Some of my best friends are Democrats, and they haven’t embraced this party loyalty foolishly or without due consideration. In their minds, they have their own best interests — and the interests of this nation — at heart. When they vote Democratic, donate Democratic and affiliate Democratic, they act with the sincere belief that they are doing the right and noble thing.
Which is why it pains me to say that, whatever reasons they have for embracing the Democratic Party, they are about to be let down by the candidacy — and, if she wins, the presidency — of Hillary Clinton.
I recognize that by saying this, I may be accused of supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump. Not at all. I preferred all the other Republican candidates to Trump, and will not vote for Trump. Rather, I am merely arguing here that the candidacy of Clinton will undermine the purpose, spirit and ideology of the Democratic Party.
And this raises the question: By damaging the very nature of the Democratic Party, will Clinton damage American Jews’ well-known historical affinity to that party? Will Jewish Democratic voters feel compelled to go elsewhere?
Sadly, it will be difficult for many Democrats to contemplate such a question, or to even accept that Clinton is bound to harm the party. Like Republicans who have abandoned their ideology and good sense to embrace Trump, Democrats who embrace Clinton will have demonstrated a lack of self-awareness.
The Clinton-Trump battle will represent the very worst presidential election ever held, with party loyalty mattering more than principle, and personality mattering most of all. And this is a two-way street: Both Democratic and Republican voters have chosen to define their preferences by the preferences of their political rivals.
Trump’s views on a range of issues are antithetical to Republican or conservative dogma, but he nevertheless enjoys the support of a vast majority of Republican voters for the simple reason that he stands for election as a Republican against a Democrat. That isn’t the definition of a political party or a movement; it’s a color war.
It is easiest to see this on the Republican side because the divide between Trump and long-held Republican views and policies and interests are so clear. To listen to Trump’s own (non-bigoted) supporters, the Trump campaign is about a fundamental realignment in American politics. First is the revolt within the Republican Party, of non-elite voters against entrenched Republican ideologues and elected officials — and the non-elite voters have won. Next comes a general campaign that shatters the demographic, socioeconomic and regional divides that have calcified American politics since the Reagan elections — and that has yet to be won. Third comes the governing agenda of Trump should he win — an outcome that Republicans such as myself fear would mean the end of the Republican Party as we have known it, and force our exit from that party.
None of this is unfamiliar to close followers of American politics today. Much has been written about the agonies of the conservative Republicans who loyally and happily supported Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, or Mitt Romney before them. There are many Republicans who supported these candidates and who will now support Trump; but to the few of us holdouts, we see in Trump only the seeds of our party’s destruction, precisely because the party no longer will stand for the values, principles and policies we hold dear and believe are the right ones for this nation.
The Sanders Revolt
But what of the Democrats? What happens if Clinton is victorious? Is she a continuation of the Democratic Party’s interests and heritage? Does she stand on an ideological continuum that stretches back to even before Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency? Is she the natural inheritor of the party’s progressive heritage for public policy, ideology and governance?
Clearly, a meaningful portion of Democrats don’t think so. The campaign of Bernie Sanders was always a rebuke to Clinton — it could never be said that Sanders’s appeal was personality-driven. His primary appeal is ideological: He represents a vision for the Democratic Party that a great portion of Democratic voters feel the party has abandoned.
In the eyes of its own members, the Democratic Party is the party of the little guy — a party of shared prosperity and equality for all. It is a party that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It is a party that sees itself as leading the evolution of the American system and the American government’s responsibilities. This is an evolution that, in the minds of progressives, is unrelentingly leftward. This is a party seeking to redress the wrongs of the past — or the imagined wrongs of the past — and to fight injustice however it is defined in any moment. It is a party that sees great power in the collective, whether in the motto of “It takes a village” or “Yes we can” or “Stronger together.”
But even in the party’s preference for the collective over the individual, the Democratic Party has to make choices. We live in a world of competing claims to political influence and power, and the appeal to the collective as a virtue in and of itself is only so strong.
The collective must hold political power, and that doesn’t happen without concentrated efforts by dedicated — and self-interested — partisans. Thus the Democratic Party has become a quilt of overlapping and sometimes competing self-interests of identity and ethnicity and policy, where individuals and smaller groups with distinct needs must be elevated over the interests of the greater good. Disagreements among these self-interests are suppressed for the benefit of political unity, which brings political power. When the special interest of the powerful few are weighed against the general interest of the collective, the special interests are often granted preference. That’s politics as it’s played in America, and the Democratic Party is not immune to it — even if Democratic Party voters find that distasteful.
