The time has come to bid farewell to a moribund party that lacks imagination, courage and gusto
Monday 24 April 2017 15.15 EDTFirst published on Monday 24 April 2017 06.00 EDT
The distinctive feature of these bleak times is the lack of institutional capacity on the left – the absence of a political party that swings free of Wall Street and speaks to the dire circumstances of poor and working people. As the first 100 days of the plutocratic and militaristic Trump administration draw to a close, one truth has been crystal clear: the Democratic party lacks the vision, discipline and leadership to guide progressives in these turbulent times.
The neoliberal vision of the Democratic party has run its course. The corporate wing has made it clear that the populist wing has little power or place in its future. The discipline of the party is strong on self-preservation and weak on embracing new voices. And party leaders too often revel in self-righteousness and self-pity rather than self-criticism and self-enhancement. The time has come to bid farewell to a moribund party that lacks imagination, courage and gusto.
The 2016 election – which Democrats lost more than Republicans won – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The unfair treatment of Bernie Sanders was but the peak of the iceberg. In the face of a cardboard Republican candidate equipped with pseudo-populist rhetoric and ugly xenophobic plans, the Democratic party put forward a Wall Street-connected and openly militaristic candidate with little charisma.
The crucial issues of a $15 minimum wage and saying no to fracking, no to TPP, no to Israeli occupation and yes to single-payer healthcare were pushed aside by the corporate wing and the populist wing was told to quit whining or take responsibility for the improbable loss.
The monumental collapse of the Democratic party – on the federal, state and local levels – has not yielded any serious soul-wrestling or substantive visionary shifts among its leadership. Only the ubiquitous and virtuous Bernie remains true to the idea of fundamental transformation of the party – and even he admits that seeking first-class seats on the Titanic is self-deceptive and self-destructive.
We progressives need new leadership and institutional capacity that provides strong resistance to Trump’s vicious policies, concrete alternatives that matter to ordinary citizens and credible visions that go beyond Wall Street priorities and militaristic policies. And appealing to young people is a good testing ground.
Even as we forge a united front against Trump’s neofascist efforts, we must admit the Democratic party has failed us and we have to move on. Where? To what? When brother Nick Brana, a former Bernie campaign staffer, told me about the emerging progressive populist or social democratic party – the People’s party – that builds on the ruins of a dying Democratic party and creates new constituencies in this moment of transition and liquidation, I said count me in.
And if a class-conscious multi-racial party attuned to anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-militaristic issues and grounded in ecological commitments can reconfigure our citizenship, maybe our decaying democracy has a chance. And if brother Bernie Sanders decides to join us – with many others, including sister Jill Stein and activists from Black Lives Matter and brown immigrant groups and Standing Rock freedom fighters and betrayed working people – we may build something for the near future after Trump implodes.
‘Shattered,’ a campaign tell-all fueled by anonymous sources, outlines a generational political disaster
There is a critical scene in Shattered, the new behind-the-scenes campaign diary by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in which staffers in the Hillary Clinton campaign begin to bicker with one another. At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.
“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”
Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:
“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”
The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?
If you’re wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book.
What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton.
The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.
In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters’ need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.
In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters. Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how “Because it’s her turn” might fly as a public rallying cry.
This passage describes the mood inside the campaign early in the Iowa race (emphasis mine):
“There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in it. Minus that, people want to assign their own motivations – at the very best, a politician who thinks it’s her turn,” one campaign staffer said. “It was true and earnest, but also received well. We were talking to Democrats, who largelydidn’t think she was evil.”
Our own voters “largely” don’t think your real reason for running for president is evil qualified as good news in this book. The book is filled with similar scenes of brutal unintentional comedy.
In May of 2015, as Hillary was planning her first major TV interview – an address the campaign hoped would put to rest criticism Hillary was avoiding the press over the burgeoning email scandal – communications chief Jennifer Palmieri asked Huma Abedin to ask Hillary who she wanted to conduct the interview. (There are a lot of these games of “telephone” in the book, as only a tiny group of people had access to the increasingly secretive candidate.)
The answer that came back was that Hillary wanted to do the interview with “Brianna.” Palmieri took this to mean CNN’s Brianna Keilar, and worked to set up the interview, which aired on July 7th of that year.
Unfortunately, Keilar was not particularly gentle in her conduct of the interview. Among other things, she asked Hillary questions like, “Would you vote for someone you didn’t trust?” An aide describes Hillary as “staring daggers” at Keilar. Internally, the interview was viewed as a disaster.
