Robert Reich: It’s Time to Dismantle the Democratic Party and Start Anew

Trump’s victory only confirms that the Democratic Party as it stands is a corporate fundraising machine that doesn’t speak to the needs of working people. We need to build a party that actually represents the working class.

Robert Reich November 10, 2016

The Democratic Party of old is dead—it's time for something new. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This piece first appeared at RobertRe​ich​.org

What happened in America Tuesday should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure.

As a first step, I believe it nec­es­sary for the mem­bers and lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee to step down and be replaced by peo­ple who are deter­mined to cre­ate a par­ty that rep­re­sents Amer­i­ca – includ­ing all those who feel pow­er­less and dis­en­fran­chised, and who have been left out of our pol­i­tics and left behind in our economy. 

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as it is now con­sti­tut­ed has become a giant fundrais­ing machine, too often reflect­ing the goals and val­ues of the mon­eyed inter­ests. This must change. The elec­tion of 2016 has repu­di­at­ed it. We need a people’s par­ty – a par­ty capa­ble of orga­niz­ing and mobi­liz­ing Amer­i­cans in oppo­si­tion to Don­ald Trump’s Repub­li­can par­ty, which is about to take over all three branch­es of the U.S. gov­ern­ment. We need a New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that will fight against intol­er­ance and widen­ing inequality. 

What hap­pened in Amer­i­ca Tues­day should not be seen as a vic­to­ry for hate­ful­ness over decen­cy. It is more accu­rate­ly under­stood as a repu­di­a­tion of the Amer­i­can pow­er structure.

At the core of that struc­ture are the polit­i­cal lead­ers of both par­ties, their polit­i­cal oper­a­tives, and fundrais­ers; the major media, cen­tered in New York and Wash­ing­ton DC; the country’s biggest cor­po­ra­tions, their top exec­u­tives, and Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ists and trade asso­ci­a­tions; the biggest Wall Street banks, their top offi­cers, traders, hedge-fund and pri­vate-equi­ty man­agers, and their lack­eys in Wash­ing­ton; and the wealthy indi­vid­u­als who invest direct­ly in politics.

At the start of the 2016 elec­tion cycle, this pow­er struc­ture pro­claimed Hillary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush shoo-ins for the nom­i­na­tions of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties. After all, both of these indi­vid­u­als had deep bases of fun­ders, well-estab­lished net­works of polit­i­cal insid­ers, expe­ri­enced polit­i­cal advis­ers and all the polit­i­cal name recog­ni­tion any can­di­date could pos­si­bly want.

But a fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to the White House. The pres­i­den­cy was won by Don­ald Trump, who made his for­tune mar­ket­ing office tow­ers and casi­nos, and, more recent­ly, star­ring in a pop­u­lar real­i­ty-tele­vi­sion pro­gram, and who has nev­er held elec­tive office or had any­thing to do with the Repub­li­can par­ty. Hillary Clin­ton nar­row­ly won the pop­u­lar vote, but not enough of the states and their elec­tors secure a victory.

Hillary Clinton’s defeat is all the more remark­able in that her cam­paign vast­ly out­spent the Trump cam­paign on tele­vi­sion and radio adver­tise­ments, and get-out-the-vote efforts. More­over, her cam­paign had the sup­port in the gen­er­al elec­tion not of only the king­pins of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty but also many lead­ing Repub­li­cans, includ­ing most of the polit­i­cal­ly active denizens of Wall Street and the top exec­u­tives of America’s largest cor­po­ra­tions, and even for­mer Repub­li­can pres­i­dent George HW Bush. Her cam­paign team was run by sea­soned pro­fes­sion­als who knew the ropes. She had the vis­i­ble and force­ful back­ing of Barack Oba­ma, whose pop­u­lar­i­ty has soared in recent months, and his pop­u­lar wife. And, of course, she had her husband.

Trump, by con­trast, was shunned by the pow­er struc­ture. Mitt Rom­ney, the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 2012, active­ly worked against Trump’s nom­i­na­tion. Many senior Repub­li­cans refused to endorse him, or even give him their sup­port. The Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee did not raise mon­ey for Trump to the extent it had for oth­er Repub­li­can can­di­dates for president.

What hap­pened?

There had been hints of the polit­i­cal earth­quake to come. Trump had won the Repub­li­can pri­maries, after all. More telling­ly, Clin­ton had been chal­lenged in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries by the unlike­li­est of can­di­dates – a 74-year-old Jew­ish sen­a­tor from Ver­mont who described him­self as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist and who was not even a Demo­c­rat. Bernie Sanders went on to win 22 states and 47% of the vote in those pri­maries. Sanders’ major theme was that the country’s polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem was rigged in favor of big cor­po­ra­tions, Wall Street and the very wealthy.

