#DemDebate: Pretending to Be Working Class Heroes

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In Tuesday’s debate, the center wing of the party tried to formulate the message that the “pragmatic” wing of the party was on the side of the working class.

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Elizabeth Warren is now the one to beat in the Democratic Party primary. At least that is what the rest of the candidates seem to think. After a great fundraising quarter, Warren is nearly matching Sanders with 24.6 million in campaign funds and she is now essentially tied with Biden in the polls. In previous debates, the candidates focused their attacks on Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, so Warren could side-step confrontations. That ended on Tuesday when several candidates polling in the single digits tried to save their flailing campaigns by attacking Warren. 

Amy Klobuchar, for instance, said she wanted to give Warren a “reality check.” Kamala Harris demanded that Warren call on Twitter to deactivate Trump’s account, a bizarre neoliberal interpretation of “taking on big tech.” And Pete Buttigieg broke with his wholesome Mr. Nice Guy image to go on the attack against all of the candidates but especially Elizabeth Warren. After she refused to concretely answer the question of whether middle-class taxes would go up to pay for Medicare for All, Buttigieg said, “Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer.” 

And to some degree, Buttigieg is right. When it comes to her Medicare for All plan, Warren has in fact been quite vague. For example, she never said that health care will be free at the point of service and made no reference to single payer healthcare. On other issues too, Warren generally responded with a fuzzy idealism. This is likely because she wants to appease large donors and PACs, from whom she has already said she will take money in the general election while at the same time appealing to an increasingly progressive Democratic Party base.  

“We Cannot Wait for Purity Tests”

Of course, all of these attacks on Warren are coming from the right of the Democratic Party, with most of the candidates on the debate stage attempting to brand themselves as the protectors of the working class. They counter posed pragmatism to idealism, arguing that the real soldiers for the middle and working class are the pragmatists. Pete Buttigieg declared, “We cannot wait for purity tests. We have to just get something done.” 

They painted anything other than tiny tweaks to the status quo as impossible fantasies. Amy Klobuchar in particular insisted, “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.” The perverse message was that not fighting for Medicare for All is more in the interests of working and middle class people because it is “realistic.” 

Similarly, Beto O’Rourke said when discussing the wealth tax: “Sometimes I think that Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions.” The idea that O’Rourke, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar can unite the American people to get something done is, of course, a tough sell given that they haven’t even been able to “bring together” more than 5% of voters in their own party, much less the rest of the country. The momentum is on the side the more  progressive wing. 

This idea of “unity” culminated in the biggest waste-of-time question of the night when the moderators applauded Ellen DeGeneres for being friends with George W. Bush. For the Democrats, it was an opportunity to show that they are willing to “reach across the aisle.” In this spirit, there were also two mentions of John McCain and a mention of Rand Paul. The message from CNN and most of the candidates on the debate stage was clear: seek unity around watered down proposals to rebuild a “Never Trump” coalition. 

During this election cycle, like the previous one, it is clear that the energy and enthusiasm are not in the center. Donald Trump seems to know this and is running a right-wing campaign that will energize sectors of his base. Yet, much of the Democratic Party camp is attempting, yet again, to rebuild the center, claiming that the progressive wing is unelectable. This means an asymmetrical polarization with the Republican party leaning hard right and most of the Democrats attempting to hold onto a mythical and disappearing center.

The Democrats: masters of hypocrisy

Despite this embrace of the center, the Democratic Party and its candidates were all attempting to style themselves as champions of the working class, arguing that they are for unions, healthcare, and closing the wealth gap. In this sense, the Sanders and Warren rhetoric continued to set the agenda. The majority of the Democratic Party field uses progressive rhetoric to offer hollowed-out versions of Sanders and Warren’s proposals. However, while Sanders and Warren do provide proposals for deeper reforms, they, like the rest of the Democratic Party, are seeking an impossible alliance between workers and sectors of the capitalist class, which will always favor capitalist profit. 

For example, everyone on the debate stage bemoaned the broken healthcare system. Medicare for All in the hands of the center-right Democrats becomes Medicare for All who want it. Of course, no one, not even Sanders, brought up public and nationalized healthcare run by nurses, doctors, and patients. For socialists, Medicare for All could be an intermediate measure on that road, but for Warren and Sanders it is an end in itself as they seem to have no problems with private control of the healthcare industry. 

Likewise, all candidates lamented the massive wealth disparities that plague the country while nearly all of them are the beneficiaries of billionaire campaign donations. Having bought his way onto the debate stage, Tom Steyer had the gall to complain about the influence of billionaires in government. Even Joe Biden said, “We are going to raise taxes on the wealthy. We’re going to reduce tax burdens on those who are not.” Warren and Sanders are the only candidates with concrete proposals around a wealth tax. Sanders advocates a tax rate of up to 8% for those with wealth above $10 billion. Warren proposes a 2% annual tax on net worth between $50 million and $1 billion, with an additional 1% on net worth above $1 billion. 

Hesitant to speak directly against Warren and Sanders’ proposals, the majority of Democratic Party candidates argued for tax breaks for the middle and working class and for repealing the Republican tax breaks for the wealthy. Of course, that is not the same as a wealth tax. The Democrats and particularly Klobuchar wanted us to believe that these as different roads to the same end, saying, “But I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.” 

The fact that Klobuchar can attempt to blur the lines between her proposal and the wealth tax proposed by Warren and Sanders demonstrates the desire for thoroughly neoliberal candidates to portray themselves as champions of the working class. At the same time, it demonstrates just how tepid the wealth tax proposals really are. While Bernie Sanders says there shouldn’t be billionaires, his proposal is an 8% tax rate on billionaires. But billionaires really should not exist, and neither should capitalists, who live off of working-class labor. 