It turns out now it was all a mistake. Hillary had not wanted Brianna Keilar as an interviewer, but Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, an excellent interviewer in her own right, but also one who happens to be the spouse of longtime Clinton administration aide Peter Orszag.
This “I said lunch, not launch!” slapstick mishap underscored for the Clinton campaign the hazards of venturing one millimeter outside the circle of trust. In one early conference call with speechwriters, Clinton sounded reserved:
“Though she was speaking with a small group made up mostly of intimates, she sounded like she was addressing a roomful of supporters – inhibited by the concern that whatever she said might be leaked to the press.”
This traced back to 2008, a failed run that the Clintons had concluded was due to the disloyalty and treachery of staff and other Democrats. After that race, Hillary had aides create “loyalty scores” (from one for most loyal, to seven for most treacherous) for members of Congress. Bill Clinton since 2008 had “campaigned against some of the sevens” to “help knock them out of office,” apparently to purify the Dem ranks heading into 2016.
Beyond that, Hillary after 2008 conducted a unique autopsy of her failed campaign. This reportedly included personally going back and reading through the email messages of her staffers:
“She instructed a trusted aide to access the campaign’s server and download the messages sent and received by top staffers. … She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around – and she wanted ‘to see who was talking to who, who was leaking to who,’ said a source familiar with the operation.”
Some will say this Nixonesque prying into her staff’s communications will make complaints about leaked emails ring a little hollow.
Who knows about that. Reading your employees’ emails isn’t nearly the same as having an outsider leak them all over the world. Still, such a criticism would miss the point, which is that Hillary was looking in the wrong place for a reason for her 2008 loss. That she was convinced her staff was at fault makes sense, as Washington politicians tend to view everything through an insider lens.
Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.
The Clinton campaign in 2016, for instance, never saw the Bernie Sanders campaign as being driven by millions of people who over the course of decades had become dissatisfied with the party. They instead saw one cheap stunt pulled by an illegitimate back-bencher, foolishness that would be ended if Sanders himself could somehow be removed.
“Bill and Hillary had wanted to put [Sanders] down like a junkyard dog early on,” Allen and Parnes wrote. The only reason they didn’t, they explained, was an irritating chance problem: Sanders “was liked,” which meant going negative would backfire.
Hillary had had the same problem with Barack Obama, with whom she and her husband had elected to go heavily negative in 2008, only to see that strategy go very wrong. “It boomeranged,” as it’s put in Shattered.
The Clinton campaign was convinced that Obama won in 2008 not because he was a better candidate, or buoyed by an electorate that was disgusted with the Iraq War. Obama won, they believed, because he had a better campaign operation – i.e., better Washingtonian puppeteers. In The Right Stuff terms, Obama’s Germans were better than Hillary’s Germans.
They were determined not to make the same mistake in 2016. Here, the thought process of campaign chief Robby Mook is described:
“Mook knew that Hillary viewed almost every early decision through a 2008 lens: she thought almost everything her own campaign had done was flawed and everything Obama’s had done was pristine.”
Since Obama had spent efficiently and Hillary in 2008 had not, this led to spending cutbacks in the 2016 race in crucial areas, including the hiring of outreach staff in states like Michigan. This led to a string of similarly insane self-defeating decisions. As the book puts it, the “obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds.”
If the ending to this story were anything other than Donald Trump being elected president, Shattered would be an awesome comedy, like a Kafka novel – a lunatic bureaucracy devouring itself. But since the ending is the opposite of funny, it will likely be consumed as a cautionary tale.
Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy – and soon.
This guy started his presidency issuing an easily disprovable falsehood about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, a typically Trumpish blend of silly and creepy, like a dictator declaring that from this day forward the sky is officially orange (or climate change is a hoax). He lies so often that a whole category of his lies are denials of previous lies.
Corporate-owned media outlets generally obey the unwritten rule that the spokespeople for government sources should be treated as credible–regardless of how many times they’ve been caught lying–but the new president’s obvious disdain for the truth pushed many of them to adopt a more Stone-like stance of skepticism.
But Trump only needed to lob some missiles and bombs in enemy lands to restore the press back to its natural state of blind trust in authority. The Pentagon announced that it dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in eastern Afghanistan, and there was little mainstream questioning of the government’s claim that this monstrosity with a mile-wide blast radius managed to only kill bad guys.
