At convention time, in years gone by, pundits would decry with patronizing chuckles the supposed proclivity of the Democratic Party to “tear itself apart”. Auto-rupture is actually a good thing. As Hegel once said, “a political party only truly exists when it is divided against itself”. In Hegel’s sense, the Democratic Party has ceased to exist. The pundits have had their wish. The party is united, in the putrifying ooze of death, too toxic to use as manure for any new political growth.
Let’s start with the obvious. The central political issue in this first decade of the 21st century is the decay of the American political system and of the two prime parties that share the spoils. Wherever one looks, at the gerrymandered districts, the balloting methods, the fundraising, corruption steams like vapors from a vast swamp. In the House of Representatives today, only some 35 seats are in serious contention. The rest have been gerrymandered into permanent incumbencies.
Congress itself is an infinitely drearier, more conformist place than it was two or three decades ago. Vivid souls like Wright Patman and Henry Gonzalez of Texas, in whose hearts the coals of populist insurgency still glowed, are long gone. Today, where are the Ernest Gruenings, the Wayne Morses, the Harold Hughes, who stood out against the rush to war in the Vietnam years? In the US Senate, amid the march on Iraq we heard an eloquent echo from Robert Byrd, and from one or two others including Ted Kennedy. In the House you can count the true mavericks on the fingers of both hands.
On the calendar of standard-issue American politics, the quadrennial nominations and presidential contests have offered, across the past 40 years, a relentlessly shrinking menu. To go back to 1964, the Democratic convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson saw the Democratic Party powers scorn the legitimate claim of Fannie Lou Hamer and her fellow crusaders in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be the lawful Mississippi delegation. The black insurgents went down to defeat in a battle that remained etched in the political consciousness of those who partook in or even observed the fray. There was political division, the bugle blare and saber slashes of genuine struggle.
In 1968 there was still a run against LBJ, albeit more polite in form, with Eugene McCarthy’s challenge. McCarthy’s call for schism was an eminently respectable one, from a man who had risen through the US Senate as an orthodox Democratic cold-war liberal. He himself saw the limits of his “test of the system”. “It might have been better”, he remarked to the reporter Andrew Kopkind in the midst of his campaign, “to let things run wild to have a peasants’ revolt. Maybe it would have been better to stand back and let people light fires on the hill.” As he well knew, the Democratic Party exists to suppress peasants’ revolts and douse fires on the hill.
Four years later, when George McGovern again kindled the antiwar torch, the party’s established powers, the labor chieftains and the money men, did their best to douse his modest smoulder, deliberately surrendering the field to Richard Nixon, for whom many of them voted.
And yet, by today’s standards, that strange man Nixon, under whose aegis the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed, Earth Day first celebrated, and Keynesianism accepted as a fact of life, would have been regarded as impossibly radical. Nixon did these thing because if the historical circumstances which forced him in that direction.
With Jimmy Carter came the omens of neoliberalism, which later flowered in the Clinton years under the logo of the Democratic Leadership Council. Resistance came in 1976 with Barry Commoner and his Citizens’ Party, then in 1979-80 with Senator Edward Kennedy’s challenge to Carter for the nomination under the battle standard of old-line New Deal liberalism. There was also Republican John Anderson’s independent run as a moderate.
The two Democratic presidential nominees of the 1980s, Fritz Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, saw party leaders and pundits massed protectively, standing shoulder to shoulder against the last coherent left populist campaign in America mounted within the framework of the Democratic Party, by Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. The Democratic Party gave its rebuttal to Jackson and the Rainbow with Clinton in 1992 and again in 1996. In the years from 1993 to 2000, blacks got the Crime Bill, women got ‘welfare reform’, labor got NAFTA, gays and lesbians got the Defense of Marriage Act. In the Clinton years 700,000 more persons were incarcerated, mostly minorities; today one in eight black men is barred from voting because of prison, probation or parole. So much for the hopes of the Rainbow.
Amid his re-election campaign, in 1996, Bill Clinton took for his own the Republican proposal for “welfare reform”, even worse than his original proposal for “reform” in 1992. His victory was assured, but Clinton followed through anyway on a bill he knew was rotten. Liberals were aghast but did nothing. There was no insurgency, no rocking of the boat, no “divisive” challenge on that or anything else. The Democratic Party, from DLC governors to liberal public-interest groups mustered around their leader and marched into the late Nineties arm in arm along the path sign-posted toward the greatest orgy of corporate theft in the history of the planet, deregulation of banking and food safety, rates of logging six times those achieved in the subsequent Bush years, a war on Yugoslavia, a vast expansion of the death penalty, re-affirmation of racist drug laws, the foundations of the Patriot Act.
These days, inside the Democratic Party the spirit of defiance is dead. When John Kerry said a couple of months ago that he might appoint anti-abortion judges, the leaders of the big liberal women’s groups kept their mouths politely closed. Compare this spinelessness with conservative Republican Payul Weyrich’s recent shot across Bush’s bows: “If the president is embarrassed to be seen with conservatives at the convention, maybe conservatives will be embarrassed to be seen with the president on Election Day.”
Dissidence is now outside the Democratic Party, with Ralph Nader and and his veep running mate, Peter Camejo, and in Boston, on the streets.
This essay is excerpted from CounterPunch’s forthcoming book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.
Tomorrow: Why The Democrats Deserve Ralph Nader