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As The New York Times reported last week: “President Obama, seeking to quell a storm of criticism from Republicans and pro-Israel groups, directed the Democratic Party on Wednesday to amend its platform to restore language declaring Jerusalem the Israeli capital.”
A neat little paragraph that reveals a number of the fundamental, and seemingly intractable, problems with American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular.
First of all, Obama “directed” the party to amend its platform. This describes a political party that is the epitome of undemocratic, one that is, in fact, nothing more than a vehicle to serve as an instrument of the Great Leader’s will. We may be inured to that condition of the Democratic Party, but we should nonetheless take a moment to register its significance. The major political party that claims to act as the tribune of the people, the one party into which our political and media system relentlessly channels all constituents interested in working-class, progressive, and secular democratic policies, is what we would call anywhere else a Stalinist party.
Can anyone with a semblance of intellectual honesty, whatever else s/he thinks of the Democratic Party, deny this? Keeping in mind what Mark Landler’s Times article neglected to mention, namely that the revised amendment required a two-thirds vote of approval, please watch what happened:
There can be no honest claim that that vote carried by two-thirds. Even The Huffington Post acknowledges that, on all three votes, “Those who shouted opposition to the language change were as loud, if not louder, than those who voiced their support.” Villaraigosa clearly understood that, and seemed surprised by it, and baffled about what to do after the second vote. But, as I hear the woman telling him before he takes the vote for the third time: “You gotta approve it, and then you gotta let them do what they’re going to do.” Orders are orders. Sorry, but, if we’re talking about intra-party democracy, this is Stalinism.
Of course, all the jaded pundits familiar with how the American political system really works can dismiss this as SOP, happens all the time, no biggie. And they would be two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad right: It is SOP, and does happen all the time. As Lawrence O’Donnell, on MSNBC, America’s “progressive” network, put it: “This one was absolutely standard, and the fix by the chair was absolutely standard, too. That whole voice vote game was always just a game.” Everybody knows.
But, from a perspective that takes seriously the quaint notion that, in this party that working-class constituencies are told is theirs, during the one time every four years they actually get to meet and vote, the delegates of those constituencies should be able to debate and form policy proposals democratically – from that perspective, it is a very big thing, indeed. Especially when, as they are also told repeatedly, it is the only party the American political system will ever permit them to have. The utter undemocracy of the Democratic Party, that makes of it a party in which votes are just games to be fixed, should not be spoken of as a casual banality. It should be something that we choke on every time we’re forced to swallow it.
On the same MSNBC segment, Al Sharpton actually congratulated Obama for enforcing his will on the Democratic delegates in a way that Romney did not on the Republicans. His idea is that Romney should be faulted for “running away” from his party’s platform rather than, like Obama, forcing his party, against the will of its delegates, to change it. As Sharpton would have it, there should not be a distinction between the party’s platform and the candidate’s; there should be one platform, and it should be the candidate's, period. “Fixing” votes is just part of that game. Obama lorded it over his party more effectively than Romney did. Point for Obama.
This advocacy of intra-party authoritarianism, which went unchallenged by the other “progressives” on the MSNBC panel (Rachel, Ed, and Chris), marks how narrow the media space provided for progressive thought really is. The problem of intra-party authoritarianism, and progressives’ support thereof, leaking into extra-constitutional Great Leader authoritarianism in even more insidious ways, remains unconsidered.
Intra-party authoritarianism is, of course, a bipartisan affair, and the Republicans have been playing the same game for a long time. If, this year, Romney and the party leadership decided not to fight the battle over various platform planks, they nonetheless made damn sure they won the war to control the party. As a Tea Partier complained: “[T]he Romney camp is pushing new rules that would strip grassroots activists of any meaningful ability to participate in presidential politics. The process has always been bottom-up, but Romney officials have rewritten the rules so that the nominee can stifle any dissent on the platform committee and even unseat delegates.”
All of this also marks something important about what the two major American political parties are, and are not. Historically, modern political parties have been built around a set of (at least somewhat coherent) political principles – what is sometimes called an “ideology,” which itself reflects an allegiance to certain class and socio-economic interests. Having these political principles and class allegiances debated openly and democratically within parties empowers party members, and makes their participation in intra-party politics worthwhile. Having the political principles and class allegiances of the various parties, and the means by which they were developed, made explicit to voters at large, empowers them to make meaningful political choices. Not having these standards of openness and participation renders “democracy” a pro-forma exercise for party members and voting citizens alike.
In other words, in what is historically understood as a political party, the lines of determination operate in exactly the opposite direction from that suggested by Al Sharpton: The candidate would be answerable to the party and its platform, not vice-versa. That is the whole point of a political party.
