Electoral campaigns are to political parties what the process known as exposure — the amount of light per unit area — is to photographic film. It illuminates the latent image into a visible one. Electoral campaigns allow the unveiling of the content and contours of political organizations; they permit us to assess their political agendas, the class interests behind their platforms, the ideological content of their political discourse, their internal contradictions, what have they chosen to hide or to reveal, etc., etc. In the case of the Democratic Party, the last electoral process highlighted — among other things — the following traits of the organization: a frontal opposition to and boycott of the democratic-socialist agenda of Bernie Sanders; the political inability to understand the character and electoral potential of the Republican opposition, focusing instead on the vulgar trivialization of Donald Trump; and finally, a groundless sense of entitlement to the Presidency personified in the alleged feminism and political experience of Hillary Clinton as inheritor and continuator of Barak Obama .
The ‘Buffoon’ elected and his discontents
Prior to the elections, the Democratic Party leaders for all practical purposes dismissed Trump’s candidacy as an act of performative buffoonery. Early in 2016, president Obama was asked if he could ever imagine Donald Trump delivering a State of the Union Address, to which he responded that it could happen only “in a Saturday Night Live skit. ” Later in 2016, when responding to Trump’s characterization of him as one of the worst presidents in history, Obama’s quip was that history would “at least indicate that he was president”, implying that was something Trump could never experience. The same dismissive smugness was present in multiple declarations by high ranking Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and many others, not to mention the large troupe of celebrities choreographing from Hollywood that by then constituted the Democratic Party’s public stance on Trump. Nonetheless, in November, contrary to the wishful predictions of the Democrats and the pseudo-objectivity of mainstream media’s pools, the ‘buffoon’ in question was elected president of the United States delivering not buffoonery, but an ominous right wing populist agenda with serious consequences for the economy, the environment, and civil rights. He also delivered a requiem political mass to the Democrats for at least the next four years.
Rather than treating Trump’s election as a galvanizing moment for serious self-criticism, the Democratic Party and its members have responded in three ways, one which has some political potential, and two that are clearly ineffectual and self-aggrandizing. The first one is represented by Bernie Sanders’ movement, Our Revolution, which according to its home page seeks “to revitalize American democracy by unifying the millions of people who got involved over the course of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in support of progressive causes.” What makes this form of opposing Trump different and politically mature is that by the very nature and origins of the movement, opposition to Trump is politically and socially contextualized. In other words, the opposition to Trump is organized around issues such as income inequality, big money in politics, foreign policy, racial justice, climate change, college tuition, etc. It is worth noting that these issues are not recent additions by Sanders to his political agenda but have been a constant for quite a long time in his political life. Most progressive Democrats remaining in the party tend to align with this form of opposition and political stance. Where it can lead in electoral or policy terms has yet to be seen.
The second type of opposition is characterized primarily by an attitude meant to convey revulsion to Trump but with very little social contextualization. This attitude is a residual or side effect of the original “buffoon’ label attached to the elected president. Lacking political depth, it is mostly centered on the subject’s position of the psyche after-election day, wrapped in lamentations and self-indulgence in which the lamentor tends to play a central, usually dramatic role.
The third type of opposition to Trump is represented by the archaic leadership of the party, which Deux es Machina, is incapable of self-criticism—very little crow has been eaten at the table of the Democratic Party. They perceive themselves as the best qualified to lead the opposition, although very recent history, as demonstrated by the Trump victory, clearly suggests the contrary. This last position unveils a deeply rooted opportunism present in the DNC (Democratic National Committee) and other leaders in the organization.
