Why Is It Always the Wrong Time to Criticize Democrats From the Left?

Progressives are being told by the Democratic Party to shut up until after the election. Meanwhile, corporate Democrats are trumpeting how far right they are — a message that could demoralize Democratic voters and depress turnout.

Disgraced former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on May 9, 2018 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

No doubt, you have been told to keep quiet. Just put on your big boy pants, they say, and find the impulse control to at least muzzle yourself for the next seventy-one days until the election happens. After that, fine — then and only then will you maybe be permitted to speak your mind and politely ask the Democratic Party to match its rhetoric with its policy agenda.

But until then, you are told to “shut the hell up and grow up,” as former Barack Obama and Mike Bloomberg pollster Cornell Belcher put it during an emblematic MSNBC segment berating progressives.

This kind of hectoring has become a defining part of the Democratic Party’s culture. As the late great journalist Bill Greider lamented in this must-watch clip: “The way the Democratic Party is run now for quite a number of presidential cycles is they pick a nominee in a kind of half-assed process that doesn’t really represent much of anybody, and then they tell everybody to just shut up — don’t bring up anything that will complicate life for your nominee . . . shut up, turn off your brains.”

There’s a superficial logic to this call for omertà — after all, Donald Trump is destroying everything and he must be defeated. But here’s the problem: the demand to shut up is only being aimed at the progressive base of the party, while the corporate wing floods the zone with rhetoric that could de-motivate voters.

Indeed, at the very moment many good progressives are blunting their criticism and making clear that defeating Trump is of utmost importance, corporate Democrats aren’t being asked to wait or hold their tongues. In fact, they are doing the opposite: Rahm Emanuel — who has been advising Joe Biden — just went on television to show that the corporate wing of the party is intent on using the stretch run of the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime™ not to doggedly focus on actually winning the election, but to instead try to predetermine postelection policy outcomes.

Emanuel and his ilk depict themselves as evincing a nonideological “just win, baby” attitude. But they are most decidedly pushing a very clear corporate ideology — and they are doing so in dangerously divisive ways that could depress the big turnout that’s desperately needed to defeat Trump.

“There’s No New Green Deal, There’s No Medicare For All”

The larger dynamic at play was exemplified by Emanuel’s television appearance on a CNBC segment dubbed “Democrats’ 2020 Agenda: What’s at stake for business?” As progressives are being told to keep quiet and not even so much as tweet their concerns, Emanuel used the platform to demand that during this health care and climate emergency, a prospective Biden administration must reject the two major initiatives that polls show are popular.

“Two things I would say if I was advising an administration,” said Emanuel, who left the Chicago mayoralty in disgrace after his city officials suppressed a video of the police murder of a teenager. “One is there’s no new Green Deal, there’s no Medicare For All, probably the single two topics that were discussed the most. That’s not even in the platform.”

Emanuel is hardly a disinterested observer here. As Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel helped kill the idea of a public health insurance option. Now, he works for a Wall Street firm that advises big health care and fossil fuel companies on mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcy restructuring. Earlier this year, Emanuel was set to be part of the featured entertainment at an oil lobbying group’s annual meeting, during a $125-per-plate luncheon with GOP strategist Karl Rove, before the event was canceled due to COVID-19.

Emanuel also isn’t just some random blowhard pundit spewing a corporate line. The Chicago Tribune in May reported that “Emanuel is having regular conversations with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his top advisers about economic policy.”

So when Emanuel is refusing to self-censor in the name of “unity” and making these kinds of divisive declarations that stomp on progressive voters, he’s speaking from a position of real power. And he’s not just tweeting these comments, which could depress voter enthusiasm. He’s making them to a giant national television audience.

Corporate Democrats Are Not Holding Their Tongues

Now sure, you could try to write off Emanuel’s rhetoric as just the anomalous bloviations of a notorious super-villain who pushed NAFTA and anti-immigration policies and who famously called progressives “F–ing retarded.” But sorry, this isn’t a one-off — this is part of a larger pattern over the last few weeks and months.

As progressives are told to keep quiet, Democratic Party officials engineered a convention light on policy proposals, but one that gave prime convention speaking slots to the anti-climate-science, anti-union former Republican governor John Kasich of Ohio and to Colin Powell, who lied America into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. In his CNBC interview, Emanuel said, “This will be the year of the Biden Republican” — and he noted that promoting these figures was designed to help Biden deliberately send an anti-progressive message to voters because “John Kasich and Colin Powell don’t exactly endorse (or) support big-P progressive policies.”