The most important special interest in the Democratic Party is the ideology that serves Democratic leaders. And that ideology is the presumption that there are elites who should govern the affairs of the rest of us. The Democrats in leadership today — not just Clinton, but President Obama as well — believe that they know what citizens need and don’t need. The party is moving steadily toward authoritarian utopianism, a peculiar form of faith-based governing in which Democrats only have faith in the preconceptions of their leaders. They don’t suffer disagreement over these preconceptions, and ascribe to their own elite an authority that borders on religious vision. Today’s Democratic Party therefore doesn’t trust Americans at large to make better decisions on their own, whether about health care, or housing markets, or loans, or any number of highly individualized decisions. They feel that left to their own devices, Americans would either make the wrong decisions or be victimized by nefarious forces or both.
It is a party that believes in more fully binding each citizen to the protective powers of the State, thereby creating millions more dependent on federal government largesse. It is a party that views failures of the State — the abuse of veterans by the Veterans Administration, the poisoning of a pristine river by the Environmental Protection Agency, the failure of the State Department to protect its diplomats — as evidence that these functions are not funded well enough, as if more money in the hands of incompetents would yield a different result.
So, even though the Democratic Party sees itself as the party of change, it is a party that is deeply reactionary when it comes to the preservation of its power and policy gains. It is quick to defend government programs that heavily favor the old over the young. It has blocked at nearly every turn efforts to introduce meaningful reforms to our school systems, thus preserving the powers of teacher unions at the expense of the interests of mostly minority schoolchildren. On one of the most central economic challenges facing the middle class — the cost of attending college and the resulting student debt — the Democratic Party ignores the real issue, which is the ruinous economic model of academic bureaucracy, unaccountable administrators and unproductive faculty. The party of change is deaf to the idea of change when it comes to the permanent infrastructure of the party’s power bases.
The Democratic Party does have some centers of comfort that the party will not afflict: state and government unions, rent-seeking corporations, large philanthropic foundations and mass entertainment.
These institutions are dominated by Democrats, and form a power center for the party that it guards zealously. When these institutions are challenged, there is no doubt where the party’s favor ultimately sits — even at the expense of the little guy and others who have long thought the Democratic Party was their great protector. It’s for the greater good of the party’s political power; that is how it has to be.
Ultimately, the vision of the Democratic Party as an egalitarian, power-to-the-people collective is at odds with its choices. While some of that is inevitable, it has never been as problematic as it is right now, as the party steams forward with the nomination of Clinton as its candidate for president.
Clinton and the Little Guy
Much can be said about Hillary Clinton, much has already been said and much yet remains to be said. With every positive there is a corresponding negative. She is experienced — and therefore she has considerable baggage. She has a strong and verifiable record of public service — and she and her husband have traded on that service throughout their lives to create their own wealth and centers of power. She is fiercely loyal — and her loyalty has often blinded her to character flaws and irresponsibility among her closest friends, including her husband. She has weathered significant review and inquiry into her past and artfully eluded prosecution each time — and her artful dodging has left behind a record of demonstrably false utterances and fictional delusions.
But among all the things that dog Clinton, the most damaging is that she has not demonstrated a fealty to the vision that Democratic voters hold of themselves and their party. She does things only paid lobbyists dream of doing — getting people to pay her or her family in money or influence. She has built a self-supporting circle of money and prestige that refreshes itself through her and her husband’s political activities. The Clinton Global Initiative can be rightly defined as an extension of the Clinton influence-peddling and money-making empire; for a large financial gift to an unaccountable tax-free foundation, donors received the favor of a former president and, from 2009-2013, a then-current secretary of state. Holding a position of confidence with the Clintons is a form of insurance — and for rent-seeking corporations, it’s a minor cost of protection for their valuable markets. It was pay-to-play, and everyone knows it.
Incredibly, given this record, the right has routinely gotten Clinton wrong. She is not a wild-eyed idealist, a leftist of leftists, someone who believes in economic redistribution for the sake of economic justice. Far from it. She is comfortable on the liberal side of the continuum but ultimately stands above it. She is a Clintonist — she favors liberal dogma, but will sacrifice it to serve her primary goal, which is herself. Her husband eventually championed multiple policy ideas that violated Democratic Party instincts and principles: On welfare, free trade, a ban on gay marriage, supporting police and increased sentencing for nonviolent crimes, and even fighting distant wars of choice, Bill Clinton was practically a Republican by today’s standards. And there was Hillary Clinton, standing by her man.
