Different Worlds: Inside and Outside the Team Democrat Thought Box


Inside the thought box of the Democratic Team, things are coming together well.

Our job, team Democrats know, is to win elections. We must defeat the Red Sox Trump. That requires loyalty. Sanders can’t stay home just because he’s not captain.

Thinking inside the box has advantages. You can invoke aphorisms like “politics is the art of the possible” and feel smugly supreme. As long as the answer lies inside the box, your thinking won’t be far off.

Until it is.

You see, thinking inside the box robs you of perspective.

Consider how Trump is viewed from inside the Democratic Team box. He’s what Republican election strategy has wrought. By appealing to voters through dog whistles for decades, the Republicans ultimately unleashed the horror of Trump. They have only themselves to blame.

Team Democrats thus see themselves as blameless for the rise of Trump. Their champion, Hillary Clinton, is of course the antidote to Trumpism.

Outside the Democratic thought box, however, things look different. Outside the box thinkers see Trumpism as a global phenomenon. They see Team Democrats as part of the problem, not the solution.

Willing to look outside the box? Then join me after the jump.

Start with John Feffer. He’s no Andrea Mitchell, as he’s not married to a former Fed chair who tanked the economy, but he can think. In The Most Important Election of Your Life Is Not This Year, he starts with a story that sounds familiar:

The voters vowed to take their revenge at the polls. They’d missed out on the country’s vaunted prosperity. They were disgusted with the liberal direction of the previous administration. They were anti-abortion and pro-religion. They were suspicious of immigrants, haughty intellectuals, and intrusive international institutions. And they very much wanted to make their nation great again.

They’d lost a lot of elections. But this time, they won.

Except he’s speaking of Poland, not America. Feffer explains:

And this wasn’t just a victory for PiS. It was a victory for Poland B.

Since its post-Communist transition, that country is often described as having cleaved into two parts, commonly known as “Poland A” and “Poland B.” Poland A links together an archipelago of cities and their younger, wealthier inhabitants. Poland B encompasses the poorer, older parts of the population, many clustered in the countryside, particularly in the country’s eastern reaches near the former Soviet border.

After 1989 and the implementation of a punishing series of economic reforms, Poland A took off economically. By 2010, Warsaw, the capital, had become one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, outranking even Brussels and Berlin. New entrepreneurs and corporate managers took advantage of a host of economic opportunities, particularly after Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.

I’m guessing even those inside the D Team thought box can see the parallel to America. [If you need help, replace “Warsaw” with “Manhattan”, “San Francisco”, or “Palo Alto”, and you’ll get the idea.]

So, what about Trump?

…The key dividing line in the U.S. had little to do with Republican vs. Democrat, rich vs. poor, or liberal vs. conservative. To explode these conventional oppositions, it would take a billionaire Republican populist, who had once been a solid Democrat and who offered a political program that mixed together liberal and conservative ideas, conspiracy theories and racial animus, but above all else exhortations to America B to rise up and retake the country. Indeed, the triumph of Trump in the Republican primaries—based, in part, on his appeal to former white working class Democrats and independents, his fierce attacks on mainstream Republicans, and his flouting of what passes for conventional wisdom about electability—sent the pundits back to their think tanks to figure out what on earth was happening with American voters.

Trump was, they concluded, sui generis, a peculiar mutation of the American political system generated by the unholy coupling of reality television and the Tea Party revolt. But Trump is not, in fact, a sport of nature. He reflects trends taking place around the world. He is, in many ways, just a mouthpiece for America B.

Feffer’s piece is long. I can’t do it justice by quoting selectively, but here’s a snippet from his explanation of how we got to where we are today:

At one time in its history, government programs narrowed the gap between economic winners and losers through taxes and the entitlement programs they supported. But “small government” fever—which had remarkably little to do with actually reducing the size of government—swept the United States in the 1980s, first in the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and then in the “reinvent government” faction of the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, they would collaborate across the aisle to slash assistance to low-income people. The resulting political (and economic) realignment created some notorious ironies, including the fact that Richard Nixon, with his wage-and-price controls and environmental policies, was a far more liberal president in the early 1970s than the Democratic Party standard bearer of the 1990s, Bill Clinton.

