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Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: a polemical essay

Spank the Donkey, Time to Abandon the Democrats

by STEVE PERRY

Another Election Day, another set of blown hopes for Democrats everywhere. This is mainly an essay about the national Democratic party, which ought never be confused with real people, but in this one instance what I mean by Democrats are the real people who continue to place their faith in the party and to hope it can be made into more than the champion of the status quo it’s become. I mean all those other people, too, who can’t bear to call themselves Democrats (or Republicans) anymore and don’t like the way things are but see no alternative to letting Democrats and Republicans hash it out. This is a vast number of people we’re talking about–between one-fifth and one-half of the voting public, and beyond them the half of the country that sees no point in voting. These were the real losers on November 5.

Time to give up on the Democratic party once and for all. How much longer can we listen to all the plaintive, futile pleadings to “change the system from within,” to make the party wake up and smell the electorate? This is a wish, not a strategy; it hasn’t come true and it won’t. That so many people do still cling to the Democrats is testament to the power of a myth–several myths, actually, but the one I have in mind is the fiction that the Democrats turned right because the country turned right. Any good propagandist knows the most important lie is the big lie that frames all the others, and this is the Democrats’ big lie. Doesn’t anyone remember all the pundit-prattle about Ronald Reagan’s “popularity gap,” the gaping disconnect between his personal popularity and that of his policies? Since the mid-1980s there has been a steady dribble of social issues polls that have shown the American public standing considerably to the left of its elected officials. (There are polls that prove the converse, too. Usually they are the ones that freight their queries with one overriding presumption: You don’t want to pay higher taxes, do you?)

However you parse the polls, there was never any popular mandate for the Democrats’ right turn. If there had been, we would not see so many defections from an increasingly conservative Democratic party; we would not hear so much half-hearted apologia from beleaguered Democratic voters waiting vainly for the day when the party veers the other way again; and there would not be such a gigantic mass of people reduced to thinking of Democrats as the perennial “lesser evil”–that is to say, not what we the people want or need, but a little better than nothing. I am going to argue that the Democrats are not really a lesser evil, that their turn to Republican Lite in the past generation has been as cynical as it is deliberate. But for the moment let’s take the lesser evil argument at face value and suppose that the courts and the human services bureaucracies do fare a little better (that is, erode more slowly) under Democrats. Is that “democracy” in any sense? Do you really think so little of your country and your citizenship as to accept that?

What happened to the Democratic party? You could say that times changed and the party changed with them, and you would be right so far as it goes. But it had nothing to do with the sentiments of the people. The party’s right turn was a move conceived from within and designed to make the Democrats a more appealing vehicle for major private and corporate donors. This past election notwithstanding, the strategy has been an enormous success. Cash receipts have grown mightily. The business wing of the party has generated a president who became the first Democrat since FDR to win reelection to the White House, and it missed electing his successor by a handful of votes (one vote, really, in the Supreme Court). The business Democrats’ hold on the national party apparatus is complete. The Reagan/Bush/Clinton years worked many changes in the political culture, and none was more profound than the market revolution. Over the past generation the American public has been relentlessly conditioned to believe that whatever is dictated by the market–in more guileless days, it was simply called the money power–is sensible, reasonable, necessary. Our values and aspirations as a society are now routinely subjected to the flummery of cost-benefit analyses in which it’s understood that the only thing that really matters is cost. Democrats, under cover of “realism,” are every bit as complicit in this shift as Republicans.

And where does it leave us? More than ever, the business of America is business (and its stepchild, war) and the business of Democrats is betrayal.

Why give up on the Democrats now?

Here’s the first thing you need to understand: Election Day may have been a shock and a disappointment to the national Democratic party, but it was not a failure. For all the hits they took, the Democrats held the line where it mattered. They did not let in any genuine political dialogue about the central issues of war abroad or of the economy and managerial lawlessness at home. In this they served their masters very well, and that’s really all any political party tries to do in the end. And how does the rank and file react? Why don’t the Democrats… If only the Democrats… If the Democrats were smart… Hold on right there. Let’s dispense with the ridiculous, shopworn notion that the Democrats don’t get it, that they are too dim or too timid to do the things that are evident to the rest of us: tack left, talk populist, stand up to Bush, push hot-button issues like corporate malfeasance, health care, and campaign finance reform.

