I spoke last April at San Diego State University about what two clever Left political scientists there rightly called “the debasing spectacle” of the 2016 presidential election. I was asked to address four and excellent, thought-provoking questions, each of which are highlighted in boldface in the essay below, followed by my latest and best answers (updated for subsequent developments) in somewhat extensive written form. The questions: (1) What is the state of American democracy today? (2) What is the role of the two major U.S. parties? (3) What impact are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders having on the party system? (4) What is the way forward?
What is the State of American Democracy Today?
Oligarchy: “Those Who Rule America Behind the Scenes”
It’s a f$#$*ng joke (I’m sorry but I don’t know any other way to honestly put it). Seven years ago, the left scholars Edward S. Herman and David Peterson noted in passing that “an unelected dictatorship of money vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” A year before that, the incisive Left historian Laurence Shoup explained things well in Z Magazine:
“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected – someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process” (emphasis added).
These are standard and supposedly cynical observations on the actual/radical Left but you don’t have to be a Left radical to think that popular sovereignty is trumped by plutocracy in the U.S. today. Jimmy Carter, no radical leftist, has been saying for years that the United States no longer has a functioning democracy. Donald Trump, certainly not a leftist, and Bernie Sanders, a longstanding liberal-left Democrat who plays a “revolutionary” on the campaign trail, both say that American democracy is broken by big money campaign donations.
Mike Lofgren, a long-time top Republican congressional aide, writes that The Deep State of corporate and financial power merged to the military industrial complex calls the shots behind “the marionette theater” of electoral and “parliamentary” politics in the U.S.
Mark Leibovich is the New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent and a self-described elite Washington insider. Three years ago, he published the widely read book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital. By his candid and bestselling account from the belly of the beast, Washington D.C. is a richly bipartisan and monumentally narcissistic “gold rush,” a “crucible of easy wealth” (p. 8) wherein political officeholders, lobbyists, consultants, public relations specialists, media personalities, socialites, and top staff of the two dominant parties are part of the same incestuous and “permanent” ruling “class of insiders.” The nation’s capital “becomes a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made” (p.142) – an “inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club” (p. 104), Leibovich wrote. “Getting rich,” Leibovich reported, “has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’ goes the maxim, ‘only millionaires.’ The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play” (p. 9).
The leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern argued less than two years ago that the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page find that wealthy elites consistently steer the direction of the country regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research,” Gilens and Page find, “is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy…while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens told the online journal Talking Points Memo two years ago, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” (That’s what Joe and Jane Six Pack have always known, but it’s nice to hear it with data from Princeton and Northwestern).
Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”
Capitalism v. Democracy
Now, you won’t hear mainstream American politicos and intellectuals acknowledge that the United States has never actually been a democracy. You won’t see them noting that popular self-rule was the last thing the United States’ rich and powerful Founding Fathers ever wanted to see break out in the merchant-capitalist aristo-republic they crafted – or that the U.S. Constitution was brilliantly designed precisely to protect elite property rights and to keep popular sovereignty at bay.
You also won’t see mainstream U.S. authorities and experts admit that democracy is essentially impossible under capitalism. You won’t hear them quote the great American philosopher John Dewey prophesizing 85 years ago that U.S. politics would remain “the shadow cast on society by big business” as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of propaganda.”
“We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” You won’t see mainstream U.S. thinkers make observe that Brandeis’s comment (unwittingly or not) admitted the anti-democratic essence of capitalism, which functions by definition to concentrate wealth upward into the coffers of an opulent minority.
Another thing you won’t hear about conventional U.S. thinkers is the militantly undemocratic authoritarianism of the capitalist workplace, where most working-age Americans spend the lions’ shared of their waking and “productively engaged” lives. As the Marxist economist Richard Wolff reminds us, “What remains the same across all…forms [of capitalism]…is the exclusion of the mass of workers that produces the output and generates the profits from receiving and distributing that profit, and from generally participating democratically in enterprise decisions. Capitalism excludes workers from deciding what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how profits are to be used and distributed.” How can you have a democratic society without the democratic organization of work, the central shared daily experience of most U.S. adults and a quintessential human activity?