This is the kind of move that is potentially disillusioning for Democratic voters who were previously told that a Democratic victory isn’t just a return to the status quo — but a step forward in strengthening the movements for climate action, workers’ rights, and a more sane foreign policy.

Similarly, as progressives are told to shut the hell up, Democratic aides on Capitol Hill leaked word that the party’s lawmakers may immediately replay the 2009 debacle and block a public health insurance option after the election — a move that is potentially de-motivating for millions of Americans currently losing their private health insurance.

As progressives are told to mute themselves, Team Biden last week publicly signaled that a new Democratic president might prioritize deficit reduction and budget austerity in the middle of an economic crisis — a move that is potentially deflating for millions of voters who have previously been told that President Biden’s agenda makes him the next FDR.

As progressives are told to keep quiet, Biden’s campaign leaks to Politico that the transition team building Biden’s prospective administration is being advised by Wall Street pal Larry Summers and former corporate super-lobbyist Steve Ricchetti.

And as progressives are told to muzzle themselves, corporate Democrats went scorched earth and spent $15 million to intervene in primaries, stymie progressive Democratic candidates, and tilt intraparty contests to business-friendly candidates. Meanwhile, House speaker Nancy Pelosi works to unseat Democratic senator Ed Markey, one of the Senate’s few progressive lawmakers, and to crush a spirited primary challenge to Rep. Richard Neal, who has used his committee chairmanship to block even modest health care reforms.

“Hold the Line. Win. Lead.”

Clearly, this is a coordinated campaign by the right wing of the Democratic Party to prioritize its policy goals above everything — even motivating core Democratic voters to turn out in record numbers during the general election.

The best response to such an onslaught isn’t to ignore it or succumb to dishonest unity-themed demands for silence and fealty. After all, the folks making those demands don’t actually want unity — they are aiming for corporate victory at all costs, even if waging a war for that intraparty win could depress enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket.

The smarter response is to follow the lead of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who last week pushed back against the corporate Democrats’ attempt to resurrect GOP-style austerity politics. Rather than just sitting there and staying silent, she declared that if the party wins in November, it must make “massive investment in our country or it will fall apart. This is not a joke. To adopt GOP deficit-hawking now, when millions of lives are at stake, is utterly irresponsible. Hold the line. Win. Lead.”

The brilliance of this kind of response is that it accomplishes two objectives: it stands up for real change, and it reassures Democratic voters that there are at least some people who are serious about going to Washington and fighting for what the party purports to believe in.

Put another way, it fortifies the progressive agenda, and it helps energize Democratic voters to turn out, because it casts the election not just as a meaningless charade that won’t matter after November because everyone will sell out anyway. It instead depicts the election as an event with high stakes beyond Trump — a turning point that can create new policies that will actually matter in people’s lived experiences.

This is how you avoid the 1988 Dukakis collapse debacle and motivate the big turnout that can defeat Trump.

You don’t tell voters that “nothing would fundamentally change.”

You don’t blast out a story about how the Democratic presidential nominee told his Wall Street donors that he isn’t proposing new legislation to change corporate behavior.

You don’t turn your party convention into a pageant for Republican icons.

You don’t have the disgraced-mayor-turned-Wall-Street-guy advise your presidential candidate — or have him go on corporate America’s favorite television station during a health care emergency and a climate crisis to effectively laugh at progressives who are pushing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

To paraphrase one of the best tweets in history, you don’t try to turn the election into a centrist rally for the idea that better things aren’t possible — and you sure as hell don’t ask progressives to shut up.

You instead focus intently on telling your party’s voters how the election will materially improve their lives.

Of course, the Democratic Party machine and the Biden campaign aren’t really interested in doing that right now. They want to run an anti-Trump campaign, and nothing else.

In light of that, progressives shouldn’t unilaterally disarm and stay silent when corporate Democrats are getting bolder and more brazen about using this preelection period to push their depressing, better-things-aren’t-possible policy agenda.

Staying quiet in the face of that pablum doesn’t help. The real way to help boost turnout and energize voters is for progressives to push back against the corporate propaganda and make clear that, whether the establishment likes it or not, this election can and will offer the opportunity to achieve something even bigger than just getting rid of Trump.