Peter Bloom

Centrist Democrats continue to find excuses to stall progress

The potential landmark progressive legislation Build Back Better Bill came one step closer to becoming a reality last week. The House passed the close to $2 trillion compromise version of the bill which still includes sweeping initiatives to combat climate change and strengthen the nation's economic and social safety net. Hailing its passage, President Biden declared that the bill was "fiscally responsible" and "Above all, it puts us back on the path to build our economy back better than before by rebuilding the backbone of America: working people and the middle class."

Perhaps just as powerful was the justification for the bill. This was a commitment to invest in human infrastructure by making the wealthy pay their fair share. While not a full throttled embrace of socialism, it was at least a rejection of the once sacred and unquestioned belief in free-market capitalism. Even the traditionally "moderate" Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proclaimed exuberantly "We will be telling our children and grandchildren that we were here this day…(it is) monumental, it's historic, it's transformative, it's bigger than anything we've ever done. If you care about the planet and how we pass it on, this bill is for you."

Yet even as many celebrated, the roadblocks to progress remain. Steadfast holdout Senator Manchin has already warned ominously that he remained worried about inflation. These concerns should not be taken as economically seriously. Instead, they reflect the willingness of those still faithful to a corporate status to make any excuse necessary to preserve it.

Stalling progress in the wake of the celebrated passage of the Infrastructure Bill, the "Build Back Better" legislation was at risk of being an afterthought. This was not an accident. Progressives had long feared that once the Bipartisan bill for funding the physical rebuilding of the country was signed that the progressive demand for investing in "human infrastructure" would be sidelined and forgotten.

While in the past, progressive legislators would have resigned themselves to moral outrage - they are now in a much stronger political position. The progressive caucus has continued to push hard for the legislation. Their strength in numbers and leverage was shown in the fact that House members kept good on their promise and passed the still substantial spending bill.

Of course, its final passage is far from guaranteed. At every step, Centrists have sought to reduce and delay any attempt to challenge the corporate status quo. Their reasons have varied from that it would explode the debt (despite the bill would actually be close if not completely debt neutral in the long run) to the absurd charge that it would "overheat the economy," to their newest fear that it would contribute to inflation. This latest change came on the heels of their recent demand that the bill first be vetted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

It is telling that the concerns of costs only appear to be important when it comes to actually investing in communities and people. When health, education, and the social safety net need funding, suddenly the government has little or no money to spend. However, when it is the military or tax cuts for the rich, any question of fiscal restraint is forgotten.

Inflated Excuses

While it is always worth countering the truth of these conservative "concerns" over costs, it should be always remembered that they are not being made in anything near good political faith. Indeed, if politicians were really worried about inflation they would focus on "corporate greed" and not much needed public investment. Even once unshakeable supporters of the financial system such as Senator Chuck Schumer are now admonishing "Centrist" holdouts like Manchin, tweeted that "The best way to address inflation is to pass a bill that creates jobs, reduces bottlenecks, and is totally paid for by making sure the wealthy pay their fair share. That's just what we're doing with the Build Back Better Act."

Their real fear is not debt or inflation, it is the possibility that the current status quo will be replaced by one that is more economically just and less politically and financially lucrative for those in the establishment. The "Washington consensus" is crumbling both from populism on the Right and democratic socialism on the Left. The real cause of its demise is a rapidly declining belief in corporate power and capitalism marked by exploding inequality that can no longer be scientifically, economically, or morally justified.

Instead, the goal of these Centrists is at all times is to slow down measures that would hurt their corporate donors and their overall influence. Whereas once, mainstream politicians in both Parties could simply dismiss these efforts as at best "idealist" and at worst "dangerous socialism", the times are a changing. Free-market orthodoxy has been fundamentally shaken and all its defenders can do now is stall any and all attempts at progressive change.

The new tactic of the defenders of this old order is to cling to whatever vestiges of the status quo they can before it disappears entirely. For many Liberals this leads to an understandable embrace of "democratic normalcy" in the face of fascist ethno-nationalism seeming to engulf much of the nation and the world. Yet it also produces "moderates" like Senators Manchin and Sinema who are seeking to hold back progressive policies on climate change, public health, and economic welfare that threaten their benefactors in industries like fossil fuels and big Pharma.

There are, of course, real debates to be had about how to achieve a "human-centred economy." These include the pace and scope of this radical transformation. Measures like "Build Back Better" are just a small step in the right direction. The path to a just society that works and benefits the many as opposed may be long and will certainly encounter many roadblocks along the way. Yet for every step forward, those in the establishment will always work their hardest to stop such progress in its tracks.

