The Democrats are now running the show in DC. How much difference will this make if they truly exercise their power and don’t fold to every threat from the right like they did under Clinton? If they stand up to filibuster attempts, will they pass universal health care that actually provides medical insurance for every person living in the United States? Will they end the warmongering so many people think is the domain of the Republican Party? Will the people that are truly being hurt in the economic recession be the ones they help instead of the banks?
I pose these rhetorical questions because so many people expect the answer to be one that favors the average American and not the plutocracy so clearly favored during the eight years of Bush. While it is true that no one knows exactly how things will develop over the next few years of Democratic rule, author and activist Lance Selfa has done a fairly good job of looking at the role the Democrats have historically played in his book Democrats: A Critical History. By looking at the history covered by Selfa, it becomes clear that the Democrats represent different elements of the same class represented by the GOP. Consequently, the policies of the Democratic Party are designed to insure the continued rule of that class. This is true no matter how many progressives and leftists bring their principles with them when they work for candidates that appeal to them. Perhaps the most profound example of this is the 1972 campaign of George McGovern.
McGovern was probably the most radical candidate to run for president on a major party ticket in the 20th Century. Among other items, he called for an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, a guaranteed annual income for all Americans, and reproductive choice for women. He won the series of primaries and was nominated as the Democratic candidate. Before he even gave his acceptance speech, the Democratic leadership was at work sabotaging his campaign. The rules committee played around with floor activities ensuring that his speech would be delivered at 2:00 in the morning. News organizations were provided with unfavorable information regarding his vice presidential nominee’s health. Party conservatives like Henry “Scoop” Jackson (the first neocon) mounted a campaign within the party and in the press designed to prevent McGovern from winning. After the landslide victory of Richard Nixon in November 1972, the party leadership began implementing rules changes that would forever prevent someone like McGovern from gaining the nomination. As Selfa points out, it’s not that McGovern was a radical; it’s that the Democratic Party does not represent the people (who by 1972 wanted out of Vietnam no matter what), but the corporate class. Even in 1972, the bulk of big business were willing to let the war go on as long as they made money from it.
This is a party that began as the party of the landed gentry in the United Stats’ slave holding south. It held to its racist philosophy into the 1960s, although the process to remove that stain arguably began in 1948 when southern racists like Strom Thurmond left the party over disputes with the northern members over segregation, especially in the armed forces. Today, the general consensus is that that legacy is completely removed thanks to the nomination and election of Barack Obama. This is certainly the case at least superficially. Underneath the appearance of post-racialism, however, lies the very real fact of an economic and political system built on the backs of slaves. Indeed, if it weren’t for the institution of slavery in the US and the bloody support of that institution by the Democratic Party, the ubercapitalist nation we live in today would look considerably different. While the Republican Party is the primary party of the capitalists (and were willing to fight a bloody war against the nation’s south to move their wage slavery into that region), the Democrats have always been a close second.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of foreign policy. Selfa reminds the reader that the Democrats were co-authors of the Cold War and expanded the US involvement in Vietnam to murderous levels. The Democrats are arch defenders of the state of Israel, no matter how many Palestinians it kills and, as the folks who voted Democratic in 2006 hoping to end the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, those exercises would not be possible without the Democrats’ support. It was Woodrow Wilson that pushed the US into World War One to help bail out the house of Morgan and it was the Democrats that saw the war against Nazism as a means to put Washington in a position of dominance after the bombs stopped dropping.
Selfa’s history is a concise and erudite look at the place of the Democratic Party in US history. The party’s stances are examined from a viewpoint that understands that it’s not the Republicans or the Democrats that are the problem, but the tag team the two parties comprise. While this team is in the ring, the people of the US and the world are at a disadvantage, no matter how personally pleasing one or the other of their candidates might be. If people want any kind of change, they must keep the Democrats on a very tight leash. The hope that the nation feels must not cloud its judgement or the need to mobilize to accomplish the goals they believe they voted for.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org