A Plague on Both Parties!
They say in Latin America that we have no coups in the United States because we have no American embassy.
For enhancing the power and wealth of our richest capitalists and for keeping the imperial order secure, we don’t need coups. What we have is better: we have Democrats and Republicans.
This is a better arrangement for the American people too; if nothing else, it is kinder and gentler. But, for advancing the interests of the great majority of Americans, the ninety-nine percent, it is no less disabling.
In the developed capitalist world, the semi-establishment of a duopoly party system has always been unusual, if not unique. It used to be unusual too that our two parties were so steadfastly pro-business.
After World War II, in France and Italy and elsewhere in southern Europe when conditions permitted, nominally anti-capitalist political parties and labor unions, Communist and otherwise, were an active presence.
Elsewhere, Social Democratic or Laborite parties and unions, officially and sometimes genuinely intent on pursuing left alternatives within capitalism, often ruled. Even when they were out of power, they were a significant force.
Communists and Social Democrats were never more than marginal in American politics — though, decades ago, there were some Democrats and a few Republicans, holdovers from the New Deal era, who were cut from the same cloth as Social Democrats abroad.
In the early and mid 1960s, New Deal politics enjoyed a brief revival. Under the aegis of the Great Society, the United States inched forward, along with other capitalist countries, in a more egalitarian and solidaristic direction.
But then the Vietnam War consumed the Johnson Administration, and the impulse began to peter out. By the end of the 1970s, it was gone. In the course of the next decade, the rest of the capitalist world followed suit.
The class war continued of course but, in recent decades, only the capitalist side has had the means and the determination to take initiatives.
Not every battle has been lost; even in the United States, some capitalist offensives were turned back. But everywhere the pro-capitalist Right controls the agenda, and progress has been put on hold.
Everywhere too, the Left, what there still is of it, has made peace with the capitalist order. Whatever Left parties and unions may once have been, they are all Democrats now — or might as well be. Like Democrats, they aspire only to defend advances won long ago.
But history works in strange ways; unforeseeable circumstances sometimes arise as if out of nowhere.
This is happening now in the United States where both major parties are actively undermining what little popular support they still enjoy. Our duopoly system is not yet in a crisis phase, but a crisis does seem at hand.
Along with many state governments, the national government has become dysfunctional; this is both a cause and a symptom of what is to come.
So too is the public reaction. Polling data suggests that contempt for both parties has reached historically unprecedented levels.
It is too soon to tell what will come of this situation. Inasmuch as the duopoly has been frozen in place for so long, perhaps very little will.
But an opportunity is taking shape that, if put to advantage, could set the country back onto a more progressive course.
For anything like that to happen, however, we must first break free from the duopoly’s hold.
As both parties self-destruct – Republicans conspicuously, Democrats less obviously – this prospect is not as unlikely as it used to seem.
* * *
The Republican case first, as it is the more visible of the two, and it is unfolding the fastest.
The polls are unequivocal: the Republican brand took a beating from the Tea Party’s latest antics – the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis.
And, although, the Tea Party’s favorability ratings dropped most of all, Tea Party stalwarts feel undefeated. Some of them actually think they won. It isn’t just that they are morons; for them, obduracy is all.
This is why they love Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The Tea Party’s latest buffoon du jour raises obduracy to the level of an art form.
No doubt, the Old Guard Republicans who once welcomed the Tea Party on board, and the plutocrats who got the Tea Party going, are having second – and third, and fourth — thoughts. The Tea Party seemed like a good idea at the time. To them, that must now seem like a long time ago.
If a Presidential election were in the immediate offing, the Party’s establishment types would surely now be doing their level best to get the GOP onto a more acceptable course. It is far from clear, however, that they would succeed.
Even last year, they couldn’t quite keep their formerly useful idiots in line. They did get their man, Mitt Romney, nominated. But then, to keep the party together, he had to run as if he were a Tea Partier himself.
Nowadays, “respectable” Republicans running for office have no choice; they must set their dignity aside and pander to people they would otherwise turn away from the back door. No exceptions are made – not even for
those who, like Romney, were to the manor born, nor for those who, again like Romney, are filthy rich.
Our ersatz lords and ladies must be aghast at what their world is coming to. However, in their circles, greed conquers all.
But it can’t go on forever; indeed, it is remarkable that the breaking point has not already been reached. It almost was in the 2012 primaries. But establishment Republicans held on by the skins of their teeth, and Romney got the nod.
If the truth be told, however, the Romney candidacy wasn’t that hard to pull off. Romney’s competitors were a risible lot; even Tea Partiers who had not yet entirely cut off all relations with reality could not abide them.