Finally, here’s Feffer’s take on Trump and the election of 2016, outside the Team Democrat thought box:

…Indeed, pundits are calling 2016 “perhaps the most important presidential vote in our lifetime” (Bill O’Reilly) and “one of the most pivotal moments of our time” (Sean Wilentz).

But if Poland is any indication, the presidential election this year will not be the critical one.

America B has a fondness for Donald Trump and his almost childlike audacity. (Gosh, kids say the darndest things!) Right now, his fans are attached to an individual, rather than a platform or a party. Many of his supporters don’t even care whether Trump means what he says or not. If he loses, he will fade away and leave nothing behind, politically speaking.

The real change will come when a more sophisticated politician, with an authentic political machine, sets out to woo America B. Perhaps the Democratic Party will decide to return to its more populist, mid-century roots. Perhaps the Republican Party will abandon its commitment to entitlement programs for the 1%.

More likely, a much more ominous political force will emerge from the shadows. If and when that new, neo-fascist party fields its charismatic presidential candidate, that will be the most important election of our lives.

As long as America B is left in the lurch by what passes for modernity, it will inevitably try to pull the entire country back to some imagined golden age of the past before all those “others” hijacked the red, white, and blue. Donald Trump has hitched his presidential wagon to America B. The real nightmare, however, is likely to emerge in 2020 or thereafter, if a far more capable politician who embraces similar retrograde positions rides America B into Washington.

Then it will matter little how much both liberals and conservatives rail against “stupid” and “crazy” voters. Nor will they have Donald Trump to kick around any more. In the end, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Read those bolded paragraphs again, if you will. Remember, however, that Trumpism is a global phenomenon and, as Feffer explains, has little to do with Trump himself.

Which brings Great Britain into play.

Tariq Ali, a British thinker from far outside the Team Democrat thought box, an ocean away in fact, had his finger on the pulse of Britain (and America) a year before the so-called Brexit vote, when he wrote The Extreme Centre: A Warning.    Here’s a summary:

What is the point of elections? The result is always the same: a victory for the Extreme Centre. Since 1989, politics has become a contest to see who can best serve the needs of the market, a competition now fringed by unstable populist movements. The same catastrophe has taken place in the US, Britain, Continental Europe and Australia.

In this urgent and wide-ranging case for the prosecution, Tariq Ali looks at the people and the events that have informed this moment of political suicide: corruption in Westminster; the failures of the EU and NATO; the soft power of the American Empire that dominates the world stage uncontested.

Really, Ali’s greatest thought may be the title he chose: The Extreme Centre. He’s referring not to the ideological center, but to the political center. Which explains why the center can be extreme. Consider, for example, the political center in Germany, circa 1938, and you see the point. From the standpoint of the masses — those who suffer under neoliberal, centrist policy — today’s center indeed is extreme.

Unfortunately, the center is embodied in the status quo. Which raises the question: If you’re seeking to change the status quo, and the status quo is extreme, should you be satisfied with “the art of the possible” and incrementalism? Barack Obama has been a master of the art of the possible. Yet, during his presidency, American wealth and income continued to concentrate in the hands of the ultra-rich. For 16 of the past 24 years, Team Democrats have had their guy in the White House achieving the possible. At the beginning of those 24 years, the top one percent held as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Today, the top one-tenth of one percent does. So much for incrementalism, huh?

This, as Daniel Denvir of Salon observes in Socialism or barbarism: Only the left can defeat the rise of the radical right, is the source of great consternation among the elite:

President Obama pointed to globalization’s losers in an effort to explain the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, which took place just a few weeks before Republicans are expected to officially christen Donald Trump their nominee. Among elites on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a growing recognition that an economic order enriching the few on the backs of the many has made many of the latter profoundly unhappy.

