The Fear and Denial Holding the Democratic Party Back

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The Fear and Denial Holding the Democratic Party Back

The modern Democratic Party was conceived in the wake of a devastating loss. In the 1984 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan easily dispatched former vice-president Walter Mondale, winning 49 states and racking up a gobsmacking 525 electoral votes. It was an electoral bloodbath in every sense.

From the ruins arose the Democratic Leadership Council, helmed by strategist Al From and dedicated to changing the party forever. From and members of the DLC delivered a harsh assessment to the Democrats, assuring them that Reaganism had not only delivered the election but had essentially changed the nature of American politics forever.

In this way, From and the DLC embraced a psychological dogma called “Reality Therapy,” a theory revolving around the notion that a dysfunctional patient – in this case the party itself – could only heal once they were forced to work through their delusions and accept reality itself. They provided one poll and study after another attempting to “talk sense” into the Democratic Party: that it must embrace the neoliberal consensus, move on from catering to its base of labor, the working class, people of color, and women, and instead tailor its message and ideology to the interests of the market, corporations, and the burgeoning professional managerial class.

Bill Clinton allied with From and the DLC, eventually presenting to America what was essentially Reaganism with a human face, assuring voters that, even as the economy was becoming more exploitative and precarious, that he and the Democrats could at least empathize and “feel their pain.” As president, he continued the project of neoliberal globalism begun by Reagan and then George H.W. Bush, all the while promising that the birthing pains of globalism would eventually give way to an expanded middle-class.

The essence of this appeal was fear. Reagan’s routing of Mondale threatened the party so totally that many believed they might never hold executive or significant power again. The neoliberal bargain was rationalized on a notion that reality itself was both objective and unable to be changed. Thus began nearly a half century of corporate and wealth-class dominance coupled with, at best, performative expressions of empathy and resistance.

Now, we find ourselves mired in the consequences. Our political system has been utterly corrupted by the intentional transfer of trillions of dollars from the working and middle classes to an oligarchical few. Democracy has been systematically undermined, creating a perfect opportunity for that wealth class to not only co-opt representative government in totality but usher in an age of unfettered authoritarianism that takeover requires. And, unfortunately, the root cause of this mess is still being denied and obfuscated.

Watching Democrats panic now is heartbreaking business. The Joe Biden candidacy crisis is awash with supporters languishing in the grief process as it has become apparent that the appointed Donald Trump spoiler is not up to the task. This has manifested in a maelstrom of arguments and rationalizations. There are those in denial of what happened at the presidential debate on June 27th. They either cling to campaign explanations (it was a cold), cook up far-ranging conspiracy theories, or simply reject what they saw. Then, those who advocate replacing Biden are manically throwing out scattershot scenarios and suggestions with little basis in reality or practicality.

This is Democratic business as usual. The DLC’s takeover of the party has been, from the very beginning, grounded on taking advantage of the neuroses of the party’s base and constituents and depends on their faith in institutions and top-down power. Social media provides incredible and unnerving examples of this on a daily basis as supporters react to the authoritarian crisis by pleading with their elected leaders and saviors to do something. At times it resembles a flood of perturbed customer-service calls. At other times, it’s more like a terrified congregation begging its pastor to intervene with an angry god.

At the heart of it all is the disconnect between what the party purports to believe and what is the chosen ethos. In order to keep its constituents, even as the party embraced neoliberalism and moved to the right, it continued to espouse its old principles of fighting for equality and representation. There is much lip service here, but it rarely amounts to much. And, in its current generation, reliant on terror-based fundraising, the upsetting results actually fuel the party’s abilities to raise funds and keep its coalition voting.

The appeals follow a similar trajectory. There are a whole host of things the party would love to do, including expanding rights and protections, implementing the type of social programs that defined the pre-neoliberal, New Deal consensus, and creating a more tolerant and progressive society. But unfortunately, they are faced with a series of circumstances that require those lofty goals to be put aside. For every ambitious advancement like the Inflation Reduction Act, there is a counterweight like the Democrats’ hard move right on immigration. There’s also a deficit to curtail, after all. There’s an election to win. There’s an authoritarian crisis that demands we continue moving to the center right and conserving the status quo.

The DLC’s chosen reality served its purposes. Jimmy Carter and Mondale’s significant defeats painted a picture of inevitable change, all while obscuring that the party had failed to present an alternative to Reaganism and neoliberalism. Rather than oppose the right wing’s takeover with needed reforms and ambitious alternatives, Reagan’s rise was aided by the same fear we are now experiencing.

Even beginning to reckon with the inherent inequalities in America, and serving that original base by making this country even remotely more fair or functional, would, according to From, Clinton, and the DLC, be too much of a risk. It might, after all, turn off the fabled “independent voter,” a fabricated myth meant to center politics around economy-centered individuals turned off by Civil Rights and left-wing politics. The truth is that independent voters typically do not fit into this neat little ideological box the party has constructed for them.

Reality is a funny thing, though. It’s subjective. Malleable. The center is always moving, which is something we have certainly come to understand. When the choices are between a far-right party and a centrist party (see: the United States, see: France), the center continues to move to the right as radicalization and polarization inevitably takes hold. Eventually, settled debates like reproductive rights are suddenly reopened and resettled. And, what the New Democrats did was cut off any opportunity for new and progressive ideas to take hold. 

These ideas were, after all, much too dangerous.

This fear defines the Democratic Party and its base. Even an inkling of socialist democratic politics, even as they echo the fabled Democratic New Deal Coalition, are much too dangerous and require emergency measures. This mindset, for those who might not remember, resulted in Joe Biden securing the nomination in the first place back in 2020. After all, the actual base of the party – the professional managerial class – has too much to lose should those alternative solutions find purchase. Instead, it is much more comfortable and attractive to deliver a status quo that has served them so far while proclaiming a desire for something else, if only there was supposedly the time, resources and resolve to make it happen.

It is a neurotic mess. There’s no other way to say it. And in this present-day situation, we are witnessing firsthand, in a way that cannot be denied any longer, how dysfunctional it can get. The lashing out, the despair, the wild posturing and delusions, are all to be expected. Because the defining principle of the new party, as determined nearly four decades ago, was meant to create a body that defined itself by its fear to recognize actual reality and instead, clings to anxious bargaining.

And now, we find ourselves in the midst of compounding crises, in no small part due to the desire to continue that denial. The Republican Party is guided by its own neuroses. It is self-hating and self-loathing. Its adoration for authoritarians and charlatans like Donald Trump has its roots in love of the parents and institutions that have abused them. And, as has been the case throughout history, poisonous ideologies like racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homo/transphobia, and extreme nationalism, create emotional pathways for the wealth class to harness their energies and further the cycle of self-destruction for their own profit.

Cycles never happen in a vacuum. They require multiple parties to feed off of one another as they worsen. The Right’s complex and troubling psychosexual issues are disturbing, and always have been, but they continually interact with the Center’s worldview. Fear of the extreme and abusive behavior breeds more conservative and self-defeating behaviors, enabling the Right to not only become more radical but also drag the population along for the ride as the proposed conservative solutions compound the issue and facilitate the collapse.

Democrats are right to worry. 

The world is worsening. 

The Right is winning. 

But the fear that now defines our discourse has been the problem all along. Fear is a normal reaction, an instinct our species learned to protect itself. But when that fear comes to rule every decision and every action, when it infects the mind to the point where survival outweighs the need to live and prosper and flourish, it creates an immobilization and undermines survival altogether. That self-sabotage co-parented this crisis, and, unless the peddled fatalistic reality gives way to something constructive and human and fearless, it will undoubtedly help usher in its ugly and brutal conclusion.

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