Most parties in parliamentary democracies throughout the world, and minor parties in the United States, exhibit these characteristics, but the two major American parties are something else again. They are increasingly organized to function like corporate brands, in search of celebrity spokepersons. Each party develops a distinct image, relatively stable but evolving, that appeals to certain swaths of consumers, something like Benneton vs. Brooks Brothers. Internally, each chooses its leaders every four years in a process that resembles the way a company would audition various well-known and up-and-coming actors, to decide who can mount the most effective campaign for the selling season. Each candidate competes to mobilize the most money and the sharpest consultants, in order to persuade, on the one hand, the most voters that he or she, personally, represents their salvation, and, on the other hand, the corporate Board, that their personal persuasiveness with voters will be the more effective tool for the Board’s interests.
Political debate is replaced by a popularity contest, in which the winner is determined by some set of desirable personality traits and platitudes: the best father, the best husband, the best can-do-it-all woman (Grizzly Mama or Superwoman), the best supporter of our troops, the best embodiment of “family values,” or faith, or the American dream – the best ‘whatever’ that is consistent with what we want our celebrities to be, and has nothing to do with substantive politics. The party as a site for hammering out political programs carefully and collectively becomes a vehicle for individual self-promotion. Candidates, wearing a few “issue” buttons, put themselves on display under politically vacuous facades, arranged by their teams of highly-paid designers.
The whole process of narcissistic self-aggrandizement remains controlled by the money – i.e., class interests – that the Board represents, and the Boards of Directors of both parties are pretty much one and the same – at the very least, there is a lot of cross-membership. At the end of this process, all but one has been voted off the island. The one who is left becomes the presidential nominee, who, having achieved the status of celebrity-in-chief, will control the party with the authority of a CEO until the next cycle begins.
The two-party system in this country is, in short, the opposite of politics.
It’s worth emphasizing, as everybody knows, that an election campaign within this system is actually two parallel campaigns. In one, seeking money, the candidates address themselves to the ruling class at home and abroad, speaking relatively frankly and knowing they will be held accountable for what they say. In the other, they say just about anything they think will get rank-and-file party members and citizens to spend their dollar/cast their vote once, after which it’s “buyer beware.” No platforms, policies, or programs that were crafted by the ostensible party and its delegates, and nothing that was said to them by anybody during the audition process or selling season, means anything, and the rank-and-filers have no recourse except to wait until the Board opens the next selling season, and spend another dollar.
There are a plethora of examples of these parallel, conflicting, discourses from both parties, but “progressive” commentators should remember the stark example of Obama’s double dealing on NAFTA during the 2008 campaign. While he was promising voters that he would renegotiate NAFTA, he sent his senior economic policy advisor to the Canadian consulate in Chicago to assure Canadian officials that his promise to voters was “more reflective of political maneuvering than policy” – in other words, that his promise to the voters was one of those banal campaign lies that nobody should believe anyway. (For what it’s worth, the Obama campaign denied this, but the Times had the memo then, and we all saw the policy that followed.)
So, yes, every candidate speaks with forked tongue, and “everybody knows” this. As philosopher Jason Stanley suggests, we’re at the point where:
[T]he public’s trust in public speech, whether by politicians or in the media, has disintegrated, and to such a degree that it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere. The expectation is that any statement made either by a politician or by a media outlet is a false ideological distortion. As a result, no one blames politicians for making false statements or statements that obviously contradict that politician’s beliefs. …Claims in the public domain are now routinely treated as intentional distortions of facts to promote ideologies; distortions or misrepresentations…
In this column, Stanley makes his argument in terms rightly critical of Republicans, but awkwardly easy on Democrats. By all means, particular statements can and should be evaluated as to their accuracy and good faith, without recourse to false equivalencies and cowardly “balance.” But this is not a problem of one party. It is the systematic effect of the kind of marketing campaign that politics in this country has become. By any standard, the Etch-a-Sketch is a bipartisan toy.
Stanley’s point can be restated in this way: Nobody believed Obama’s lies about NAFTA in 2008, and nobody believes Paul Ryan’s lies about Medicare today, and nobody is really meant to. The Lawrence-O’Donnell/Beltway-insider version might go like this: Nobody should believe any candidate, and those who do are just sadly ignorant of how politics works, and really need to wake up and get in the game. Bad on them who don’t know what everybody knows.
The net result of either is that these are not political parties that develop policies and programs, democratically, from the bottom up, which the entire party and its leadership are obliged to take seriously. They are organizations for producing, out of a mixture of carefully-managed elections and backroom deals based on massive influxes of cash, a nominee who will be, for the party, what the president has become for the nation, a kind of elected king.
Whatever rules, platforms, speeches, promises, food fights, etc., are made up or expressed during the ad campaign, the Board(s) of Directors have fixed it in advance so that there is no radical disagreement between the leaderships or nominees of the major parties on most of the issues that are important to the Board(s). There is a discursive quarantine on protected subjects, and, with the connivance of both parties, it has been moved steadily to the right. There can be no serious disagreement about the commitment to American imperialism, to Zionism, to the priority of capital (including finance capital) over labor, to the priority of executive war-making and police powers over ostensible constitutional rights. More precisely, there can only be disagreements of the “I’m more imperialist/Zionist/fiscally-austere than thou” variety. There can be sharper disagreement over other issues that are important in themselves – abortion rights, gay rights, how much (but not whether) to cut “entitlements,” whether to co-opt or simply exclude wage workers and unions, etc. – but there are a whole slew of fundamental issues about which disagreement from anything resembling the left is forbidden, and which, therefore, both parties will do their best to avoid discussing at all.