On her most recent wrestling match with prosecutors and congressional investigators, Clinton has forced her allies and supporters to accept the flimsiest of defenses against clear wrongdoing. The Democratic Party has always seen itself as the one with the most virtue. Yet here is the Democratic Party’s rising new leader, claiming that she always shared everything with investigators (she didn’t), that she didn’t send known secure communications over an unsecured, private server (she did), and that her gross negligence in handling state secrets was a matter of personal convenience rather than a venal attempt to avoid public disclosure of her emails (it wasn’t).
It is hard to believe that Democrats minted in the post-Watergate period, whose cup of schadenfreude overflowed during various Republican ethical scandals, would willingly sign up to support a candidate who already has a well-earned reputation for thinking that the rules apply only to other people, not to her.
It’s no wonder that the Sanders campaign stood in front of Clinton’s parade toward the nomination and posed a significant hurdle. The Sanders campaign was, in many respects, more in line with the Democratic Party’s heritage as the party of the little guy. Sanders methodically articulated policy ideas drawn from the treasure chest of populist-liberal dogma: opposed to trade agreements; against vigorous law enforcement; a vast expansion of government to pay for and manage free higher education and health care services; higher taxes on nearly all American workers; even more rules restricting American financial services companies; more restrictions on the Federal Reserve’s powers to set monetary policy, and so on.
Sanders, Clinton and the Jews
It’s worth noting that the reason the Democratic Party has shifted decidedly away from its legacy of being the more pro-Israel party is because of its emotional affiliation with the “little guy.” The little guys in the Middle East, in the emotional heart of the left, are the Palestinians. The instinct toward embracing the cause of the Palestinians — at full blossom in the Sanders campaign from its very start — is an emotional response to a superficial understanding of the conflict. But it’s a powerful response, and the Clinton affiliation with Israel and pro-Israel leaders in the Democratic Party is yet another confirmation of Sanders’s narrative: If you want to be with the powerful and the privileged, go with her. If you want to stand up for little guys, stand with me.
Many pro-Israel Jewish Democrats were surprised that Sanders — who is Jewish — was clearly the less friendly of the two major Democrats toward Israel. They should not have been so surprised. A meaningful plurality of American Jews have turned against Israel or Israeli policy, and they are without question the most liberal of liberal voters. But these voters have turned against other things: Western capitalism, private property rights, traditional family structures and gender identity norms, religious organizations and faith-based groups, and so on. The far left of the Jewish community is at the outer edge of the progressive movement — in every sense of the term.
Sanders was a perfect representative for these Jewish voters, for whom Jewish identity matters far less than political identity. For these Sanders voters, Jewish identity is subservient to political identity. Politics, in fact, have replaced faith in the highest reaches of their moral gradients. They have canonized leftist political dogma at the expense of Judaism and Jewishness — and it’s no wonder that wherever Judaism and their politics come into conflict, they choose their politics.
And so it was no surprise to me that Jewish Democrats — the great majority of the American Jewish community — were divided between Sanders and Clinton. Sanders appeals to the highly secular, neo-socialist Jewish left; Clinton to the community’s more moderate, institutionally more powerful cohort.
Sanders built his appeal among the Jewish left (and the rest of the left) by pointing out that America’s economy is a two-lane highway right now, with a high-speed lane for the well-connected and the powerful, and everyone else stuck in place. My Democratic friends enjoy posting a graphic of the Dow Jones Industrial Average since January 2009, Obama’s first month in office. It’s a thing of beauty, to be sure; if you bought a market index fund then, your wealth has more than doubled. But most people don’t own equities directly, and as Sanders will tell you, real median incomes in the United States have steadily fallen over the same period.
Sanders talked about millionaires and billionaires the same way William Jennings Bryan talked about a “cross of gold” being pressed down on labor: scathingly. He indicted the culture of wealth that has taken hold on the gilded coasts, taken hold of the political culture and taken hold of the Democratic Party. He asked the question that many Democrats had begun to ask under President Clinton: “If this is what being a Democrat is about, why do we have a Democratic and a Republican Party? They’re the same thing!”
For progressive Democrats who agreed with Sanders, the political and ethical tradeoffs involved in supporting Clinton are wrenching. Even now that Sanders himself has endorsed Clinton, she will continue to make liberal Democratic voters flinch. Among Jewish Democrats of the most progressive variety, her style of governance and inconstancy of support for liberal causes will be grating.
