Beyond Bernie: How the Democratic National Convention Sidelined Progressives

by Freddie Stuart

1 September 2020

Over the last few weeks, the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions, which saw them nominate their presidential candidates and showcase their visions for the country to the American people. 

In 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the White House on a mandate to “drain the swamp”, pledging to clear Washington DC of entrenched establishment politics and “put the people back in charge of government”. 

Scraping together a coalition of white suburban homeowners, Trump’s victory (with just 46% of the popular vote) exposed not only the persistent durability of a hardline ‘law and order’ platform in today’s America, but also the fundamental detachment of the Democratic party from the material reality of its working base. 

This was exemplified most clearly by the declining turnout rate amongst low-income voters between 2000 and 2016. At the turn of the century, 47% of the electorate had family incomes under $50 000; by the time of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, that number had dropped to 36%

Without the personal popularity of Barack Obama, there was little to mask the deficit between a Democratic party entrenched in the neoliberal politics of a bygone era and a disenfranchised electorate clamouring for a change of course

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and an intensifying climate emergency, the 2020 Democratic National Convention showed us that four years on from Clinton’s defeat, this same democratic deficit still dominates the party.

At the Republican National Convention (RNC), we saw glimpses of what a second Trump term might look like. Pivoting markedly toward the growing QAnon fringes of his party, the convention saw Trump condemning the Black Lives Matter protests, promising his supporters a hardened military response and legitimising the violence of white supremacists.

Beginning the convention by ‘joking’ about breaking the law – with 12 more years in office – Trump closed out the RNC by actually breaking it, giving his final address from the lawn of the supposedly non-partisan White House. 

This zealous manipulation of executive power, combined with his heightened racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and a barrage of blatant lies, foreshadows the ominous potential of a second Trump term, and a growing neofascist threat to the fundamentals of American democracy.

A DNC for the bipartisan corporate elite.

But despite the very real threat that neofascism poses, the Democratic party is still clinging to the conciliatory politics of the radical centre. 

Indeed, as mainstream political commentators praised the DNC for its repudiation of Trump and celebrated Biden as the “anti-chaos candidate”, it became clear that the Democratic leadership is fighting a war on two fronts. 

Alongside the threat of Trump, the Democratic establishment is also desperate to extinguish the surging energy of its progressive base. 

Throughout the four-days of the convention, speakers were platformed not just from the liberal elite, but from the pre-Trump Republican oligarchy. 

Alongside powerful speeches from Michelle and Barack Obama, time was allotted to Hillary and Bill Clinton, former Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg and four current Republicans – including former secretary of state under George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and former Ohio governor and longtime member of Congress, John Kasich.

For a growing progressive movement pushing for substantive change, this lineup was nothing short of devastating. 

Bill Clinton, infamous for perjuring himself over his sex-scandal with Monica Lewinski, took to the stage in the age of #MeToo. While, Michael Bloomberg, a notorious proponent of “stop and frisk”, was platformed in the age of Black Lives Matter. 

In a moment when mass protests against systemic racism have spread to every single US state, the DNC also failed to live up to its rhetoric of diversity. Not a single Muslim speaker was given a prime-time speaking slot and the only Latinx candidate for the presidential nomination, Julian Castro, was not even invited to address voters

With key spots given to proponents of a centre-ground coalition, progressive voices were conspicuously absent. 

Linda Sarsour, an outspoken activist against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, was demonised by the party for her support of the BDS movement. Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the only representative of the “squad” at the DNC, was given less than 100 seconds to deliver her message. 

Despite the growing energy stirred up by recent down-ballot successes (like that of AOC), the youth-dominated progressive wing of the Democratic party was represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are 78 and 71 respectively. 

In fact, in an absurd turn of events, young progressives voices were more central to the RNC than the DNC, as Republicans enthusiastically attacked the left as the driving force within Biden’s party (demonstrating once and for all that Trump’s Republicans would label any DNC the home of the “radical left”).  

In contrast, the progressive policies supported by the vast majority of Americans – such as Medicare-for-All – were shunned throughout the Democratic convention, leading Sanders’ delegation to vote outright against the party platform

Under the weight of anti-Trump rhetoric, new bipartisan coalitions and conciliatory politics, both Biden and Harris, who pledged to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks during their candidacies, watched passively as their commitment was dropped by party officials

Perhaps most shockingly of all, however, was how, during the worst economic downturn since records began, Joe Biden’s long and eloquent speech on closing night failed to mention poverty once

To working people already disenfranchised with the political system, the convention marked a clear step backwards. The lesson of the week was clear: Tied to militarism and to Wall Street, the devoutly neoliberal Democratic party is now the vessel not just of liberal elites, but of the bipartisan corporate establishment. 

Walking the progressive tightrope.

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and an intensifying climate emergency, the DNC’s refusal to acknowledge the need for transformative change is a huge electoral risk. 

By pandering to disenfranchised Republicans, and de-platforming popular figures of the progressive movement, Democrats are once again alienating their most fervent supporters.

It is already abundantly clear that enthusiasm for Biden as the presidential nominee is desperately low. While many Democrats are committed to turning out against Trump, a recent poll confirms that only 27% are “very excited” to vote in favour of the Democratic nominee.  

For those Americans who backed Bernie Sanders in the primary, the choice between neoliberalism and neofascism is a dark one. 

As Dr Cornel West puts it, the progressive movement in the US must now “walk the tightrope”, between supporting an anti-fascist coalition and exposing the inadequacies of the Democratic ticket. 

But while walking this tightrope might see Biden into office on November 3, the longer-term future of the Democratic party is in serious doubt. 

As Justice Democrats seek to double their congressional delegation, and progressive grassroots organisations such as Sunrise and the Democratic Socialists of America collect widespread support, we are already seeing a major split. 

On Sunday, the new movement for a People’s Party held its first convention. Platforming a variety of views from all corners of the progressive movement, the event gave voice to widespread disenchantment with the current binary in American politics. 

Headlined by leading Sanders surrogates, Dr Cornel West and Nina Turner, along with former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, the virtual assembly uniformly criticized the entrenched corporate neoliberalism of the DNC. 

Speaking directly to the Democratic establishment, and those who take the anti-Trump vote for granted, Turner stated: “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe you have to earn your votes.”

While the DNC damages democracy, becoming the mouthpiece of bipartisan corporate elites, progressives at the Democratic base are becoming more disillusioned than ever. 

Freddie Stuart is the producer of the ourVoices podcast at openDemocracy. His recent work covering the US elections can be found here.

This article is the fifth instalment in Beyond Bernie, a series tracking the US 2020 elections. 

Part one is here: Beyond Bernie: Amidst National Unrest, Can Progressive Candidates Salvage the Democratic Party?

Part two is here: Beyond Bernie: Down-Ballot Races to Watch in June and July

Part three is here: Beyond Bernie: Is Jamaal Bowman the Next AOC?

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