Most of the candidates spoke against the influence of big money in politics, which was dubbed corruption by most candidates, “unfettered capitalism” by Sanders, “a disease of capitalism run amok” by Yang. But the solution given by every single candidate was a more or less rigid version of “accountable capitalism,” the phrase used by Warren. These solutions range from a general anti-corporate rhetoric to Sanders’ New Deal liberalism. However, none of the candidates identify capitalism itself as the problem, only capitalism’s excesses. 

The consensus on imperialism 

While they disagreed on tactics, the entire Democratic Party field, including Warren and Sanders, agreed that the United States must maintain its role as the biggest imperialist power in the world. Discussing the Kurds in Northern Syria, everybody on the debate stage helped to perpetuate the myth of the United States as a global source of protection for the oppressed. 

Corey Booker’s contribution to the subject was emblematic of this consensus: “This president is turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.” Booker went on to exalt war hawk James Mattis, whom Biden also complimented. Bernie Sanders maintained this rhetoric, saying, Now, you tell me which country in the world will trust the word of the president of the United States. In other words, what he has done is wreck our ability to do foreign policy, to do military policy, because nobody in the world will believe this pathological liar.” 

It is clear that the Democrats all agree that the United States generally acts honorably in the pursuit of global human rights. In reality, the United States has no claim to “moral leadership.” It is the largest force of death and destruction in the world and all socialists should work to stop the ability of the U.S. “to do foreign policy.”

Where was impeachment? 

One topic that received far less time than one might have anticipated is the issue of impeachment. Over the past week, the impeachment inquiry vastly overshadowed the Democratic Party primary. Unsurprisingly, it was the first question of the night’s debate. Of course, nearly all the Democrats came out in favor of impeachment and argued for it on the basis of the Ukraine leaks and the Mueller investigation. No one argued that Trump should be impeached on the basis of his criminal policies like the child separations or on the basis of the numerous sexual assault allegations against him. 

The impeachment talk put Joe Biden in the hot seat. Donald Trump has positioned himself as draining the swamp, and now Biden and his son are “the swamp.” Biden refused to go into the discussion, claiming his son’s statement “speaks for itself” and that he never discussed Ukraine with his son. If the candidates had stayed on the topic and the moderators had pressed the issue, it could have gotten ugly for Biden. Warren or Sanders could have argued that no one should be making 50,000 dollars a month, much less the vice president’s son. Surely, we can imagine 2016 Donald Trump launching that kind of attack on a rival Republican Party candidate. The Democratic Party candidates, however, chose to be team players, steering clear of the discussion, perhaps because it would look like taking Trump’s side, or, more likely, because it would reflect badly on the entire party. 

What was left out

Although much ground was covered in the three-hour debate, there were very important issues that went entirely untouched. Climate change was perhaps the most jarring absence. After all, climate disaster is an existential threat, U.S. multinationals are the primary culprits of climate change, and only two weeks ago, some of the biggest protests in recent history took place in response to the climate crisis. Apparently, this topic was not one that CNN wanted to cover.

Likewise, immigration was not covered—despite Trump’s continued attacks on immigrants and the likelihood that this will continue to be a centerpiece of his campaign. Nor were police brutality and racism addressed—despite the news about the Amber Guyger’s terribly short prison sentence and the murder of Atatiana Jefferson in her own home (which Julian Castro, to his credit, did mention). Although many of the candidates were at a Human Rights Campaign event only a few days before, they didn’t talk about the epidemic of murders of trans women. Nor did they talk about the education system, although Chicago teachers were gearing up for a strike. 

The only region beyond the U.S. that got any mention was Turkey and Northern Syria. The massive mobilizations in Ecuador and the protests in Haiti were absent from the discussion, though both nations are rising against the austerity plans imposed by the U.S.-controlled IMF. It seems that CNN felt that there were much more important questionslike who’s your most unlikely friend. 

Is Bernie back?

In the previous debate, Bernie Sanders gave a lackluster performance. Only a few weeks later, he suffered a heart attack, putting his electability into question. In fact, his physical condition was explicitly discussed on the debate stage: Is Sanders too old to run? Will his health hold up? The truth is that Sanders had quite a good night, providing clear answers and cracking jokes. Some are claiming he was the winner of the debate. 

But Sanders failed to differentiate himself from Elizabeth Warren. The Warren/Sanders bloc held firm, but with Warren in the limelight for the first time. Although Sanders said in an interview with ABC News that he was different from Warren because she was a capitalist and he was not, he didn’t bring this up in the debate. Because of his refusal to distinguish himself from Warren, it is unlikely that he will be able to raise his poll numbers by taking voters from the Warren camp. But as the debate was winding down, another factor came into play: three of the four members of “the Squad” endorsed Bernie Sanders, a blow to the Warren camp, which undoubtedly wanted the endorsement from these popular members of Congress. It is possible that this endorsement, coupled with Bernie’s strong debate performance, is enough to make him the  frontrunner? 

For now, we can conclude that Tuesday’s debate reflected a shift in the Democratic Party primary: Elizabeth Warren is currently the frontrunner, and the rest of the Party has taken notice. The other candidates to her right are seeking to both win over working-class voters and at the same time hollow out the most progressive proposals by the Sanders/Warren camp. In addition, Warren’s popularity points to an asymmetrical polarization: Donald Trump is not afraid to shift to the far right by putting racial hatred front and center. By contrast, while neither Warren nor Sanders offers a real alternative to the miseries of capitalism, Warren is even more moderate than Sanders. She may indeed be the candidate acceptable to capital, the candidate, that is, who can both harness the progressive energy of the moment while at the same time weakening the more far-reaching reformist proposals that have been put forth.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.