[Publisher’s Note] A New Day? | Harper's Magazine

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“The Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 3, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Now that the midterm elections are over, one wonders: What is the Democratic Party? Having regained a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the Democrats—supposedly the party of the people—are quite pleased with themselves for breaking the thuggish president’s stranglehold on the Constitution and American democracy. On election night, Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, declared, “Tomorrow will be a new day in America.” The militantly Democratic television hosts Chris Cuomo (CNN) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) were downright merry, and since the midterms, their denunciations of Trump have sounded more and more confident, as if his destruction were imminent.

In fact, we’re still in the shadowlands: Trump remains president, the Republicans have increased their majority in the Senate, and the country is divided between warring camps that are more acrimonious than ever. But the most piercing post-election irony is that the “opposition party” continues to be led by a pair of oligarchs. Nancy Pelosi has headed the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives for the past fifteen years; in the upper chamber, Senator Charles Schumer has faithfully served the party machine’s interests since 1999. In short, the nation’s “new day” will be presided over by two veteran politicians who, together with the Clintons and Barack Obama, share much of the blame for Donald Trump’s accession to power.

It’s true that Pelosi voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and that Schumer, while still a congressman representing New York’s 9th District, voted against NAFTA in 1993. Nevertheless, these liberal gestures figure among the very rare occasions when the two demonstrated anything like independence of thought vis-à-vis the diktats of their party’s dominant faction. For the most part military interventionists and supporters of deregulation for Wall Street and the big banks, Pelosi and Schumer are anything but left-wing reformers. On the other hand, in the sphere that counts the most—the funding of Democratic election campaigns by the financial sector and Silicon Valley—their conduct has been impeccable.

One has to hope that a trio of senators (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown) will advance a program that’s fairer to workers, who have lost so much since the 1980s, while the rich have grown steadily richer, thanks in part to the entente cordiale between two Democratic presidents and their Republican counterparts. However, the Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents. With the dramatic decline of unions—accelerated by the Democratic-sponsored relocation of American industry to foreign countries—the Democrats’ relationship with the financial powers becomes more and more important.

New York is a clear example of this trade-off. Last month, Amazon, the gigantic business enterprise headed by the world’s richest man, announced plans to construct a new satellite headquarters in Long Island City, a neighborhood that forms part of the borough of Queens in New York City. This announcement was the result of a supposed competition, which required each of the competing cities to offer as incentives financial contributions—tax credits, infrastructure investments, publicly funded executive training, etc. The whole affair was conducted in the greatest secrecy in order to keep taxpayers in the dark about the expenses/expenditures being proposed in their name. And now we learn that New York State and New York City agreed to spend more than two billion dollars by way of encouraging Amazon to build there.

Malicious tongues are calling into question the appropriateness of offering bribes to a colossus already stuffed with cash, a colossus that moreover stands to profit handsomely from a well-trained labor force already firmly established in New York. At the same time, the residents of Long Island City, especially the poorest of them—mostly blacks and Hispanics living in low-cost public housing—wonder how they can get jobs paying $150,000 a year while hundreds of thousands of white and Asian workers are ready to jump in. Moreover, New York is already overcrowded with humans, vehicles, and enormous buildings, and the subways and the schools are in catastrophic shape.

No matter, say the Democratic heavyweights of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Andrew Cuomo, who is the television journalist Chris Cuomo’s brother, cannot grovel enough before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and has even declared his willingness to change his name to “Amazon Cuomo.” Bill de Blasio, a self-styled progressive, calls himself “pragmatic” in his sycophancy, so pragmatic that he’s thinking about subcontracting the management of a third of the city’s public housing—which is in a pitiful state at the moment and entangled in a scandal involving lead in its apartment paint—to private landlords.

Perhaps Trump’s real estate company could benefit from the largesse of the Democratic mayor. Why not? After all, it’s a new day in America.

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