Widespread elite introspection over inequality and immiseration is a bit late. And it mostly shies away from offering much in the way of concrete solutions to confront the radical right, which peddles racism and xenophobia as a tangible frame through which people can understand abstruse economic and social crises. Elites elide solutions, however, for a simple reason: the global economic and security architecture do not contain the solutions to problems of their own making. Predictably, the arsonists are making a bid to put out the fire.

Denvir argues, as his title suggests, that the real answer to Trumpism is socialism:

In the United States and Europe, change is certain, though the outcome decidedly is not. In moments of political realignment, old norms are shattered and, for better and for worse, ideas that were once thought impossible become imaginable. : coalition-building, fighting off the establishment and far right to win power, and— the trickiest of all — governing.

A point, he contends, is completely lost on Hillary Clinton, but not on Sanders’ supporters:

In the U.S., it has become increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton shares not only the failed Remain campaign’s lukewarm slogan “Stronger Together” but also its failed appeals to stability, incremental change and fear of radical right chaos. As the Times put it, “prudence is cold comfort to people fed up with more-of-the-same.”

This, of course, is not news to left-wing supporters of Bernie Sanders. Early on, leftists argued that Clinton’s purported advantage against a Republican in terms of electability was based on outmoded assumptions. It’s increasingly clear that this is true. Clinton remains the strong favorite. But the establishment would be ill-advised to just wait for demographic deliverance in the form of angry white workers dying off. Anger also prevails amongst young people, most definitely including those of color, as Black Lives Matter, Occupy and millennials’ preference for Sanders’ democratic socialism reminds. 

A quick look at a few European countries supports Denvir’s thesis:

The same holds true in Europe, where right-wing parties in the U.K. and France pose among the greatest threats. In Spain, the left-wing party Podemos, despite falling short of projections in Sunday’s vote, nips at the heels of a European-establishment aligned Socialist Party just two years after its founding. In Greece, the leftist Syriza party, despite failing to overturn brutal austerity conditions while in power coincided with the continued electoral marginalization of the fascist party Golden Dawn.

By contrast, while France has recently witnessed mass youth and labor mobilization it lacks a new left-wing party to frame the economic crisis in class terms at the ballot box. The upshot is a political conflict in large part defined by the center, led by Francois Hollande’s sclerotic and neoliberal Socialists, fending off Marine Le Pen’s insurgent National Front.


Returning to the situation in the United States, Denvir, quoting Corey Robin, explains what those inside the Democrat thought box just can’t comprehend:

The U.S. general election poses a similar problem. As Corey Robin puts it, “The Clinton forces want nothing more than to make all of American politics — not just in this election but for the foreseeable future—into a battle between a racist, ethno-nationalist right and a multicultural, neoliberal center. Our job is to make politics into a struggle between a multicultural neoliberal center and a multicultural, multiracial socialist left.”

In Brexit is Only the Latest Proof of the Insularity and Failure of Western Establishment Institutions, Glenn Greenwald expresses a similar thought, albeit from a less hopeful perspective:

Even more important, the mechanism that Western citizens are expected to use to express and rectify dissatisfaction — elections — has largely ceased to serve any corrective function. As Hayes, in a widely cited tweet, put it this week about Brexit: “I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.”

But that is exactly the choice presented not only by Brexit but also Western elections generally, including the 2016 Clinton v. Trump general election (just look at the powerful array of Wall Street tycoons and war-loving neocons that — long before Trump — viewed the former Democratic New York senator and secretary of state as their best hope for having their agenda and interests served). When democracy is preserved only in form, structured to change little to nothing about power distribution, people naturally seek alternatives for the redress of their grievances, particularly when they suffer.

