The electoral defeat of the Democratic Party last November, coupled with a lackluster resistance to Trump and the Republican agenda, has exposed a political party long in decay. Having lost nearly one thousand seats in local and national elections over the past eight years, and then the presidency, the Democratic Party now finds itself in its weakest position in the House since 1928, and the states since 1925. This has not only led to a decline in party influence and agenda-setting power, but, very concretely, in an all-out assault on American democratic institutions in the form of Republican gerrymandering, draconian voter ID laws, the weakening of unions, a curtailing of reproductive rights, continued attacks on women’s health, and the rollback of environmental protections.
The realization of this situation has energized millions politically, from filling the streets of Washington at the Women’s March to airport protests against the travel ban. While many within the Democratic Party have tried to direct this energy towards the next electoral horizon, a progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders is pushing a broader agenda that challenges the establishment. This has become a struggle to determine the direction of the Democratic Party.
Three futures are now possible: a neoliberal-centrist future, a social-democratic future, and a producerist future.
The Neoliberal Centrists
The first future is the neoliberal centrist future. Embodied by the Clintons and Obama, this vision follows a path that misinterprets the failure of recent policies and electoral strategies as a product of circumstances, and does so in order to continue to push an agenda that empowers technocrats over the people, the professional and investment class over workers. Proponents of this vision accuse the Republicans of being obstructionist, blame FBI Director James Comey for electoral defeat, and point fingers at Russian hacking. They accept a narrative of minimalist policy accomplishments over the past eight years, and reduce the Party to an electoral strategy of mobilizing minority voters under a charismatic leader who offers sugar but not enough substance.
This path pushes a program of deregulation, globalization, and balanced budgets. It champions a particular form of the market that gives primacy to private enterprise and allows self-regulation of prices and competition, while shunning organized labor and providing minimal consideration of the public good. Rather than equipping workers and democratizing capital, the neoliberal centrist path uses state planning to direct resources to firms and corporations, and, rather than coordinating cooperation, tries to pick winners in private industry. It promotes technocrats and experts as masters of policy and the economy, who are said to act in the best interest of ordinary Americans and the global order. The JP Morgan CEO commenting that Senator Elizabeth Warren does not understand the global banking industry is an adroit expression of this position.
The logic of this program holds that regulation and deficits take money out of private industry and hinder investment and innovation, while deregulation and balanced budgets lead to low interest rates, corporate profits, higher productivity, and thus to prosperity. The policies of the two most recent Democratic administrations have adhered to this ideology, deregulating the telecommunications and energy industries, and promoting the free trade of goods and capital.
While Presidents Clinton and Obama promised that following such a program would lead to innovation and prosperity, we have instead witnessed the rise of monopoly building, a sharp decrease in life opportunities, and financial collapse. Telecom deregulation under President Clinton, for example, has meant an end to local radio and TV programming, poor cell phone service, and expensive cable; in the case of energy deregulation, it resulted in Enron and a huge loss of stock wealth by retirees. A neoliberal centrist program ushered in cuts to the capital gains tax, which increased inequality, and repealed Glass-Steagall, which led to the 2008 financial crisis. It continues to call for free trade that explicitly denies the free movement of labor, exemplified in deals like NAFTA and the ill-fated TPP, both of which privilege corporations over workers.
This version of the Democratic Party abandons the working class in favor of the professional class, and has been content to assuage the liberal conscience by giving handouts to the downtrodden. The policies of this program have benefited tech professionals and investment bankers, but disenfranchised working-class Americans. It was, in fact, the enactment of this program over the past decade that enabled the rise of a demagogue who could explain social ills in divisive terms and promise obscene if not radical solutions. As Ohio community organizer Kirk Noden wrote in the Nation, “Corporate Democrats have never advanced [working-class] interests — and at least Republicans offer a persuasive story about why they are getting screwed.”
Indeed, this program of the neoliberal centrist Democrats has failed to serve the interests of the majority of Americans. It brought the American economy to the brink of collapse not long ago, and threatens to do so again now. It has turned working-class voters against the Democratic Party. It has compromised the Democratic Party.
