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The Democratic Party is (Still) the Graveyard of Social Movements

Letter to the Dismal Center

by ROB URIE

Every four or so years an absence of political and cultural imagination is celebrated with calls to ‘participate’ in a political establishment that long ago abandoned any pretense of working in the interests of the citizenry it claims to represent. The arguments in favor cite the implausible propositions that political democracy exists along side economic plutocracy and that the electoral process represents more than the contrived illusion that the political leadership appointed to represent the interests of the plutocracy has the consent of the governed.

Calls to participate from the political ‘center’ are dependent on the center being largely content-free, and therefore ever moveable. Today’s political center is on all political and economic issues far to the right of conservative Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972. The Democratic Party could have stood its ground and fought for economic and political democracy, labor rights and social justice at any point as this shift occurred. Instead, it turned to the corporatist policies of the ‘New’ Democrats and promoted a neo-liberal agenda conceived by right-wing ideologues. Any argument that the citizenry led this move implies that Democrats held contrary views but were too politically inept to sway opinion and ignores their impassioned support of radical right policies. (If this reads as hyperbole, you don’t know the genesis of the policies).

Alleged differences between candidates and political parties depend on cultural wedge issues to hide similarities in the political and economic policies that give these issues power over our lives. The white liberal bourgeois argue that the Democratic / Republican divide over abortion rights is determinant when abortion is de facto prohibited for most women by economic circumstance. Gays and lesbians can now openly join a brutal, murderous military dependent on economic refugees to promote the interests of multinational resource extraction companies and the delusions and historical memory of late-stage empire. And the domestic political gains made by the civil rights movement have run headlong into the economic re-subjugation of black and brown people through the ‘New Jim Crow, ’ the prison industry and the predation of connected bankers recently bailed out and pardoned by the nation’s first black President. Economic policies do affect ‘social’ issues.

One improbable view (link) in favor of mainstream political participation is that the decision not to participate removes one from the political decision making process. In the first, this places the realm of political imagination in the narrow distance between the mainstream parties and in the second, it fails to answer the question: vote for what? Furthermore, with Citizens United and $50,000 per plate political fundraisers held by both parties, it suborns the political effect of wholesale economic marginalization in favor of the bourgeois conceit that voting, no matter what one’s economic status, still has some effect. In fact, economic subjugation precedes the capacity for political suppression. It isn’t the votes of the wealthy and connected that are being suppressed in Florida and Pennsylvania. And criticism of  ‘self-suppression,’ boycotting the vote, amounts to blaming the economically marginalized for concluding what is common understanding in bourgeois ghettoes– that concentrated economic wealth has bought control of the political process.

The arguments in favor of holding one’s nose and voting for Democrats (link) tend toward variations on ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good,’ the premise being that while one might quibble with Democratic policies, the core of these policies are worthy of support. In the first, if these policies are worthy of support, then make that argument. I’ve read the explanations / defenses of Democratic policies everywhere I could find them, particularly from administration friendly economists, and maintain that I do not support the overwhelming majority of them for entirely analytical reasons. These aren’t quibbles—I disagree with the policies, as do many other articulate critics.

What remains is the argument that Democrats, either themselves or their policies, are ‘less evil’ than Republicans and their policies. But conclusions to the contrary can be drawn while agreeing with the point that Republican policies tend to be unmitigated disasters. If the policies of both parties work against economic and political democracy, labor rights and social justice, then the question becomes: which is the more effective purveyor of bad policies? To this I have argued that Democrats in general, and Barack Obama in particular (link), are the more effective purveyors of bad policies. (Glen Ford also makes this argument in the first link in this piece).

What is truly dismal in the moderate conceit that voting for Democrats is constructive is the lack of political and cultural imagination behind it. Early in his term Barack Obama had an opportunity to reverse the catastrophic policies that led to economic and financial collapse and lay out a positive vision of a nation of economic and political democracy and social justice. The forces of the radical right were cowed and legitimate blame for the catastrophe could have been placed where it lay—with the economic policies of the radical right, many of which had been promoted by ‘liberal’ Democrats. But instead of doing this Mr. Obama gave voice to these very same policies while having his Generals engineer every back-room deal to save connected plutocrats and screw working Americans and the poor that were possible. (See link directly above).

Last, the argument that the quest for ideological ‘purity’ by the political left has led to permanent exile and irrelevance assumes both the continuation of an existing order haunted by its own political-economic ghosts and that differences over policies are indeed ‘quibbles’ rather than fundamental disagreements. The latter point is made by again referring to the slide across the political spectrum that places current moderates very far to the right of past conservatives to ask: what has pragmatism brought other than incremental decay? What pragmatists have been doing doesn’t seem very pragmatic if they care about political outcomes.

The first point alludes to two developments unimagined by most moderates before they occurred—the financial debacle of 2008 – today and the rise of Occupy. What the financial debacle illustrated is the relative fragility of the existing order. In the next inevitable financial debacle today’s political pragmatist will be tomorrow’s irrelevant bureaucrat. The world needs ideas that have the possibility of working, not more incremental decay. My view is that those ideas are from the left. And I was there from the second week of Occupy in New York and got a sense of the potential for revolutionary change. I remember opportunistic Democrats (Charlie Rangel) being told to get the fuck out of the park in no uncertain terms. To return to supporting Democrats is devolution of the first order. The saying ‘the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements’ persists for a reason.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.