The Build Back Better plan must be only the first step toward real radical change

The once ambitious "Build Back Better" legislation is being whittled down daily by right-wing democrats and their unwavering corporate loyalties. Progressives like Sanders have dug in refusing to let the bill be completely gutted - standing firm, for instance, on preserving Medicaid expansion. Progressive leader Nina Turner declared that "If Manchin and Sinema can push their will on the entire U.S. Senate and president, then the progressives—almost 100-strong—should damn sure be able to push their will too. They should not move. They got to hold. There's too much at stake."

At stake, for both sides, is much more than just another legislative negotiation. It finds the nation and the world at a historical crossroads for preserving the planet and advancing the causes of justice, equality, and democracy. The question is the degree to which progressives can compromise without compromising human progress.

Progressive Compromises

From almost the beginning, there were concerns of whether the Bill would ever be a reality. It seemed to most of the Washington establishment and media commentators like a radical left-wing "wish list" that would not even be up for serious political debate. The fact that much of its social democratic "human infrastructure" provisions including almost half a trillion dollars in clean energy investments, expanding universal pre-K programs, and affordable housing now feel close to inevitable is a testament to the growing grassroots and legislative power of progressives.

Still, there remains an almost constant mantra of whether progressives would fall into a "purity" politics and - borrowing from one of Obama's favorite phrases – forget that "perfect is the enemy of the good". Yet it is often forgotten that the 3.5 trillion version of the bill was the compromise. Quoting Sanders, "That $3.5 trillion is already the result of a major, major compromise, and at the very least this bill should contain $3.5 trillion".

There are also deeper compromises at play. Namely, the investment in time, resources, and energy in getting elected and trying to progressively change the Democratic Party and US democracy generally. These efforts came at the cost of building an independent mass left-Wing movement that could both foster more revolutionary transformation and new forms of radical democracy at the workplace and in communities. If nothing else, these events have reinforced how important these struggles are for enacting even basic top-down reform.

Compromised Corporate Centrists

The compromise of Centrist holdouts, of course, us of a very different sort. It is not about the pace and strategy for averting the climate apocalypse or reducing global inequality. Instead, they must balance their need to appear concerned about basic human welfare with their larger commitment to defending corporate interests.

It is easy and right to critique Manchin and Sinema. However, they are the political symptoms of our malignant capitalist disease. Tellingly, it has been reported that they are covering for many "moderate" Democrats who also feel the same but are too ashamed (and politically scared) to publicly admit it.

The implicit bargain between Democrats and corporations is as simple as it is troubling. We will continue to promote profitable wars abroad and destructive free-market capitalism at home in exchange for being allowed minor reforms and the money needed to keep getting elected. Ultimately, it was and is a profoundly morally compromised politics that has put the very future of human survival and wellbeing in severe peril.

Refusing to Compromise on Human Progress

While it looks like they have reached an agreement on a $1.75 trillion bill, the conflict between progressives and Wall Street Democrats has only just begun. For the Left, this is only the first of many steps to delivering radical progress and justice. For those in the extreme Center, they are hoping against all hope that this is the last progressive step against corporations they will ever be made to take.

It is tempting to believe that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice". The recent past paints a much more dispiriting picture. It is one not of slow progress but resistance and co-optation. Progress does not stop at legal proclamations though it can end there.

The lessons to be learned are many and are still emerging. The refusal of the progressive caucus to simply cave is heartening and is a minor victory in and of itself. Nevertheless, the real work is creating such powerful alliances and such a shift in public ideology that the march toward real progress will continue regardless of who is in power.

The Right won in just this fashion - eliminating unions and protest movements while convincing the public that wealth from the 1% would trickle down to everyone. At their peak, both Democrats and Republicans were embracing their values and policies. If we are to "Build Back Better" let alone realize real revolutionary changes to our economic and political system, then it is time to dismantle corporate power at its roots. In the meantime, those negotiating on our behalf may make temporary concessions in the short term but refuse to compromise on human progress.