But in my view, these voters will not be driven from the Democratic Party for now. Far more likely is that these voters will look at matters practically; so long as the Republicans pose a greater threat to their ideological interests, they will stick within the Democratic Party. The only realistic option is to continue to flirt with neo-socialism and Green Party-wannabes, especially at the local level, while they plan a national rebellion.
The only thing that could drive meaningful numbers of Jewish voters out of the party would be the anti-Semitism of the hard left — an anti-Semitism which is expressed in multiple ways, but chiefly on the issue of Israel. (Remember Oberlin professor Joy Karega and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories she posted on social media? Or the attack on gay Jews at the Creating Change conference?) While progressive and highly liberal Jews are able to either explain away this anti-Semitism or make common cause with it, moderate Jewish Democrats could see themselves as unwanted in their own party. For now, Clinton prevents that from happening. But in a future revolution where the hard left wins, the moderate Jewish Democrats — who are among the party’s most active donors and activists — will have to find a new home.
At the moment, Trump isn’t trying to attract these voters — he is trying to pry off those who voted for Sanders. And although progressives dismiss Trump as a caudillo wannabe who makes common cause with anti-Semites and bigots, it is worth considering the possibility that he may have a point. If neither party can be trusted to stand for the little guy, maybe the little guy needs a new party.
Trump and the Little Guy
With all his talent for smash-mouth communication, Trump is telling Sanders’s voters exactly what they have always believed: They need a party who will represent them and not moneyed interests, and he is their guy. As hard as it is for liberals to believe, Trump may have a point here. Trump is much more the candidate of the little guy than Clinton is — at least when it comes to representing the gestalt of the little guy.
He seems to delight in picking fights with the “You can’t say that” crowd, because he knows that America’s “little guy” vote has been told a million times “You can’t say that.” He zings Republican and Democratic leaders alike who hold themselves up as paragons of virtue, because he knows that most citizens assume every politician is a hypocrite or a pretender, and it’s just a matter of time before that assumption is confirmed.
He tells voters of both parties that they’ve been played — played for their votes, played for their tax dollars and played for their party devotion. He points to trade agreements, and to the soothing promises from the men and women who negotiate them, as giveaways for already successful multinational corporations. He cites Clinton’s exasperating relationship with the truth, and in her now repeated untruths he finds plenty of material to remind voters that their instinct about her — and most politicians — is right: They lie and they get away with it.
Against these charges, Clinton has no coherent argument — and so she changes the topic. She goes to the politics of identity, and rallies women around the history-making potential of her candidacy. She goes to the politics of fear — which happens to be one of the Democratic Party’s most successful cards — and says that Trump represents the worst of America’s nativist, racist and bigoted past and present. She will hammer at Trump’s credibility as someone who cares about the little guy by pointing to the vast economic waste he has left behind in his corporate career. She will do what politicians like her will do: She will go negative, she will attack and she will not relent.
Tension in Democratic Hearts
That may prove to be a winning strategy. Trump has to flip millions of voters to achieve what he hopes to achieve — turn nonvoters into voters, turn Democrats into Republicans, turn Republicans like me into Republicans like him. That task will be challenging, to put it mildly. And nothing so far indicates that he has the team, cash or momentum needed to get the job done.
So that leaves Clinton in the enviable position of our likely next president — and her Democratic Party supporters as her enablers. Will that victory leave her and her party in a stronger position? I’d argue that she will most certainly be the weakest incoming president in recent memory. Her mandate from her voters will be “Don’t screw it up” — don’t give up an inch of Obama’s liberal achievements, don’t ruin these achievements by managing them poorly and, most of all, don’t give the Republicans any more scandals to help them rebuild their political future.
But a Clinton White House will face unavoidable tension: Those same Obama policies will have to be sustained at greater cost to the little guy they’re pledged to help. To give one basic example: The penalties and costs attached to Obama’s health care insurance program — a program designed to greatly reduce the threat of financial ruin due to medical costs — are scheduled to rise steadily, and hit those least able to sustain the hit. This was by design: As with many policies enacted by Obama, the true cost will arrive long after he has left the White House.
It will be the next president who has to cope with the crashing markets for individual health insurance, in which the little guy would need to purchase insurance if the employer doesn’t offer it. It will be the next president who will have to inform the public that they need to pay more in taxes to cover the quickly rising costs of subsidies for insurance companies — not exactly the most popular cause with little guys. It will be the next president who will deal with the crisis in health care delivery when tens of thousands of doctors retire or withdraw from the Medicare and Medicaid programs because of ongoing cost controls and overwork. And that’s just on Obama’s signature policy achievement of health care reform.