Clearly the left has to take a different approach, and treat the word of the U.S. government as we would that of any individual with a similarly long history of murder and mendacity.
But if we don’t trust the government–and, by extension, many of the mainstream news reports that simply repeat government talking points–then how do we get our information?
The left doesn’t have the resources to replicate all of the bureaus and investigative reporting of media corporations. Progressive media like Democracy Now! and Truthout (or even your humble correspondents at SocialistWorker.org) can sometimes deliver important scoops, but radicals have no choice but to rely on larger outlets for much of our information.
The defining difference between the left and the corporate media is not that we have different facts–because we often don’t–but that we have different frameworks for interpreting and drawing conclusions from those facts. That’s important to keep in mind at a time when “alternative facts” are becoming a growing problem on the left as well as the right.
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OUR STARTING point at SocialistWorker.org is that, as mentioned, we don’t trust “our” government.
But we should be consistent like I.F. Stone and be suspicious of all governments–especially those like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of people and lied about its crimes with a boldness that would make Sean Spicer bow down in admiration.
This is unfortunately not a universal method across the left. Like the closed circuit of right-wing websites passing the same fabrications back and forth about disease-spreading immigrants and “black-on-black crime,” there are a growing number of websites recycling dubious speculations about “false flag” operations in Syria designed to discredit the Assad government.
These conspiracy theories not only suck a few people down the “truther” rabbit hole, but they also create a deliberately muddled atmosphere on the left that can make new activists think they need to read detailed studies of the property of sarin gas just to have an opinion on something that couldn’t be more clear: the Assad government is monstrous.
SocialistWorker.org has drawn that conclusion not because the U.S. government says so, but because millions of Syrians have said so–including those who have been killed, jailed and exiled in the process.
That gets to the next element of our framework for evaluating facts and understanding the world. We may not trust governments, but we listen closely to ordinary people, particularly when they are organized in large-scale protest movements.
Protesters can lie, of course, and protest movements are subject to manipulation, whether by foreign agents or homegrown opportunists. But our starting assumption when hundreds of thousands or millions of people take to the streets is that they are not mere puppets of a foreign power.
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HERE’S THE thing about government lies: They’re usually not very effective–and in reality, they don’t need to be.
When the cops kill another unarmed African American and claim he was charging at all five of them with a pair of scissors, they don’t get away with it because we all believe them–certainly not those of us who live in the neighborhood. They get away with it because cops are allowed to murder unarmed Black people. The lie is just a formality.
Or take the lies that the Bush administration told about Iraq having “weapons of mass destruction,” which some now cite as “precedent” for the U.S. lying about Assad using chemical weapons.
There are two false assumptions that have developed in recent years about the big WMD lie.
The first is that most people were tricked by the lie into supporting the war. In fact, the U.S. population was pretty much split down the middle, and the protests against the Iraq invasion before it happened were some of the largest in U.S. history. Like killer cops, the Bush administration went to war with Iraq not because they were able to fool us, but because they had the power to disregard popular will.
The second myth is that the WMD lie was essential for the war. In fact, it wasn’t necessarily the belief in WMDs that led people to support the invasion, but the other way around. Just as people who want to drill for more oil find a way to not believe in climate change, people who wanted the invasion to happen convinced themselves that Saddam Hussein had his finger on the button of an arsenal of WMDs.
Our opposition to the war wasn’t based on believing that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, but on the anti-imperialist understanding that the United States isn’t a force that would protect the world from those weapons.
Similarly today, opposing the U.S. waging war on the Syrian government doesn’t require us to believe the Assad regime didn’t carry out the recent poison gas attack (which it almost certainly did)–any more than protesting the Ferguson police murder of Mike Brown required us to know that Brown hadn’t first robbed cigarillos from a convenience store (which he almost certainly didn’t.)
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THE LEFT that needs to grow into a force that can challenge Donald Trump has to be one that doesn’t create its own alternative facts to fit into our alternative politics. On the contrary, we have to do our best to gather and interpret new information from all available sources in order to keep up our understanding of a constantly changing world.
This dynamism is another element of our political framework, and it’s admittedly more complicated than simply trusting what the leaders of protest movements say more than governments. Assessing the changes in inter-imperial rivalries and the competing political tendencies inside opposition movements is not an exact science, and it requires a willingness to debate and change one’s mind.
But there’s a basic outline for understanding the U.S. role in the Middle East that’s clear. For years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. goal was regime change to install puppet governments across the region. Those plans were laid to waste, first by the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then by the 2011 Arab Spring rebellions, which turned “regime change” into a revolutionary demand that the U.S. government instinctively opposed.
