The blurring of political distinctions between America’s two major political parties, achieved through Democratic acquiescence to Republican ideas on every major national question, has prompted some progressives to conclude that Democrats and Republicans are now essentially identical. This conflation is a dangerous error: it is too kind an evaluation of the Democratic Party. For to view Democrats as mere Republican clones is to discount the far more pernicious role they play in encouraging a politically conservative framework that traps and demoralizes many Americans into adopting right-wing positions in the first place.
If Democrats simply paralleled Republicans, they would be politically redundant. But the Democrats are not duplicative – they are duplicitous. Peddling slightly less reactionary programs and packaging them in more appealing rhetoric, they soften up, placate and paralyze possible popular opposition to right-wing attacks. This creates the groundwork for future assaults by the Right. The Republican agenda, ugly, brutal, and brazen as it is, could not possibly pierce the public on its own – but the sordid record of Democratic appeasement has locked, loaded, and enabled right-wing advances.
How does this happen? To illustrate the process, it is first necessary to outline its general features in broad terms, and then show it in motion by examining Democratic capitulations to the Right on prominent issues: Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, social security and the conservative backlash.
Broadly speaking, there exists a clear common pattern underlying the dynamic by which the Left continuously loses ground to the Right. The Republican Party seizes the initiative by actively mobilizing its assets, ideas, and ideology to work toward its radical goals. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party does not pull in the opposite direction. It does not mobilize aggressively for its own goals. Nor does it defend vigorously against right-wing designs. This passiveness takes on major significance precisely because the party poses as a friend of ordinary people. In this context its inaction becomes action a tacit acceptance and approval of right-wing maneuvers. The Democratic Party’s role as the legitimizing agent of right-wing stances allows and locks into place political boundaries in which only right-wing ideas can prevail. This initial acquiescence constitutes phase (a) of Democratic Party cultivation of conservatism.
What makes this process so poisonous is a unique combination of American pragmatism and American political structure. American pragmatism, or the popular public understanding of politics, dictates that at the end of the day there must be an end to bickering and some sort of bipartisan compromise – a ‘fair middle between extremes,’ like the philosophy behind Aristotle’s Golden Mean. American political structure, or the structure of two dominant parties, fosters the assumption that each party exists in opposition to one another, creating a kind of symmetrical polarization. Pragmatism and politics, then, should neatly overlap: the political center should lie between the two parties.
But real-life Democratic passivity in the face of Republican onslaughts vitiates this assumption of parties as polar opposites. A ‘middle ground,’ when chosen, ends up not between two extremes, but rather between the right-wing extreme of the Republicans and the ‘slightly-to-the-left-of-that-same-extreme’ Democrats. Whatever lies on the real left end on the spectrum is therefore thrown out of the picture entirely. As time passes, the right-wing Republican-Democratic snippet from the old spectrum becomes the basis for the new spectrum. And from this new more rightist-oriented spectrum, the process will repeat itself, producing an even more right-wing ‘middle ground.’ The ongoing result is an ever-increasing expansion of the conservative viewpoint at the expense of a quickly-diminishing progressive viewpoint. This distortion of the spectrum comprises phase (b) of the conservative-creating dynamic.
The process is only deepened when a Democrat captures power at any level. He will have been elected because his slightly left-wing rhetoric appeals to people. But because this rhetoric is belied by a fundamentally right-wing basis which bars all possibility of meaningful change, disaster results. For the voters who elected the Democrat to solve a given social or economic issue, upon seeing it unsolved or worsen after the application of some hollowed-out ‘leftist’ program, will cast blame upon the general progressive ideas and concepts which never drove that program in the first place.
Blame turns into hatred and contempt once the Republican arrives on the scene. Because of the nature of the two-party dynamic, the Democrat’s failure means the ball of public trust rolls into the Republican’s court and the Republican plays the game well. For to secure and advance his party’s agenda he attacks not only the Democrat, but the leftist ideas people associate with the Democrat an association fostered by the false belief of parties as polar opposites and the Democrat’s propping up of that belief for his own public relations purposes. This discrediting of leftist ideas through fakery is the final phase (c) of the dynamic.