The Wall of Lamentations
Much has been written about Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexican border. Most analysts have viewed such a venture with skeptical eyes given the political and material complexity of the project. Ironically, Trump’s election has already inspired the erection of a wall— not a wall of concrete, corrugated iron, and barbed wire erected along the imaginary line between the US and Mexico, but an American version of the Wall of Lamentations. Construction began free of charge the morning right after the elections, when hundreds of thousands of mostly middle class white Americans, unable to grasp the unforeseen results and unaccustomed to having things happen to them, poured out their individual feelings as the only imaginable response to a new political reality for which to a great extent they are responsible. Social media and other means of communication overflowed with self-indulgency seeking consolation to what was framed as a personal defeat. Deluded celebrities tweeted their intentions of seeking residency in Canada. College professors ‘felt’ indisposed to conduct their classes the day after the election. Following the long lasting American tradition separating social questions from personal experiences, counselors on campuses across the nation offered therapy sessions to address the existential angst of many students. One of the dangers inherent in ‘supportive’ counseling sessions is the unexamined assumption that expression of feelings, besides being cathartic, is equivalent to political engagement.
A extreme example of this self-centered, therapeutic, politically–blind sensibility is visible in J. Pavlovitz’s article, “Here’s Why We Grieve Today”, published by The Alaska Commons. In it, Pavlovitz idealizes art as a politically-free aesthetic practice able to transcend political divisions — as if political divisions were something bad. He also recommends taking the things we are doing (whatever that thing may be) to the next level (whatever that means), and to eat some salad and exercise. Here is an excerpt from Pavlovitz’s liberal anti-Trump electoral blues post:
“Make art. Whatever that thing you do is, do it. Art is our common ground, it transcends our political divisions. Whatever your thing is, it’s time to take it to the next level. Paint it, sing it, write it. Create joy, make us think, make us laugh. Remind us of our humanity, remind us what’s important. Do it with abandon, also with purpose: if you want to win at the ballot box, that starts with undermining the culture of division. Take care of yourself. We need you. Get some exercise. Seriously consider salad. See a doctor now and then. Love someone. Be loved. Go to the moon, have a good cry.”
Along similar lines, the morning after the election, Aaron Sorkin, the so-called “mastermind” behind the television show The West Wing, reacted to Trump’s victory by writing in Vanity Fair a widely circulated letter to his daughter and wife, in which he self righteously proclaims his guilt about being unable to ‘protect’ them from the ominous new president. Piously he states: “America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans … our darkest days have always – always- been followed by our finest hours.” His words sound like a variation of Trump’s “lets make America great again” speech; nonetheless, in an ironic turn that escapes Sorkin himself, he is right. America did not stop being America the night before he wrote the letter. To a great extent, Trump’s victory can be explained as the result of a long — emphasis on long — history of mass social and economic dissatisfaction caused by none other than the dominant American classes, particularly the American elites situated within the very American state apparatus, American financial institutions, and the two traditional American political parties. These are the historical enablers and legitimators of the American one percent who own the country—before and after Trump’s election. For the 99 percent of the American population experiencing increasing economic and social inequality, as well as for those countries and populations overseas suffering from American military and political aggression, America did not stop being America the night of November 8th; it became more of the same, this time around with a white face in the White House!
Sorkin’s deluded patriotism persists in the mind of liberal Americans because to admit other traits in American history — the pernicious conflation of democracy as a political system with capitalism as an economic system, systemic and relentless racism and white supremacy in a variety of overt and subtle forms, and the enfranchisement of the elites of both parties — would otherwise reveal the inconsistences of their own thinking, and their condition as beneficiaries of the very system they claim to criticize. Consequently, it is easier to profess fixed, unchallenged idiosyncratic patriotic beliefs focused on a single villainous figure.
Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine a more pleasing type of struggle capable of tolerating and assimilating to the status quo (Trump included) than indulgent Americans with hurt feelings because things did not happen their way at the ballot box; or Pavlovitz’s lunacy of apolitical art, salad, and exercise; or Sorkin’s soggy, ahistorical patriotism. The indulgence practiced by this type of opposition provides no reflections on how to mobilize politically. Their representation of politics is unable to transcend opposition to the individual subject (Trump). As a consequence, and dangerously, what’s left out is a critique of the most significant thing in politics, the organization of state power. Only with such a critique, which includes the ability to track the beneficiaries of current political arrangements, do struggles of any kind become significant.
