Race for the center? The Democratic Party can’t forget the working class…again
Standing nearby roadway ramps with peeling paint, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, second from right, listens along with bridge workers as then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks, June 2, 2010. Biden was announcing the start of the Brooklyn Bridge Rehabilitation Project supported with $30 million of economic stimulus funding. With a Democratic administration now set to again take power in Washington, many are warning the party not to forget workers as it arguably did in the 1990s. | Bebeto Matthews / AP

There’s a folk saying in the American South that “being in the middle of the road either makes you a yellow line or roadkill.”

The Democratic Party, not only in this region but nationally, must ponder this pointed if crude, analogy. America’s working class peeks over the cliff into the abyss. They face not only deflating wages in the wealth gap economy but an indefinite period of catastrophic job loss in the now exponential growth of the coronavirus allowed to rage unchecked by the Trump administration.

Many of these issues are especially pungent in the American South. Already poorer, less healthy, and home to a large portion of the country’s African-American voters who are increasingly being disenfranchised by Republicans in some states, a politics of neoliberalism will not change the bleak trajectory of history here. The region, after decades of free market economic development, has an excessively high infant mortality rate and 9 out of 10 of the poorest states in the Union.

James Clyburn serves as my congressman in South Carolina, something I’m proud of, given his role in the Black Freedom struggle. I’m less proud of the fact that he’s my Congressman in a district actually referred to as “the Black Sixth.” It includes a sliver of my neighborhood in downtown Charleston, stretches north to Highway 17 that serves as a firebreak to the white Georgetown/Myrtle Beach region, makes a serpentine angle to include part of the state capital of Columbia (about 120 miles from where I sit), and then balloons bizarrely west to take in a number of Black majority counties until it trickles to the sea and absorbs the sea islands where Black South Carolina culture has thrived since the Civil War.

It’s gerrymandering at its worst and ensures Black ballots don’t affect the outcome of other congressional races. Congressman Clyburn has served the district since 1993.

The mentality of the Democratic Party of the 1990s shapes his—and other establishment figures’—view of the political world. While telling his colleagues that the House Democratic caucus must steer clear of “socialized medicine” (an outdated term), he has also blamed the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to “Defund the Police” for the recent defeat of Jaimie Harrison, a Black moderate who challenged Lindsey Graham for a seat that once belonged to John C. Calhoun.

Clyburn also suggested that what he calls “sloganeering” ruined the re-election hopes of Joe Cunningham, a conservative Democrat who won S.C.’s First District by a sliver in 2018. But despite the current Democratic leadership’s worries, this loss didn’t come because anyone feared Joe Cunningham might harbor Bolshevik tendencies.

Cunningham tried his best to present himself as the plain white bread alternative to Nancy Mace, a Trump loyalist and climate change denier in a district already affected by rising sea levels. In fact, during his two years, Cunningham had already attempted to find the center, and move slightly right of it, in line with Clyburn’s prescription. “South Carolinians don’t want socialism,” he said in February of 2020, echoing what became one of Trump’s mantras about the Democratic party. In the same speech, Cunningham asserted, falsely and outrageously, that Bernie Sanders would “raise taxes on almost everyone,” providing a pitch-perfect attack line for Republicans if Sanders had won the nomination.

Why are Democrats ignoring the possibility of growing their base, while alienating significant swaths of their existing support? Part of the answer seems relatively simple. Democrats have not, as yet, won the Senate as predicted. Republicans, including far-right candidates sympathetic to the false QAnon conspiracy notion, have eaten into the Democrats’ House majority. So recriminations from the Democratic leadership, eager to defend their own positions, have begun.

But they are wrong. In a recent People’s World piece, Chauncey K. Robinson pointed out that the progressives who have made “the Green New Deal” the center of their campaign (“The Squad”) won re-election despite what amounted to a national campaign against them by the far-right. Moreover, they added to their numbers with the elections of Jaamal Bowman of New York’s 16th District and Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist who became the first Black Congresswoman from Missouri in American history.

Moreover, Americans across the political spectrum are deeply concerned about the economy. In Florida, not especially known for its progressive leanings, the #Fightfor15 movement won a major victory. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this in a state with millions of minimum wage workers in the retail, service, and tourist industries that support the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. In a state that’s voted for Trump twice, this should signal to the Democratic centrists the importance of bread-and-butter issues.

This election confronted us with one of those moments of maximum danger. In a national struggle against fascism, support for the alternative became a simple act of civic duty and moral clarity. Many of us on the left contributed to Biden’s campaign, made phone calls to battleground states, and cast our votes for him in a struggle against autocracy, not because we like the corporate interests who fund the Democrats any better than those that fund the Republicans. Indeed, they are often the same.

But we cannot allow the Democratic establishment to abandon working class people as they did in the 1990s. Many moderates view that decade as a golden age when they came to power on the coattails of Bill Clinton. Clinton presented himself as a “New Democrat,” and his policies on trade, the social safety net, and mass incarceration battered disenfranchised Americans, already hobbled by the decline in manufacturing that began in the 1970s and a decade-long effort to destroy the labor movement in the Reagan-Bush era.

President-elect Bill Clinton speaks to the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington, Dec. 8, 1992. The ‘third way’ ideology of the DLC that was forged in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years has defined the Democratic Party establishment’s outlook for decades. | Wilfredo Lee / AP

The left must push the Democrats in every way possible. Many of us formed relationships with Democrats in the Sanders campaign or helped register voters with moderates, centrists, and conservatives in the traditional party machinery. Let’s use those connections. Let’s also call our Democratic Senators and Representatives with the same sense of demand and impatience we brought to bear on Republicans in the Trump years as we attempted to head off the worst outrages of his regime.

The op-ed pages of establishment newspapers are full of worries that our “healthy two-party system has degenerated” or the notion that the country needs a center-right party to stave off extremism. I’m not certain this has ever been true in American history, but it certainly is not now. The Republican Party is largely unrecognizable as anything other than a Trumpist cult, and the too many of the Democratic Party’s policies since the Clinton years have made it the country’s “center-right” alternative.

If there’s no clear message of economic populism in four years, the country will face a nationalist populism. It might come in a much slicker package, free of Trump’s vulgarities. A changing of the guard without systemic, definitive change will only give us a new, darker 2016.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


W. Scott Poole
W. Scott Poole

Scott Poole is Professor and Associate Chair, Department of History at College of Charleston. He is the author of Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.