by Erin McCarley and Birrion Sondahl
Given the massive groundswell of anguish and fury over the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, one might expect to see more news coverage of the multiple ways Congressional Democrats are trying to block her nomination. Yet, the corporate media, and top Democrats themselves, have seemed strangely silent, as if they had already surrendered to the inevitable. Why this silence and why a lack of options, when progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling for using “every tool at our disposal,” and when Congressional aides are circulating a memo on Capitol Hill outlining multiple tactics for stalling this nomination?
For the past four years, the US news media has been dominated by Trump and his daily atrocities. Always on edge and on call, the US public has become captive to what sociopathic and outrageous act he will perform next…what racist, sexist, or fascist scandal will befall the nation with each passing day. These daily scandals come like clockwork, and while terrible for the country, they have made the corporate media very happy. Since ratings (and profits) rely on click-bait, scandal and spectacle, Trump has provided the media daily fodder since before the 2016 primaries, and news outlets have been more than happy to give him the lion’s share of the news coverage.
These crises and spectacles dominating our mediascape also serve a more covert political function in our broader politics. Trump is the perfect foil and a classic villain – easy to hate based on his sociopathic personality, his multiple crimes (for which he’s never punished), and his inflammatory, hateful rhetoric that keeps the media wheels spinning 24/7. While Trump and his terrible minions are always on the main stage, the corporatists of both parties are working behind the scenes in relative obscurity. What becomes hidden behind the curtain of Trump’s daily scandals is the fact that both parties are entrenched in oligarchy. And as our nation’s wealth consolidates at the top and our national politics move further and further to the right, the media spotlight is always on the villainous Trump, and not the ruling elite of both parties who are starving the masses. The fact the Democratic Party continually fails to be a real opposition party to oligarchy or fascism is hardly a profitable news topic, and so it falls off the radar into darkness.
Any objective political analysis of Congressional dynamics could readily conclude that Democratic complicity is just as dangerous as Trump, and perhaps even more so, since so few people are paying attention to it. And since the corporate media hardly covers the failings of the Democratic establishment, it’s left up to us, the independent media, to shine a light on these systemic failings.
Trump’s Rise to Political Power
Even before Trump was elected, top figures in the Democratic establishment assisted in his rise to power. In late May of 2015, in a phone call with Trump, former President Bill Clinton “encouraged Trump’s efforts to play a larger role in the Republican Party.” Trump announced his decision to run for president in June of 2015, only a couple weeks after this conversation.
Bill was not the only Clinton to help legitimize Donald Trump as a viable candidate. The Hillary campaign elevated Trump in the media even before he had announced his candidacy. In an infamous memo sent out on April 23, 2015, Assistant Campaign Manager Marissa Astor suggested, “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to them seriously.” The news media was more than happy to oblige with this request, as Donald Trump was given more than $2 billion worth of free media coverage during his run.
The Hillary campaign doubled down on this Pied Piper strategy in a meeting on July 29, 2015, when they discussed, “How do we maximize Trump and others?” It was their belief that Hillary matched up better against Trump than against other candidates, and therefore, it would be to Democratic advantage to push Trump as a legitimate contender. There was little or no concern about what would happen if Trump actually won, and a far-right authoritarian became president. Their strategy of elevating Trump succeeded in helping him secure the Republican nomination, but their estimation that Hillary could defeat him failed, as Trump won with 304 electoral votes while losing the popular vote by almost three million votes.
The Electoral College
Winning the popular vote while losing the electoral college is not new for Democrats. Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of seven presidential elections from 1992 until today, and yet have secured the presidency only four times.
Even though a recent Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of the US public supports abolishing the Electoral College, the Democrats have not made any serious, unified effort to reform the Electoral College since 1979. Given the threat to actual democracy that the Electoral College represents, the Democrats’ reluctance to tackle this issue is baffling, especially given that they’ve had the power to do so multiple times, such as Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidency or during Obama’s Democratic (filibuster proof) super-majority during his first term. One might think that after the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush– who oversaw more than a million casualties in the Iraq invasion and whose “War on Terror” has cost the United States some $6.4 trillion and displaced some 37 million people— the Democrats might be interested in reforming or abolishing the Electoral College. After all, Al Gore actually won the popular vote by some 500,000 votes in 2000, but Bush’s victory was facilitated by a 5-4 vote on the Supreme Court to halt the recount in Bush v. Gore.