In the U.S. as in other capitalist societies, the authoritarian impact of the employer-employee relationship extends to life off the job. The long and often exhausting hours many wage- and salary-earners rent away to the employer class in order to purchase life necessities (and more) robs them of the free time and energy required for informed and effective engagement in public affairs. Fear of antagonizing employers and thereby losing one’s job (or promotion or job benefit) blocks “free speech” beyond as well as within the workplace. In the U.S., with its employment-based system of health insurance, workers put their health insurance and often that of their families at risk by doing or saying anything that displease their bosses. Employment-based health insurance is also a significant driving factor behind the United States’ remarkably long working hours (the most extensive among the world’s rich nations). (It’s amazing how little attention the many-sided authoritarian impact of employment-based health coverage and the related problem of overwork receive from left U.S. intellectuals and activists.)
All these critical omissions notwithstanding, it’s still useful and instructive to see privileged elites like Jimmy Carter, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders join mainstream academicians like Gilens and Page in recognizing that “the world’s greatest democracy” is actually an abject plutocracy.
What is the Role of the Two Major U.S. Political Parties?
Seven Class Rule Functions
Going back to the rise of the first mass parties in the United States, the two major U.S. parties (and it’s always been two such parties under the American system, with some very partial and short-lived exceptions) have at bottom been institutional mechanisms for capitalist class rule. They perform seven basic functions for the nation’s owning investor class.
Dressing Elite Interests in Commoner Garb
The first function has been to rally supporters organized as voters for different factions of the elite bourgeois class in its recurrent intra-capitalist policy struggles. Across much of the 19th century, some leading U.S. capitalist economic and political investors sought to advance their interests in the development of the domestic U.S. market and a manufacturing economy by pushing through an “American System” of government-subsidized internal improvements (transportation infrastructure above all), government central banks, and tariffs on imports. These capitalists tended to align with and fund the Whig Party and its anti-slavery successor the Republican Party. More export-, agricultural-, and free trade-oriented investors aligned with funded the Democratic Party. All of these capitalist parties made recurrent feverish electoral appeals to mass constituencies in the name of “the common man” to win votes in a republic with comparatively wide (universal white male across most of the nation by the eve of the Civil War) suffrage. The competing bourgeois parties needed to “masquerade as commoners” (in the words of the late and great U.S. historian Alfred F. Young) to put in elected office politicians pledged to their funders’ policy agenda.
Policy specifics and party alignments have since shifted more than once in accord with underlying political-economic and demographic factors. Still, the basic manipulative reality captured in Left political scientist Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of [U.S. two-] party competition” has continued throughout. During the 1930s and 1940s, Ferguson has shown, the labor-allied New Deal (Franklin Roosevelt) Democratic Party rose to power with critical support from highly capital intensive multinational corporations and internationally oriented investment banks who were less concerned about wage bills than the more nationally oriented, anti-union, and protectionist industrial firms that dominated the reigning (Teddy Roosevelt, William McKinley and Howard Taft) Republican Party at the turn of the 20th century. The end of rapid growth and of the United States’ short-lived and near-absolute post-World War II global economic hegemony the late 1960s produced inflation and a growing fiscal and trade deficits, leading to sharply raised interest rates, a strengthened dollar, and an unprecedented flow of surplus capital from industry to finance. The resulting new finance capital explosion transformed the American party system, which stabilized around 1980 with finance as the “hegemonic bloc” of political as well as economic investors. With the arch-neoliberal Clinton presidency of the 1990s, big finance capital had clearly taken over the Democratic Party as well as the Republicans, along with most of the nation’s nonfinancial corporations.
There have been differences in the investor class profiles of the two dominant parties through this century, with (for example) “defense” (military) and oil and other Big Carbon firms tilting towards the Republicans and Silicon Valley and Hollywood tilting towards the Democrats. Beneath such differences, the 1% is united in neoliberal consensus across both parties around Wall Street-led globalization and a huge Pentagon System to expand and protect global finance capitalism. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are committed to the neoliberal world-capitalist and imperial order, with big finance calling the shots while unions, the working class, and the poor are relegated to the margins. Under the bipartisan ruling class and extreme-capitalist consensus, wealth and power concentrate on a scale that threatens to make the original Gilded Age look egalitarian by comparison.
Both parties play the game that Christopher Hitchens called (in his 1999 book on the Clintons) “the essence of America politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.” They play it in different ways, with the Republicans taking the darker “bad cop” road of nativism, racism, white nationalism, hyper-masculinist sexism, more resonant in southern and Western “red state America.” The more urban, urbane, multicultural, and bi-coastal “blue state” Democrats pose as the “nicer cop” liberal and “progressive” alternative while their policies the wealth corporate and financial no less than do those of the official rich white man’s party, Republicans. The “dismal Dems” deceptive “left” branding and multicultural branding make the Democrats the arguably “more effective evil” (Glen Ford) in the two party regime.