The invigorated opportunism of the Democratic Party
It is relatively easy to become an opportunist. All you have to do is writhe like a slimy creature between mutually exclusive points of view. From the Marxist perspective of revolutionary feminist Rosa Luxemburg, opportunism means “placing the interest of most people on the back burner in order to pursue temporary policies and developing an attitude consistently leading to cooperation and capitulation to bourgeois views, where matters of principle are set aside and the long term interest of the people ignored.” In the case of the Democratic Party, the writhing between the two mutually exclusive points of view was marked by the differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s political programs. Generally speaking, the former represented the interests of the people and the later the interest of American capitalist neo-liberalism.
Symptomatically, the Democratic Party’s electoral fiasco has provoked no serious self-criticism among its leadership regarding the party’s inability to read and address the needs and aspiration of the masses. According to Jacobin Magazine (December 2016), Hilary Clinton won rich suburbs in record numbers [but] her campaign failed to mobilize workers of all races. The Democratic defeat has not resulted in a re-arrangement of the DNC to reflect the inclusion of progressive forces in the Democratic National Committee. Quite contrary, the old guard remains intact like well-preserved political mummies. Leaders like Nancy Pelosi cynically proclaim in the New York Post (December 4, 2016) that she doesn’t “think that Democrats want a new leadership.” Her words reflect the willingness of the inner chambers of power within the party to continue business as usual. Cornel West—a close political ally of Sanders during the campaign, and one of Sander’s representatives in the negotiations with the DNC trying to modify their political agenda prior to the national convention—expressed his frustrations about the possibilities of reforming the DP because of the party’s strong ties with neo-liberal corporate interests of which he provides some examples. In a video produced by Democracy Now! in the wake of Trump’s election victory, West candidly criticizes his friend Sanders for his optimism about internal reform and clearly concludes that “the Democratic Party can not be reformed” (See democracynow.org . Dec 1, 2016)
The opportunism within the DP leadership is also illustrated by other eminent democrats such as United States Senate member Elizabeth Warren, who given her progressive views — particularly her criticism of Wall Street — was expected to be a ‘natural’ pro-Sanders ally during the campaign. Nonetheless, she managed a hermetic silence and withheld from endorsing Sanders for over a year, finally choosing to back Hillary Clinton during the primary. Nowadays, she and other Democrats present themselves as warriors against Trump, creating a false political demarcation that allows them to writhe their way along, avoiding the real contradiction that lies not in the name of the individuals elected, but in the tension existing between the conflicting interests of the people and the interests of capitalist neo-liberalism represented with small variation by both parties. The uncomfortable reminder that Sanders brought to the DP’s leadership with his platform was an invitation that opportunists by their very nature veered away when their adoption of it could have made a difference; only now, post-election, when the status quo won’t change, can party leaders writhe back towards the platform Sanders offered.
So, what about Bernie Sanders?
I believe his endorsement of Clinton was a serious political miscalculation. It wasted the strong revolutionary and progressive popular momentum not recently seen in American history that had agglutinated behind his democratic-socialist platform (Some analysts estimated that his movement mobilized between ten and twelve million people). I also believe that is more difficult for Bernie Sanders to become an opportunist, at least so far. The best analysis of Sanders’ political condition has been provided by Cornel West, during an interview with Amy Goodman. Here’s a clip from the transcript:
West: […] But I’ll work with Brother Bernie Sanders and others, both out of love and because I know in his heart he’s got a certain deep commitment to working people. But now, even as an independent socialist, he’s behaving as a New Deal liberal.
Amy Goodman: What does that mean?
West: That means that he is a—well, a Democratic socialist is a radical who’s critical of the system. A New Deal liberal works within the system and doesn’t want to bring massive critique for structural change. And I can understand it, because he’s inside. But those of us who are outside and free, we’re going to tell the truth. We’re going to be honest. We’re going to have a certain kind of moral and spiritual and intellectual integrity. And no matter how marginal that makes us, we’re not in any way going to become well adjusted to this injustice out here.
Let’s remain outside of the liberal mind and its political practice.
Enrique Quintero was a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, then taught in the Anchorage School District and at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.