The Recalcitrant Left
The second future is that of the recalcitrant left. The face of this future for the Democratic Party is Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison, who advocate for it under a program similar to social democracy. This future champions economic equality and social justice. At its core is a commitment to alleviating the inequalities and injustices created by the market through the use of state power. The constituents of this path are not financiers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, as they are for the neoliberal centrists, but the working and middle classes.
The recalcitrant left looks to the New Deal for inspiration. It promotes the interests of workers and unions, and invests in welfare programs that offer security to ordinary Americans. It calls for public works projects and state-run employment programs in order to help realize full employment. In its current manifestation, it has a social democratic appeal that pushes for progressive taxation, single payer health care, free college tuition, and financial and environmental regulation. Its proponents demand not just the salvation of social security and medicare, but their expansion. They call for greater income support, and an increase in benefits and the minimum wage.
Although this path puts workers and ordinary Americans at the center of policy and seeks to empower unions, it is wedded to a vision of work as wage labor, where the corporation remains the foundation of the economy. Rather than restructure relations between labor and capital, it seeks to alleviate the inimical relationship between the two and intervene decisively on behalf of the former. The short-term policies of this path speak directly to the needs of the day, but the long-term future that it offers is unsustainable precisely because it necessitates constant vigilance. A relentless will is required to police the excesses of human and environmental exploitation when they inevitably arise. Thus, the policies that it seeks to enact can easily be undone, as we witness with Trump, or simply left unenforced, as was the case with Obama.
The third future is inclusive producerism (also known in a slightly different form as productive democracy). The social vision of the producerist future is one where no one must toil for wages that are given or taken by a capitalist; instead, proponents of producerism advance self-employment and higher forms of cooperation, such as cooperatives and worker-owned firms. Producerists envision basic economic security and limitless educational opportunity for each man and woman, enabling individuals to experiment without dire financial repercussion and acquire new skills or knowledge to advance their interests and ambitions. In this way, inclusive producerism fights to restructure relations between capital and labor, not just to mediate existing tensions, as in social democracy, or pretend that it will go away if everyone just innovates, as in neoliberalism.
Rather than allow the free market to control the fate of individuals, as with neoliberalism, or simply offer protection from inequality and provide for people’s needs, as with the recalcitrant left, producerism seeks to empower people both individually and communally. It aims to lift people up by creating more economic and educational opportunities, and by democratizing the market through universal financing programs.
The goal of this future is not just equality but individual and national greatness. Although this path supports many of the policies of the recalcitrant left, it does not take them as ends in themselves, whereby wealth attenuation, health care, and education are demanded and given as rights. Rather, producerists see these things as a means to enable people to achieve greater ends.
The program of this vision includes a comprehensive set of policies to accomplish four interrelated tasks: to equip individuals, to strengthen communities, to open the economy, and to revitalize democracy. For individual equipment, it prescribes free lifelong education and open access to financing and lines of credit. To strengthen communities, it advocates community cooperatives and organizations to counterbalance corporate and state power, as well as the development of a caring economy, whereby citizens would engage in activities of caring for others, such as the example of the mentally ill in Geel, Belgium.
To open and democratize the market, it seeks to use the state not only to provide loans and credit for entrepreneurship, but also to help coordinate technology transfer and cooperation among firms. It would also move to end monopolies and cronyism, and encourage broad economic diversity and experimentation. To revitalize our democracy, the program aims at removing the corrupting influence of money from politics and increasing popular engagement at every level, from community projects to running for office. It further encourages local and sector experimentation, whereby states or municipalities could pursue alternative forms of social and economic arrangements.
This third path seeks to radically alter the institutional arrangements of the existing political and economic order by opening them to greater participation and intervention. The result would not only be a more equal and just world, but, more importantly, a world that affords more vibrancy and more life.
Inclusive producerism repudiates the devastating practices and policies of the neoliberal centrist Democrats, and at once incorporates and moves beyond the recalcitrant, social democratic path. It is a program that combines a vision of empowering ordinary men and women with a commitment to institutional transformation. It is a future for the Democratic Party that is worth fighting for not only because it will provide a program to address the key issues of ordinary Americans and enable democrats to begin winning elections again, but because it will empower ordinary men and women.
Each of these three futures represent a different vision of America. Each offers a different program for the Democratic Party in service of that vision. Each speaks to both electoral strategy and policy prescription. They are not all alike, however, and because of the differences, we are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. It is a struggle for the future.