Behind the Wizard of Oz curtain and “marionette theater” (Lofgren) of U.S. electoral and parliamentary politics, the nation’s finance-led investor class finds it useful to have two, not just one party in play. With the financial crisis of 2007-08 – the “crisis of neoliberalism” (really just the latest big capitalist financial meltdown) – the moneyed elite’s sharpest political investors deftly shifted allegiance from the Republicans to the Democrats. Behind the elite-managed rebranding (which earned the Obama campaign Advertising Age’s “Marketer of the Year” award for 2008) – replete with the “historic” installment of a Black family (headed by a man with a technically Muslim name) in the White House in the land of slavery – smart top investor class operatives understood that the basic neoliberal policy mix (including massive government subsidy for the wealthy and financial few and vicious market discipline for the rest) would remain intact. By stealing populist-sounding rhetoric from the 2011 Occupy Movement (even as his Department of Homeland Security helped Democratic city governments violently repress that movement from coast to coast) and having the luck to run against a classically elite Republican and super-wealthy finance capitalist (Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney) in 2012, Obama was able to extend his racially-enhanced variant of the Hitchensian-Clintonite game for a second term.
“You Had Your Input”: The Illusion of Democracy Through Elections
The second function, more broadly systemic and ideological. It is to sell the illusion of democracy through elections. Again and again, the population is told that going into a two-[capitalist-]party ballot box for two minutes once every two or four years is a great and glorious exercise in popular self-rule. So what if the major party candidates are generally vetted in advance by the capitalist and imperial establishment, from which they often come? And so what if the ruling class rules in numerous ways, every day, at multiple levels, beneath and beyond the big, mass-marketed candidate-centered major party election spectacles that are staged for us on the highly time-staggered, constitutionally appointed schedule. And so what if, as Rob Urie recently reminded us on Counterpunch, the only two officially viable and recognized parties, the Democrats and Republicans, represent just 30 percent of eligible U.S. voters. (The Democrats make up just 17 percent of those voters. The Republicans come it at an even more paltry 13 percent. “The largest category of eligible voters is those that don’t vote [48 percent!] followed by political independents [24 percent].”) As Urie reflects:
“fringe interests— those of a tiny political and economic elite, [have] been…successfully portrayed as democratic choice…The illusion of putting Hillary Clinton, who is a full-time employee of Wall Street and Exxon-Mobil and has the paychecks to prove it, or Donald Trump, who inherited a real-estate empire worth millions (billions in today’s dollars) and who is friends with the rich and powerful (including Hillary Clinton), forward as representatives of ‘the people’s’ interests requires radically misrepresenting those interests. By posing Clinton and Trump as oppositional a realm of difference is created that limits political choice to one or the other. Left unsaid is that registered Democrats plus registered Republicans constitute less than one third of the electorate— both candidates are ‘fringe’ in terms of public support for their Party’s programs” (emphasis added).
“Rejoice citizens,” the U.S. wealth and power elite and its ubiquitous commercial media and its many highly indoctrinated intellectuals tell the people, “you had your input on Election Day. Freedom and democracy are wondrous indeed. Don’t forget to salute your military heroes!”
Personalities Over Issues
As public opinion surveys have shown for decades, most members of the majority working class U.S. citizenry are left-leaning progressives. They are social democrats, egalitarians, environmentalists, and anti-imperial supporters of the common good when it comes to policy issues – and (for what it’s worth) to visions of a good and decent society. The ruling class doesn’t like that. Consistent with their captivity to Urie’s “fringe interests,” the two reigning parties and the broader money, media, and electoral system of which they are parts relentlessly over-focus voters and election “choices” on trivial matters of candidate personalities and imagery, NOT on serious and substantive matters of policy and social justice. Real issues that matter are pushed to the margins, particularly after the presidential primaries, when each party stages a giant marketing campaign around selling its chosen fake Voice of the People like advertisers pushing beer, toothpaste, cars, and pharmaceuticals. As Noam Chomsky noted on the eve of the 2004 presidential election pitting George W. Bush again John F. Kerry:
“Bush and Kerry can run because they’re funded by basically the same concentrations of private power. Both candidates understand that the election is supposed to stay away from issues. They are creatures of the public relations industry, which keeps the public out of the election process. The concentration is on what they call a candidate’s ‘qualities,’ not policies. Is he a leader? A nice guy? Voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform…Last month a Gallup poll asked Americans why they’re voting for either Bush or Kerry. From a multiple-choice list, a mere 6 percent of Bush voters and 13 percent of Kerry voters picked the candidates’ ‘agendas/ideas/platforms/goals.’ That’s how the political system prefers it. Often the issues that are most on people’s minds don’t enter at all clearly into the debate… During the primaries, before the main event fully gears up, candidates can raise issues and help organize popular support for them, thereby influencing campaigns to some extent. After the primaries, mere statements make a minimal impact without a significant organization behind them.”
