The Universal Notebook: What it means to be a Social Democrat

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“Democratic candidates have been losing because they have too few ideas, not too many rivals.”

So read the subhead of a guest editorial independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron wrote last month in response to persistent calls for him to get out of the race. Caron is trying to avoid the spoiler label, but his suggestion that Democrats lack ideas is nonsense. Democratic ideas are America’s ideas – freedom, justice and equality.

The problem is not that Democrats lack ideas, but that they fail to promote them effectively. Republicans come up with brilliantly simple-minded ideas – Build a wall, Just say no, Lock her up, America first. Republicans are all black and white oversimplification, while Democrats are all gray complexities.

This being the case, probably the best thing Democratic Party leadership could do for the tired party and this torn country is to get out of the way. Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have all become liabilities, embodiments of weakness and failure, easy targets for attack ads.

So is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, the new face of the Democratic Party? The 28-year-old Latina from the Bronx upset Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s primary, signaling to some that the insurgent Bernie Sanders wing is taking power from the Democratic establishment. Ocasio-Cortez is everywhere in the media these days, even though she has not yet been elected to Congress.

Conservatives, of course, go apoplectic whenever the term “socialist” pops up. That’s why Rep. Bruce Poliquin is desperately and dishonestly trying to label 2nd District challenger Jared Golden, a far better man than Poliquin, “a young radical who embraces a socialist agenda.”

But Golden is not a Democratic Socialist and, in any event, what Democratic Socialists support is not state ownership of industry and a centrally planned economy, but a social system designed to promote justice in the context of a liberal democracy and a capitalist economy. That’s the American ideal.

I am not a DSA member, but that’s what I want, too. I will not, however, be voting for Democratic senatorial candidate Zak Ringelstein, who has been endorsed by the DSA. I probably agree with most of his positions, but you have to pay your dues at the local and state level before you run for U.S. Senate. You can’t start at the top.

When I was growing up in Westbrook in the 1960s, the majority of the workers at the S.D. Warren paper mill were Democrats, the majority of the managers Republicans. The Democratic Party was the party of the workers. The Republican Party was the party of the bosses. The GOP is still the party of the bosses, but somewhere along the line the Democratic Party lost touch with the workers.

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election largely because she narrowly lost three key Rust Belt states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. And the reason she lost those three states was that President William Jefferson Clinton essentially became a free market Republican once in office and sold out American workers and labor unions.

The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993 did create the “giant sucking sound” that Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot warned about, but it was not just the sound of American jobs going overseas, it was the sound of the Democratic Party going down the drain.

Add NAFTA to the financial deregulation that Clinton presided over in the 1990s – repealing banking protections and deregulating the commodities market – and the table was set for economic ruin in the 21st century. Clinton Democrats forsook the working class to embrace Wall Street and big banks. When the unregulated market collapsed under the weight of toxic mortgage-backed securities, President Barack Obama had to come to the rescue – of the corporations, but not of the workers.

Obama bailed out the auto industry and the big banks, but he did nothing for American homeowners with mortgages underwater. Perhaps Obama’s greatest failure in office was not punishing the men who created the 2008 financial crisis. Their banks were too big to fail, and they were too rich to jail. No wonder working stiffs ended up voting for a bloviating billionaire, apparently mistaking him for their populist savior.

The Democratic Party needs to re-establish itself as the party of the people, its core values being economic justice, civil rights and environmental protection.

The big ideas that Democrats need to champion are a single-payer health-care system, free public college tuition, true immigration reform, major investments in infrastructure and sustainable new technologies, and a meaningful response to the climate crisis.

These are all things no Republican will ever deliver and all Americans desperately need.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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