It does not require much investigation to note how gravely this dynamic has disfigured and deformed the American political scene. All three of its phases (a) acceptance of rightist advances, (b) acquiescence to increasingly right-wing ‘middle grounds’ resulting from these advances, and (c) backlash caused by ‘leftist’ programs rendered toothless by these distorted ‘middle grounds’ – have severely fractured the potential for achieving a better world at every turn.
Now, we turn to specific examples.
The amazingly destructive power of all three phases comes into full view when considering the war in Iraq. First, what options did the Democratic Party make available to those Americans who never wanted war? None. It maintained a cowardly silence when the Right launched a campaign of blatant lies and fear-mongering to whip up a case for war that was neither substantiated by the evidence nor necessitated by reality. In so doing, the party not only failed those Americans who never even desired war and there were many but it also allowed the right-wing propaganda machine to inculcate hatred and brainwash many Americans into becoming pro-war. That is phase (a), acquiescence, in action.
Second, what options did the Democratic Party provide to those Americans who saw the justifications for war slip, change, and fail, who learned of the miserable lack of post-war planning, who noticed the intensified Iraqi armed resistance, and who felt the constant flow of American casualties, making them increasingly skeptical of and opposed to the war? The party told them to shut up and sit down quite literally in the case of the DNC in Boston, where even though most delegates were anti-war, expression of anti-war sentiment was forbidden. More broadly, the party adopted the position that since the invasion already happened, it was now necessary to deepen the war effort. In other words, it succumbed to right-wing momentum which dictated that anti-war politics was no longer respectable. Taking their cue, Democrats discarded those politics, acceding to the right-ward shift in the political spectrum that characterizes phase (b).
Most embarrassing and insulting, however, was an aborted attempt at phase (c), when the Democratic Party built up a candidate by touting his war record and then tasked him with appearing slightly to the left of Bush on militarism. This was a bit like ordering an elephant to perform ballet in a china shop. The result was the awesome spectacle of a highly decorated war veteran being torn down, ridiculed, and emasculated as a “flip-flopper” on the war by an opponent whose own record of military service could generously be described as pathetic. In this case the slightly left-wing rhetoric appeared so incongruous with the reactionary policy basis that it backfired before electoral victory could be achieved; in the right-wing framework of belligerence, aggression, and warmongering, a tough-sounding weakling came out stronger than a ponderous warrior.
The admittedly pitiful fate of John Kerry, however, is hardly the main point. By adopting the right-wing framework, the Democratic Party destroyed a chance to develop and deepen anti-war sentiment, and instead demoralized and frustrated those who were looking for a real alternative and a way to end the war. Kerry’s awkward attempts to criticize details of the war while sometimes demanding more warlike measures than Bush made a mockery of genuine anti-war politics and tarnished the image of the real anti-war movement.
Let us also take a look at Democratic complicity in the outpouring of moral effluvia over abortion and gay marriage. Much ink has been wasted about the supposed emergence of “moral values” as a new reality around which Democrats must solemnly redraw their battle lines and retreat even further to the right. Anyone interested in defending the leftist position would refuse to acquiesce to the pretentious pseudo-morality undergirding Republican “values.” He or she would ask why the “culture of life” does not extend to people who are actually living, like American children and mothers in poverty, or Iraqi civilians under bombs, and why the “sanctity of marriage” is to be decided not by the actual people wanting marriage, but by the federal government.
But the Democratic Party has other plans. Its leadership has already declared more “nuanced” positions on abortion and steered clear of defending gay marriage on principle. This retreat, undeniably manifest in recent months but already present in its embryonic stages years ago, quite literally activated the conservative agenda: the vast majority of those millions of Christian evangelists who turned out for Bush in the last election had never even been politically active in the past. They were mobilized by the expansion of the right-wing (and shrinking of the left-wing) presence on the political spectrum, a reality typified by phase (b) of the conservative-creating dynamic. That the Democrats are technically less “reactionary” on abortion and gay marriage is therefore totally irrelevant; they are contributing de facto to the ideological atmosphere that will ultimately end up destroying support for these causes.