That’s why the Obama administration was very cautious about backing rebels in Syria even as Assad turned the country into a killing field that sprouted both ISIS and a mass exodus of refugees to the surrounding region and some to Europe. And it’s why Trump came into office talking even more openly about working with and not against the Syrian regime.
Yes, the U.S. government has lied to go to war, and it will undoubtedly do so in the future. But we can assume that it isn’t lying about Assad’s sarin attack, not because Trump of all people is a trustworthy president, but because he didn’t want to go to war against Syria.
Fifteen years ago, the 9/11 conspiracy cult did damage, not good, to the antiwar cause, and more than a few decent leftists were sucked into the abyss of all-night Internet sleuthing and “you must be in on it, too” paranoia.
Their problem wasn’t that they were wrong that the U.S. government was probably hiding details about 9/11–like the involvement of Saudi Arabia. The problem was the illusion that if only they could uncover the “truth” and bring the conspiracy to light, we could get back to the normal decency of American capitalism and empire.
Today, it’s critical that the left exposes Trump’s lies, rather than counter them with our own. Otherwise, instead of winning millions of new people to our side, we’ll just add to the general cynicism that you can’t trust anything you read anywhere.
Not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
And betrayal into trust
Can any human being become part of the truth.
Trump won the 2016 nomination and election largely because he was able to pose as a populist and anti-interventionist “America Firster”.
Similarly, Obama won the 2008 election in good part because he promised “hope and change” and because he had given a speech years earlier against the then-impending invasion of Iraq.
Short of disclosure of diaries or other documents from these politicians, we can’t know for certain if they planned on reversing much of what they promised or if the political establishment compelled them to change, but they both eventually perpetrated a massive fraud.
What is perhaps most striking is actually how quickly each of them backtracked on their alleged purpose. Particular since they were both proclaimed as representing “movements”.
Even before he took office, Obama stacked his administration with pro-war people: He incredibly kept Bush’s head of the Pentagon, Robert Gates; nominated Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, who he beat largely because she voted for giving Bush authorization to invade Iraq. Other prominent Iraq War backers atop the administration included VP Joe Biden, Susan Rice and Richard Holbrooke. Before he was sworn in, Obama backed the 2008 Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. See from 2008: “Anti-War Candidate, Pro-War Cabinet?”
Predictably, the Obama years saw a dramatic escalation of the U.S. global assassination program using drones. Obama intentionally bombed more countries than any other president since World War II: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Obama talked about a nuclear weapons free world, but geared up to spent $1 trillion in upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. At the end of his administration, attempts at the UN to work toward banning nuclear weapons were sabotaged, efforts that the Trump administration continues. At his first news conference as president, Helen Thomas asked Obama if he know of any country in the Mideast that had nuclear weapons. Obama passed on the opportunity to start unraveling the mountain of deceits that constitutes U.S. foreign policy by simply saying “Israel” and instead said that he didn’t want to “speculate” about the matter.
As many have noted recently, Trump seemingly reversed himself on Syria and launched a barrage of cruise missiles targeting the Assad regime. It’s part of a whole host of what’s called “flip-flops” — Ex-Im Bank, NATO, China, Russia, Federal Reserve — but which are in fact the unraveling of campaign deceits.
Fundamentally, Obama and Trump ran against the establishment and then helped rebrand it — further entrenching it.
And of course it’s not just foreign policy. Obama brought in pro-Wall Street apparatchiks Tim Geithner and others around Robert Rubin, like Larry Summers. Some were connected to Goldman Sachs, including Rahm Emanuel, Gary Gensler and Elena Kagan and Obama would back the Wall Street bailout. Trump campaigned as a populist and brought in a litany of Goldman Sachs tools, most prominently Steven Mnuchin at Treasury Secretary and Gary Cohn as chief economic advisor.
The nature of their deception is different. Obama is lawyerly and, like jello, hard to pin to the wall. Many of his broken promises are actually violations of the spirit of what he said, not the letter. He can promise to withdraw “all combat troops” from Iraq — but doesn’t inform voters that “combat troops” in his parlance is not the same as “troops”. And most certainly many of his backers were utterly infatuated with him and seemed incapable of parsing out his deceitful misimpressions. Obama did however outright violate some promises, most obviously to close the the gulag at Guantanamo Bay in his first 100 days.
