No place for vanilla politics in today’s America – By Mohamed Hamaludin

No place for vanilla politics in today’s America

By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

Former President Barack Obama recently offered his most significant advice yet to the Democratic Party. Answering questions at an Obama Foundation town hall in Berlin on Saturday, he said, “One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States… is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be.’ And then we start sometimes creating what’s called a ‘circular firing squad’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.”

That message was actually for the democratic socialists and their agenda that includes New York Rep. Alexandria Occasion-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Medicare for all.       

The call for moderation is not surprising from a politician dubbed “No Drama Obama.” He said in his 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention: “The pundits… like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”

He was speaking then about national unity; now he was talking to the Democratic party. It is useful to consider both aspects because even if Democrats can settle their policy differences, electoral success will not depend on moderation.

President Donald Trump and his hardcore base would beg to disagree with the idea that there are no blue and red states, no liberals and conservatives and no racial division. In fact, his election and his presidency itself are based on policies that embrace the red states, conservatives and even hardline ideologues and one race, the white kind.

Obama is right that party unity is essential to electoral success. But he is wrong in saying that it should be based on compromise  born of moderation. While many Americans are probably distressed by Trump’s policies, they do not necessarily want vanilla politics from the Democrats. Two of the most controversial proposals from the democratic socialists have wide support. Some 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for all, according to a Reuters poll last August. They include 85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans.

Some 81 percent of registered voters approve of the goals of the Green New Deal, including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans, according to a December poll by Yale and George Mason universities.  The caveat was the cost of the program, varying from $100 billion to $1 trillion, which opponents have seized upon. But the benefits are very attractive, including replacing carbon fuel with renewal energy and a $15 minimum wage with healthcare benefits and collective bargaining rights.

The question is whether proponents of such policies must take a back seat to their more cautious colleagues of whether the leadership should celebrate the infusion not only of fresh blood but also fresh ideas that offer an unambiguous choice to voters. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done the former, giving some newbies prized committee seats. In terms of policies, if the veterans leading the House opt for caution, the democratic socialists and their allies should look to the success of the Republican Freedom Caucus in holding their party’s feet to the fire.

The Freedom Caucus had just about 40 members in a House where Republicans were the majority but they were able to force their leaders to see matters their way, precisely because of “purity on the issues,” and they forced Speaker John Boehner to resign.

The democratic socialists are still just a handful in the House but there is already a Democratic Progressive Caucus, with at least 24 members. Even combined, that is still not enough to exercise the kind of influence which the Republican Freedom Caucus wielded, ironically because of the much larger Democratic majority today. But even by themselves they are an exciting portrait of the Democratic party and America. Ocasio-Cortez is a Latina from the Bronx with Puerto Rican roots and her closest allies include Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of two Indigenous women in the House; Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of two Muslim Americans and a former refugee from Somalia; Ayanna Presley of Massachusetts, her state’s first black woman in the House; and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the other Muslim American, who is of Palestinian background.

These women represent Americans who have been traditionally sidelined in politics. But they live the problems which ordinary Americans face daily and know what solutions are needed. Rather than allowing themselves and their ideals to be absorbed in a wider, more “moderate” agenda, they should continue to press their case, directly to the people,  if necessary, as Ocasio-Cortez has already been doing.

Today’s politics are not for the timid of heart and there will be strong resistance from the veterans and others fearful that voters will buy into the already ramped up attacks from Trump and his supporters. But it is a confrontation that cannot be avoided.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who  worked for several years at The Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating to the United States in 1984 where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a commentary every week or two for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com

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