The popular progressive understanding of the Republican party and conservative movement is something like this: It is, at heart, a conspiracy of corporate oligarchs who use a collection of so-called social issues — religion, bigotry, racial resentment, anti-immigrant sentiment — to stir up the rubes in support of its own parochial economic agenda, tricking them into “voting against their own interests” in the popular progressive phrase. Wall Street guys pulling the strings and writing the checks, foot-washing snake-handlers manning the barricades.
This isn’t really true, of course, as anybody who ever has spent any time around actual Republican politicians or conservative activists knows.
But might something similar actually be true of the Democratic party?
A few progressives have been wondering aloud this week why it is that Democrats have stirred themselves to oppose, with steely resolve, the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, while more or less going along with the nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. DeVos (a friend of this magazine) may have ideas about school choice that don’t comport with the views of some Democrats (though they comport very much with the views of other Democrats, particularly those of the black urban middle class), but she is a relatively anodyne figure, a philanthropist and activist who has made a career out of doing what she can to look after the interests of children who don’t have the advantages enjoyed by her own. Sessions, on the other hand, is — their view, not mine — a racist as well as a radical who as attorney general would be empowered to do real damage to all that progressives hold dear.
So why does DeVos get the Eichmann treatment while Sessions just gets a rap on the knuckles?
What’s the matter with Camden?
Here is one possibility: The Democratic party in reality is the cartoon version of the Republican party stood on its head, with cold-eyed self-serving economic interests using the so-called social issues to stir up the rubes while they go about seeing to their own paydays and pensions.
The economic interests attached to the Democratic party are fairly easy to identify: people who work for government at all levels. You may come across the occasional Ron Swanson in the wild, but when it comes to the teachers’ unions — which are the biggest spender in U.S. politics — or the AFSCME gang or the vast majority of people receiving a taxpayer-funded paycheck, the politics of the public sector is almost exclusively Democratic. And what they care about isn’t social justice or inequality or diversity or peace or whether little Johnny can use the ladies’ room if his heart tells him to — they care about getting paid.
Here’s an interesting point of comparison. When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he opposed gay marriage. So did Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Obama’s opposition was especially interesting in that he cited religious doctrine in support of his position: “My faith teaches me . . . that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. For me, as a Christian, it is also a sacred union — God’s in the mix.” George W. Bush, who was derided as a fundamentalist bigot by lifestyle liberals, never said anything like that. (Dick Cheney was well to the left of the Democrats on the question.) But there was barely a murmur of opposition to Obama’s staking out this ground “on the wrong side of history.” Social issues are for the naïfs.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama gave an off-the-record speech to a group of Wall Street financial executives in which he shared his frustration with the sclerotic and bureaucratic state of American education, and declared that he was close to publicly endorsing a nationwide school-choice program. (This is according to one of those in attendance.) The moneymen were enthused by this, but nothing ever came of it. In fact, Obama went hard in the opposite direction, working to gut the school-choice program in Washington, D.C., a popular program, which benefited urban black families almost exclusively. You don’t have to be a hard-boiled cynic to suspect that this has to do with the manpower and money-power of the teachers’ unions, who could have done a great deal more than they did to elevate Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama that year.
Justice is one thing, but getting paid is the real issue.
Think about that: If you are the candidate of the Left running in the party of the Left, you could, in 2008, run against equal rights for gay people — but you could not, if you had any sense of self-preservation, run in favor of school choice. Justice is one thing, but getting paid is the real issue.
That probably explains why Betsy DeVos is getting the business and Jeff Sessions really isn’t.
Democrats are in an awful position just now. Hillary Rodham Clinton was beaten by Donald Trump; Republicans control the Senate; Republicans control the House; Republicans are about to put an Antonin Scalia–style constitutionalist on the Supreme Court, a development made possible by the Democrats’ weak position in the Senate; Republicans control 34 of 50 governorships; Republicans control the great majority of state legislative houses. What, exactly, are the Democrats up to? Dressing up as vaginas and inviting Madonna to rile up the rubes with empty speeches in D.C. while the real power in the party — the public-sector unions — concentrate their fire on . . . Betsy DeVos, who believes that there should be some choice and accountability in public education.
What is the Democratic party? Is it a genuine political party, or is it simply an instrument of relatively well-off government workers who care about very little other than securing for themselves regular raises and comfortable pensions?
If I were a progressive, I’d be curious about that.