Why the Left Must End Its Dysfunctional Relationship with the Democratic Party
[A slightly shortened version of this review was published in the May-June 2009 issue of International Socialist Review (ISR)]
Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008)
Two and a half weeks after Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the President elect's corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told The New York Times, was following "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right." In other words, Obama campaigned and gained office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but was going to govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions.
Consistent with the violin analogy, the "peace candidate" turned president intends to increase the United States' massive "defense" (empire) budget (more than $1 trillion annually) this and next year. Obama plans to sustain the illegal occupation of Iraq (against which he campaigned) and is increasing the level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is continuing Bush policies on Israel and Iran and refuses to pay elementary honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people. He refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health care solution - single-payer national health insurance). He will spend untold trillions on further taxpayer giveaways to finance capital (with no real strings attached). His undersized stimulus plan is loaded with business-friendly tax cuts and short on labor-intensive projects that will put people to work right away. He says nothing about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act. Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are "managing [popular] expectations," he fails to advance such elementary progressive measures as a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels.
Left progressives are right to be angry at this record but they have no business being surprised or disappointed. As Scott Horton recently noted on Antiwar.com, "those who bought into the slogans 'Hope' and 'Change' last fall should have read the fine print. We were warned."
Obama's centrist and rightward policy trajectory is consistent with the corporate-imperial operatives he has surrounded himself with fro the moment he entered the national stage. It matches the record-setting corporate campaign funding he garnered (including $37.5 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate ["FIRE'] sector and nearly $1 million from Goldman Sachs alone) in 2007 and 2008. It reflects the "deeply conservative" (liberal journalist Larissa MacFarquhar's carefully researched description in May of 2007) world view Obama has long revealed to those willing to read between the lines of his outwardly progressive campaign rhetoric. It fits a consistently neoliberal ("pragmatic" and "non-ideological" according to Obama's many fans in dominant media) political career (1995 to the present) marked at every stage by what liberal journalist Ryan Lizza called (last July) "an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them."
As Lance Selfa's welcome and timely book The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008) ought to remind us, moreover, Obama's plutocratic, people-playing performance was also foretold by the history of his political party. One aptly described by former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips as "history's second- most enthusiastic capitalist party," the Democratic Party is hardly in the business of promoting politicians and policies that significantly challenge dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. Selfa shows how the corporate "New Democrats" of the last generation joined Republicans in attacking social welfare, the labor movement, economic regulation, civil rights, sexual liberation, and environmental protection. When the Democrats rode popular displeasure with George W. Bush's arch-regressive and messianic-militarist extremism to a Congressional majority in the fall of 2006, they stayed firmly within this conservative mode, funding Bush's illegal wars and offering no serious opposition to his broad corporate and imperial agenda.
The term "New Democrats" can be misleading. As Selfa shows, the party's recent record of backing the rich and supporting the military state is not some sort of radical departure from a previously noble and progressive past. It is consistent with the Democrats' longstanding history of serving the business and imperial establishments over and against the needs and aspirations of ordinary working people. The Democrats' millionaire New Deal leader Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to his business critics by claiming (with no small justice) that he was "the best friend the profits system ever had" and identifying himself as the (socialism-evading) "savior" of "the system of private profit and free enterprise." Far from advancing a social-democratic counter to the corporate system that produced the Great Depression, the New Deal Democratic Party (1932-1979) "remained a self-consciously capitalist party throughout, responding to the needs of business rather than the desires of its 'constituents'" (pp. 59-60). It constructed the advanced capitalist world's mildest welfare state, one where labor, racial minorities, women, and social justice took a back seat to the interrelated privileges and power of capital and empire. It oversaw the rise of the Cold War, leading to the rapid formation of a "permanent arms economy" and the purging of Left activists who played key roles sparking the social insurgency that forced New Deal social reforms like the National Labor Relations and Social Security Acts during the middle 1930s.
Since the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-1921), Selfa shows, the Democratic Party has been a "defender of the [U.S.] empire." From Wilson's heavily interventionist presidency through the savage Cold War militarism of Vietnam butchers John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the (Jimmy) Carter Doctrine (granting the U.S. the right to invade the Middle East at will in the thinly veiled name of imperial oil control), the Clinton presidency (bomber of the Balkans and the murderer of more than 1 million Iraqis), and the Democrats' support for George Bush II's bloody Afghanistan and Iraq adventures, the Democrats have stood in the vanguard of U.S. militarism. As Selfa notes, the "Bush doctrine" (proclaiming the United States' right to unilaterally force "regime change" on "enemy" states) was an "amplification of trends in U.S. policy that the Clinton administration had set in motion" (p. 149)
None of this means that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical. To be sure, the differences that separate them are "minor," Selfa notes, "in comparison to the fundamental commitments that unite them" (p. 13). Still, he reminds us, corporate America would have no reason to embrace a two-party system if there were no differences at all between the two competing "subdivisions" of what Ferdinand Lundberg once called "The Property Party." The U.S. ruling class profits from a narrow-spectrum system wherein one business party is always waiting in the wings to capture and control popular anger and energy when the other business party falls out of favor.
The parties are not simply interchangeable, however. It is the Democrats' job to police and define the leftmost parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century it has been the Democrats' special assignment to play "the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially Left, P.S.] segments of the electorate" by posing as "the party of the people." The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-maintaining function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s, the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s, and the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s (including the gay rights movement today).
Besides preventing social movements from undertaking independent political activity to their left, the Democrats have been adept at killing social movements altogether. They have done - and continue to do - this in four key ways: (i) inducing "progressive" movement activists (e.g. Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and the leaders of Moveon.org and United for Peace and Justice today) to focus scarce resources on electing and defending capitalist politicians who are certain to betray peaceful- and populist-sounding campaign promises upon the attainment of power; (ii) pressuring activists to "rein in their movements, thereby undercutting the potential for struggle from below;" (iii) using material and social (status) incentives to buy off social movement leaders; (iv) feeding a pervasive sense of futility regarding activity against the dominant social and political order, with its business party duopoly.
Selfa rightly rejects the "left-Democratic" argument (made by Tom Hayden's "Progressive Democrats of America" today and by Michael Harrington's "Democratic Socialists of America" in the past) that the left can "take over the Democratic Party." Once leftists accept a strategy that requires Democratic electoral success first and foremost, Selfa shows, their movements and ideals become hopelessly weakened, their issues relegated to the perpetual "back burner" while their energies are invested in "getting out the vote" (actually a very exhausting and large-scale endeavor) instead of, say, organizing Wall-Mart workers or resisting the (bipartisan) invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The only thing left for true leftists, Selfa concludes (this reviewer concurs), is to form a robust and independent socialist organization and party. Those who continue to believe that it makes progressive sense to support "the [Democratic] lesser of two evils" might want to reflect back on "Lyndon Johnson's election as a 'peace candidate' in 1964. Once elected," Selfa reminds us, "Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam beyond anyone's worst nightmares" (p. 194).
Selfa's excellent book offers sage, richly informed historical advice as the recently elected Shock Absorber-in-Chief (President Obama) tries to restore faith in a spectacularly failing profits system while sustaining criminal and imperial commitments within and beyond the world's energy heartland in Southwest Asia. Truly progressive citizens and activists need to break off their deadly and dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party's hope-killers once and for all. Lance Selfa's well-researched, carefully argued, and elegantly crafted volume is an indispensable guide as to why.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political commentator and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).