Trump triangulates by being an electron. He can say X and not-X in the span of a minute. Like an electron, he can be in two places at the same time. Trump is just an extreme example of what should be evident: It’s largely meaningless if a politician declares a position, especially during a campaign. The question is: What have they done? How have they demonstrated their commitment to, say, ending perpetual wars or taking on Wall Street?
These people are largely salesmen.
Nor are these patterns totally new. George W. Bush campaigned against “nation building” (sic: nation destroying); Bill Clinton campaigned as the “man from Hope” for the little guy; George H. W. Bush claimed he was a compassionate conservative. All backed corporate power and finance. All waged aggressive war.
In both the cases of Obama and Trump, the “opposition” party put forward a ridiculous critique that pushed them to be more militaristic. Obama as a “secret Muslim” — which gave him more licence to bomb more Muslim countries while still having a ridiculous image of being some sort of pacifist. Much of the “liberal” and “progressive” critique of Trump has been focusing on Russia, in effect pushing Trump to be more militaristic against the other major nuclear state on the planet.
One thing that’s needed is citizens aided by media that adroitly and accessibly pierce through the substantial deceptions in real time.
Another thing that’s needed is that people from what we call the “left” and “right” need to join together and pursue polices that undermine the grip of Wall Street and the war makers. They should not be draw into loving or hating personalities or take satisfaction from principleless partisan barbs.
Only when there’s adherence to real values and when solidarity is acted upon will the cycles of betrayal be broken.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the world is losing faith in democracy. Between Donald Trump’s rise in American politics and the predictable but self-inflicted “Brexit” economic shockwave, many are now openly asking what was previously an unthinkable question in the West: can people really be trusted with self-government? Is it time to ditch democracy and try something else?
After the Soviet Union fell, democracy expanded at an unprecedented rate. Today, global democracy has receded slightly every year since 2006; in other words, there has been no democratic forward progress for the last decade.
At the other end of the spectrum, powerful authoritarian regimes are becoming more authoritarian. Across multiple indexes and measures, democracy is steadily declining at worst and stagnating at best. Unless the trend is reversed, anyone born in 2016 will be, on average, less free than someone born during the 1990s. These declines are not an accident; they are the battle scars of a struggle between the rule of the people and the rule of despots and dictators. Right now, the people are losing.
However, the democratic sky is not falling. The world remains more democratic than it has been at almost any time in human history. Many countries that were bastions of authoritarian repression just a few decades ago are now democracies. Nonetheless, the recent retreat of democracy is serious cause for concern. This is not a theoretical philosophical debate. Billions of people remain trapped in unresponsive, unaccountable regimes where ruthless oppression is common.
As many despots have rolled back democracy or refused to embrace it, they have found an unlikely accomplice: the West. Western governments, in London, Paris, Brussels, and most of all Washington, have directly and indirectly aided and abetted the decline of democracy around the globe. This unfortunate truth comes despite the stated goals of all Western governments and despite the personal principles of almost everyone in those governments. Overwhelmingly, Western elites genuinely believe in democracy. They want democracy to spread. Moreover, Western governments have been, are, and will continue to be the biggest force backing democracy in the world. But their current approach is backfiring. … For the moment, though, the West is suffering an acute case of democracy promotion fatigue. Its leaders have less of a stomach for the short-term risks it presents than they used to. This feeling has only intensified in recent years as prolonged debacles in Ukraine, the Arab Spring, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq have replaced stable authoritarian regimes with violent chaos. As a result, democracy promotion has been knocked down several rungs on the priority list of Western governments as they set foreign policy agendas. It’s perfectly understandable. After all, failed transitions to democracy in places like Libya after botched interventions are indeed tragedies. Yet it would be a greater tragedy to doom the next generation to the rule of despots, dictators, and thugs, simply because this generation of political leaders is unwilling to make smart but difficult choices to support democracy consistently across the globe. Instead of running away from the challenge, Western governments need to learn from their mistakes and redouble their efforts. They need to stick to their principles and challenge despots, rather than aiding them in pursuit of nearsighted pragmatism. This will not be easy; there are few lowhanging authoritarian fruits just waiting to be plucked. Nor is there any guarantee that toppled despots will be replaced by genuine democrats. But the current approach needs to change, in order to give democracy a fighting chance.
I discovered a strange cast of characters on the frontlines of this battle for global democracy. Their voices are important but are rarely heard in the West. So, over the last five years, I have crisscrossed the world exploring local struggles for democracy to understand why the world is becoming less democratic and what can be done to reverse the trend.