I remember, in 1992, talking to someone who was working as a strategist for the Democratic Party. I asked him why he was a Democratic strategist. At first, he did not understand the question, and I had to phrase it more specifically, asking exactly how he came to the decision to work for Democratic rather than Republican candidates. His answer was twofold: one, when he was in college he did some research and found out that the Democrats supported abortion rights, and he and his friends did, too, so he thought it might be better to work for Democrats; and, two, there were more Democratic incumbents, and therefore more business opportunities to be had from them. When I asked whether there were any other issues – war and peace (this was at the time when Gulf War I was still fresh in people’s minds), poverty, justice, rights – that he might have taken under consideration, he was genuinely baffled. It was a business decision, with only the thinnest patina of political substance. And he was a considered smart operative. This was early in the 1992 electoral season, and he had made the shrewd choice to work for the yet little-known Bill Clinton. As seen here, this vacuum of real political thought, which allows central Democratic Party strategists to blithely switch to working for the Republicans, has only gotten worse.
So, yes, this is the “game” you have to play if you’re in these parties, and it is not going to change. Just please don’t say to those who understand what the game is, and refuse to play it, that they’re somehow abandoning their responsibility to “democracy.” In some games, the only possibly winning strategy is not to play.
If ramming the Jerusalem amendment down Democratic throats is a matter of concern for the process of party politics, what the incident says about the substantive issue of the amendment, and how that issue is treated as part of the Democratic Party’s, and the country’s, political life is at least as disturbing.
Here, I’ll give credit to Chris Hayes, the one MSNBC commentator in the segment referred to above who forthrightly asserted: “It’s a substantively terrible decision. It’s bad policy. It’s a craven capitulation … that empowers the worst elements in the people who are working on this issue.” Of course, Rachel, Al, and Ed changed that subject toot sweet.
Hayes also agreed with the Times’ point that, “The restoration of Jerusalem puts the platform…at odds with the official position of the government, which is that the city’s status should be determined in a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Indeed, the first two sentences of the amendment are a study in contradiction: “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations.” Huh? Isn’t this exactly the kind of discourse that “disintegrates the public’s faith in public speech”?
The Times also pointed out that Obama had taken the Jerusalem mention out of the plank because he thought, “the platform should reflect a sitting president rather than a candidate for office.” In other words, the President of the United States made one feeble attempt to move from the kind of pandering discourse appropriate for a “candidate” – the kind that nobody’s supposed to believe, anyway – to a discourse more appropriate for someone with a real responsibility for long-standing American policy, only to reverse it instantly, at the flick of AIPAC’s finger. This wasn’t a minor rule change about how long the lunch break would be. It was both an issue of how serious a presidential discourse can be, and a substantive issue of American foreign policy. And on that issue Democratic delegates wanted to take precisely a responsible, “non-candidate,” kind of stand. It wasn’t because it was trivial that this change was forced on them against their will, but because it was important – to them, to the country, to the world.
This incident again indicates the “craven capitulation” of the Democratic Party and the United States government to the Israeli lobby. (This is a very peculiar feature of both major American political parties.) "The original language was stridently pro-Israel," one Democratic Party source told HuffPo, but still, as another said, "We replaced it with ridiculously pro-Israel language. You read the platform and it's like AIPAC wrote it." Could that be because they did?
Apparently, AIPAC had been consulted on the on the original plank, and did not complain about the result until the Republicans started to bleat. Then, when AIPAC smelled an opportunity to show just how powerful it is…well, it did. So, not only do Israel’s representatives, unlike those of any other country I know of, get an ongoing seat to vet the platforms of American political parties, they get a do-over if they see the opportunity arise. Results guaranteed.
How much more thoroughly can the integrity of the President of the United States, the Democratic Party, American foreign policy, and our political discourse be “disintegrated” by lobbyists for a foreign country? Unfortunately, a lot, I’ll bet.
To make clear where the Democratic Party’s priorities and allegiances (like the Republican Party’s) lie, it is instructive to compare the absolute commitment to Zionism that was finally enshrined in its platform with the more nuanced commitment-ish statement in the platform plank that discusses “entitlements.” Here’s the platform language on the other subject I’ve been writing about, problems regarding Social Security: “We reject approaches that insist that cutting benefits is the only answer.”
Another of those locutions that “everybody knows” how to parse: “It’s not the only answer, but it’s definitely part of the answer.” Again, in this platform that was so completely controlled by Obama, it’s not a matter of whether, but of how much, to cut Social Security. Is there any chance that the Democratic Party today, under any kind of pressure from anyone, will rush to change that language to read: “We reject approaches that insist that cutting benefits is any part of the answer”? To whom does American political discourse, and the Democratic Party, show more allegiance: the working people of America or the government of Israel?