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Lessons from the Panthers: Don’t be the progressives who let Donald Trump in again

The party's left has suffered setbacks, but could its battle with the centre allow the former president to return in 2024?

Anti-war protestors (including Bonnie Greer) face down a police line on Chicago’s Michigan Boulevard in 1968

Credit: Bettman/Getty Images

Some elders in the Democratic Party have decided that it is time to tell some home truths to young progressives before we all go over the cliff.

James Clyburn, the majority whip in the Democratic Party and the guy who talked Joe Biden into running for president – and who then talked African American voters in the South into giving Biden a chance –recently waded into a congressional race in Ohio.

This is a big deal because this guy has other things to do. But it was crucial.
As a result, Nina Turner, a former Ohio senator and such a champion for Bernie Sanders in his failed 2016 presidential run that, when he lost, many thought she might endorse Donald Trump, was heavily defeated by Shontel Brown. Brown could be called the more establishment candidate and was certainly the more centrist of the two. And since the area they contested is heavily Democratic, Brown will be the next congressperson from that district.

It didn’t stop there. The progressive candidate for mayor of New York was defeated by the moderate candidate; an ex-borough president and former cop; and the progressive candidate for governor of Virginia was defeated too.
Clyburn has accused what some call the far left of cutting the party’s throat, with slogans like “Defund the Police”. The base of the Democratic Party – the people who don’t have to be begged to vote – are moderate. They want more police who work in the community for them.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house of representatives and therefore the third most important person in Democratic politics, was recently asked about the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 31-year-old progressive who supported Turner in her battle with Brown.

Pelosi replied that it was “thrilling” and that she and the congresswoman from New York represented such safe seats, that their districts would elect anything with a “D” on it. 

But AOC, as she is nicknamed, said recently that she thinks it is power that is “thrilling” and there are rumours that she might trigger a progressive v centrist battle by going for the Democratic senate majority leader and uber establishmentarian Chuck Schumer’s seat. If she did, she would win.

The future always belongs to the young, something that Brexiteers, for example, do not seem to grasp. If the Democratic Party, or the Labour Party, for that matter, is heading further left, then so be it. And the leadership of the Democratic Party is full of Baby Boomers and older who have seen and gone through it all and often too much.

But the problem is this: The United States is in the grip of a cult called MAGA. And if you’ve been there and seen that, this is a scary time.
Back in the day in Chicago, I worked with Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers, serving breakfast for kids who had nothing to eat. My brother and cousin were in the Panthers, had changed their names to African ones, and we were all in the streets all day screaming against the police. 

The Panthers did not talk about defunding the police. They talked about us exercising our Second Amendment rights and arming against the police. When Fred was assassinated, none of us was surprised. When I look back now, the surprise is that the rest of us survived.

I campaigned for senator Gene McCarthy, the Bernie Sanders of his day, against the establishment candidate in the 1968 race for president. We faced down the Chicago police department, lined up from one end of the massive Michigan Boulevard, the heart of Chicago, as far as the eye could see. They were armed from head to toe. Young people were shot down by the Ohio national guard at Kent State University during another protest.

Our campaigning for McCarthy got us Richard Nixon – until Trump, the worst thing that could have happened to the office of president of the United States. What was so alarming about Bernie for me was that he, too, must have campaigned for McCarthy, but used the man’s playbook in 2016.
You can’t blame somebody born in the ’80s and ’90s for not knowing or caring anything about all this or relating to it. But my point is that a lot of the elders who still run the Dems know how this movie ends, and feel they have a duty to warn.

I was accused recently on social media of libelling Jeremy Corbyn. That was a lie and I gently, but firmly told the person who accused me that they had one hour to remove the allegation, which they did. Shortly after, I received a long explanation of how progressives feel that people like me let Jeremy down, although I always vote Labour. It was a generational cry and I got that.
But we are all in such trouble now that something unprecedented may have to happen: the two generations have to find of way of working together.

In the US, Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. Some of the people who follow him, because followers are what they are, believe that he was sent from God. He raises millions in various PACS to fund his campaign. Although attempts to create a media platform for him have failed so far, a way will be found.

On top of all that, we are in the grip of a pandemic created by a beast of a virus that is mutating so fast that virologists are having a hard time keeping up with it.

Bad things happen when people are locked down. Our human nature emerges.

That part of us that is not quite civilised, not quite tamed.  

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