They see these things as clearly as the rest of us, and they choose not to do any of them. Why? Money is the simple, vulgar answer, and the correct one. The matter of corporate crime, to take one example, is not seen by the Democrats as an opportunity to capitalize on Republican weakness and seize an upper hand; it is seen as a problem shared in common with Republicans–the problem of helping one’s cash clients in a tough time.

But illusions die hard, so the refrain persists: Don’t the Democrats see that they could win by going a different way? Of course they do. But this isn’t sports, it’s politics, and no one who supposes that the object of big-time politics is to win every time out will ever understand what a national political party is or how it operates. The viability of such an operation–the continued security and power of its chief officers–depends on two things: a steady stream of money from stable sources, and the organizational will and means to exclude from the party any persons or ideas that threaten the servicing of that cash clientele. Parties like to win but it’s not the main thing.

And yes, it’s also important to maintain a critical mass of public support and party patronage; this is exactly the Democrats’ current crisis. But the people are a secondary matter in the minds of party managers, and one they have sought to address almost entirely with placating rhetoric. This was the Clinton White House’s express strategy from the day chief adviser Dick Morris first whispered the magic word in Bill’s ear. That word, “triangulation,” evoked a world of cynicism and duplicity; Morris’s basic idea was to hew close to Republicans on policy (to please the party’s funders and to avoid getting outflanked on the right with middle-of-the-road voters) while standing nominally to their left. The meager differences between the Clintonites and the Republicans were carefully amplified in Clinton’s public rhetoric. In practice this meant assiduous attention to public relations (we feel your pain–really we do) and precious little else. The Morris/Clinton stratagem was predicated on the notion that Democratic voters had nowhere else to go and required only the barest of scraps to keep them in the fold.

So it’s deliciously absurd to see all the Democratic pundits and bloggers indignantly demanding that Terry McAuliffe fall on his sword for the good of the party. Not bloody likely: As far as he is concerned, whatever preserves his regime’s power is the good of the party. And there is always the matter of cash receipts. McAuliffe, a financier by trade and the longtime principal fundraiser for Bill Clinton, has improved the party’s cash position considerably. If he does wind up falling on his sword (not for losing the election to Republicans, but for losing the fundraising battle), his position will be filled with another DLC clone who will vow to learn from McAuliffe’s mistakes and then emulate him in every important respect.

The DLC, if you don’t make a habit of following such things, is the Democratic Leadership Council, a creature hatched in the mid-1980s and promoted mainly by conservative Southern and Western Democrats–people like Bruce Babbitt, Charles Robb, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, and the winsome young governor from Arkansas. To anyone paying attention, it was immediately clear what they were up to. In 1986 Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers published a little-noted book called Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics that traced the rise of the business Democrats who would eventually constitute the heart of party leadership.

The coterie of big Democratic fundraisers eventually coalesced behind the banner of the DLC, whose control of the party was ratified by the successes of Bill Clinton. DLC chieftains defined the game of politics entirely in terms of money and set out to raise as much as possible, amending the party platform as necessary and taking care to distance themselves from all their old constituencies–most conspicuously black people, but more broadly the whole American working class. Their few gestures toward the white working class lay mainly in the realm of race-baiting (it was Al Gore, not George Bush the elder, who first dug up Willie Horton to use against Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 New York primary) and no-new-tax pledges.