Indeed, the basis for the broader phenomenon referred to as the “white backlash” or “silent majority” which forms the backbone of conservative working-class support today is an outcome of the Democrats’ conservative-friendly politics. Democratic abandonment of core working-class economic interests, a trend detailed in Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas, has made possible Bush’s assault on the New Deal legacy and his attempt to forge an “ownership society” ideology. As the Democrats have allowed the safety net underpinning American society to crumble under the pressure of a more naked capitalism, the ideology behind the safety net is coming under sustained attack. In an expression of phase (c), the Republicans are trying to further “starve the beast” of social security, as economist Paul Krugman calls it and then point to the weakness of “the beast” as a sign it has failed to solve the problems it is capable of alleviating when properly fed.
This Bush assault, however, is merely an extension of an existing backlash against welfare and social programs enacted by Kennedy and Johnson under pressure from Civil Rights period. Conservative mythology posits these government programs as promoting laziness and producing only welfare queens, pointing to the persistence of black poverty, crime, and unemployment as evidence of leftist bankruptcy. But the empirical evidence, as detailed in Michael Harrington’s The New American Poverty and Jill Quadagno’s The Color of Welfare, illustrates these programs were in fact starved of funding, crippled politically, or aborted altogether because the Democratic Party failed to challenge entrenched economic interests, confront white racism, or extricate itself from Vietnam. This sabotaging of America’s last real attempt at social change has fostered the notion that solutions to social problems are themselves the problem. Resentment fed by this misconception has set into motion the forces now fueling America’s ascendant right wing.
By now the internal dynamics of the overall process by which Democrats serve as a segue for conservatism should be clear. Precisely why this takes place, however why it is not Republicans who segue into Democrats, or why the two do not simply exist in equilibrium – is a much more complicated question that cannot be adequately addressed in the scope of this piece. It is possible here only to point to two potential factors driving Democratic acquiescence: the absence of socialist pressure due to the collapse of the Soviet experiment, and the presence of capitalist pressure brought upon by the relative decline of the US economy compared to China and the European Union. This pincer movement of ideological triumphalism and economic straitjacketing may be severely limiting the basis for even modest genuine Democratic progressivism.
But regardless of the precise reasons behind this phenomenon, the lessons to be drawn from its ultimate results remain absolutely the same: the Democratic Party is inimical to any struggle for serious social change. At every level, it throws up massive barriers to progressive ideas, actions, and principles. The party’s most basic modus operandi is enmeshed with all three phases of the conservative-creating process, and contributes to weakening the Left in grave ways. It snuffs out hope for a better world among ordinary people, activates the right-wing framework which leads many toward reactionary positions, and discredits authentic leftist ideas before they can even be presented by those committed to actually seeing them through.
Given this immovable reality, we must ask ourselves: what is to be done? First, it must be said with blunt honesty that it is suicidal to work with forces organizationally and financially tied to the Democratic Party at leadership levels. It is necessary, in a word, to make a clean break from the Democratic Party. The recent betrayal of the anti-war movement by MoveOn should serve as a clear reminder to serious progressives of the need to make this clean break, and of Upton Sinclair’s matchless insight that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
One thing we have already seen beyond any doubt: to debate whether Democrats are “better” than Republicans in some moral or metaphysical sense is an absolutely meaningless and puerile exercise. Together, Democrats and Republicans make for an absolutely lethal combination and that is all that matters. To work within the overall process in which both parties are cultivating and contributing to conservative interests is to court disaster.
Our task, then, is not to worry over where to line up among the ranks of Republicans or Democrats. Rather, it is to throw ourselves on the side of those who have been under relentless attack by these parties: the great majority of the American people. A ceaseless onslaught of sharp assaults, repeated betrayals, endless deceptions, and enormous lies all of which have gone unchallenged and unchecked for far too long – have been hammering away at ordinary Americans. It is these ranks which we must join, and, given the low level of current struggle, it is these ranks which we must help energize and mobilize.
Some will protest that this is too bold a declaration that the road ahead is too hard. It should be readily conceded that the road is hard – indeed, we should go a step further and say the road has yet to be built, and furthermore, that this is a great relief – for history shows us precious few examples of roads to justice that were laid down in advance by some deity from above; it also shows us that roads glittering with gold or adorned with riches are traveled by masters, paved by slaves, and lead straight to hell.
The road to justice, on the other hand, must be created by the people themselves, because it is their own collective future that is at stake. It is precisely the task of our times to work side by side with those millions of Americans victimized by modern capitalism – workers, women, veterans, people of color, and immigrants and join them in carving out the path that will lead all of us toward a more secure and humane future.