So far, the 2019 Democratic debates, sponsored by the Information Guardians at AT&T (CNN) and Comcast (MSNBC), have turned out to be what anyone with a faint interest in the current state of the Democratic Party would have predicated—theatrical performances in which ambiguity about U.S. foreign and domestic policy is favored over “radical” proposals to give people in the United States affordable health care and education.
But what about taxes? What about Trump? What about Bernie’s age? What about China? What about private insurance? Pundits and billionaire-owned politicians can manufacture an infinite amount of diversions, straw man arguments, and right-wing talking points to portray anyone with a remotely progressive agenda as an enemy of the people.
Democrats who shill for Industry and Commerce are skilled at hijacking progressive sentiments and turning them on their head. Eliminating student debt is portrayed as disproportionately helping the rich. Universal healthcare is framed as taking insurance away from millions of Americans. Raising taxes is considered anathema to the American lifestyle. In this alternative universe, all of our problems started with Trump, the legacy of President Obama cannot be questioned, and wanting universal healthcare makes you less electable, rather than someone who speaks for the majority of Americans.
In a recent Democracy Now! interview, Harvard professor Cornel West analyzed why substantive debates on certain topics, such as U.S foreign policy, are missing in the televised spectacle of the Democratic debates:
Corporate media is an integral part of the empire that is in denial about America being an empire, and therefore doesn’t want to keep track of the nine countries—five Middle East, four in Africa—where United States is even dropping bombs or assisting in the dropping of bombs. Nobody wants to talk about the 128 countries of special operations, the over 586 military units of the U.S. military in all around the world, and the 4,800 that we have throughout the United States and the world. Corporate media won’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.
And so you end up with this very narrow, deodorized, truncated conversation that denies the reality of the U.S. presence in the world. And as Brother Martin Luther King used to say, those bombs that are dropped in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, they land—indigenous peoples’ reservations. We are not a nation of immigrants; we’re a nation with immigrants, with indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans in our origin. Those bombs drop in hoods, black hoods. They drop in barrios. They drop in white working-class and white poor communities. Sixty cents of every $1 of U.S. budget goes to the military-industrial complex, Trump’s $750 billion military budget. Who voted for that? Democrats as well as Republicans. That’s part of the imperial extension, that makes it difficult for us to speak to issues of healthcare, jobs with a living wage. It suffocates the domestic agenda.
Instead of focusing on the imperial ambitious of the U.S. corporate state and the decades-long decimation of the working class, corporate media conglomerates prefer to manufacture meaningless conflicts and manipulate our attention. After worrying for three years whether it’s OK to call Trump “racist,” and spending the majority of their coverage on speculations about Trump’s allegiance to Russia, liberal media and its pundits have ditched the “Russian collusion” narrative that dominated Trump’s presidency in favor of a familiar story—the battle between moderates and progressives. Nancy versus “The Squad.” Good old uncle Joe versus grumpy old Bernie. Older liberals versus young “militants.”
One might think that exploiting the divide within the Democratic Party works in Trump’s favor. After all, the 2016 presidential election was a clear lesson (for those willing to look) that tens of millions of people, especially millennials and people of color, are turned off by the anti-working class agenda of corporate Democrats. Instead of capitalizing on this lesson, however, pundits and Democratic strategists did what they are paid to do and focused on a familiar boogeyman—the un-American socialist.
While right-wing networks radicalize their viewers by spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxists” who want to take away people’s freedoms through academia and Hollywood, the corporate Left rails against the idealistic progressive whose proposals for actual systemic change will never, ever, come to pass. When it comes to improving the social safety net for the working class, liberals and right-wingers often work together to disrupt the growing progressive movement in the U.S.
This arrangement was plain to see during the first night of the second Democratic debates in July, 2019 when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (who are currently polling behind Joe Biden) faced a number of relatively unknown Democratic contenders who—instead of providing a clear alternative to Trump—spent their time attacking proposals with wide public support, such as Medicare for All. Here’s how CNN moderator Jake Tapper started the July debate after Bernie’s introduction:
Thank you, Senator Sanders. Let’s start the debate with the number one issue for Democratic voters, healthcare. And Senator Sanders, let’s start with you. You support Medicare for All, which would eventually take private health insurance away for more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government sponsored healthcare for everyone.
Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy and previously he has called the idea political suicide that will just get president Trump reelected. What do you say to Congressman Delaney?
The question illustrates how pundits and political operatives use televised debates to argue in favor of the status quo, and in the process portray politicians like Bernie Sanders as ineffective against Trump. Instead of describing what Medicare for All is—a universal Medicare program that covers all American residents in one government-run health plan—Tapper decided to introduce the proposal as “taking private health insurance away” and to pit Delaney, who is polling below 1%, against Sanders.
The biased framing of the question didn’t stop Sanders from making his case. “You’re wrong,” Bernard told the businessman and former Maryland representative, who has well-documented connections to the for-profit health insurance industry. “Five minutes away from here, John, is a country. It’s called Canada. They guarantee health care to every man, woman and child as a human right. They spend half of what we spend. And by the way when you end up in a hospital in Canada you come out with no bill at all.”
Sanders also responded to Tapper, directly challenging his framing of the question and the influence of the healthcare industry on CNN, Tapper’s employer. “Jake, your question is a Republican talking point. The health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program with that talking point,” the senator from Vermont told Tapper.
Elizabeth Warren also stepped in the healthcare conversation to deliver what many considered to be the main highlight of the second Democratic debates—“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren told Delaney, after he cast Warren’s position on healthcare as too extreme.