The rise of the pro-business Democrats was less a coup than a summation of moves the party had been making since the unruly events of 1968 and 1972, a period marked by a “crisis of democracy” in the infamous phrase of Samuel P. Huntington, meaning there was too damn much of the stuff and it was proving unwieldy. After those tumultuous years, the party promoted a number of changes designed to ensure that no upstart could sway the party from the will of its national machine. Thus we got super-delegates at the national convention, an army of party regulars who could be counted on to back the right horse in the event of a close race, and electoral tricks like Super Tuesday, a carefully juggled slate of early primaries that skewed heavily toward conservative Southern states–both of them steps designed to prevent any left-liberal insurgent from building a prohibitive lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is why the people who protested that Jesse Jackson had no legitimate shot in 1988 were ultimately right.

With the country’s spurious right turn as their warrant, the business Democrats spent the second half of the 1980s and all of the 1990s crafting themselves into the party of tough love–young, freshly galvanized “centrists” who would cut away the cumbersome old entanglements and put fiscal responsibility at the top of the Democratic agenda. Think JFK and his New Frontiersmen, except that where Kennedy’s boys were hot to fight the Cold War abroad, Clinton’s people were out to facilitate one at home.

What they practiced wasn’t centrism by any recognizable standard. It always leaned carefully but emphatically to the right. Bill Clinton set the tone for his first administration by provoking a public fight with a relatively obscure female rapper in order to distance himself and the party from the great mass of black America, a gesture he spent the next eight years underscoring with all the right kinds of coded talk about poverty, pathology, and responsibility. (This was a winning proposition on more than one level: A lot of upwardly mobile blacks loved him for it.) The Clinton years saw unprecedented rollbacks in numerous areas, all undertaken in the name of realism and staying one step ahead of the dastardly Republicans. Environmental protections? Clinton/Gore tipped the scales more decisively than ever toward the preferences of business. In the words of Jeffrey St. Clair, the coeditor of CounterPunch and a veteran environmental writer and activist, “Reviewing the environment during Clinton time is like watching a preview of the Bush administration. Indeed, many of Bush’s worst ideas for the planet germinated with Clinton. It started early and didn’t let up. At the behest of his friends in the chemical industry, Clinton moved to excise the Delaney Clause, a valuable law which had been around since the days of Rachel Carson that set zero tolerance for the presence of known carcinogens in processed foods. With Delaney gone, the chemical industry had smooth sailing for the approval of a host of new pesticides. This also set a bad precedent for other issues: Regulative prohibitions were going to be shoved aside in favor of ‘risk assessments’ and cost-benefit analysis. This approach was soon applied to air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste. But it saw its most malign and far-reaching application with the Endangered Species Act, which was essentially eviscerated under the guidance of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

“Midway through Clinton’s first term, he signed what has been called the ‘worst environmental law of the 20th century’–the Salvage Logging Rider, which allowed timber to be clear-cut on national forests across the country without compliance with any environmental laws and shielded from any kind of citizen challenge or lawsuits. In a 1996 op-ed the great environmental radical David Brower wrote that ‘Clinton and Gore have done more harm to the environment in four years than Reagan and Bush did in 12.’ And one very mainstream voice–Jay Hair, the former head of the National Wildlife Federation, who died recently–compared the experience of working with Clinton/Gore to date rape.”

Business regulation? In everything from food inspections to workplace safety, Clinton broadened the system of voluntary compliance, a polite way of saying federal inspectors packed up and went home and businesses were free to do as they pleased as long as they didn’t draw themselves into public scandal. Civil liberties? After the Oklahoma City bombing, he outflanked Republicans to the right with a domestic anti-terrorism bill that could have been crafted by the Ashcroft Justice Department.

Then there is Clinton’s crowning achievement, welfare reform. It was his most famous “compromise” with the evil Republicans, and you miss his real genius if you suppose it was any compromise at all. Go back and recall the circumstances that attended Clinton’s 1996 signing of the welfare bill. He was running for reelection that fall against a stiff, cranky septuagenarian whose next job would be hawking Viagra–a race Clinton was already assured of winning handily. The Gingrich class of Republicans and their Contract with America were on the run, excoriated in poll after poll. Prospects for Democratic gains in Congress were good. It’s a bald lie to say that Clinton’s hand was forced by political exigency; he had plenty of room to maneuver.

