Who would have predicted just eighteen months ago that Donald Trump would be inaugurated as President of the United States? No one in mainstream public life (although Minnesota congressman and leading reformist DNC chair candidate Keith Ellison presciently warned us it was at least a possibility back then, to derisive laughter from the elite media). Political change sometimes moves in directions that no one anticipates or expects, and that is especially true of the restless, anti-establishment times that we live in today.
And that is why I have been haunted over the past several months by the idea that US and world history could have taken a dramatically different direction, if only the Democratic Party establishment and too many longtime Democratic party loyalists, especially those over the age of 35, had not worked so hard to derail the populist insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Imagine a parallel universe where Bernie Sanders was taking the oath of office today, along with VP Elizabeth Warren, and coattails that had elected a Democratic majority to the Senate and possibly even a wave election to overtop the gerrymandered districts in the House. Imagine a candidate who took climate change seriously enough--something, let’s be honest, that even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did not, on a scale commensurate with the threat to the future of humanity it poses--but who paired it with its absolutely inextricable counterparts in economic policy: the reversal of wealth and income inequality and the challenge to plutocracy and corporate power. This alternative universe (maybe if some scientists are right, it actually exists somewhere) is a place where the very serious and urgent problems of the world have at least a hope of being addressed--where long-shot, but vital, political change became reality.
For me, the moment when the contingency of history could have bent in a slightly different direction—but with profound and far-reaching consequences—was sometime in March or April, perhaps during the week between Bernie's earth-shaking and unexpected Michigan primary victory and his narrow defeat in multiple states such as Illinois and Missouri the following week. If history had changed just a little bit during that week--given the long roster of states where Sanders was poised to win during the month afterward (and, in fact, usually still did win, sometimes in landslides) we could have seen a political revolution on the Democratic side that was even more consequential than Trump’s demolition of the GOP establishment. I am also haunted that even I, strong believer that I was in Bernie’s candidacy, didn’t do more in the primary. I gave several donations, did some rallies, put a sign in my yard, but I never could quite even bring myself to believe it was likely to happen: That a genuinely leftist political candidate could actually be nominated by a major US political party.
Ultimately the DNC establishment elite proved to be simply too powerful, not least of all in its messaging to its rank and file voters, many of whom agreed more with Sanders’s positions on issues yet supported Hillary out of the misguided belief that she was more electable. So many people, especially of older generations, simply did not believe that a democratic socialist outsider candidate had any chance at all. They ignored all the polls showing that Sanders was a much stronger nominee against Trump than Clinton was, falling back on old Cold War era fears about the impossibility of winning with even the slightest association with left-wing politics. Yet it turns out that more people despised Hillary Clinton (rightly or wrongly--truth be told, some mixture of both) more than they despised socialism. And the Democratic Party ended up nominating an incredibly unpopular candidate, deeply out of touch with the anti-establishment fervor outside of the more prosperous coastal (and honorary coastal) urban centers. That the Democratic Party establishment was so insulated from reality has proved to be as much a part of producing our terrible outcome as Trump voters’ delusions that he actually would “drain the swamp” or take on Wall Street.
But that is where the opportunity lies. While I believe that history may be shaped by seemingly small contingencies that magnify into larger consequences, I also believe that history is shaped by long-term social, economic, and cultural forces that push outcomes back away from unpopular deviations. The main struggle now, in my view, is twofold: (1) to shift the terrain of opposition to Trump away from his Twitter distractions and divisive politics of provocation (while protecting basic rights of marginalized groups when necessary), and toward issues such as challenging corporate power and wealth, and defending policies that bring together Americans of diverse backgrounds in solidarity with one another, such as health care, education, wages/jobs, and the environment. (2) perhaps more contentiously, but even more vitally, to win back the Democratic Party from the donor class and the elite establishment who has run it into the ground since (if not before) the Bill Clinton years.
If we cannot put forward a credible left-wing populist party, then right-wing populism will triumph. This is the key political reality of our times, around the world. As current events show, this is as true in Europe, and elsewhere, as in the United States. The corporate neoliberal status quo is failing, and the struggle is what will replace it. We must pick up the pieces of our shattered election cycle--and, to be optimistic, many of those pieces are very promising, such as the vast and incredibly diverse wave of young voters in favor of Sanders-style political revolution--and bend the arc of history back to democratic socialism, which is the only humane alternative that can realistically defeat right-wing authoritarianism. The nonviolent and peaceful revolution to save our collective future continues!