I lived for months at a time in many different countries. Some seemed superficially democratic but were nonetheless home to toxic politics and broken societies. Dictators or juntas governed others. I had poetry read to me by a general in Madagascar who spoke of the glory days when he kidnapped politicians. I sipped mango juice with ex-rebels and was robbed at machete point in post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire. I was tailed by the KGB in Belarus as I spoke to presidential candidates bravely challenging Europe’s last dictator. I had tea with a failed coup plotter’s family in Zambia and coffee with generals in Thailand’s junta café.
These were surreal experiences. But the crisis of democracy in the twenty-first century is all too real for the billions of people around the world who live either under the unforgiving yoke of a dictator or the illusion of freedom in what I call “counterfeit democracies”—countries that claim to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, but are really none of the above.
A minority of the global population lives in true democracies, where people can meaningfully participate in decisions being made about their lives, where the laws matter more than the whims of strongmen, and where citizens have a real choice in electing leaders to represent them. The true criminals in this heist against democracy are dictators and counterfeit democrats—the dictatorial wolves cloaked in democratic sheepskins. But the West is also an accessory to the crime, inadvertently robbing pro-democracy forces abroad of a path to power. Governments in Washington, London, and Brussels pick the side of the despot all too often, as they chase competing short-term economic and security—and ultimately pyrrhic—victories. This approach undermines long-term Western interests, batters global democracy, and keeps billions oppressed with little hope for better governments.
If the West is doing so much damage, should Western governments even try to make the world more democratic? If so, how? After all, domestic factors are critical to democratization. Perhaps it’s none of our business. Countries often democratize without a nudge from the outside. Moreover, many key barriers to democratization are difficult to remove or overcome: dynastic oil monarchies, poor countries with weak political institutions, and single-party states that manage strong economic performance are all less likely to democratize. But scholars have also shown that links to the West are a crucial aspect of democratization across all types of countries.
How, then, can Western governments maximize the probability that a given country will become genuinely democratic?
There are three overarching camps that capture most thinking related to Western democracy promotion. First, do nothing. Don’t worry about democracy elsewhere. Treat a country the same regardless of its political system. This is the approach that authoritarian China takes, but this amoral foreign policy has vocal backers in the West too. Proponents of this view tend to see the spread of democracy as a peripheral interest to the West, a distraction from what really matters—security, stability, and economic growth. Foreign policy, in this view, is about entrenching stability while serving ourselves—wrought by the cold, hard calculations of realpolitik. Out of necessity, those calculations often focus on short-term interests. Do whatever needs to be done; work with whoever will work with you; the ends justify the means.
The second camp has slightly more tolerance for democracy promotion. Try to promote democracy, but only when it is in the short-term geostrategic interest of Western governments. Push for democracy against unfriendly dictators who already hate the West, but leave friendly dictators alone—or at least don’t press them aggressively. In this view, the dictatorial devil we know is much better than the democratic devil we don’t. Encourage countries that are not strategically important to become democratic because it doesn’t really matter anyway, but set an absurdly low bar so that most can at least hit the mostly meaningless target of claiming to be democracies and the West can cheer them along. This is the current approach. It is failing.
Third, promote democracy across the globe, as a long-term goal, even when it may not be in the immediate short-term interest of the United States and its Western allies. Think long-term. This does not mean pouring millions or billions into quixotic quests to rapidly democratize places unlikely to change, like North Korea. It also does not mean that the West should pursue any other foolish wars cloaked as adventures in democracy promotion, as Western governments have in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. But it does mean applying much more meaningful pressure to authoritarian regimes whether they are geostrategic friend or foe at any given political snapshot in time. It means respecting elections, even if the people of another country freely choose governments that are unfriendly to the West. It means making hard choices rather than easy ones now, in order to build a more prosperous and safer world for the future.
I argue for this third approach, while demonstrating how and why a combination of the first two strategies is shaping the world into a more volatile, less prosperous, and less democratic place.
In the last decade, most Western governments have simply tried to minimize risk in dealing with non-democratic governments. This is true even of terrible tyrants, so long as they are willing to work with the West. In the name of stability, security, and economic self-interest, the United States and its Western allies have repeatedly worked to forge an uneasy co-existence with dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats, from powerful kingdoms like Saudi Arabia to the less menacing regimes stalled between dictatorship and democracy that are scattered across Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere. In most places, democracy promotion is done halfheartedly, aimed more at around-the-edges reforms of authoritarianism than at undermining authoritarianism itself.
