The Winner Takes It All

Through all the political books I’ve read over the last couple years, from Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt, to Thomas Frank’s books I mentioned in the last blog, to Christopher Hitchens’s books and articles while he was still alive, what I’ve come to realize is that Republicans are a lot better at politics than the Democrats are. This is less a matter of taste (since god only knows how far I am from the American Right) as it is a brief glance at the scoreboard. Republicans know how to win; Democrats seem determined to lose.

Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012) just furthers that opinion. It’s about the financial crises of 2008 and how the Republican Party — whose leadership and policies were responsible for crashing the American economy, and ruining the lives of millions of ordinary people — not only managed to stay relevant, but ultimately triumphed. You would have thought that any competent opposition party could once and for all drive the nail in the Republican Party coffin; instead, the opposite happened.

The failures of the Democratic Party started well before Barack Obama’s tenure as President, which was in the wake of the financial crises. The original sins began under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s. Clinton was a New Democrat who believed in triangulation, a political strategy that remains the blueprint of the Party to this day. Triangulation is essentially garnering popular support through making big promises on the campaign trail, but once in office the Democrats cater to big business. They are Republicans, basically.

So once Clinton took office his main priority, at least initially, was to purge the old school Democrats — the FDR, labor-supported wing — of their seats in the House and Senate. Over time, almost every Democrat turned into a Bill Clinton-type: say the right things on the campaign trail to capture the working class and minority vote, then once in office vote alongside Republicans to pass NAFTA, deregulate the banks and telecommunications industries, and expand the military budget. Hilariously, right-wing media call them socialists either way.

In 2008, Barack Obama followed suit with this strategy. His whole “hope and change” campaign lit a fire under the American middle and lower classes, especially after a particularly unpopular George W. Bush presidency that sent us to war with a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and paved the way to the crash of 2007-’08. Obama campaigned on all sorts of lefty issues, but once he won the general election he didn’t prosecute any of the criminal bankers, and expanded America’s wars.

This is only relevant because while the Democrats were busy abandoning the working class, moving further away from unions and organized labor, the Republicans were sharpening their swords. Many people thought once Obama won in 2008 that there was a permanent repudiation of the Republican Party underway. They talked about “shifting demographics,” a soft way of saying there was more color and diversity among the American electorate, and we all wondered if the GOP would be forced to change their stances on hot button issues like immigration and gay marriage. (Spoiler: they didn’t.)

Rather than regressing toward the so-called “center,” Republicans instead pivoted to the right. After the financial crises, they didn’t sit around and mope that maybe they screwed up. They didn’t lament the fact that they fucked over millions of regular people. What they did was come up with the Tea Party, a phony hard-times group funded by the Koch Brothers that would ultimately purge moderate Republicans from their seats.

In my lifetime, basically spanning both Clinton terms in the 90’s, both W. Bush terms in the early aughts, both Obama terms and now Trump, the Democratic Party purged FDR Democrats and the Republican Party purged many of the “moderates.” Common folk who consume corporate media — whether it’s Fox News or CNN or MSNBC — are constantly fed this idea that Americans have never been more polarized. Popular opinion is that the Republican Party is far-right, and that the Democratic Party is far-left. But the reality is that both parties have moved to the right.

Bernie Sanders is cast as a radical, but forty or fifty years ago he would have been a run of the mill Democrat. He believes in the simple, once dominant approach of giving power to workers — the FDR blueprint that was so popular among the people that they had to invent term limits to stop him from getting reelected. Sanders isn’t anything we haven’t seen before; it’s just that the Democrats have become Republicans and the Republicans have taken a mile every time they’ve been given an inch.

As I said, Republicans are better at this shit than Democrats are. And assuming anyone other than Bernie wins the Dem nomination, it almost certainly makes odds greater than 50/50 that Donald Trump wins again in 2020. Regardless of which candidate faces off vs. Trump, the right is going to label them as a far lefty who wants to give a bunch of free shit to people. It’s a lazy, boring strategy, but it’s effective because the Democrats have no intention of following through with the popular policies they campaign on. In a choice between a Republican (Trump) and Republican-lite (Democrat), the American people are just going to roll with the real thing.

