I am a committed partisan of “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” and have been so ever since Howard Dean ran for Democratic nomination to be President of the United States in 2004. I worked for his candidacy, wrote about it in The Politics of Small Things, and later wrote about how the Dean campaign informed the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama, and the significance of this, in Reinventing Political Culture.
Dean’s naming of our faction was a provocative reminder back then. The Democrats had abandoned sound political judgment and were losing their identity. They scandalously went along with the George W. Bush’s declaration of a “war on terrorism” and its mad extension to Iraq. They also failed to frontally push back against market fundamentalism. They failed to support and extend the principle that politics and public policy should play important roles in addressing fundamental social challenges, from the education of the young, to the social injustices of race, class and gender, to the social security of the elderly, and to providing decent healthcare as a citizen right, along with economic development. Dr. Dean defended Democratic identity and principles, and though he lost in the primaries, to my chagrin (I happened to introduce him on the sad day he announced his withdrawal from the race at The New School), the other Democratic candidates reaffirmed the principles he brought back to the table, laying the ground for uniting the Party, which eventually led to election victories in 2006 and 2008, important practical results.
I am concerned today that Dean’s achievement is being overlooked by Party factions, in such a way that the clear and present danger of Trumpism won’t be effectively resisted, and the prospect for social progress may be missed. Party factions apparently are in battle over how best to proceed, with the Party establishment judging that the way to prevail against Trump and the Republicans is to appeal to undecided voters. White working class men who have abandoned the party is a deep concern. So called moderate candidates, who are often not clearly committed to such issues as abortion rights and gun control are the answer. Progressives insist, in contrast, upon a more consistent party line on these issues, and are most concerned about not losing the party’s base of support, among African and Latino Americans, the young, progressives, women and the poor. Strong opposition to racism, homophobia and patriarchy, and clear leftist credentials are paramount.
My gray thoughts this Friday morning, as a proud Deaniac: I agree with both factions, and note that this was the position of the founder of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party when he was Party Chairman. I have supported his position as a practical matter, but also as a matter of principle. His “fifty state strategy” laid the groundwork for Obama’s candidacy and presidency, observable at the time, and there are good historical grounds to believe that it could work to take the House and perhaps even the Senate in the upcoming elections, as John Lawrence showed here.
The Democrats should run a broad range of candidates that appropriately address the concerns of the electorate. In districts and states where “moderates” are most appropriate, “moderates” should run. In districts and states where progressives fit the bill, progressives should run, and where it is not clear whether moderates or progressives would prevail, primaries are especially important. And if we should have the good fortune to take back the House and the Senate, moderates and progressives should sit around a table and deliberately decide a course of action to resist Trump and the market fundamentalists, and their enablers.
This is the practical way to proceed. The notions that moderate democrats are really neo-liberals, or that progressives are dogmatic and impractical losers, must be abandoned. It is the time to draw a thick line between the crypto-fascism of Trump with the reactionary politics of the Republican Party and a more hopeful future. I can’t see how this can possibly be accomplished without moderates and progressives working together. There are important differences of opinion among Democrats, but what they share in common far outweighs their differences.
Tied to this practical necessity, in my judgment, is the deeper principle of being a member of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party, centrally committed to democratic principles, with an understanding that the differences of judgments among democrats should be decided politically, expecting and respecting differences in perspectives and commitments, with mutual respect, seeking a common course of action. It’s the bringing things to the table, as Dean once did, that is the key principle, it seems to me. It’s around the table where the power of politics is created.
Thus, when I consider the counterfactuals of a Sanders or a Clinton Presidencies, I understand that they would have been strikingly similar in comparison to the reality we are living with. Clinton would have had to compromise with Sanders and his supporters, or Sanders would have had to compromise with Clinton and her former supporters. The results would have been quite gray (not perfect), but a vibrant gray in comparison with what we are going through.
Both the means and the results would have been similar. As far as results, this is quite obvious, at least to me, though I am open to arguments that I am mistaken. But it is the means, the form of the politics, that I think would have clearly been similar, and is of central importance.
Clinton and her supporters, and Sanders and his, both moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party are democrats, and they would have settled their differences among themselves and with the democratic opposition of Republicans using democratic means.
In politics, the means constitute the ends; this principle I learned from Hannah Arendt. It is so clearly evident now. I realize now that that it is my central political commitment, as it is so strikingly undermined by the present regime. I will explain more fully next week in a post with the tentative title of “The Radical Center.” I have started composing it already. It will be a kind of progress report on my Gray Friday columns, and on the identity of Public Seminar. In it, I will make the gray argument of inclusion of my more radical friends and colleagues, and principled conservatives who used to have a home in the Republican Party as well.
Anticipating that post, thinking about some posts from this week:
The Radical Center must include the recognition that democracy requires public intelligence. Intellectuals and experts need to speak to publics in a way that is not distorted by pretentious assertions of superiority that put ordinary folk in their place, tellingly underscored in Paul A. Kottman’s essay on fake art and inauthentic philosophy. It also requires “Making Knowledge Available” as Shannon Mattern demonstrates. Critical scholarly life should be controlled as much is possible by the scholars themselves, undistorted by the needs of the multinational publishing industry and impact factor industry of the academy.
It is also important is to recognize inconvenient truths: such as the factual truth of environmental injustice, and the interpretive insights leading to an understanding of “The production and discipline of femininity”, and of the problematic character of celebrity and authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics. Thoughtful perspectives, drawing on the best philosophy has to offer, on the meaning and consequence of “fake news” is especially important. This has become one of my central concerns. I was especially pleased with Haeun Kim’s, post on the topic. This is the first of a series from participants in the seminar Julia Sonnevend and I are leading on Media and Micropolitics.
The argument I opened here and will explore more fully next week is inspired by the classic anti-communist essay, The Vital Center, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in 1949. But note, I am making an opposing argument in a very different time. He asserted “A united Left is an illusion: the question of freedom vs. totalitarianism cannot be compromised.” I am not sure he was right then, but am sure he is wrong now. I will explain next week.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar