Pragmatism, Incrementalism and the Transformative Moment

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Be Afraid Little Rabbits

Mainstream American political strategy proceeds from an ever present with few, if any, links to a deeply burdened past. One of the few transformative leaders in modern history, Dr. Martin Luther King, presciently wrote in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ that if political change is left to those urging caution and patience it will never arrive. In this regard the Democrat Party is a branch of the status quo— it exists to preclude, prevent and otherwise impede threats to the existing order. Cooperative strategies depend on a will to cooperate whereas American political economy exists to create and perpetuate concentrated power. ‘Inequality,’ the case where a few people have grotesquely outsized claims on social resources, is self-perpetuating by design.

The dominant political Parties are oppositional in a narrow sense but they are wholly co-dependent in a broader sense— they exist to define the realm of political possibility in ways that support the status quo. This imposed limitation is brought to the fore when prominent liberals urge caution and patience lest the powers that be tire of granting privileges. The frame of faux realpolitik is a warning from on high— play by the rules or the consequences will be dire. The miscalculation that appears to be unfolding is that circumstances are already dire for a growing number of people. If there were a sense that a credible political response could be achieved through mainstream channels the warning wouldn’t have been seen to be necessary.

For reasons outlined below the current election cycle is either a referendum on the continued viability of the existing political system or it is nothing. Bernie Sanders’ program will die a quick, ignominious death within the Democrat Party or it will substantially end the hold that the dominant Parties have on the realm of political possibility— there is no ‘third way.’ The wealthy few whose interests the Democrat Party represents— Wall Street, multi-national corporations, corporate executives and the inheritance babies who represent a rapidly growing proportion of the ‘Forbes 500,’ like the current arrangement of circumstance just fine. ‘Compromise’ in the face of uncompromising power is capitulation.

Past is Prologue

To understand the current dismal state of the Democrat Party requires some history. In the mid-1970s a bi-partisan counter-revolution was launched against FDR’s New Deal reforms. Democrat President Jimmy Carter, the ‘liberal’ response to the decay of official power from the Vietnam War and the oppressive residual of America’s racial history, was the Barack Obama of his time— poorly regarded by the thinking left as the more politically palatable face of radical capitalist resurgence. By the time that Mr. Carter ran against Ronald Reagan in 1980 few on the left saw reason to support him. After his electoral loss to Mr. Reagan establishment Democrats put forward the revisionist apologia that it was Mr. Carter’s ‘liberal agenda’ that lost the election.

The relevance to current circumstance lies in the misleading explanations of ‘how change happens’ that Democrat apparatchiks are offering in their attempt to control the official Democrat Party narrative. In this view no good deed goes unpunished— well-meaning and guileless Democrats push the people’s interests forward against evil Republicans who will, if given the opportunity, try to privatize Social Security (like Bill Clinton), hand civil governance over to plutocrats and multi-national corporations (like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama); institutionalize extra-judicial killing, intrusive domestic spying and corporate control over the public sphere (like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and treat the public interest as a public relations problem to be ‘handled’ with misleading propaganda.

Bernie Sanders, the politically moderate septuagenarian who is the current object of establishment Democrat reprobation, would be an unlikely target if he didn’t embody the growing awareness that the Democrat Party is, if not ‘the’ problem, its more politically viable manifestation. Establishment reaction to Mr. Sanders’ rise resembles that of an easy sale gone awry. Framed from the inside the minor rebellion is inexplicable— if Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democrat heir (she is) and Democrats are the Party of ‘the people’ (read on) then Hillary Clinton must be the people’s candidate. This logic ‘works’ from the inside. With no other information to inform the calculation, the problem must be with Mr. Sanders and the goddamn voters.

The moderate Mr. Sanders is directing his efforts toward the only conceivable ‘change’ that could emerge from the Democrat Party— fine words followed by convoluted policy prescriptions that would quickly be rendered untenable through engineered / manufactured crisis. Should he prevail his most enthusiastic opposition will come from establishment Democrats who fear being disempowered. Much to the consternation of his supporters, Mr. Sanders has already offered to bow out when he gets the ‘official’ tap on the shoulder to do so. What won’t happen is for Ms. Clinton and the Democrat establishment to throw (real) support behind him should he prevail in the primaries. Jimmy Carter’s manufactured legacy as a ‘failed’ liberal was used by Democrat operators to move the Party hard-right for four decades.

Establishment Democrats have already outlined their ‘long’ game— make specific policy assertions in ‘the interest of the Party’ such that doing so leaves them in a position to withhold support should he prevail. For instance, once the contention that single payer health care is politically infeasible is put forward opposing Mr. Sanders’ entreaties for single payer becomes the ‘pragmatic’ move. Note the positioning— Democrats and their apologists can ‘support’ single payer best by assuring that it never becomes a reality. Should Bernie Sanders prevail in the general election establishment Democrats will pay lip service to his policy prescriptions while undermining them every chance they get. Such prognostication is not without its risks, but there is a long history to support skepticism of establishment intentions.

