Who Among Us Will Step Up to Destroy the Democratic Party?

Stanley Aronowitz has never been a particular hero of mine, but I warmed to him a bit this week, as he nibbled at the well-turned fetlock of Laura Flanders. Now any guy who could brave the seas of matrimony in a boat with the late (and by me, unlamented) Ellen Willis has got to have more than enough dura-ilia to deal with a fetching young person from Air America. And he had the advantage of being, so to speak, of the devil’s party. But it was fun to watch, in a mean-spirited way–up to a point.

The occasion was a debate in New York, sponsored by Left Forum and The Nation, on that great, evergreen question, “Can progressives move the Democratic Party to the left?”

Flanders has recently written a cheerful book with the slightly unappetizing title Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians. The burden of her song is, as she said in a recent interview,

“… [G]rit, that’s the stuff that gets you through, the mettle that enables you that take on tough stuff. It’s also the stuff that gets in your shoe and blisters your toe. Blue Gritters, the folks I’m talking about, do both of those things for the Democratic Party: they discomfort the establishment, and I think they bring the passion to the issues that won the election last year…. I think the fact that the Democratic leadership is talking about timetables at all is a victory for the Blue Grit Democrats out there.”

So naturally, she took the affirmative–sorta, kinda, half-heartedly. To be sure, she didn’t have a good word to say for the Democratic Party. A good thing, too, since the crowd, a half-and-half mix of grizzled old stagers and fresh-faced millennials, was clearly and overwhelmingly negative about the Party Of Clinton & Clinton, LLP. (Usually, a Left crowd in New York is full of people more dependent on the Democrats than a crackhead on his drug of choice, so the prevailing bummed-out atmosphere was intensely refreshing.)

But among all her caveats about the general rottenness of the party, Flanders’ essential theme was that her bluegritters shouldn’t be discouraged from working in the Democratic Party. As she phrased it, with well-placed caution, “some sort-of reformists in the sort of liberal-lefty part [of the party] are having some kind of success.” And alas, Aronowitz wasn’t quite willing to take the last essential step and disagree with her decisively.

The debate was “moderated” by Gary Younge of The Nation, whose squishy-soft and prolix questioning took on something vaguely like an edge only once, when he asked Aronowitz whether he would advise activists to “pack their bags” and abandon the Democratic Party altogether.

Aronowitz, surprisingly, responded “of course not!” — surprisingly, because everything else he had to say suggested that bag-packing would be very much in order, and the sooner the better.

He began by rehearsing some of his left credentials, which included helping found the Reform Democratic movement in New York City–whose greatest success, as he drily noted, was “the election of Ed Koch as Mayor.” He warned activists that “You’ll be taken over by the Democratic Party before you’ll take it over…. I don’t think another New Deal is possible. Yeah, Roosevelt was pushed from below but there was some agreement from the top. Now there’s not. They’d rather bash people on the head. They’ve embraced repression now, not legitimation…. The peace movement is wimpy because they’re tied hand and foot to the Democrats…. Bill Clinton was the best Republican president of the century!”

Against this rehearsal of indicative-mood history, Flanders took refuge, as defense of the Democrats always does, in the subjunctive: “We wouldn’t have had the criminalization of pregnancy under a Democratic president–the Labor Department wouldn’t be used as a weapon against the labor movement.” Aronowitz replied by quoting Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Bobby Reich, questioning whether labor unions were “still necessary.”

Asked by moderator Younge, in another rare moment of directness, whether he wouldn’t prefer to see a Democratic president in 2008, Aronowitz got quite a laugh by replying, “Of course–because he won’t do anything! I’m all for gridlock!” Flanders rather hotly replied that she wasn’t for gridlock — “I want troops out of Iraq, I want universal health care.” Unfortunately, Younge did not ask her what connection there might be between these good things and a Democratic president. Perhaps that would have been immoderate.

Maybe that was the problem: the moderation quotient was way too high. Flanders was ready to agree with any bad thing anybody might say about the Democratic Party, except that activists ought to be working night and day to destroy it — and Aronowitz was unwilling to say that. He didn’t say that working within the Democratic Party is a deadly, damning error. He didn’t call it the graveyard of activists, though no doubt he’s heard that old truism before. He didn’t say that the Democratic party absorbs the energies of left-wing activists and turns those energies against the activists’ own purposes–though I bet he would agree with the proposition. He should have been like the sepulchral voice in The Amityville Horror, hollowly booming “Get oooout!” — but alas, he wasn’t.

Flanders took the ‘pro,’ moderately, but Aronowitz moderately didn’t quite take the ‘con’. So though it was fun for a while, and a great deal of well-deserved and enjoyable abuse was poured on the dear old donkeys’ heads, there was a slight feeling of coitus-interruptus at the end of the evening. Perhaps we should blame the Upas-tree influence of The Nation magazine, breathing its long-brewed suffocating vapors into the already mephitic Manhattan air.

I wonder how many of those disgruntled old veterans and peppery youths in the audience will trudge reluctantly into the shambles of ’08 behind some Judas-goat from the Democratic Party. Oh Laura, so fresh, so fair, why must you be among them? And oh Stanley — you might have saved a few!

MICHAEL J. SMITH lives in New York and labors night and day to destroy the Democratic Party on his blog, stopmebeforeivoteagain.org.