The problem with this is simple: it’s not working. We now have not only a less democratic world but also a more unstable one. Authoritarian regimes project the mirage of stability but then eventually tend to collapse catastrophically. Democracy can be risky and volatile too, but has built-in mechanisms to resolve domestic conflict, a safety valve that can help prevent violence and chaos. If nothing is done and the West remains an accomplice to despotism, we may have already hit “peak democracy.” It’s not too late. The trend can be reversed. If it is not, global democracy will remain at risk, economic growth will continue to underperform its potential, and Western security will be further imperiled.
I’ve been exploring why democracy is in retreat and suggesting solutions to get it on the march again. In doing so, I’ve found that the protagonists in the stories of global democracy are often bizarre. Their tales are frequently unbelievable. There’s the birth of democracy in Athens that can be traced to a fateful incident involving gay lovers; or the failed Cold War CIA plot to assassinate a Congolese politician with poisoned toothpaste; or the backfiring “democracy war” quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; or Rwandan hitmen plotting to assassinate pro-democracy critics in London; or the results of an election in Azerbaijan being released on an iPhone app the day before voting took place; or the tragicomic blowhard Donald Trump blustering about how he has himself as his primary foreign policy adviser because he “has a very good brain” and he’s “said a lot things”; or even the story of how a Turkish court was forced to enlist “Gollum experts” to determine if a pro-democracy activist comparing the authoritarian President Erdogan to the Lord of the Rings character was, in fact, insulting him.
Curious and occasionally amusing tales aside, the crisis of democracy is real and it is dangerous. The West is aiding and abetting the decline of global democracy, when it should instead be working toward its resurgence. Doing so will help create a safer, richer, and more just world.
But first, to understand the future of democracy and its spread around the world, we need to understand its past and its principles.
Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, where he focuses on democratization and political violence. He has advised several national governments and major international NGOs, including International Crisis Group, the Carter Center, and One Earth Future. Klaas received his doctorate from the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Despot’s Accomplice.
Since the Democratic Party lost the 2016 presidential election, the party’s establishment has suppressed all calls for reform from progressives. Though the party appointed Sen. Bernie Sanders as its head of outreach, most Democrats continue to treat him and his supporters as unwelcome outsiders. In a recent speech, Sanders provided progressives with insight as to how to advance their values against an inept and increasingly out of touch Democratic Party.
“When you have everybody in the establishment against you, how do you move a progressive agenda forward?” asked Sanders during a speech at MIT on March 31. “The answer is you go to the people.” This has been Sanders’ primary strategy during Donald Trump’s presidency; he has led rallies, held town halls, and delivered speeches across the country to mobilize his supporters.
“Our job is not a radical concept. Our job is to organize and educate people around a progressive agenda that demands Congress represent us, not just the one percent. That’s about it. Nothing more complicated than that,” Sanders said. “But to make that happen, we are going to need radical transformation of the Democratic Party. I don’t want to offend anybody, but the Democratic Party cannot continue to be just the party of the liberal elite and people who have money. It has got to be the party of the working class of this country. The Democratic Party cannot just be a party that just does well in New England and the west coast, it has got to be a 50-state party.”
While Sanders discussed why the Republican Party is successful in winning elections across the country, he blamed the Democratic Party for Trump‘s election and Republicans holding a majority in Congress and state legislatures all over the country.
“And he also assumes, quite correctly, that the Democratic Party is extremely weak and incapable of organizing people,” Sanders said in reference to how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is able to push policies that hurt his constituents with impunity.
Sanders noted that although the knee-jerk reaction from many Democrats is to shame, scold, and blame people who voted for Trump, it’s Democrats’ fault that thousands of voters who voted for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. “The problem is these people over the years, many of them were Democrats. They looked at the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party made a hell of a lot of promises to them.
Bernie Sanders. Scott Eisen/Getty Images
But you know what? In many respects, not all, and clearly the Democrats have been much better than the Republicans. But I don’t want anyone here to forget that it was a Democratic president, not a Republican president, who deregulated Wall Street. It was a Democratic president who made the first major initiatives in disastrous trade policies,” Sanders explained in reference to former President Bill Clinton, who enacted several policies that hurt working, middle class and low income Americans. “Let’s not forget that either. So, they’re angry, and they look for an alternative.”