For “pragmatic” reasons, many of them were willing, last year, to hold their noses and accept a candidate they despised because they understood that, to win back the White House, the votes of “moderates” were indispensable.
But that was then. By now, Tea Partiers have “evolved” to a point where the kind of accommodation many of them made last year is no longer acceptable; most of them now won’t compromise at all.
They no longer care that much about winning and losing. What they want is to act out.
However, this hardly matters because the considerations that brought Tea Partiers into the Romney fold in 2012 will not be in play in 2014. In the coming election, even those Tea Partiers who might still think it expedient to compromise in order to win will seldom have any reason to do so.
This is because the next election will be about seats in the House of Representatives; and the relevant factor there is that most Congressional distracts are so thoroughly gerrymandered that most Republicans will be running in districts where, barring a sea change, Republicans cannot lose.
Therefore Republican legislators who have doubts about the Tea Party line, or whom Tea Partiers deem not Tea Party-ish enough, will have only primary challenges from Tea Party zealots to fear.
And fear them they should because they know that those insurgent yokels are hell bent on defeating so-called RINOs, Republicans in Name Only, wherever they can, and injuring them wherever they cannot.
The RINOs understand too that there are still zillionaires out there who think like Tea Partiers or who believe, with good reason, that Tea Party obstinacy is good for their bottom line whether Republicans win or not.
And so, in 2014, Tea Party challengers will have not only opportunity and motive, but means as well. RINOs beware; Republicans beware.
But does it matter? Political functionaries and party loyalists care which party wins. But, for most of us, what matters more is which way public policy goes. From Day One, the Tea Party, always a minority current, has been in control of that.
The zillionaire paymasters understand full well that this is not likely to change if Democrats win back control of the House, or even if the Tea Party takes down the entire GOP. Expect them therefore to keep throwing money the Tea Party’s way. Because they will, expect the Tea Party to still be at it for some time to come.
Perhaps in 2014, the RINOs will still hold on – enough to keep the Republican Party in one piece. Then the GOP will live to self-destruct another day. But its electoral strength will decline anyway, and its influence outside the South and other benighted regions will surely diminish.
2014 is therefore shaping up to be a good year for Democrats, whatever happens on the Republican side.
Odds are now that Democrats will retain control of the Senate and, despite gerrymandering, retake control of the House. The White House, of course, is theirs for sure — until at least January 2017.
There is a slim chance, of course, that they will stumble, that the administration’s incompetence and the President’s prevarications and weaknesses will do them in.
The botched rollout of Obamacare – Romneycare by another name – shows that this is possible. But now that the lunatics are running the asylum, Republican decline is inevitable. The cultural contradictions at the heart of the modern GOP are bound to do the Party in.
Indeed, we may already have reached a point where Democratic incompetence can no longer save the Republican Party’s electoral chances. The most Obama and the others can do is postpone the inevitable.
Should we then be singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”? Are Democratic victories reasons to rejoice?
The short answer, at least for the foreseeable future, is No.
* * *
Democratic victories in 2014 will facilitate, not impede, the push to Grand Bargain away most of what remains of New Deal and Great Society advances. A Democratic sweep will also free Obama to do as pleases with drones and assassins, and it will encourage his efforts to expand the surveillance state.
To be sure, Republicans of the John McCain-Lindsey Graham persuasion have been among the President’s best allies on these matters. But the GOP’s warmongers and authoritarians have been dealt a blow by the Tea Party’s rise; their influence, within their own party, is now practically nil.
With the Republican Party diminished and its only still vigorous component despised, it is the Democrats, the Lesser Evil, who are the greater cause for concern.
Because they have so little to brag about, the story their propagandists tell is that when Democrats “disappoint,” as they always do, Republicans made them do it.
Democratic legislators too do all they can to make this story stick. Why wouldn’t they?
Republicans, Tea Partiers especially, are easy prey.
It sticks in their craw that the President of the United States is a black man – not to mention a liberal “elitist” and, who knows, maybe even a Muslim. They detest him more even than they detest RINOs.
Most rank and file Democrats, independents and non-Tea Party Republicans, the saner ones, find the Tea Party’s racially tinged hostility appalling.
This gives Congressional Democrats a reason to stir up Tea Partiers’ animosity by rattling their cages whenever they can.
It also gives them a reason to rally behind the President, even when he is wrong, as he almost always is. It gives them a reason to be Party loyalists.
But it is far from a compelling reason in this case because party loyalty, in the circumstances we now confront, encourages the Democratic Party’s rightward drift.
To be sure, Republicans have gamed the system, and this has been a factor too. But the Democrats’ eagerness to cooperate with Republicans, epitomized by Obama’s feckless yearning for “bipartisanship,” is more of a symptom than a cause.
