After decades of Democrats moving right, it's time to move left: There are voters beyond the fabled center
By Dr. Alfredo Carlos 1.9.2019
There is a battle going on right now within the Democratic Party. Progressives within the party are trying to move it left, while establishment democrats tied to corporate sponsors and the Clinton political machine that has dominated the party for over 20 years see them as a threat. All of this is playing itself out as democrats try and position themselves to beat Trump and republicans in the next presidential election. This is all exemplified by the ascendency of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently beat out a mainstay in the democratic party seemingly out of nowhere in the democratic primaries for the 14th Congressional district in New York. In the run up to this election I admittedly knew next to nothing about this congressional race. The weekend of the election, I was at a symposium on Employee Broad-based ownership. A conversation I had that weekend would become instructive for me in understanding this ongoing tension and struggle for the heart of the Democratic Party that is playing itself out.
As I mentioned, I was attending a symposium on Employee and Worker ownership. It’s a symposium I have been attending yearly since I received a fellowship in 2013. It’s an interesting symposium because it gathers people from all walks of the political spectrum; all support employee ownership from various perspectives. Some conservatives support it because it means more ownership for more people and more people working better jobs with better wages, which means less welfare programs. For them it’s a form of self-help, which means people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. People from my particular political leanings support worker ownership because it means economic justice and workers directly owning and benefitting from the value their labor creates and thus providing an economic model that is vastly different from the capitalist model that extracts that value for the benefit the owning class. The group also includes people anywhere between those two points and this mix of people leads to very interesting and I feel productive conversations. In the midst of this symposium, there is a dinner we all attend and we all end up usually sitting with groups of people we may know or some we may not.
On this particular evening I sat at a table with a very experienced and knowledgeable labor lawyer that has a history of working with a prominent east coast farmworker union with an iconic Chicano Movement era leader. Given my background growing up working poor, and as a formerly undocumented brown person, I often feel out of place in these academic spaces. As the sole Chicano and probably one of 3 Latinos in this group anytime an opportunity arises for me to engage in a conversation over Chicanos and Latinos, Labor and working people, I immediately jump on it because it becomes a space for me to bring labor and working issues out of the often esoteric realm of scholarly discussions into a place where they are real. It is important for me to do so because I find it troubling to talk about workers in the economy without talking about who those workers are. This was an opportunity for me to engage someone who I figured I could learn from and also engage with in talking about workers in the real rather than workers in the abstract.
Our discussion covered many interesting topics; Chicano farmworkers movement union organizing, current labor issues, the impending (at that time) Janus decision and it eventually shifted to electoral politics. This obviously led us to a conversation about the last election and at the time the upcoming midterms. A colleague (from the University of Alaska) and I ended up having a friendly debate with her about Bernie and Hillary and this led to disagreement on our part about what went wrong for Hillary. In the midst of this debate I remember clearly trying to make an important point about elections and the strategy that Democrats use to try and win elections. Since Bill Clinton became president, the Democrats’ strategy to win elections has been their famed strategy of Triangulation also known as ‘the third way’. Triangulation is a strategy where a political candidate presents their ideology as being above or between the left and right sides (or "wings") of a traditional democratic political spectrum. It involves adopting for oneself some of the ideas of one's political opponent. It basically devolves into centrism, but one that taken over a long term view moves to the right, always positioning itself in relation to its opposite, defining itself based on its opposite.
What Triangulation looks like in real time, is Democratic candidates trying to capture people in the middle of the political spectrum, between their perceived point and the conservative position. There are a slew of people that are assumed to be moderates that can swing in either direction depending on the candidate and issues. Modern American politics has devolved into both major political parties trying to capture these “independent” voters assumed to be between the two parties ideological positions. They attempt to cater to them and over the course of 25 years this has lead to American politics moving drastically to the right because the strategy is based on positioning yourself in relation to your opponent’s position. As your opponents move right, then the middle point becomes further right. There has been a slow and steady move rightward as the opponents’ position has moved extraordinarily right, one that would even make Ronald Regan turn over in his grave. In all of this time the strategy of the Democrats has been to continue to attempt to capture this mythical independent voter who also has slowly drifted right.
