Why the Democratic Establishment Can’t Stand Rashida Tlaib

Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t like Rashida Tlaib. But the conflict isn’t just about personalities. It’s the inevitable result of the fact that the Democratic Party coalition contains forces whose interests are diametrically opposed to each other.

US Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) listens as acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on July 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

On Friday, centrist pundits and party establishment loyalists wagged their fingers and clucked their tongues as a video circulated showing democratic-socialist congresswoman Rashida Tlaib booing Hillary Clinton. It was disappointing, they said: disrespectful, unbecoming, and, worst of all, a threat to party unity.

Never mind that the reason Tlaib felt compelled to boo Clinton in that moment — though, of course, there are many other good reasons — was that Clinton herself had recently been nursing a grudge in public, calling Tlaib’s political ally and fellow democratic socialist Bernie Sanders a widely disliked loser and spoiler on the eve of the Iowa caucus.

Many on the Left leapt at the opportunity to point out that Clinton’s interventions themselves had sown division and inflamed tensions in the Democratic Party. They correctly observed that centrists who call for party unity are often perfectly content to openly denigrate, dismiss, and actively disempower the Left. “Who’s posing the bigger threat to party unity?” some asked.

It’s satisfying to highlight centrist hypocrisy. But the Left should proceed with caution around the question of party unity. If we elevate it uncritically, we risk missing something crucial: all the conflict we’re experiencing now is actually an inevitable result of the class structure of the Democratic Party itself, which makes unity neither possible nor, from the socialist perspective, desirable.

The Democratic Party represents Blue Cross and people whose medical claims are denied by Blue Cross. It represents Blackstone and people evicted by Blackstone.

The Democratic Party represents banks that foreclose on homes, while also claiming to represent people struggling to pay their mortgages. It represents corporate polluters, while also professing to represent working-class children who are at risk of developing asthma from corporate pollution. When the side that has more money and structural power in the economy pursues its own interests, it does so at the expense of the side with less money and power.

The party is a powder keg of class conflict.

Viewed in this light, the tension we’re witnessing now is healthy. The disunity on display is a sign that the pro-capitalist Democratic Party establishment is currently facing a credible challenge, and the dominance of corporate interests is being called into question.

There are different schools of thought on the Left about how to navigate this contradiction within the Democratic Party — that is, whether the capitalist elements can ever be subdued enough for the party to genuinely represent the interests of the working class. Whatever conclusion we may reach on that question, the undeniable truth is that so long as opposing interests are present in the party, the party is not unifiable.

Temporary coalitions may need to be built and maintained for electoral purposes, but make no mistake: as long as these coalitions consist of both the exploited and their exploiters, there will be no lasting peace.