More importantly still — and directly contrary to what establishment liberals love to claim in order to demonize all who reject their authority — economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive. The opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating. That’s precisely why plutocratic policies that deprive huge portions of the population of basic opportunity and hope are so dangerous. Claiming that supporters of Brexit or Trump or Corbyn or Sanders or anti-establishment European parties on the left and right are motivated only by hatred but not genuine economic suffering and political oppression is a transparent tactic for exonerating status quo institutions and evading responsibility for doing anything about their core corruption.

Part of this spiteful media reaction to Brexit is grounded in a dreary combination of sloth and habit: A sizable portion of the establishment liberal commentariat in the West has completely lost the ability to engage with any sort of dissent from its orthodoxies or even understand those who disagree. They are capable of nothing beyond adopting the smuggest, most self-satisfied posture, then spouting clichés to dismiss their critics as ignorant, benighted bigots. Like the people of the West who bomb Muslim countries and then express confusion that anyone wants to attack them back, the most simple-minded of these establishment media liberals are constantly enraged that the people they endlessly malign as ignorant haters refuse to vest them with the respect and credibility to which they are naturally entitled.

Catch the bolded passage? Smug, self-satisfied, spouting cliches? That’s what you hear inside the Team Democrat thought box.

Greenwald, Denvir, Ali, and Feffer all are converging on what Chris Hedges has been warning us of for years. Here’s Hedges, from a radio interview three years ago:

“When you have the figures like Obama who continue to speak in that traditional language of liberalism and yet cannot respond to chronic unemployment, underemployment, you know, foreclosures, bank repossessions, and everything else, and in fact are running a system where the assaults against the underclass are only getting worse, then what happens is there becomes a deep disdain for not only liberal ideology but traditional liberal institutions—you saw the same thing in Weimar—so that when there is an uprising, oftentimes people want nothing to do with not only liberal elites, but the supposed liberal values, quote unquote, that these elites were purportedly espousing,” Hedges says.

“And that is a very real danger,” he continues, “because when you have figures like Obama that present themselves as traditional liberals and yet are unable to be effective in terms of dealing with the suffering and the misery of the underclass, that—and this is what happened in Yugoslavia—that when things exploded, you vomited up these very frightening figures—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudman—in the same way that the breakdown in Weimar vomited up the Nazi Party. And that’s what frightens me, because we don’t have the movements, the populist movements on the left, and because we live in a system of political paralysis.”

In 2013, we didn’t have a populist movement on the left. In 2016, we may have the beginnings of one. But if those inside the Team Democrat thought box have their way, that movement must end. It’s getting in their way, you see. They have an election to win.

It’s the next election — 2020 — that worries me.


  1. This is GREAT peice of writing, Bob! I have often wondered what would happen if Trump was more sophisticated and suave. How much more influence would he wield? It irritates me greatly that so many Hillary supporters support her NOT because she deserves their support but because they want to win…worse yet, they want her to win. They ignore who and what she is simply for the sake of winning. Sad and frightening, all at the same time…

  2. Since 1980, so the last 45 years, Team Democrat has actually been in charge for less than four years. One short time, 1993 and 1994, brought a tax bill that effectively put our fiscal house in order. The second time, 2009 and 2010, shortened by the death of Ted Kennedy, brought us Obamacare.
    The Orange Loser is a demagogue, I wouldn’t read too much into anything he says or does. I think most of his supporters are the same Tea Partiers who wants government to stay out of their Medicare.

  3. The way I look at it, Team Democrat (as Bob puts it), tribalism is what’s dominating Team Democrat. As such, it puts blinders on its loyalists such that they are blinded to the actual threat of a Trump presidency.

    I can appreciate the concern for 2020, but I’m still very concerned about 2016. It’s still not too late for DNC superdelegates (oh how I loathe that expression) to have an epiphany and nominate Bernie.

    But Bob’s column does a good job of describing the problem.

  4. bob let see if I can shorten this a bit. I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore. and as white males I don’t take no for an answer like others do. that would be women and minorities.

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