Predictably, Delaney, whose shallow pro-insurance arguments were demolished by Warren and Sanders, went to Fox News right after the debates to attack the progressives again—an example of the close and mutually beneficial relationship between corporate Democrats and right-wing media. After the debates, CNN rightly received criticism for inciting conflicts between candidates and making questions from Republican talking points.
“The line of questioning Tapper pursued was notable for its GOP-friendly framing. He focused on trying to get Democrats to admit that they would increase taxes on the middle class to pay for their health care plans and to stoke a conflict over whether the party had gone too far left,” stated a Vox article analyzing the debates. “This wasn’t just a Tapper problem. Bash and Lemon asked candidates to respond to shallow Republican arguments—Bash’s repeated questions about whether expanding America’s welfare state would ‘incentivize’ unauthorized immigration was a particular lowlight—and aggressively enforced the time limits.”
In addition to watching liberals embarrass themselves with industry-approved scripts, viewers witnessed the futile efforts of millionaires to express empathy for average folks in 15 seconds. In the course of two hours, debate watchers heard at least nine incomplete stories about Bill from Buffalo and Jen from Kansas, and how people are really hurting out there.
The rehearsed nature of the “debates” makes sense, as they are one of the few opportunities for ordinary people to hear directly from the Democratic candidates, without PR companies, spokespersons, and Twitter accounts standing in the way of perception. Nevertheless, after about 15 minutes of Joe Biden and various centrists knocking down solutions to pressing issues, it becomes clear that the debates mainly serve as damage control for the private interests that are hoarding billions of dollars at the expense of our healthcare, education, and environment.
This tactic requires a framing of our political reality that lacks context (especially when it comes to the influence of money in politics), which is why the Democratic Party’s dominant message during Donald’s reign has been “Because of Trump”—a mantra that evolved into “because of Russia, because of Facebook, because of the migrant crisis, because of the market, because of Republicans, because of Mitch, because of capitalism,” and so on. The excuses are as endless as the personalities who crawled out of the woodwork to challenge Trumbo. Nevertheless, as Cornel West has pointed out, “liberal self-righteousness” isn’t going to be enough to challenge the forces behind Trump.
The gamble corporate Democrats are taking is clear—they will either lose the 2020 election by alienating progressives the same way Clinton and her team alienated and attacked Bernie supporters in 2016, or they will manage to squeak in Biden, Harris, or whoever else has the support of Wall Street and various Super PACs.
According to The New York Times, Bernie Sanders currently leads other Democratic presidential candidates in the number of individual donors. Sanders is also “leading his rivals in total money raised, but not by a huge margin.” Notably, Sanders hasn’t received any donations from billionaires, unlike less popular candidates favored by the billionaire class, such as Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris who have received funds from 23, 18, and 17 billionaires, respectively. We’ve yet to see whether popular support will mean anything this time around, or if the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will choose a candidate in smoke-filled backrooms “like they used to,” as Bruce Spiva, a lawyer for the DNC, told a judge during the fraud lawsuit against the DNC in 2017.
Speaking of election manipulation, the influence of big money in U.S. elections and politics was nowhere to be seen on the first two Democratic debates; neither was the issue of net neutrality, which has direct consequences for the networks which host the debates. Labor rights, foreign policy, and environmental destruction were similarly left out or merely glossed over.
Even if those issues came up through some kind of divine intervention, the nature of the Democratic debates makes it easy to sensationalize any topic and candidate in order to avoid answers that address systemic change. Those who chip away at the myths of the war spending industry, such as Tulsi Gabbard, for example, are relentlessly smeared as terrorist-supporters when they get within striking distance of Biden and Harris.
“When sitting down with someone like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, do you confront him directly and say, ‘Why do you order chemical attacks on your own people? Why do you cause the killings of over half a million people in your country’?” MSNBC host Yasmin Vossoughian asked Tulsi Gabbard in an interview after the debates, after Gabbard criticized Kamala Harris for her record of keeping “people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor.”
“Every time I come back here on MSNBC, you guys talk to me about these issues. It sounds like these are talking points that Kamala Harris and her campaign are feeding you,” Gabbard, a military veteran, replied and pointed out that she has explained her position on the issue numerous times. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the Democratic establishment and its media representatives from insinuating that Gabbard is somehow disloyal to the U.S.—a tactic that is routinely used by Fox News to manipulate public opinion about progressive politicians and causes.
By shaping their strategy around bashing (and often equating) Trump and progressives, and refusing to stand up to corporate interests and D.C. lobbies, billionaire-owned Democrats have cornered themselves in the familiar position of hijacking and diverting populist sentiments in order to “debunk” them in the mainstream. With a “resistance” movement that amounts to coordinated hashtags and empty Trump-bashing—and a conveyor belt of anti-progressive candidates with ambiguous political stances—corporate Democrats seem more determined to prevent populist sentiments from taking root in the mainstream, than to actually win the presidency.
If the Democratic Party’s failure to engage progressives after the 2016 elections wasn’t indicative enough of its ineptitude and widespread corruption, then perhaps the recent debates in which a dozen Joe Biden clones argued why we shouldn’t be too ambitious in the face of environmental devastation and grotesque inequality, could convince some liberals that their party doesn’t have much of a strategy beyond finger-pointing and identity politics.
Conversely, those who still believe that universal healthcare, free college, and higher minimum wages are “too far” to the left—in a country where 30 million are uninsured and millions more are struggling to get by—might find it increasingly difficult to separate the agenda of corporate right-wingers from their “democratic” colleagues.