Joe Manchin is using the spiteful politics of scapegoating to mask his own corruption

The legislative battle between progressives and moderates over the "Build Back Better" spending bill became increasingly personal this week. A West Virginia newspaper published an op-ed by Bernie Sanders in a not so veiled attack on Senator Joe Manchin's refusal to support the plan, declaring that its passage would "finally address the long-neglected crises facing working families and demand that the wealthiest people and largest corporations in the country start paying their fair share of taxes."In response, Manching put out a public statement proclaiming that "this isn't the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state"

It is not surprising that this struggle over the "soul" of the Democratic Party would follow its Senators home. Ultimately, even if mostly fought in the rarified air of Washington DC, a main concern for any lawmaker is ensuring that they are re-elected by their local constituents. Yet what was troubling was the language Manchin used in his counter-attack. The false conservative talking points about the bill are to be expected by a Centre-right Wall Street Democrat but Manchin went further, implying that the desire for a basic social safety net, economic justice, and environmental protection was non-native to West Virginia and merely the views of "outside" progressive agitators.

In making these absurd claims, Manchin was resorting to the same Far-Right populism of Trump. It shows his dangerous ignorance of West Virginia's important radical history of social and economic struggles up to the present. Just as significantly, it reveals the extremist lengths moderates will go to prevent progressive reform.

The Rise of Democratic Nativism

The last decade has witnessed the resurgence of nativism around the world. Far-Right populist regimes from Brazil to the Philippines have channeled popular anger against corporate globalization into a similar virulent politics of ethnonationalism. At the heart of this politics, is the simultaneous belief that there exists a "real people" and a blaming of all social and economic ill on various "outsiders."

In the US, Trump exemplified this nativist threat as a populist demagogue who promised to "Make America Great Again" in the name of real "Americans" who allegedly only he cared about and could protect against. Riding to victory on a wave of white resentment, the enemy were urban professionals, non-whites, and Liberals among other "undesirables" who wanted to destroy a supposedly sacred American way of life. Underpinning this appeal to the proverbial "everyman" is a deeper commitment to maintaining existing racial and class privilege.

The Democrats, and other "Centrist" political parties, are often viewed as the strongest force for defending democracy and the values of liberal tolerance and multiculturalism. Scratching only slightly beneath the surface, though, it becomes evident that they too can fall prey to blaming the threatening "other" when it is in their political interests (and the economic interests of the corporate status quo that they primarily serve). In the wake of almost losing congressional seats during the 2020 election, moderate Democrats immediately pointed the finger at "radical" progressives and their "dangerous" ideas like "defunding the police." Reflected is the more subtle rise of reactionary Democratic nativism.

The Inside Con

The charges by Manchin that somehow Sanders and other progressives who support greater spending on "human infrastructure" are foreign intruders to "real" West Virginian values is just another example of Democrats borrowing liberally from the Far-Right populist playbook. Not surprisingly, his objection to these policies has nothing to do with upholding mythical "West Virginian" values and everything to do with preserving the power of his corporate donors including from the Energy Industry. In a desperate effort to hide his actual elite allegiances, he has localized a national discourse of blame and hate to a state level.

This strategy is especially jarring given how actually popular these measures are even in supposedly deep red states like West Virginia. All Manchin has left to fall back on is a nativist appeal that contains within it the worst types of racism and prejudice.

Indeed, whether intending to or not, by targeting Bernie Sanders he continued in a vile far-Right history of antisemitism linking leftist politics to a global Jewish conspiracy.

What is also truly tragic is that Manchin is sadly reinforcing harmful stereotypes of West Virginians as intolerant and conservative. This is the state that broke away from Virginia rather than join the Confederacy and which was the site of some of the most important and radical labor struggles in the nation's history. Most recently, it was in West Virginia that the "red state revolt" by teachers largely began and was at its most militant.

This points to a core of truth though in Manchin's hateful strategy—he is scared of outsiders as he should be. He fears perhaps above all else that workers and citizens in other states showing solidarity to those in West Virginia who would most benefit from these urgently required progressive policies. His outdated defense of "liberal spending" and preserving "coal jobs" is increasingly stale in the face of a state suffering from growing inequality, poverty, and environmental devastation.

He knows such investment has nothing to do with inflation and will only help problems of chronic unemployment. The real danger though is to the donations to his political war chest and special perks to his family from pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid crisis that has ravaged the state and coal companies that are a dying industry contributing to a dying world. Manchin can only hope to distract from the real "enemy"—corporations and political elites who have profited off the suffering of West Virginians for decades while exploiting their natural resources.

What Manchin represents is nothing more than a spiteful politics of scapegoating to mask his own corruption. He pretends that his Wall Street values are those of West Virginia. We can only hope that his latest native con falls flat for the fate of his state, the nation, and the world.

Peter Bloom is a Professor at the University of Essex in the UK who books include "Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization" (2016), "The CEO Society", and most recently "Guerrilla Democracy: Mobile Power and Revolution in the 21st Century."

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