And what did he do? In short order he signed the welfare bill, and he denied a request to release a portion of his campaign war chest for use in close congressional races. The latter suggests that when push came to shove, Clinton was not really interested in chasing a Democratic majority; it better suited his purposes to be able to claim he was getting pushed and shoved by Republicans. Publicly the Democrats would have you believe that Clinton’s legacy was a matter of doing his best under adverse circumstances. It would be closer to the mark to say he built exactly the record he desired, give or take his planned second-term overhaul of the Social Security trust fund. (Thank you, Monica Lewinsky–you saved Social Security!) Next to Clinton, the Nixon administration was one long orgy of fuzzy-headed liberalism.

Okay, but what about Congress? Say what you will of presidential politics; aren’t the people we choose to represent us in House and Senate races the product of more homespun, democratic deliberations? No. Here again the national party has the final say. The mechanism is simple enough. In races for national office these days, you are nothing without soft money, and the flow of these dollars to would-be Democratic contenders is controlled by the party’s national campaign organizations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). The committees are happy to welcome all candidates at first, since they are all prospective fundraisers for the party, but that doesn’t mean the party will return the favor to just anybody.

Listen to Bill Hillsman, the man who masterminded the spectacularly successful long-shot campaigns of Paul Wellstone in 1990 and Jesse Ventura in 1998. If any consultant in the whole country should be besieged by a Democratic party interested in winning, it’s Hillsman. But in fact the national Democratic machine despises him and actively discourages candidates from working with him. “The party wields a tremendous amount of power,” he told me not long ago. (The interview is featured in the October issue of The Rake.) “I was on a phone call once with a pollster and a DSCC official and [U.S. Senate primary candidate] Mike Ciresi. First off they wanted him to raise a lot of soft money for the party. I told him, don’t be fooled–they’re not going to put any of that money back into your race unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.

“I’ve seen them do this with lots of congressional candidates,” said Hillsman. “They say in effect, go raise money, and later they tell you to get in line with the party platform or get left out in the cold. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell’s situation in Colorado was interesting to watch for that reason. He got himself elected despite the Democratic party and then switched to the Republicans shortly after the election because he was so disgusted by the Democrats’ behavior.”

Hey, wait a minute… All right, you might say: If you’re going to be cynical about it, then haven’t moneyed interests always controlled, or at least constrained, every major party in American history? Yes. But a couple of important things have changed in the past generation. Put simply, big money has not held all the cards in quite this way since the Gilded Age of robber barons like Morgan and Rockefeller. And in their day there was nothing approaching the staggering concentrations of media that exist now, which is to say there was not the opportunity to exclude so many voices and interests from public dialogue. Fully half the country (the half that does not vote, and has watched helplessly as its fortunes declined over the last generation) is practically invisible in media except when it commits lurid crimes. Stop and ask yourself how this can be so–in the age of information, in the wealthiest industrial democracy the world has ever seen.

It didn’t happen overnight. An interesting footnote on the American economy and the political economy of the Democrats: In retrospect it’s clear that the long post-WWII boom in the economy and in real working class wages ended around 1973. After an oil recession and several years of stagnation, the economy began growing again, but the rising tide no longer lifted all boats. Instead the gains came to be more and more concentrated in the top income percentiles; after the top 20 to 25 percent there were scarcely any gains at all, and more often losses. As the majority of the country’s citizens began sliding backward in economic standing, they started fading from the radar of the Democrats too. The party’s modern accommodation to the culture and goals of big business began in earnest during the Carter years. It was Carter who made a point of getting Business Roundtable denizens more involved in his administration; Carter who touched off the wave of business deregulation–in trucking, the airlines, and elsewhere–that most people associate with Ronald Reagan; Carter who oversaw the end of a long if erratic era of growing working class enfranchisement won mainly by the labor and civil rights movements.