My point on that evening conversation was that the failure of the Democratic party in the 2016 election and even in the prior decade was in assuming that the only voters a party can capture are found between the Democrats (center rightward) position and the Republican’s positions. I respectfully stated that I think there are enormously large numbers of independent voters, and even historically non-voters that can and ought to be catered to on the left of the Democratic position. I wholeheartedly believe there is massive numbers of people looking for representatives willing to take positions that defend working people rather than positions that negotiate or compromise working people out of their livelihoods. This is where the conversation began to turn into a debate as the labor lawyer vehemently disagreed with me. My colleague and I discussed the Bernie effect and the masses of people out there ready and waiting for someone to cater to them, waiting for a candidate to talk about and be about the things that affect average Americans on a daily basis. Hillary failed to do this, while she had all the experience in the world, she effectively ran an “I’m better than Trump” campaign, rather than “This is what I stand for and this is my vision” campaign. Needless to say the debate was not settled, and she ultimately chalked it up to a generational difference, which I took a minor offense to and to which I still don’t know what she specifically meant by it.
I left the conversation pondering whether we would ever see a candidate attempt to capture or speak to “independent” voters or non-voters that can be activated, that fall left of the Democratic party instead of always catering to the middle right. As someone who comes from a poor urban experience I wondered if we’d ever see candidates that can speak to the real experiences of Latinos and other workers of color in ways that address their humanity. One of the failures of the Democratic Party over the course of the last few generations, including the Obama era is failing to speak to working Americans and their everyday experiences. Obama failed to prosecute any Wall Street bankers who lead the devastation across the country, in the mortgage and housing crisis. He catered to these people instead of seeking answers from them and bringing them to justice. While the recession happened a decade ago we are still seeing the lasting impacts of that process, people continue to be evicted from their homes that are being foreclosed, gentrification is ramping up everywhere, which results in the mass displacement of people from formerly working class communities. All the while the Democratic Party has sought to reach across the aisle to appease the further and further right conservatives rather than fight for their working class constituency. And this process over the last 20 years has been a failed strategy. If anyone wants to see how failed it is, one need only look at all the positions, local, state, congress, etc that have been lost to republicans just during Obama’s tenure. Democrats lost 69 house seats, 13 senate seats, 11 governorships and a staggering 913 state legislative seats. Centrism tied to corporate dominance of both parties has failed to provide a vision of a better future for working Americans and Americans have responded by staying away from the polls. And when they do go to the polls it’s often based on some form of identity based intersectional politics devoid of a political economic analysis. Now here is where many readers’ ears might perk up and take my prior statement as an affront to their sensibilities. Please hear me out, I am not saying intersectional politics is not important; on the contrary, representation matters. Anyone who knows me knows that it is important to elevate different people in our political structures. I am a one of very few Latinos (even less Chicanos) in the field of Political Science, my being brown greatly benefits the students I teach. But that isn’t enough.
By way of example I can speak on the city in which I live. Long Beach. Long Beach has what amounts to the poster child of intersectional politics as mayor, someone who checks off all of the boxes that people deem important in promoting representation. He’s a young LGTBQ Latino of immigrant background. He recently got elected for a second term, I would argue based on many of these factors. But if you look at what’s been going on during his tenure, the representation of these Intersectional Identities is only skin deep. This mayor represents development and a neo-liberal vision of Long Beach as the city has seen a massive increase in rising rents, gentrification, closed small businesses and homelessness that his administration has ignored in dealing with in any real structural or substantive way. He has publicly stated that more luxury development will lead to more opening of housing for working people. One of the ironies of all of this is that the hardest hit people being affected by gentrification are Latinos being displaced from around the downtown area and also the LGBTQ community in what is known as the lavender district, an area of Long Beach that over a long period of time has become a safe space for the LGBTQ community. These communities are now being displaced because of the inability of this mayor to address these issues in any substantive way, even coming out publicly against rent control, without any policy response that addresses the root causes of these issues. These are two communities that he purports to represent. All of this is to say that representation matters but only when it's connected to political values that work for working people. Intersectional politics must be based on an understanding of the issues affecting working people, and dealing with them in substantive, rather than piecemeal ways. They need to be rooted in substance rather than facades.
So as I sat there trying to communicate to this life long Democrat, that there are people on the left of the party just waiting for even meager overtures towards them and the issues they face from a party that has largely abandoned them to cater to corporate interests in the past 20 years, I pondered if my sentiments would in any way be understood. As it happens and without a sense of irony, I and my colleague were vindicated the very next day as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a name I vaguely remember hearing before that day, many people never having heard her name up to that point, won the Democratic Primary for New York's 14th congressional district against Joe Crowley, who was a top party leader and had been in congress since 1999. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in our recent political history and no one knew why? She instantly became headline news, as everyone from Morning Joe to Stephen Colbert wanted to know why she ran, how she ran and more importantly how she won? She’s a young self proclaimed Democratic Socialist and everyone was aghast at how someone who used that ‘dirty’ word ‘socialist’ [sarcasm] could win an election, let alone knock out one of the top democratic leaders in congress. Of course as I sat there taking in the news, I didn’t need her to go on T.V. and tell me and others how she did it. I knew how she did it. I can say I didn’t know much, in fact I knew very little about her campaign or even the district she was running in. But my gut told me that she probably went out and tried to get voters normally ignored by the Democrats. Instead of triangulating, she went Left and she went after ignored people, people not considered ‘potential’ or ‘likely voters’. These are people ignored by pollsters and candidates because they are not easy targets. They need to be motivated to act and that isn’t easy. And so she went door to door to door, talking to those ‘ignored’ people, people who hadn’t voted in years, young people who had never voted and she went to them with a message that resonated with their working class experience. She talked to them about issues considered Left but in reality, they are just issues dealing with the everyday struggles of people who work hard to try to live a dignified life.