These are not idle predictions — they are merely extensions of existing trends in health care policy. Under Obama, Democratic loyalists discounted anyone who dared point out these trends as a policy hack. But the evidence will surely gather, as it has been gathering. And the next president — especially the next Democratic president — will not have a personal stake in denying them as partisan trifles.
This is where the anguish of the Democratic Party will become most severe: Those policies created to support the little guy are crushing the little guy.
And so whatever Democrats think of themselves, they can’t escape the judgment of the millions of Americans who once believed that the Democrats have their back by instinct. This is the party of Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson — a party of big government. Now it’s become the party of big everything. Big media. Big corporations. Big donors. Big fundraising. Big law firms. Big regulations. Big egos. It’s hard to imagine Truman or Hubert Humphrey or Jimmy Carter or Paul Tsongas — all modest, self-effacing and thoroughly liberal leaders — recognizing themselves in this party of power, of concentrated wealth, of grand and complex policy ideas that favor large business interests and tilt markets toward the favored few.
It’s a party that is good at what it does: It is good at concentrating and wielding power, at swaying the culture, at ingratiating itself in major institutions of society. It is a party that has made peace with large corporations and brought many of them to heel on certain issues central to its governing agenda — namely, environmentalism and social liberalism.
The party’s leadership no longer tries to restrain the coercive powers of an overweening state — far from it; the Democratic Party itself is now the party of coercion. The environmental movement requires a forced repression of industry and economic activity, and now it wants to criminalize dissent over matters of environmental policy. Seizure of private assets, denunciation of individual dissent — these are the habits of a political elite that has lost confidence in the wisdom of the people it says it represents. But everywhere, the Democratic Party’s leadership shows it has no respect for the people it says it represents.
Clinton will not disrupt any of these trends. In fact, she is likely to reinforce them. She will favor those she has always favored: the powerful and the wealthy, the well-connected and those wishing to be further well-connected. She has a decades-long record of following that pattern, and she certainly will not turn away from deeply set habits. She will deny the undeniable. She will disassemble on matters of fact. She will withdraw from the public eye any form of communication she deems private — and she alone will judge. She will hide from the public the people who have access to her and her administration. She will do all these things because she has already done all these things. There is no sense pretending she will change her habits.
That is why the Clinton candidacy will represent the end of the Democratic Party as it sees itself no less than the Trump candidacy represents the end of the Republican Party as it has seen itself.
The Democratic Itch
In the case of Trump, the breakup is abundantly clear to see, and no one can deny it — because Trump says exactly what he’s doing. He wants to break the party away from its base. In the case of Clinton, the indications are there to see, but some continue to deny it — because Clinton would never say what she’s doing.
But they are both doing the same thing: They are both taking the two great political parties of America and forcing them down a path of ruinous policy and personal vanity that is at odds with each party’s very soul.
This is already apparent on the Republican side. This may in fact be the end of a great party, although I sincerely hope that’s not the case. But Democratic voters have not sensed that the same thing has happened to them.
Democratic voters who are not Clinton loyalists — and there are many — feel an itch right now. It’s scratching at them, and it has been bothering them for many years as Clinton’s coronation approached. The itch was strong enough to lure someone into the race, and the person they pulled in proved to be a surprisingly strong competitor to Clinton, despite his lack of presidential timber.
Trump is a temporary salve to that itch. He is, despite his appeal to America’s powerless, still a flawed candidate on many levels, and especially in a campaign where identity politics remain a powerful tug. But should Clinton prevail against Trump, that itch will return. It will scratch at the insides of Democratic voters who will look in the mirror and know that whatever else they thought their party is supposed to stand for, its future rests in the hands of a leader whose record for dishonesty and personal self-enrichment is clear and undeniable. The mandate they will have handed her — “Don’t screw it up” — is not only uninspiring; it is precisely the kind of mandate that permits a leader to do virtually anything she wants to do to prevent disappointment.
What follows then will be eerily familiar to those who have watched the breakup of the Republican Party: There will be an insurgency — a well-funded and well-organized one. One that will benefit from a tailwind of discontent with the status quo, an undefined anger at the indulgences of the powerful and an impulse toward tearing things down. The Democratic Party will be its first victim.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies and is a former White House speechwriter for George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter @NoamNeusner