The fight to abolish the Electoral College has now moved to the states, where the National Popular Vote bill has to be passed in states totaling 270 electoral votes in order for it to take effect. This is a much slower, more cumbersome process that could have been avoided had it been taken up by Democrats when they were in power.
While Democrats won the popular vote in six of seven last presidential elections, the GOP has stacked the judicial branch with judges during Republican tenure and has appointed 14 out of 18, soon to be 15 out of 19, Supreme Court seats, if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed.
On March 16, 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. This was almost nine months before the general election. Yet over this period, Republicans successfully blocked every effort to hold a hearing on Garland’s appointment. A key part of Mitch McConnell’s argument against holding hearings was the so-called Biden rule, which was based off a speech that then Senator Joe Biden gave in 1992, saying, “As a result, it is my view that if a Supreme Court Justice resigns tomorrow, or within the next several weeks, or resigns at the end of the summer, President Bush should consider following the practice of a majority of his predecessors and not — and not — name a nominee until after the November election is completed.” Even though their opposition left the court shorthanded, the Republicans presented a united front under McConnell and stonewalled the nomination.
Merrick Garland was by no means a progressive. He was a moderate who had bipartisan support from Republicans such as Orrin Hatch, Susan Collins, and John McCain, who all voted for him in 1997 when Clinton appointed him to the D.C. appeals court. McConnell’s choice to block the nomination was not about Garland’s ideology — it was about creating real political opposition for Obama. “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy,'” McConnell said.
Where was the Democratic opposition during these nine months? NPR describes the Democratic strategic thinking during this time: “So it was safer, in the judgments of spring and summer 2016, to let the Republicans look intransigent and unfair and hope somebody noticed. Perhaps the injustice to Garland would help Democrats win seats in supposedly blue states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and even red ones such as Missouri and North Carolina.” Rather than putting up any kind of meaningful resistance, the Democrats acquiesced and allowed Mitch to have his way, gambling everything on a Clinton victory in 2016. The failure of the Democrats to win the Electoral College would later result in Trump nominating and appointing Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and likely, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court.
Mitch McConnell’s use of the “nuclear option” to confirm Neil Gorsuch, changing the number of Senate votes needed to confirm a Supreme Court justice from 60 to 51, was first employed by Democrats in 2013 as a way to avoid Republican filibusters. While it seemed politically expedient at the time, it eroded the need for bipartisan consent and allowed a simple majority to wield more power. Even after McConnell invoked the nuclear option in 2017 to confirm Neil Gorsuch, three Democrats voted in favor of the confirmation of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The 51-vote majority would later be used to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, though one Democrat also voted to confirm him.
Democrats crossing over to confirm Trump-selected judges has been a pattern throughout the last four years. In October of 2017, the Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The vote was 55-43, with three Democrats voting to confirm. Not only have some Democrats been complicit in voting to confirm even the most right wing of Trump’s judicial appointments, but Chuck Schumer actually cut a deal with Mitch McConnell to fast-track many of these confirmations. In late August of 2018, just before the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Schumer made this deal with the devil that gave 11 Trump nominees immediate approval and fast-tracked eight more for a vote. One of the judges that was fast-tracked in August of 2018 was Charles Barnes Goodwin, to become U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma. The vote passed 52-42 with six democrats voting to confirm. This vote is noteworthy because Charles Goodwin had received a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.
During the Trump administration, more than 200 Federal judges have been appointed. “Of the 202 confirmations, 154 have been men, and 173 have been white.” Trump’s lifetime-serving, judicial appointees have been the youngest ever, with an average age of 48. This demographic “cemented the gross mismatch between the federal judiciary and the public.” According to Vice News, “Democrats vote to confirm Trump’s nominees roughly 39 percent of the time.”
The consistent ratcheting of the judicial branch to the extreme right has been underway for decades. As the US Supreme Court has become more and more a corporate-friendly, GOP partisan weapon fueled by dark money, we have seen catastrophic decisions that have dismantled basic democratic protections, like Citizens United in 2010, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and McCutcheon’s 2014 rejection of campaign finance limits. And with Amy Coney Barrett’s terrible record on labor rights, women’s and public healthcare, LGBTQ and other civil rights, failing to effectively oppose an extremist, right wing takeover of the US judicial system is a clear case of aiding and abetting fascism.