The pow­er struc­ture of Amer­i­ca wrote off Sanders as an aber­ra­tion, and, until recent­ly, didn’t take Trump seri­ous­ly. A respect­ed polit­i­cal insid­er recent­ly told me most Amer­i­cans were large­ly con­tent with the sta­tus quo. The econ­o­my is in good shape,” he said. Most Amer­i­cans are bet­ter off than they’ve been in years.”

Recent eco­nom­ic indi­ca­tors may be up, but those indi­ca­tors don’t reflect the inse­cu­ri­ty most Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue to feel, nor the seem­ing arbi­trari­ness and unfair­ness they expe­ri­ence. Nor do the major indi­ca­tors show the link­ages many Amer­i­cans see between wealth and pow­er, stag­nant or declin­ing real wages, soar­ing CEO pay, and the under­min­ing of democ­ra­cy by big money.

Medi­an fam­i­ly income is low­er now than it was 16 years ago, adjust­ed for infla­tion. Work­ers with­out col­lege degrees – the old work­ing class – have fall­en fur­thest. Most eco­nom­ic gains, mean­while, have gone to top. These gains have trans­lat­ed into polit­i­cal pow­er to elic­it bank bailouts, cor­po­rate sub­si­dies, spe­cial tax loop­holes, favor­able trade deals and increas­ing mar­ket pow­er with­out inter­fer­ence by anti-monop­oly enforce­ment – all of which have fur­ther reduced wages and pulled up profits.

Wealth, pow­er and crony cap­i­tal­ism fit togeth­er. Amer­i­cans know a takeover has occurred, and they blame the estab­lish­ment for it.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty once rep­re­sent­ed the work­ing class. But over the last three decades the par­ty has been tak­en over by Wash­ing­ton-based fundrais­ers, bundlers, ana­lysts, and poll­sters who have focused instead on rais­ing cam­paign mon­ey from cor­po­rate and Wall Street exec­u­tives and get­ting votes from upper mid­dle-class house­holds in swing” suburbs.

Democ­rats have occu­pied the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and for four of those years had con­trol of both hous­es of Con­gress. But in that time they failed to reverse the decline in work­ing-class wages and eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty. Both Bill Clin­ton and Barack Oba­ma ardent­ly pushed for free trade agree­ments with­out pro­vid­ing mil­lions of blue-col­lar work­ers who there­by lost their jobs means of get­ting new ones that paid at least as well.

They stood by as cor­po­ra­tions ham­mered trade unions, the back­bone of the white work­ing class – fail­ing to reform labor laws to impose mean­ing­ful penal­ties on com­pa­nies that vio­late them, or help work­ers form unions with sim­ple up-or-down votes. Part­ly as a result, union mem­ber­ship sank from 22% of all work­ers when Bill Clin­ton was elect­ed pres­i­dent to less than 12%today, and the work­ing class lost bar­gain­ing lever­age to get a share of the economy’s gains.

Bill Clin­ton and Oba­ma also allowed antitrust enforce­ment to ossi­fy – with the result that large cor­po­ra­tions have grown far larg­er, and major indus­tries more con­cen­trat­ed. The unsur­pris­ing result of this com­bi­na­tion – more trade, declin­ing union­iza­tion and more indus­try con­cen­tra­tion – has been to shift polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er to big cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy, and to shaft the work­ing class. This cre­at­ed an open­ing for Don­ald Trump’s author­i­tar­i­an dem­a­goguery, and his presidency.

Now Amer­i­cans have rebelled by sup­port­ing some­one who wants to for­ti­fy Amer­i­ca against for­eign­ers as well as for­eign-made goods. The pow­er struc­ture under­stand­ably fears that Trump’s iso­la­tion­ism will stymie eco­nom­ic growth. But most Amer­i­cans couldn’t care less about growth because for years they have received few of its ben­e­fits, while suf­fer­ing most of its bur­dens in the forms of lost jobs and low­er wages.

The pow­er struc­ture is shocked by the out­come of the 2016 elec­tion because it has cut itself off from the lives of most Amer­i­cans. Per­haps it also doesn’t wish to under­stand, because that would mean acknowl­edg­ing its role in enabling the pres­i­den­cy of Don­ald Trump.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, was Sec­re­tary of Labor in the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion. Time mag­a­zine named him one of the ten most effec­tive cab­i­net sec­re­taries of the 20th cen­tu­ry. He has writ­ten thir­teen books, includ­ing the best­sellers After­shock and The Work of Nations. His lat­est, Beyond Out­rage, is now out in paper­back. He is also a found­ing edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Prospect and chair­man of Com­mon Cause. His new film, Inequal­i­ty for All, is now avail­able on Net­flix, iTunes, DVD and On Demand.
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