Cory Booker, John Lewis, and Discrimination-Only Democrats

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the last week, two news stories have caught my eye:

  1. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) attempted to draw praise from Democrats when he broke with Senate norms and testified against Jeff Sessions. Yet that very same day, he voted against legislation which would have enabled Americans to purchase less expensive Canadian medicine.
  2. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) claimed that the president elect is “illegitimate”, drawing the standard Trump Twitter response. Liberal media outlets immediately began publishing posts lionizing Lewis as a civil rights hero, as if this made him immune from criticism concerning his congressional record. In the past, Lewis has misled the public about Bernie Sanders’ policies and record as an activist.

Booker and Lewis are often portrayed as if they were radical progressive or left wing figures because of the strong public stances they have taken and continue to take on racial issues. But this activism on race and social issues belies a creeping disinterest in much of the rest of the left’s platform–Booker and Lewis don’t seem to care about tuition-free college or single payer healthcare. Indeed, Booker doesn’t even believe in lowering drug prices by exposing the American pharmaceutical industry to Canadian competition. What’s going on here?

Since the late 1970s, the Democratic Party has grown markedly less interested in the New Deal and Great Society economic left wing policies which prevailed from the 1930s to the 1970s. The party used to be committed to a broad coalition of marginalized groups, including not just African-Americans and women but also the working class. But in the last 40 years, it’s become progressively less committed to workers and poor people. This shift manifested chiefly in two ways:

  1. Defensive Democrats–these Democrats abandoned efforts to create new programs and expand existing ones, committing themselves exclusively to the defense of the legacy of FDR and LBJ–Lewis is like that. You won’t find Lewis voting for welfare reform, but you also won’t find him on the front lines, pushing for Sanders’ programs. Indeed, defensive democrats will often undermine more robust left wing political programs because they don’t believe strong left egalitarians are electable.
  2. Fallen Democrats–these Democrats actively participated in ripping down the old programs even as they present themselves as defenders. These politicians are two-faced and Trojan Horses for the right. That’s Booker.

Many of these Democrats fend off criticism from the left by appealing to their identities–often their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation–and the genuinely admirable way they have fought for equality for these groups. In Lewis’ case, his terrific history as a civil rights activist is regularly deployed by social liberals to shield him whenever he is criticized about anything at all whatsoever.

This often works because many Americans have developed an overly reductive and myopic view of justice which reduces it to discrimination alone. Discrimination is, of course, unjust, but it is not the only form of injustice–the left used to also be concerned with exploitation, the use of power to force people to work for unjust compensation under unjust conditions. Even if we got rid of all forms of discrimination in America, there would still be a lot of exploitation going on. Republicans tend to believe that the American economic system is fair, that it doesn’t produce exploitative relationships. So if Democrats don’t emphasize exploitation, no one will put it on the political agenda, much less do anything about it.

Republicans also tend to believe that the United States is not heavily discriminatory anymore, or at the very least that discrimination is not nearly as big a problem today as Democrats think it is. For this reason, it has become increasingly difficult for many people who feel they live with discrimination on a day to day basis to identify with the Republican Party. But while these Democrats recognize discrimination, many of them don’t recognize exploitation, or at the very least pay it much less attention. The result is an influx of Democratic primary voters and politicians who are what I call “discrimination-only Democrats” or “DODs”. Some don’t care about exploitation at all. Some profess concern about exploitation, but in practice always put discrimination first. We even see people who constantly draw attention to one specific form of discrimination, engaging in forms of gender or racial reductionism.

The left can’t be about just discrimination or just exploitation. It needs to be about both things. Those who defend DODs from legitimate criticism about their treatment of exploited Americans on the grounds that they have strong records on discrimination are aiding and abetting systems of exploitation and facilitating the propagation of the right’s neoliberal paradigm. Being strong on discrimination is not enough. If we leave poor and working people to fend for themselves we don’t get to call ourselves the good guys, no matter how much we do for people of color, women, LGBTs, or religious minorities.

Types of Lefties Discrimination is a Problem Discrimination isn’t a Problem
Exploitation is a Problem Left Egalitarianism Class Reductionism
Exploitation isn’t a Problem Discrimination-Only Democrats (Left Neoliberals) The Right (Right Neoliberals)