Bernie is bulletproof because he has already been vetted. Every available smear has already been tried. Both sides of the media have been attempting to scare people into thinking he’s too far left since 2015, but Sanders has come out of it with the strongest base of support of all Democratic candidates, and remains the most popular politician in the country. Rather than trying to sway moderate Republicans — as Hillary failed at in 2016, and like the non-Bernie nominee will again fail at in 2020 — Sanders’ strategy is to turn out those who wouldn’t otherwise vote.

The 2020 race (contrary to what corporate news says) isn’t about Donald Trump, it’s about voter turnout. Hillary Clinton proved in 2016 that it isn’t good enough to simply be against Trump; the Democrats have to offer people something to vote for. My fear is Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg are too focused on running campaigns that are half We Need To Get Trump Out Of The White House and half Look At How Good Of A Candidate I Am. The struggles of working people, and the economic anxiety they are forced to endure on a daily basis, are only an afterthought.

With Biden it’s all about his relationship as Barack Obama’s VP, and restoring the country to normalcy; with Warren it’s all about being a professor at Harvard and “having a plan for that”; with Buttigieg it’s all about being gay and speaking six languages and being a former military man. All those things are great, but they don’t excite people. Hillary herself ran a resumé campaign in 2016, telling everyone how qualified she was, and nobody really cared. She lost.

Bernie Sanders is not out there trying to prove that he’s the most qualified. He doesn’t seem to care about identity politics. Every time he speaks he makes it clear that his campaign isn’t about him, it’s about a movement. He doesn’t want to return the United States to normalcy, since it was the Obama-era normalcy that didn’t work out for average workers. The normalcy that many liberals yearn for is what brought Trump to victory in the first place.

Say what you will about all of Donald Trump’s obvious flaws, but the guy knows how to campaign. Even if all he was doing was lying about making people’s lives better, or building a wall and having Mexico pay for it, he was at least making an effort to tell people that he understood their pain. He gave them a reason to come out and vote.

It seemed illogical and out of step with the direction of the country, but what the Republicans managed to accomplish after the 2008 financial crises was brilliant politics. When every sign pointed towards tip-toeing back to the center, the GOP took a hard turn to the right. They haven’t looked back since, because they haven’t had to.

Meanwhile, once Obama got in office — with a Democratic advantage in the Senate, and a filibuster-proof majority in the House — he didn’t follow through with any of his grand campaign promises. When it would have been overwhelmingly popular to put on trial the criminal bankers who wrecked the economy, and break up the major banks, he did none of it. He continued Bush’s bailout policies and inevitably lost control of the House in 2010, which assured he wouldn’t be able to get anything done. The Democrats then lost control of the Senate in 2014. We all know how the story goes from there.

Even if Trump does get defeated a year from now, unless it’s Bernie Sanders there’s a good chance that the worst is yet to come. It isn’t good enough to insert a Biden or Warren or Buttigieg if all they are going to do is return the country to business as usual. If the Democrat wins, the American people need to see real, positive differences in their lives. If they don’t, then they are going to lose again in 2024 to a more competent version of Trump — someone with similar hard-right views but who is actually capable of getting things done.

A Bernie Sanders Presidency stands a far greater chance of sustaining liberal policies for generations, much like FDR when he turned the government blue for nearly a half-century. He did this by creating Social Security and paving the way for Medicare, by investing in education and infrastructure, and by making it easier to join unions. Most people 75 and older who support Trump present-day accumulated their wealth thanks to FDR’s pro-worker policies.

In 2019 information flies thanks to social media, but we don’t have to look back very far to see how the United States got in the position they are in. While the Democrats have been fantasizing about a world where bipartisan agreement is the way of the land, the Republicans have gone further and further right, perpetually shifting the goalposts. And as the Democrats continue their search for a middle ground that never existed, the GOP is shrewdly marching on.