“When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider; here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans—we’re fighting inside the 40-yard line.” —President Barack Obama, Nov. 20, 2013

Well, not anymore, President Obama.

Much has been written about the effect of Donald Trump in transforming the Republican Party over the past three years. The upcoming Democratic primary will illustrate the effect he had in changing the Democratic Party over the same time period. Trump has turned Obama’s Democratic Party into one in which the ideological playing field is much wider than before the 2016 elections.

The 2016 Republican primary proved how little credibility GOP leaders had with their rank-and-file voters. The 2020 Democratic primary will do the same for Democrats.

Trump widened the Democrats’ ideological playing field by humiliating its establishment with his victory in 2016, when it sold the candidacy of Hillary Clinton to its base by touting her supposed electability. More importantly, Trump has transformed the party by convincing its progressive base that there is no future for centrist politics in a country whose middle class is shrinking and whose working class is being pauperized.

What is important to understand is that the current contradictions between both sets of party leaderships and their voters is not as much about issues and ideology as it is about who has won and who has lost the economic and cultural struggles of the past 40 years. This divide is the most revealing fact of American life in our era.

Despite the vehemence of the fight between the elites of both parties, they have a lot more in common with each other than they would ever care to admit to their respective political bases. Life for the political elites on all levels has been very good and is getting better. Their children go to the same private schools and rarely serve in the endless wars their parents keep extending, while the political elites graduate from public office and join law firms and lobbying shops that make them millions.

At the same time, the ever-more expensive campaigns in the post-Citizens United world have made the entire election industry of consultants, pollsters and pundits on both sides very rich, no matter how reckless, incompetent or mediocre so many of them have been proved to be.

All of this is during an era in which, according to the Federal Reserve, the bottom 47% of American income-earners can’t come up with $400 in case of an emergency.

What the two sets of party elites also share is contempt for their parties’ base of activists, voters and non-donor constituencies. Aside from paying them lip service during election season, Republican elites have no use for their base of religious voters, anti-immigrant activists and small-business people. There is no better illustration than the fact that during the two years of united Republican Party control of the entire federal government, no wall was funded or built at the border, Planned Parenthood was not defunded and not a single piece of legislation favored by the party’s base of social conservatives or anti-immigration activists was passed into law. Instead, party leaders promptly passed budget-busting tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest 1% of Americans—hardly the reason most rank-and-file Republican voters supported Trump in 2016.

Similarly, Democratic Party leaders have no use for the priorities of their voters and activists, who by large margins support Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal and an end to our militarized foreign policy. The Democratic leadership rewards its voters, who handed it historic victories last November by dispatching Wendell Primus, the lead health adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to meet with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives to reassure them that they should not worry about any legislation that would establish a Medicare-for-all program. This is done while it publicly ridiculed and then shelved the Green New Deal proposal and attacked Trump on such foreign policy issues as his proposed withdrawal of American forces from Syria.

The realization of how little the agendas of ordinary people matter to the elites of both parties has made it a lot more acceptable for their betrayed bases to look for alternatives, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. In fact, this realization is the genesis of the populist moment in current American politics.

The vehemence of opposition to Trump over the past two years has hidden the internal struggle in the Democratic Party between what can be described as the new left, symbolically led by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with the united front of the Democratic establishment, which includes most former and current elected officials, think tanks, the donor classes, the liberal faction of establishment media and the Praetorian Guard of conventional political thinking: the Democratic consulting class.

What the Democratic establishment will be looking for in the 2020 elections is the restoration of Clinton- and Obama-era politics, which, despite the populist rhetoric, delivered war abroad and subservience to the financial elites at home. But what new left Democrats are looking for is peace abroad and war with the financial elites at home. These two sides are not compatible in the long run, and their collective opposition to Trump will only go so far in reconciling these contradictions.

What the Democratic Party’s new left needs to understand is that the establishment will fight far more viciously to prevent a new left victory than Republican Party elites did to defeat Trump in the 2016 primary because, putting aside all his anti-establishment rhetoric, the man’s basic political incoherence and fraudulent nature meant that he can be manipulated to serve elite interests while betraying his voters.

In comparison to Trump, the new left Democrats will be perceived as a far greater threat to party elites and the donor/owner classes of both parties. If any of the new left candidates win the Democratic Party nomination, many in Democratic establishment ranks, especially among its nonelected and institutional sections, will be open to lining up behind a “centrist” independent candidacy. This will guarantee four more years of Trump, a price many of them will be willing to pay if the alternative is a Democratic Party transformed into a genuinely social democratic alternative to the Republican Party.

What the entire American political establishment will learn over the next two years is that the political world that existed before the 2016 elections will not be put back together again. Trump, for all his endless faults, is merely the symptom, not the cause, of the crisis facing the United States. The cause of the crisis is an American elite that has for too long mistaken its cynicism for realism, hubris for wisdom, and the sending of other people’s children to fight wars lost long ago for patriotism.

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