I had a recent exchange with a friend on Facebook. I suggested that if the left were to learn any lesson from the Tea Party, it is that capital's control of the major parties is more precarious than it seems, and that primaries can be used to challenge the rule of the centrists. Hence the left might want to explore Democratic primaries. My friend retorted that the Democratic Party is more insulated from democratic pressure than the Republicans, as a result of things like superdelegates. I suspect both I and my friend may have legitimate points, and I wonder how things will play out in the next ten years.
The last time there were major social movements on the left, in the late sixties, there was eventual movement into electoral politics, culminating with the McGovern candidacy for president. Although he was less than ideal by left standards (so what else is new), McGovern epitomized the concerns of the movements. Above all I am referring to the peace movement, but the convention that nominated him, filled with a new generation including more African Americans and women, fed the perception that he was the candidate of the movements in general. Although he had an excellent voting record on labor issues, the unions (at this point still relatively powerful) basically abandoned him, and it may well have been the case that the union leadership was more or less in touch with the sentiment of their membership in doing so. McGovern lost in a landslide. The Democrats quickly created the superdelegates to frustrate any future prospect of nominating a candidate perceived as too far left for the American public. It is undoubtedly the case that some of the politicos responsible for this also didn't want a Democratic party too far left.
Although the creation of the superdelegates was a significant development, the trauma of the McGovern defeat was more significant as the Democrats drifted rightward. The super delegates played a significant role once, in nominating Walter Mondale rather than Gary Hart, as Gary Hart will remind anyone willing to listen. But I don't remember passions being all that high during the 1984 primaries in any case (or rather, the passion was among the minority who rallied behind Jesse Jackson), and Hart, likely as not, would have also lost to Reagan. All Democratic politicians who came of age in the seventies learned the same lesson from McGovern, and that lesson was to not tack too far to the left lest you offend the voting public. Even so, McGovern has been constantly invoked as the spectre haunting the party. Bill Clinton learned the lesson, and consolidated the Democrats move to the right.
Jump forward to the present. We appear to be on the cusp of a renewed era of social activism, epitomized to date by Occupy, rebellions at the state level (Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas) and audacious working class action--Chicago Teachers, Fast Food and Walmart workers. A number of other movements--around education, climate change, anti-racism, and feminism, are either springing to life or reawakening. I suspect this will all probably deepen and intensify in the next few years, and economic justice will provide the fulcrum, much as anti-war and civil rights did in the sixties. Already it is having some electoral effects. Senator Elizabeth Warren is one example. Likely winner of the upcoming mayoral election in New York City, Bill de Blasio is another. Soon enough--in 2020, if not 2016--this spirit will turn into a presidential primary challenge. The Democratic party constituencies are being scrambled. Organized labor is weaker than ever, and many white workers continue to be peeled off by the Republicans. On the other hand, Occupy was the most dramatic moment to date in the refocusing of the energies of the college educated middle class on economic issues as opposed to the social cultural issues that have dominated the landscape for some time. The material basis for this is the growing anxiety over health insurance, student debt, and jobs.
Such a primary challenge would be infuriating to the centrists who dominate the party, and whose bread and butter is propitiating Wall Street. What if it looked like the challenger was going to be the likely nominee? Would they use super delegates to deny him or her victory? As noted above, the super delegates were only instituted after the McGovern debacle of 1972, when much of the young generation had begun their long march rightward. But in this hypothetical, an undemocratic mechanism would be invoked to block generational reorientation of the party. This would clarify the authoritarian, exclusionary tendencies of the Democratic Party and the larger political system, but this has its risks, as it can radicalize those who are excluded. On the other hand, what if a populist candidate were let through? Undoubtedly the centrists would try to charm, buy off, or threaten the populist (already we are seeing this happen with de Blasio) and this might even work, but at the expense of infuriating the said populists' base. And what if the populist won, and even tried to move forward on a program? What then? I suspect the center would work with the right through all possible avenues--the legislature, the judiciary, the media, etc--to frustrate and even topple the populist. I wonder if the Democratic Party could survive this scenario. At least since Bill Clinton (or even Jimmy Carter) the Democratic Party has pushed center-right policies while offering shelter to various social movements (feminism, civil rights, labor, etc) terrified of the right wing and its strength in the Republican Party. As the focus of popular anger turns towards economic policies, the centrists increasingly seem like the enemy. This is the contradiction the Democrats will struggle to contain.