Emergency Border Security Funding Bill
In addition to their lack of opposition to judicial appointments, a majority of House Democrats have been passing legislation that supports Trump’s racist, xenophobic agenda. In May of 2019, the House passed H.R. 3401, a bill which gave $4.6 billion in emergency funding for border security. Included in this bill was $418 million for Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE) operations and support. This is the same agency that has since then been revealed to have been forcing hysterectomies on detainees. Only 95 of 233 House Democrats voted against this bill and only eight of 45 in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged House Democrats to vote for the bill, saying, “In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.” These resources were earmarked for the very people who were separating and abusing the children at the detention centers.
In November 2019, House Democrats passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that extended the Patriot Act by three months. Independent Congressman Justin Amash criticized this move, saying, “Democrats have highlighted Trump’s abuse of his executive powers, yet they’re teaming up to extend the administration’s authority to warrantlessly gather data on Americans.” Only ten House Democrats voted against this amendment. When the Patriot Act was once again set to expire in March 2020, the House came together to pass a further extension of these authoritative powers when they passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reform bill, which included extending provisions of the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 until 2023.
In May of 2020, an attempt was made to amend the USA Freedom Act Reauthorization Bill to prevent the government from being able to conduct secretive warrantless surveillance of web browser history. This amendment required 60 votes to pass, but it came up one vote short. Ten Senate Democrats voted against it. Rather than fighting to prevent the Trump administration from having more tools with which to spy on US citizens, the Democrats have come together repeatedly to extend these bills and give the Trump regime additional powers.
Military Budget (NDAA)
The Democrats have repeatedly approved National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) during Trump’s presidency — all of which have included increases in military spending. In December 2019, after the FY 2020 NDAA passed the Democratic controlled House with a vote of 377-48, Trump tweeted “Wow! All of our priorities have made it into the final NDAA: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force! Congress – don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!” Everything that Trump wanted included a $738 billion price tag. Also included in this bill was continued material assistance for Saudi Arabia, after a failed battle to draw the line against further arms sales to the murderous regime. The US and Saudi-backed war on Yemen has killed some 233,000, with 60 percent of the dead as children under five. Eighty percent of Yemen’s population now relies on humanitarian aid, and Amnesty International cites 16 million waking up hungry everyday. Nancy Pelosi released a final statement on the NDAA: “Democrats will always stand unified in support of a strong national defense For The People that honors our values, protects our security and advances our leadership in the world.”
Democrats have routinely come together in support of right wing dictators and fascist regimes around the world, including the terrorist state of Israel. When Donald Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May of 2018, Chuck Schumer called the move “long overdue.”
In 2019, Democrats came together overwhelmingly to support an appropriations act that increased funding for Israel to $3.8 billion. The only House Democrat to oppose this bill was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Nancy Pelosi explained her stance on Israel in March of 2019, when she gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), saying, “Israel and America are connected now and forever. We will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue.”
The influence of pro-Israel lobbyists such as AIPAC is so strong that Joe Biden intervened in crafting the wording of the non-binding 2020 Democratic platform to make sure that the word “occupation” was not used in reference to Israeli troops in Palestine. Internationally known as a war criminal for expanding Israel’s illegal and brutal military occupation of Palestine, US Democrats have been more than happy to go to bat for Benjamin Netanyahu and his corrupt criminal regime.
When we step back and look at the Democratic Party’s deep enabling tendencies of not only Trump and his authoritarian rule in the United States, but also Democrats’ consistent political support and material assistance for murderous regimes internationally, we are led to conclude that corporate-funded political parties (both Democratic and Republican) align themselves first and foremost with ruling-class, colonial interests, and against the interests of the working class and the poor, both at home and abroad. A 2014 Princeton University study declared the United States to be an oligarchy because “Congress supports the lobbyists and economic elites over the will of the people.” Given the Democratic Party’s ever-increasing allegiance toward the oligarchical forces operating inside the US government, it must also be noted that the Democratic establishment is complicit with this same government’s slide toward fascism.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a whole class of corporate Democrats are so politically and economically aligned with oligarchy that they would rather stage false political protests as media ops than mount any kind of actual political opposition that could stop Trump’s increasingly fascist movement. At the end of the day, in order to mount real resistance to Trump, top Democrats would have to be willing to threaten their own cozy political and economic status with the corporations that fund and run the government. And that’s just not something they’re willing to do.