Aren’t you paying attention? The Democrats aremoving left. It’s true the Democrats have been making progressive noises since their losses on November 5–hardly a surprise, given the mounting and perfectly legitimate criticism of their me-too policies. But note the pedigrees of their two liberal luminaries of the hour, Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore.

Pelosi, the new House minority leader–a position vacated by Dick Gephardt not because the party needed new blood but because Dick Gephardt needed personal distance from the party’s troubles in preparing his own 2004 presidential bid–is best known on Capitol Hill for being pliable and none too bright. Her liberal bona fides stem entirely from having represented one of the most left-leaning congressional districts in the country, but Pelosi herself is the quintessential team player. If ever there were a time for a Democratic party serious about winning to roll the dice on more inclusive, less conventional measures, this is it. Quite to the contrary, Pelosi launched her tenure as minority leader by promising not to push the party in new directions and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) to work with the Bush administration and congressional Republicans in a spirit of “bipartisanship.” Now here is a truly hateful word, a conservative Democratic shibboleth that ought to send liberals and lefties fleeing for cover, since it’s really nothing more than a pledge to offer up more of the same. But talk to any of these poor abandoned Democratic liberals and they will eventually start burbling about the necessity of bipartisan cooperation–as if the bogeyman falsely held up as its only alternative (complete gridlock) would not be preferable to the governance we’re getting now.

Al Gore’s latest reinvention, this time as the avatar of a single-payer national health care system, is a similarly cynical affair. Surely you remember Gore the environmentalist, author of a bold and even apocalyptic treatise on global warming; Gore’s green awakening didn’t stop him and his merry band from brokering the many environmental betrayals of the Clinton years. Gore was not interested in pursuing environmental reforms, even the petty ones he could have won in the near term. When Carol Browner, Al’s own former chief of staff, tried to push through some modestly tightened EPA smog regulations in 1998, big Democratic contributors balked and the administration hung her out to dry.

Tell you what. If Al Gore secures the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 campaigning for single-payer, and writes into the party platform a radical overhaul of the health care system, I will declare myself a Democrat and shut up about all these things. It won’t happen.

What about the Paul Wellstones of the world? Don’t they prove there’s room in the party for liberals and wild cards?

In the past couple of weeks I have been accused of all manner of attacks on Paul Wellstone’s memory. One letter writer called me a grave stomper. This for pointing out that, in my view, Wellstone erred in keeping such a low profile and aligning himself with the national Democratic leadership. The criticisms of what I wrote all come down to this: How nice that you’re so ideologically pure, friend, but those of us living in the real world don’t have that luxury.

This is ironic. In the past generation countless people have left the Democratic party, or gotten pushed out of it, or simply stopped caring about it, over all sorts of issues. It’s the party itself that’s burdened by an untenable ideological purity: It means to remain programmatically compatible with its financiers and large donors at any cost, even though that cost is an increasing and now perilous level of defection by traditional Democratic voters who have no stake in sticking with the party. But again, the Democrats are not in this position because they’re out of touch. This is where they have chosen to stand. They would be happy for your help–in fact, they are positively desperate for it, because a party can lose only so much ground before the patronage that keeps it functioning at ground level begins drying up–but come what may, they mean to stick with the people who pay their bills, thank you very much.

As for Wellstone, one last time: I believe he was a good and honest and well-meaning man, and I mourn his passing far more than you may imagine. His work was not all for nothing; Wellstone partisans like to point out how hard he worked at playing defense, toning down some of the more noxious provisions of the legislation he encountered every day.

And I have no doubt that this is true, or that it made the circumstances of some people a little better. But the decision to work within the party and concentrate on legislative minutiae also kept Wellstone from using his position to elicit public pressure on select issues and expand the terms of debate within the party. By his own account, he set out in the beginning to fight for radical reform in key areas such as health care and campaign finance, principally by using his grassroots organizing experience to bring outside pressure to bear on Washington. I know this because he said so to me and to any number of other reporters.

