You want a humbling experience? Try coming back from a week-long vacation perfectly timed to coincide with possibly the most tumultuous presidential nominating convention in recent decades! While relaxing on and around the beach in Fenwick Island, Delaware, I generally kept the electronic devices off, and so got only the general drift of events in Cleveland. My efforts to catch up yesterday, moreover, only reinforce my doubts about adding much useful to the latest torrent of news, analysis, and simple bloviation that’s flooded the nation – even though it’s far from clear that much new has been learned, or that many minds have been fundamentally changed.
Thank goodness the latest major development came just as I was returning home: the hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails released by Wikileaks on Friday night. Much has already been written about how angry they are no doubt making Hillary Clinton’s former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, along with the Vermont Senator’s passionate supporters.
Much more should and I hope will be written about how the disclosures and their fallout will affect the vast -but largely unrealized – potential that still remains for a grand left-right populist coalition to come together in American politics once this year’s presidential race is over.
The leaked DNC emails put the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party squarely on the spot. Barring major new revelations to the contrary, they’re the most powerful possible injection of salt into Sanders Nation wounds that were rawer than ever over the Democratic platform committee’s refusal to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and over party standard-bearer Hillary Clinton’s choice of centrist, Big Business-friendly Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.
Every suspicion held by the Sanders camp that the Democrats’ leadership worked overtime to ensure his defeat – despite the DNC’s own requirement of neutrality – has now been spectacularly confirmed. And who now can reasonably doubt that the DNC was motivated mainly by the threat Sanders’ economic populism posed to its Clinton-friendly donor class?
Donald Trump has made numerous verbal overtures to Sanders and his supporters throughout his successful maverick campaign for the Republican nomination. But no matter how many points of agreement he spotlighted – notably on trade, Wall Street reform, the bloated role of corporate and other special interest money in American politics, and hyper-interventionist U.S. foreign policies – he’s been angrily rebuffed both by the candidate himself and the vast majority of his followers.
Of course, Trump has made this rejection-ism far too easy for the Democratic Left, thanks largely to his inflammatory rhetoric on illegal immigration (especially from Mexico) and a long string of insulting comments both before and during his presidential run about any number of groups and individuals. In addition, serious questions have been raised – and not adequately answered – about Trump’s previous and current business practices. And because Trump’s pugnacious personality seems to rule out any efforts even to acknowledge the resulting concerns, his chances of victory in November have been damaged.
But the emergence of a large, genuinely populist constituency on the Right creates a much thornier longer-term challenge to Sanders Democrats if they’re serious about their avowed goal of revolutionizing American politics: Can they and will they abandon strongly held positions of their own that arguably have hardened into shibboleths and that limit their own bipartisan appeal as surely – and needlessly – as Trump’s excessive political incorrectness? The two biggest tests I can think of concern immigration.
Leftist Democrats have been outraged by Trump’s description, in his campaign kickoff announcement, of at least many Mexican immigrants as criminals. But do they really support the immigration policies laid out in the Democratic platform, which despite its reference to “reasonable limits” on legal immigration, would create powerful magnets to inflows by offering lightly conditioned citizenship to the illegals already in the United States; by streamlining the family reunification process that already fosters far too much chain migration; by gutting even today’s weak enforcement and deportation programs; and by expanding the range of public services made available to residents “regardless of immigration status”?
Do they really believe that pumping up the domestic labor supply to this extent (including with the increases in visa quotas for highly skilled immigrants favored by Clinton and her Silicon Valley backers) will benefit the existing legal American workforce? In other words, do they really believe that handing over current American jobs to a burgeoning flood of newcomers is any less damaging to the nation’s working and middle classes than shipping those jobs overseas through offshoring-friendly trade deals?
Or should they listen to a voice who a decade ago warned that the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill then before Congress “would bring low-wage workers into this country in order to depress the already declining wages of American workers” and that “With poverty increasing and the middle-class shrinking, we must not force American workers into even more economic distress”?
That voice was Bernie Sanders’, and although he was referring specifically to the bill’s guest worker programs, the economics behind his analysis apply across the immigration board.
Sanders backers also need to reexamine their views on admitting immigrants and refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern countries. Let’s agree that Trump’s original Muslim ban would have been unconstitutional and unworkable. (Even Trump has backed away from this position.) Do they honestly agree with the Obama administration’s insistence that current vetting procedures are adequate? Do they not recognize – as even the president grudgingly but repeatedly has acknowledged – that Islam has presented a distinctive terrorism problem? Indeed, on Thursday, he stated that “the Muslim faith itself…has driven violence in some parts of the world.”
Are they dead-set against acting on the logical implication of Obama’s remarks, and participating in efforts to devise practicable, legal methods for protect their fellow citizens from threats they face from both without and within? Are they determined to self-righteously remain on their soapboxes and condemn as bigots and xenophobes the roughly half of their fellow countrymen who endorse Trump’s fundamental demand to end business-as-usual approaches? And do Sanders’ populists line up behind Clinton’s call actually to make the domestic Islam problem bigger, by quintupling current immigration and refugee admissions from the Middle East?
So far, Trump’s gratuitous bombast has handed Sanders’ backers, as well as supporters of Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, a convenient excuse for opposing immigration proposals that would directly and concretely bolster the prosperity and security of the working and middle-class Americans they claim to champion – and that large chunks of the mass public clearly favor. By the same token, at least apparently in their minds, Trump’s excesses have relieved Democratic Leftists of any responsibility to reach out to their fellow populists on the opposite end of the spectrum, try to bridge the immigration and other gaps, and create a transformational new coalition in American politics.
But Democratic populists can’t count on this excuse much longer. Whoever prevails in the general election, populists of all stripes will need to cooperate to ensure that their unprecedented combined impact this political cycle produces enduring successes. And no current issue touches core questions of economics, national security – and national identity – like immigration. Left-wing Democrats who want to be successful revolutionaries will focus on identifying and expanding common ground, and on working with Trump, his backers, and that group of more conventional, less sharp-edged politicians who decide to proceed down the trail the Republican nominee has blazed. Those content simply to advertise their political virtue while establishment policies continue threatening Main Street Americans will keep demonizing Trump and his insurgency.