The Democrats have been in turmoil for the last half century and then some, when they abandoned their racist base and supported the civil rights movement.
Revved up by the spirit of the ’60s, the party began opening itself to further change, even daring to push beyond the financial interests of its controlling oligarchs and declare an opposition to war. “I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan,” George McGovern said during his 1972 presidential campaign … and that was that. After his crushing defeat, at the hands of Richard Nixon and his “Southern strategy,” the Dems quietly retreated. Their prevailing slogan ever since, whispered subconsciously, has been: We don’t stand for all that much.
The Dems are now Republican lite. They don’t have the will to disrupt anything that seems tried and true — such as, for instance, American exceptionalism and bloated militarism.
Even in the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Democrats opted for wimpiness as opposed to courage and sanity. They didn’t dare speak against it, or propose anything but a military path to “peace.” In his 2004 campaign, John Kerry stood thus on the war, as stated on his website: “The hard truth is that we know that more lives will be lost until the mission is truly accomplished.”
And what was that mission? “To create a stable democracy in Iraq.” Those were the words of Kerry’s media spokesperson, with whom I had an enormously frustrating conversation in the wake of a fundraising call I had received from the Kerry campaign.
That war is still quietly going on, 14 years later. So are a few others. The planet is hemorrhaging refugees, thanks largely to these wars and to the savage inequality that remains the legacy of colonialism. We still have thousands of nuclear weapons ready, on command, to destroy the world. And climate change is stirring up chaotic conditions across the planet.
Now, more than ever, the whole of humanity needs leaders who can who can envision and articulate a global transition beyond war and dominance, beyond environmental exploitation, beyond policies and practices that dehumanize part of us and cluelessly continue more of the same.
The Republicans, who know how to win elections, have served us up a president who is, for better and for worse, pretty much the exact opposite of this. Donald Trump doesn’t articulate a coherent vision for a sustainable and peaceful future, but he does mock the political status quo that has delivered us to our point of no return.
More precisely, what he mocks is the mask called political correctness, which has hidden the racism we became aware of 50-plus years ago, which has continued, ever so quietly, to drive much of American politics. When Trump and his supporters cry “Make America Great Again,” they see an America free of the constraints of political correctness.
Trump brings us an America once again free to hate, belittle and stereotype … somebody. If not African-Americans, then Mexicans and Muslims and, well, Native Americans.
“Let’s say I’m debating Pocahontas, right?”
This, of course, is Trump talking about arch-nemesis Elizabeth Warren, at a rally of wildly cheering supporters last week in Montana. Oh, to be free of political correctness!
“I promise you I’ll do this, you know those little kits they sell on television for two dollars. … I’m going to get one of those little DNA kits, and in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she’s of Indian heritage because her mother said she has high cheekbones,” Trump joked to the delight of his overwhelmingly homogeneous audience.
“We will take that little kit … but we have to do it gently because we’re in the Me Too generation so we have to be very gentle. And we will very gently take that kit and we will slowly toss it to her. Hoping it doesn’t hit her and injure her arm, even though it only weighs about two ounces.”
The words are remarkably juvenile and clueless, the spew of a bully-bigot who happily mocks an entire people in order to toss a verbal dart at a political enemy. The laughter and applause from the crowd were, I’m certain, due far less to any animosity toward Warren than to sheer delight at the freedom to stereotype. Make America Great Again!
This is the same president who, in May, said of immigrants: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
As Annie Linskey noted in the Boston Globe: “And with Trump, pontification becomes policy.”
Shortly afterward, news of the Trump administration’s treatment of asylum seekers at the Mexican border — the separation of children from their families, putting children in “cages” — went global. And suddenly the treatment of immigrants dominates the news. The wars we wage, the horrors visited on civilian populations, have faded into invisibility, but a national compassion and outrage have broken loose about Trump’s border policies.
It’s almost as though this is a real democracy, at least on that issue.
All of which brings me back to the Democrats, who have one choice only in this year’s midterm elections, and in the presidential election of 2020: Put forth real values and run on a commitment to real change, a la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Democratic Socialist who won a shocking upset victory in her congressional primary in the Bronx two weeks ago, and then this week won a second primary in her neighboring district as a write-in candidate. She wasn’t a candidate, but she won anyway.
This is what’s possible for Democrats who refuse to campaign as centrists: that is, as lite Republicans.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.