Rather than understanding this dynamic, many Democrats have attacked Trump’s voters, reverberating the self-destructive attitude exemplified by Hillary Clinton’scomment during her campaign that half of all Trump supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.” Sanders said, “I do not believe in any way shape or form that the vast majority of Trump supporters are racists, sexists, xenophobes and homophobes. I don’t believe that. I think if you think that’s the issue, you are missing the boat big time.”
He also discussed the plight of coal country in rural America, where communities that once thrived with thousands of well paid jobs have been abandoned and these jobs have disappeared with no economic infrastructure to fill the void. “These guys were heroes, going down underneath there, the worst work in the world, and many of them die young from black lung disease…The world has come and past them. Coal is in decline,” said Sanders.
“So, how do you feel if you are 50-60 years old you once had a job. And by the way, a job is not just income. People want to work. They want to feel part of society. They want to be productive.” Sanders noted that severe economic issues in many areas of the country combined with a diminishing sense of community throughout nation—and globally—provides opportunities for people like Trump. “We have got to create community. We have got to make sure that I care about you and you care about me. That I know you are worried about my seven grandchildren, and I am worried about your mother who is ill. When we are a part of that community—not left out—I think that makes us more human and less likely to picking and start scapegoating minorities, because that’s what demagogues feed upon.”
Bernie Sanders; Malcolm X (Credit: AP/Craig Ruttle)
In the United States, white liberals and progressives have historically shown a serious inability to grapple with the realities of the color line and the enduring power of white supremacy. Many of them are either unable or unwilling to understand that fighting against class inequality does not necessarily remedy the specific harms done to African-Americans and other people of color by white racism.
Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.
Given Sanders’ long history of fighting for human rights, his comments are profoundly disappointing. They also demonstrate the blind spot and willful myopia that too many white liberals and progressives have toward white racism in America.
Sanders’ defense of Donald Trump’s “white working class” voters can be evaluated on empirical grounds. This is not a case of “unknown unknowns.” What do public opinion and other data actually tell us about the 2016 presidential election?
Donald Trump’s voters — like Republicans and conservatives on average — are much more likely to hold negative attitudes toward African-Americans and other people of color. Social scientists have consistently demonstrated that a mix of “old-fashioned” white racism, white racial resentment (what is known as “modern racism”), xenophobia, ethnocentrism, sexism and nativism heavily influenced white conservatives and right-leaning independents to vote for Donald Trump.
Polling experts such as Cornell Belcher have placed Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton within the broader context of a racist backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency among white voters.
And one must also not overlook how Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and victory inspired a wave of hate crimes across the United States against Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, First Nations people, gays and lesbians and those of other marginalized communities. Donald Trump used a megaphone of racism and bigotry to win the 2016 presidential election. His supporters heard those signals loud and clear.
Sanders is also committing another error in reasoning and inference, one that is common among white Americans in the post-civil rights era. Racism and white supremacy are not a function of what is in peoples’ hearts, what they tell you about their beliefs or the intentions behind their words or deeds. In reality, racism and white supremacy are a function of outcomes and structures. Moreover, the “nice people” that Sanders is talking about benefit from white privilege and the other unearned advantages that come from being white in America.
Sanders’ statement is also a reminder of the incorrect lessons that the Democratic Party is in danger of learning from its 2016 defeat.
Chasing the largely mythical “white working-class voters whose loyalties went from “Obama to Trump” will not win future elections. The white working-class voters they covet are solidly Republican.
Alienating people of color and women by embracing Trump’s base of human deplorables will not strengthen the Democratic Party. It will only drive away those voters who are the Democratic Party’s most reliable supporters.
Sanders has unintentionally exemplified the way that both white liberals and white conservatives are heavily influenced by the white racial frame. As such, both sides of the ideological divide are desperate to see the best in their fellow white Americans, despite the latter’s racist behavior.
This is why “white allies” are often viewed with great suspicion by people of color. Malcolm X discussed this point in 1963:
In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes (i.e., the race problem, the integration and civil rights issues) are nothing but tools, used by one group of whites called Liberals against another group of whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power. Among whites here in America, the political teams are no longer divided into Democrats and Republicans. The whites who are now struggling for control of the American political throne are divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps. The white liberals from both parties cross party lines to work together toward the same goal, and white conservatives from both parties do likewise.
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.
Bernie Sanders’ comments on Friday serve as an unintentional reminder of Malcolm X’s wisdom.