Electorally, the Left is Already Behind Schedule
by Benjamin Studebaker
One of the tasks for the left is to reshape the Democratic Party into the kind of political party which can be used to chip away at material disparities of wealth and power. This means making it into a party which can actually pass policies like single payer, tuition free college, $15 minimum wage, stronger union rights, and so on. The thing is, many Democrats in congress don’t support these policies. Some of them admit they don’t support them, while others are pretending to support them but have no intention of following through should they get into power. This is the same position the right found itself in after Obama’s election–they wanted a Republican Party which would repeal Obamacare and take a stand on immigration. But the Republicans they had were either openly uninterested in doing those things or clearly lying about it. So under the banner of the Tea Party these right wingers began working to reshape the Republican Party through the primary mechanism. They made significant gains–the Tea Party helped create senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jerry Moran, Bill Cassidy, Tim Scott, and Mike Lee. These people are much more right wing than their predecessors 20 or 30 years ago would have been. Over time, their efforts also helped make it possible for an anti-establishment anti-immigration nationalist to win the presidency. But despite all of this the Tea Party has come up short. It was unable to repeal Obamacare because of opposition from John McCain and Lisa Murkowski, two senators it had tried and failed to remove through primaries. It has, to this point, been unable to get its wall built. The Tea Party got a lot done, and it still wasn’t enough. When Trump leaves office, most of what he will have been able to pass will be legislation which George W. Bush could have passed 20 years ago with the Republicans of that period. I’m telling you all of this because, by the looks of it, the left is going to be markedly less successful in these primaries than the Tea Party was two years into the Obama administration, in 2010.
Here are just some of the things the right achieved in 2010, just two years into the Obama administration. We’ll look exclusively at the senate, because it’s much easier to flip the house in a short period of time:
- It defeated Lisa Murkowski in a primary, though she went on to hold onto her senate seat through a general election write-in campaign.
- It got Christine O’Donnell through the primaries, though she went on to lose the general election.
- It got Marco Rubio elected, over the objections of many moderate Republicans who backed Charlie Crist in the general election.
- It got Jerry Moran elected.
- It got Rand Paul elected.
- It got Pat Toomey elected.
- It got Mike Lee elected.
- It got Ron Johnson elected.
- It got Jim Risch elected.
- It got Roy Blunt elected.
By my count, that’s at least eight new senators who won with Tea Party backing, with a prominent presence in at least two more races. Of those eight, five actually vote in a markedly more conservative way than the rest of the Republican caucus (Moran, Paul, Toomey, Lee, Risch). Johnson and Rubio are borderline. Only Roy Blunt completely abandoned the right once in office, and they still got his vote on Obamacare repeal.
This is the bulk of the far right presence in the senate. The other senators with comparable ideological scores are:
- Ted Cruz, elected in 2012.
- Jeff Flake–despite his reputation–elected in 2012.
- Ben Sasse, elected in 2014.
- David Perdue, elected in 2014.
- Tom Cotton, elected in 2014.
- Luther Strange, elected in 2016.
- John Kennedy, elected in 2016.
This means that roughly half of the hard right in the senate was elected in the very first midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency, with only minor additions in each of the subsequent cycles.
Okay. Now I want you to name a Berniecrat who is poised to win a Democratic primary in 2018. Not even a general, a primary. One.
Go on. I’m waiting.
Nobody comes to mind, do they? If you go to OurRevolution’s website, there is not a single US senate candidate which it has endorsed. Not one. The one senate primary challenger featured by Brand New Congress–Paula Jean Swearengin–was just defeated handily by Joe Manchin:
Dianne Feinstein–who is 84 years old and vocally opposes single payer–is running for re-election in California, a state which is meant to be a hotbed of left-wing organising. But she faces no competitive challenge from the left. Kevin de León appears poised to lose in the polling and he lacks endorsements from DSA or the Berniecrat organizations.
In the meantime, which primary challenger has drawn the most national attention? In recent weeks, the answer is clearly Don Blankenship of West Virginia, a candidate who positioned himself so far to the right one wonders if he might fall off the edge:
Mercifully, Blankenship lost. But we shouldn’t even be worrying about far right primary challengers when there is already a right nationalist president in office. The midterms are a time when the president’s opposition should be innovating and revamping itself to make significant gains. But the Democrats aren’t changing, and the left isn’t taking the organizational steps necessary to force them to change. We are on the brink of having wasted two years of organizing with nothing to show for it in the senate. Not only will the left have failed to match the Tea Party’s already inadequate record, it will have failed even to get on the board.
Donald Trump got elected eight years after Obama, and he still didn’t have the congressional support to do what he was elected to do. Many people on the left want Bernie Sanders or someone like him to win the presidency in 2020. We’re behind schedule for 2024.
We need to rethink the organizational strategy. The right made these gains in 2010 and beyond because a small number of billionaire donors invested large amounts of cash in puppet candidates. The left doesn’t have billionaire donors. Its primary resource is people. The traditional left wing mechanism for organising people politically has been the unions. But many left-wing organizations today have weak or nonexistent connections to major unions. This is often excused on the grounds that union leaderships are not left wing enough or not socially progressive enough. That excuse is unacceptable. The left cannot win without what remains of the unions and it must get involved with them. It needs to win over recalcitrant leaderships or gain support within union memberships to recapture unions which have become chronically divorced from workers’ concerns.
The left also needs to talk to a mass audience. This means less hanging out in safe spaces and more going to bat on the internet, even when doing so risks exposure to piles of abuse. It means staging demonstrations on a scale similar to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party itself. It means relentlessly attacking Democrats who are obstacles to single payer. It means getting deeply involved with the teacher strikes that have been sweeping the country. For the last two years, left-wing organizations have aspired to be little more than support groups for alienated and oppressed people. They have not put us in position to compete politically. I understand there are all sorts of organizational challenges, that the lack of billionaire money is a very real obstacle to making the kinds of gains which the Tea Party made. But if this is really the best we can do, we have no hope of ever building a senate which can meaningfully help Bernie Sanders or some future left-wing president. If this is all our activists can offer, we are radically deluding ourselves about our political future and we may need to accept that in the near-term future elections may make things worse rather than better.