But once he reached Washington, he soon succumbed to the blandishments of the Democratic leadership. He bought into then-majority leader George Mitchell’s swap of plum committee assignments for adherence to the party line. He acquiesced to Hillary Clinton and pulled his single-payer health care proposal off the table at a time when, as either of them should have seen, it was most needed to provide cover on the left for the Clintons’ more conservative plan. Paul Wellstone started as an insurgent and wound up a proud if sometimes balky Democrat. If you are cognizant of the goals with which he entered the Senate, and honest about what became of them, it pretty much dispels the notion that “working inside the system” will do a damn thing to change the Democrats.

So what, we shouldn’t vote at all?

That’s not what I’m saying. Local and state races frequently offer more distinct choices than national ones, both in the major parties (which are more ideologically porous at this level, since campaigns for smaller offices require less money and are less determined by the wishes of large donors) and in smaller parties like the Greens and the Independents. Those races are worth watching and often worth participating in. And there’s nothing wrong with the occasional judicious vote for a national Democratic candidate when the Republican opponent is especially noxious. I voted for Fritz Mondale on that basis myself; or rather, I voted against someone I personally despised in Norm Coleman. Play the lesser evil game if you want–sparingly, lest you keep legitimizing the whole corrupt Democratic edifice–but bear in mind the larger truth of the matter: A system that always puts you in the position of choosing a (barely) lesser evil is a mockery of your right to representation. So what to do?

Start talking to people and building things. Recognize that the most consequential work you can do has little immediate connection to electoral politics. The civil rights movement, to cite the greatest uprising of American citizens in the last 100 years, was not built on voting for pro-civil rights politicians; no such creature even existed when it began. It was based on relentless public pressure over a period of years. Today there are any number of major issues to organize around: health care, corporate crime, international trade policy, the environment, labor rights and economic justice, civil rights and civil liberties. The political establishment and major media will steadfastly ignore you for as long as they can, but there are still countervailing opportunities for outreach and collective action. The mass WTO protests in Seattle a few years ago, and elsewhere around the globe since then, were mainly organized on the Internet, a medium ripe with possibilities for connecting like-minded people.

Stop fearing what will happen if you give up on the Democrats. Your fear of what will ensue if they wither away is really all they have left at this point. It’s time to look for higher ground. What will happen if the Democrats collapse, after all? The plutocrats will take over? The right will launch an assault on our most essential liberties? The forces of empire will pursue a global jihad against anything that stands in the way of our continuing shaky hegemony over most of the planet’s vital resources? Look around you: It’s already happening, every bit of it, and not because “the Republicans have too much power.” It happened under Carter, under Clinton, under Democratic control of Congress. There is only one party now, the Republicrats, or if you prefer, the Property Party. And at this late date they are constrained in their ruthlessness not by opposition parties or checks and balances but by the prospect of public revolt.

Stop defining “citizenship” by the mere act of voting. That only makes you a consumer and a spectator, which is all that either major party wants you to be. Where electoral politics is concerned, make a point of learning more about the small parties active in your area, and help them in any way you can to get on the ballot and to get a fair hearing. In some states, Minnesota included, a relatively small percentage of votes is enough to garner these parties a share of government campaign funds. If they can begin winning races for local office and lesser state posts (for example, secretary of state or state auditor), it’s one more crack in the Republicrat wall.

Stop pretending the system isn’t broken. Unless you like sham democracy and one-party politics, I mean.

Stop pretending the Democratic party is interested in fixing it. Or in other words, stop trying to fix the Democratic party–because, by the lights of “real” Democrats, the ones who own and operate it, it isn’t broken. And quit all the moaning about the stupid Democrats blowing chances. The Democrats are not stupid. But if you are still bedding down with them and expecting something to change, you have every reason to wonder about yourself.

STEVE PERRY, long time CounterPunch contributer, is the new editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul alternative weekly City Pages. Email him directly at sperry@citypages.com.

Send a letter to the editor for publication at letters@citypages.com