For readers who weren’t there, naïve idealism met by entrenched opposition and indifference was the explanation given for why Jimmy Carter was an ineffectual liberal when he was in fact very effectual in promoting the neo-capitalist resurgence. This isn’t to suggest that Bernie Sanders is Jimmy Carter. It is to repeat the contention that ‘the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements.’ For Mr. Sanders to get anywhere with his reforms, and he is a reformer, not a revolutionary, he will need a citizens’ army ready to burn the White House to the ground (as FDR had). In that case, why not run from outside the two-Party system to disrupt its institutional hold on political possibility? The answer— because the two Parties control the electoral process, is as rational as it is a restatement of the problem that Mr. Sanders’ program faces.

Here is a selective restatement of more ignominious moments in recent Democrat history:

Bill Clinton entered office declaring a phony fiscal ‘emergency’ that he used to limit, and eventually cut, Federal social spending. Through ‘ending-welfare-as-we-know-it’ Mr. Clinton joined the Republican right to attack poor people through the claim that welfare represented the personal failings of welfare recipients rather than the social failure to create jobs. Mr. Clinton then used barely concealed racist appeals to pass ‘three-strikes, you’re out’ sentencing ‘reform’ that greatly exacerbated the human catastrophe of mass-incarceration. Mr. Clinton deregulated Wall Street thereby enhancing the destructive power of modern finance, he passed NAFTA after conservative Republicans had been unable to pass it on their own, murdered a few hundred thousand Iraqi children through punitive sanctions and he publicly supported George W. Bush’s catastrophic rush to war in 2003.

Barack Obama entered office in the midst of Republican plans to bail out Wall Street and the U.S. auto industry and he aggressively pursued the very worst of both. The automaker bailouts restored corrupt, incompetent management at full salaries plus bonuses while maintaining the tiered wages that paid newer autoworkers poverty wages. Although models existed for socially beneficial bank restructuring Mr. Obama chose the less effective and more corrupt route of fully restoring Wall Street bankers who then blamed their own misdeeds on ‘big government.’ Mr. Obama codified extra-judicial murders, expanded and then lied about government spying on citizens, launched and / or perpetuated right-wing coups in Ukraine and Honduras and undertook de-stabilizing ‘regime-change’ in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. And Mr. Obama’s TPP and TTIP ‘trade’ agreements are a final step toward realizing total corporate control over civil governance.

It isn’t just that Messrs. Clinton and Obama went along with misguided Republican policies— they gave them voice in ways that gave them credence with their constituents. This is to write that the policies were / are fully theirs. Following Ronald Reagan’s racist caricature of the ‘welfare queen’ living high on the public dime, Bill (and Hillary) Clinton used the racist caricature of the ‘super-predator’ to both stoke and prey upon public fears of violent crime for political gain. The result was a rough doubling of mass incarceration. When ‘Austerian’ policies were being proposed in the wake of the Great Recession Democrat Barack Obama gave them voice to preclude increased social spending to offset the recession’s effects. Mr. Obama then impaneled a bi-partisan committee to develop plans to cut Social Security and Medicare. To be clear, it was Mr. Obama’s stated goal, his desire, to cut Social Security, it wasn’t a compromise.

To the issue of the ACA (Affordable Care Act), a/k/a Obamacare (1) health insurance isn’t health care; (2) as is the case with Republican ‘grants,’ lowering the price of high priced healthcare doesn’t make it affordable; (3) alleged policy ‘wonks’ should educate themselves on health care implications of ‘catastrophe’ insurance which is what Obamacare effectively is and (4) further empowering and instantiating private pharmaceutical, health care, health insurance and medical device companies into the current dysfunctional health care system is an impediment to eventually moving to single payer, not a step toward it. And rising health insurance sales is evidence that more people have health insurance, not health care.

The Present Redux

Any notion that governance in the broad public interest is achievable within the Democrat Party is delusional. The point in recounting Party history is to demonstrate both the continuity of the prevailing neoliberal / militarist (neoconservative) vision since the 1970s and the depth of its institutional support. To borrow a term from Glen Ford, Democrats are the ‘more effective evil’ because they are clever about hiding their actual policies behind compassionate and / or knowing rhetoric. The only ‘change’ the Democrat Party is interested in affecting, at the national level at any rate, is handing what remains of the public realm over to ‘private’ interests to be looted.

Where this leaves Bernie Sanders is that Republican opposition will be the easy part if he wins election. As Democrat Rahm Emanuel put it when Americans finally had enough of George W. Bush and his minions and brought Congressional Democrats back into power in 2006: ‘now we can get corporate campaign contributions again.’ This after a catastrophic and wholly unnecessary war that cost a million innocent Iraqis their lives and tens of thousands of American kids their psyches, body parts and lives. The planet is burning. A whole lot of people never recovered from the Great Recession. But privatization of the public realm continues apace. The TPP and TTIP ‘trade’ deals will soon be fact. Sure Republicans are worse. But that most assuredly doesn’t mean that Democrats are the solution.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.