presidency ended, Democrats had lost both houses of Congress, two-thirds of governorships, and approximately 1,000 seats in state legislatures.
The message should have been clear: Democratic “centrism” – an economic ideology that is further right than public opinion on many key issues – is not the way to win or keep political power. But that lesson was apparently forgotten, along with the lessons of the Bush presidency.
Here are a couple more occurrences our media and political classes appear to have forgotten. Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination, despite a tilted playing field in the primaries. It turns out that a lot of current Democrats – and potential new ones – were tired of their party’s establishment, a fact that has been confirmed by recent polling. And Donald Trump’s election was the product of many forces, one of which was the failure of the establishment message to drive turnout or persuade enough working-class voters of all races to vote for its candidate.
The Reporter Says the Horse Can Do
Washington Post political reporter Derek Hawkins, the author of the sentence quoted in the beginning of this piece, also wrote in his post-primary analysis that “the national Democratic establishment got the last laugh.”
That’s certainly what the “establishment” wants you to think. Is it true? Writing for The Intercept, David Dayen and Ryan Grim disagree. They write that the primary which offered the clearest ideological matchup between the establishment agenda and the left was in California’s 45th District, where progressive favorite Katie Porter defeated David Min.
Porter, who is supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and progressive groups, supports Medicare For All and other left ideas.
Min, a former Chuck Schumer staffer and Center for American Progress fellow, had the support of the New Democrats. As Dayen and Grim note, that organization “supplied 27 of the 33 House Democratic votes in favor of the recent bank deregulation bill.”
A New Democrat-backed candidate also lost in San Diego, where progressive Ammar Campa-Najjar defeated Josh Butner. And progressive Deb Haaland defeated a former prosecutor and a less progressive woman in New Mexico’s 1st District, where she is now poised to become the first Native American woman in Congress. Progressives also unseated establishment Dems in several New Mexico races.
Nevertheless, many media outlets were eager to characterize June 6’s results as a return to form for the Democratic establishment. That partly stems from the “horse race” aspect of election coverage, which leads them to promote dramatic announcements that a new horse has taken the lead.
But, as Hawkins' coverage for the Washington Post illustrates, many writers for the mainstream media share the dubious belief that “centrist” Democrats are more likely to win general elections. No amount of empirical evidence seems to shake them from this belief.
History Doesn’t Always Repeat Itself
A kind of short-term thinking is at play here, too. Some of these pundits interpreted a recent WaPo analysis of the Democratic left’s performance as more vindication of the establishment, since “only” 10 of 21 candidates backed by Sanders have won in this election cycle, along with 46 of the 111 backed by the Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution.
When viewed from a longer-term perspective, that’s a stunning outcome. The Sanders movement had no power in the Democratic Party three years ago. It’s fighting a party establishment that controls networks of political power and millions of dollars. Nevertheless, it’s already won between 40 and 50 percent of its races.
Revolutions, whether political or military, take years to win. There are always losses along the way. How would the political press of today covered George Washington’s struggles in the Battle of Long Island or Valley Forge?
Millions are being spent to defeat the progressive movement. Despite that, the left is experiencing an extraordinary ascendance. Will it rise quickly enough to change the party's trajectory in 2018? That remains to be seen.
But one thing is clear: each establishment victory is potentially Pyrrhic, carrying with it the seeds of its own destruction. If there are more such victories and they embolden corporate Democrats, it could discourage base turnout and convince voters that the party stands for nothing. The result could be victory in November for Trump’s Republicans.
That isn’t inevitable, even if the establishment prevails. The party base seems to be energized by hatred of Trump and his Republicans this year, just as it was energized by hatred of Bush and his Republicans in 2008. That could be enough to give Democrats the House, or even the Senate, even with bland establishment Democrats on the ballot.
But if they govern the way they did in the decade after 2008, there are likely to be more disasters to come. Even if they take back the presidency in 2020 – which is hardly a given – the Democratic establishment’s ideas will once again fail to meet the great challenges of our time, politically or as policy. Voters are likely to reject them, allowing the Republicans to return to power.
All this has happened before, and could happen again – unless the Democratic Party is taken over and transformed, by a new movement that has just begun to fight.