Just when I was starting to think that The New York Review of Books was not irredeemably idiotic on political issues, they publish an article that is so conspicuously incoherent and outrageously out of touch with the political climate in the U.S. that it’s destined to be anthologized in perpetuity in collections with “Clueless” in the title. The article, “The Party Cannot Hold,” by Michael Tomasky is about the current state of the Democratic party.
The current divide in the Democratic party, writes Tomasky,
is about capitalism—whether it can be reformed and remade to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew, but without the sexism and racism of the postwar period, as liberals hope; or whether corporate power is now so great that we are simply beyond that, as the younger socialists would argue, and more radical surgery is called for.
Hmm, he’s right, of course, that there is a faction of the Democratic party that wants to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew. The thing is, that faction is the “younger” one. The older, “liberal,” Democrats have concentrated almost all their efforts on getting rid of sexism and racism, laudable goals to be sure, but oddly disconnected in the “liberal” imagination from economic issues.
Tomasky is also correct, of course, that a growing number of people in this country think capitalism in any form is simply morally bankrupt and that we need a new socioeconomic system entirely. Few of these people, however, are registered Democrats. Most of them aren’t even Social Democrats since the overthrow of capitalism hasn’t been a part of the Social Democratic platform since the middle of the last century. Indeed, Wikipedia defines “Social democracy” as “a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented economy” (emphasis added).
Tomasky either didn’t do his homework or he is being deliberately disingenuous. His view that Social Democrats are planning the overthrow of capitalism is at variance with how Social Democratic parties actually function in the many capitalists countries of Europe where they are an important political force.
Tomasky points out that Sanders, even if he were elected, would be unable to implement many of the programs that are part of his platform, that the best he’d get in terms of healthcare, for example, would be “a Bidenesque public option,” meaning, I presume, an option such as Biden is advocating for now, because as Americans know too well, politicians almost never deliver on campaign promises. The electorate is nearly always forced to accept some watered-down version of what they’ve been promised, if indeed, they get any version of it at all.
That’s likely part of the reason so many people support Sanders. Few Sanders supporters are so politically naïve that they think once he was in office we’d have universal healthcare. They assume they’d get something less than that. They also assume, however, and history suggests, correctly, that if Biden were elected, they’d get something less than he’s promising as well, which means they’d get…— nothing at all! It’s either idiotic or, once again, disingenuous of Tomasky to suggest that there’s essentially no difference between Sanders’ and Biden’s healthcare plans. Even a child will tell you that something is clearly better than nothing.
Tomasky assumes that only if someone other than Sanders gets the nomination would the left “try to increase its leverage by, for example, running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.” I kid you not, he actually says that. That’s what happens when you don’t pay sufficient attention to what is going on around you. Or perhaps Tomasky is simply being disingenuous yet again and hoping that the average reader of The New York Review of Books hasn’t been following the Sanders campaign and the calls of both Sanders and his supporters for bringing about sweeping political change by running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents.
“If Sanders wins the nomination,” writes Tomasky, “it becomes absolutely incumbent upon Democratic establishment figures to get behind him, because a second Trump term is unthinkable. But the reality,” he continues, “is that a number of them won’t.”
Hmm… Why is it that a number of “Democratic establishment figures” would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of Sanders? That’s not my charge, I feel compelled to remind readers here: It’s Tomasky’s!
Michael Tomasky, editor-in-chief of Democracy, a special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributing editor for The American Prospect, came right out and admitted that the “Democratic establishment” despite it protestations to the contrary, would rather have a second term of Trump than even one term of a genuine populist such as Sanders!
Why is that? Well, because as Tomasky observes himself earlier in the article, “Democrats have, since the 1990s, gotten themselves far too indebted to certain donor groups, notably Wall Street and the tech industry.” Yes, this is the same Tomasky who began the article in question by characterizing the very same Democrats, whom he believes are in the pocket of Wall Street and the tech industry, as wanting to reform capitalism, to remake it to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew.
And people speculated that Biden might be suffering from some kind of dementia!
That’s not the only dotty thing Tomasky says in the article. “In a parliamentary system,” he says, “Biden would be in the main center-left party.” Okay, yeah, maybe, if we suddenly had a parliamentary system in the U.S. In any other country that presently has a parliamentary system Biden would be in the center-right party, if not actually the far-right party.
The view that Sanders supporters are mostly young socialists is delusional. The very same issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent article about our current health-care crisis entitled “Left Behind” by Helen Epstein. Epstein explains that substantial numbers of the working poor support Sanders and that “117,000 Pennsylvanians who voted for Sanders in the  primary cast their general election ballots for Trump.” It seems unlikely that all of those 117,000 Pennsylvanians were young socialists.
Tomasky’s world doesn’t even cohere with the world as represented by other contributors to the publication in which his article appears, let alone to the real, concrete world. It exists only in his fevered imagination and the similarly fevered imaginations of other Democrats who delude themselves that they are “centrists” rather than right-wing neoliberals. There are bits and pieces of the truth in Tomasky’s vision of the disunity in the Democratic party but he puts those bits together like a child forcing pieces of a puzzle where they don’t belong.
What Tomasky fails to appreciate is just how mad, in the sense of angry, the average American voter is. Epstein writes that “[i]f you include those who have left the workforce altogether, the U.S. employment rate is almost as high as it was in 1931.” She cites Anne Case and Angus Deaton as observing in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism that “[t]he amount American spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy… than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germans in the 1920s.”
Oh yeah, people are angry. Few people are blaming capitalism as such, but nearly everyone who’s suffering economically appears to be blaming the political establishment, and blaming the Democrats just as much as the Republicans. This is clear from the people interviewed in the 2019 documentary The Corporate Coup d’Etat. These are people who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary, but who then voted for Trump in the general election. They’re not socialists. They’re just angry. Really angry, and they’re angry at both sides of the political establishment.
Tomasky is worried about the Democratic party breaking apart. Ironically, a Sanders nomination, was probably the last chance the party had to prevent a split. Biden is simply too much a part of the political establishment to capture the votes of the increasing numbers of people who are unhappy with that establishment.
Tomasky’s whole article appears an ill-conceived attempt to frighten genuine progressives back into the Democratic-party fold. He acknowledges that the party is too beholden to Wall Street and the tech industry, that it has gotten so far away from its populist roots that much of its establishment would rather see Trump back in office than a genuine populist. Yet he concludes the article with the observation that “our [political] system militates against a schism” in the party. No third party, he thinks, could be a significant political force.
Oh yeah? Think again, Tomasky.
(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the March 12, 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch under the title “Extraordinary Democratic Delusions and the Madness of the Crowd.”)