As I began to read more about her campaign my initial assumptions were correct. She didn’t engage in age-old strategies of political posturing and speaking without saying much. She was outspent by a massive political machine, opposed by most if not all inside party members in New York and she won. She was given long odds, even a few weeks before the election some polls had her down 30 points, and she won. She went to potential voters and people who had never voted before, people who had never had a reason to vote because no one spoke to them about their needs and wants, people completely ignored or left out of politics by both parties, and she organized them. Ocasio-Cortez put it best, “I think progressives know the their swing vote isn’t red to blue; its non-voter to voter.” She went door to door asking people who had never voted before; young people, people of color, working people and she outworked her opponent. She did the hard work of providing a message that spoke to them about their experience and she activated this segment of her district. Not once did she attack her opposition, she ran a campaign on her principles, she provided a vision for what she wanted to see for her community and got people involved in the process. And she won. She worked so hard that not long after she won the primary for the district she was running in that she even won the primary for a district she didn’t formally run in, all as a write in candidate.
Ocasio-Cortez’ victory is a signal to long time Democratic Party bosses that the future of the party they represent, the one that is supposed to represent working people, if it is to have a future is left and it is of color. It is both intersectional and based on values that represent working people. It can’t just look like working people it has to be about working people. In the aftermath of this primary victory the Democratic Party machine is scared and stuck. It is currently undergoing a propaganda campaign to scare people into voting more moderate, assuming again the age old fallacy that there aren’t enough votes to the left to win against conservatives. As I write this there are countless opinion pieces and articles, including tweets by James Comey and others who serve corporate interests cautioning Democrats that if they go Left they will lose. The history of the past 20 years of elections proves they have already been losing with this strategy. There are millions of votes to the left of where the Democrats have been stationed (the center right) waiting to be organized, waiting for someone to address their issues and conditions.
Now is not the time to cower and be scared, play it safe or cater to the center. It is time to be bold and to engage people who feel completely detached and disempowered. Working people need a party and leaders that speak to their issues and provide a vision of a future where we take care of each other. They need a party that is willing to stand up with and for people suffering under the current Neo-Fascist presidency. They need a party willing and able to recognize its contributions to and take responsibility for having promoted a neoliberal agenda that has lead to the massive inequality plaguing our country. They need a party that can recognize all of this and change course, to one that engages with working people, rather than patronizing them or condescending them. Working people need a party willing and able to partner with social movements and organizations that daily, work to address the issues that face all working Americans. They don’t need a party that capitulates to Wall Street or to conservatives. Working people need a party with a backbone and it needs to be made up of people with conviction and passion for their communities, people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These people are out there and they have been organizing. They are the people we talk about in the Latino Question, people changing the nature of the way we organize, fighting for values that put people first, and they are ready to fight for America, to fight not just against Trump and all that he stand for, but to fight for the America they want to see, inside and outside of traditional political structures. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just the tip of the iceberg of this broad-based organizing that is going on in communities across the country of people trying to fight for their communities, who expect and demand a party that represents them and their interests. They fight for a party and a politics based on the values that we purport to hold dear: democracy, justice, fairness, and equality for all Americans especially those that create the wealth of the country, working people. And if the Democratic Party actually cares about these things and the people they purport to represent they will find and support young leaders with these values to the left. They must embrace this burgeoning wave of people and movements that are increasingly folks of color, women, and from various diverse communities, ones advancing a politics that are explicitly working class, Intersectional, but with substance. Because with or without the Democrats these movements are growing and their ranks are swelling and people want change inside as well as outside political parties and elections. Average workers are ready to move in a direction that supports working people, changing their economies and challenging traditional notions of politics. They must continue to pressure the Democrats, to push them in a direction that supports working America. If the Democrats are smart they will support these people, if they want to begin winning again they will understand that It’s time to push for real change and they will make way for these new leaders. After decades of Democrats moving right its time to move Left.
Dr. Alfredo Carlos is a Political Scientist from the Harbor Area of LA and co-author of The Latino Question