Republican shenanigans don’t begin to explain the Democrats’ shameless toadying to Wall Street, their shameful environmental record, or their tolerance for Obama’s drones and assassins and 24/7 surveillance.
For all that and more, Obama is the reason, and of course the Democrats themselves.
Ever since the Clintons cleared out what there was of the Party’s anemic left wing, Democrats have aspired to become the plutocracy’s party of choice. With Tea Partiers running the GOP, success is now finally in sight.
They are not about to spoil their chances by doing anything that might upset the feelings of the fraction of the one percent they are trying so desperately to please.
Their constituents may know that the plutocracy is their enemy, but Democrats have little to fear from habitual Democratic voters. Thanks to gerrymandering and the countless ways the duopoly has managed to institutionalize itself, Democratic voters have no place else to go.
That “strategic” calculation would be bad enough. But, for many House and Senate Democrats, probably the vast majority, anticipating plutocratic needs comes naturally.
What the plutocrats want is what they want too because, ideologically, they might as well be Republicans; not the Tea Party kind but the kind that used to run the GOP.
If there is a difference, it is only that the genuine article, before it went extinct, was more likely, to be humanly decent, as traditional conservatives are wont to be, and therefore less tempted by Obama-style heedlessness of the rule of law and contempt for Constitutional protections of individuals’ rights and freedoms.
The story is probably apocryphal, but it is telling that, in closing down some U.S. spying operations, Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, is supposed to have said “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.”
The contrast with the views of Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is striking. She is not just for reading other peoples’ mail; she would surveil everything that moves – except, of course, Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
Merkel and perhaps a few other leaders of powerful allied nations ought to be exempt, in her view, because spying on them could affect their willingness to aid and abet American imperialism. As for the privacy rights of everyone else, it is just too bad if that becomes collateral damage.
How telling that that dreadful woman has accused Edward Snowden of treason. Even Eric Holder has not (yet) sunk so low.
And then there is the President himself.
Who knows how much fault lies with the man, and how much with the constraints he faces? Someday biographers and historians will attempt considered judgments. For us now, with three more years to go before we see the back of him, it hardly matters.
What matters instead is just that the “hope” and “change” President, so far from realizing his supporters’ hopes or bringing about even small-scale beneficial change, has done as much as all the mad Tea Partiers combined to quash hope and impede change.
That he would do his best to keep the empire from losing face in the wars he inherited from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was clear from the beginning. By repackaging those wars, and cutting back the level of overt American involvement, he fulfilled that expectation well, though at great cost to American soldiers, Afghans and Iraqis.
It isn’t over over there either; his efforts may yet come back to bite him.
It was not quite as obvious that 2008’s peace candidate would morph into the President Drone who now haunts the West Wing, or that he would turn large swathes of south Asia, the Middle East and Africa into new theaters of operation – doing his best to keep the murder and mayhem he causes out of the public eye? In retrospect, though, the signs were there.
But the hash Obama has made of privacy and due process rights, and his disregard for basic norms of international law, comes as a surprise. It is more than “disappointing” too. It is criminal.
* * *
What we can hope for, then, is a plague on both their houses. That was the truth the Occupy movements were groping towards two years ago. It is now even more warranted than it was then.
Obama quashed those movements – first, by waiting them out, then by setting the forces of order loose upon them, and finally by diluting what remained of the spirit of rebellion, sucking some of the rebels up into his 2012 presidential campaign.
It was not that a sudden lapse of reason made them Obamaphiles again. Unlike in 2008, by 2012 there was then hardly a man, woman or child who really wanted four more years of the Obama presidency; what they wanted was to keep Tea Party lunacy at bay. It was a lesser evil judgment, and some Occupiers fell for it.
In retrospect, that too should have been predictable. For good or ill, the Occupy movements had no leadership, no organization, and no strategic vision.
What they had was indignation, and it is a sure thing that indignation will erupt again; where there are causes in abundance, there are bound to be effects.
Perhaps we will find, when they do, that the lesson has been learned; perhaps, in the next wave of revolt, people will understand that outrage without organization is blind – and also doomed.
If the lesson is not learned, the downward spiral in which we are mired will only get worse; the dysfunctionality afflicting us now will be just the beginning.
But it is not too much to hope that obvious truths will sink in, especially when the situation is dire, and when more than ninety-nine percent of the population stands to gain.
Time will tell. What is clear now is just that there is nothing else on the horizon to hope for; and that anyone who finds hope in the likely prospect of Democratic electoral victories is in the grip of a dangerous delusion.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).