This – the promotion of candidate traits, brands, properties, and personas over significant and sober issues and policy – is the third great class rule function of the dominant two U.S. political parties and the U.S. elections system.
“That’s Politics”: All About Elections
A fourth key class rule function of the U.S. party and elections system is to channel popular political energies into the constitutionally appointed major party candidate contests and away from the more urgent, significant, and effective politics of building mass grassroots popular movements and undertaking direct and disruptive, profit-threatening actions against the nation’s capitalist masters, guardians, and managers. Here again Chomsky’s 2004 essay is useful:
“Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centers of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…sensible [electoral] choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action.”
Chomsky’s sentiments were echoed four years later by his good friend the radical American historian Howard Zinn, who reflected on the “the election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” as Barack Obamania took hold. It was nothing new, Zinn observed:
“the election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls… And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. … But before and after those two minutes [in a voting booth], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
“The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Chomsky told Abby Martin of teleSur English last fall, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.” Under the American religion of voting, Chomsky told Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson last week, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology… basically, a way of making people passive, submissive objects…[we] ought to teach kids that elections take place but that’s not politics.”
The U.S. major political parties are unusually focused on elections, it should be added. As Chomsky reminded Falcone and Isaacson, “the United States doesn’t have political parties. In other countries, take say Europe, you can be an active member of the political party. Here, the only thing in a political party is gearing to elections, not the other things you do.”
The impact of U.S. major party electoral politics on social movements is worse than mere and momentary diversion. The major parties, their candidates and their elections serve as the graveyard of social movements and as demobilizing and co-opting “shock absorbers” that capture and contain the popular anger and energy that might sustain such movements. The parties and their elections and candidates are where social movements go to die, get dismantled, and co-opted once every 2 or 4 years. Even worse, major party activists constantly work to infiltrate social movements and create faux-popular “Astroturf” organizations that pretend to stand apart from the election cycle but are actually all about steering popular energy into the narrow channels of the major party’s electoral agenda. The Democratic Party-captive “progressive movement” is already at work trying to capture and channel grassroots activism in the aftermath of the current election cycle.
The paralyzing impact of all this on real peoples’ movements is deepened by the unreal length of the “quadrennial extravaganza[s].” The U.S. presidential major party election process is absurdly prolonged. Major mass media saturate the politically sentient populace with a seemingly interminable flood of stories about major party candidates and their “qualities,” quirks, and scandals for at least a year prior to the actual presidential election. The presidential primaries are strung out from early February through June, followed by major party conventions in August and then a three-month orgy of mudslinging between the two major party finalists. “That’s politics” never seems to go away.
Maintaining America’s “Signature Exclusion”
A fifth class rule function of the two dominant parties is to make things impossible for third and fourth parties who want to advance demands outside and against the narrow, elite-managed capitalist and imperial spectrum. In what the leading election reform advocate Jamin Raskin calls “America’s signature exclusion,” third and fourth parties are prohibited from competing with the duopoly on a free and equal basis.
One of the many different areas where Republicans and Democrats have always eagerly and easily collaborated is the construction of ballot access laws and campaign finance rules and the maintenance of an authoritarian winner-take-all structure that makes it impossible for any party outside the two dominant organizations to win or even to gather strength. For what it’s worth (not much), this is in direct violation of majority public opinion, which has held for decades that the two reigning parties do not accurately reflect that real spectrum of political opinion in the U.S. With the Trump insurgency on the right and the Sanders campaign on the left, it’s clear that the U.S. populace could easily back three or four parties if the United States were to honor public opinion by constitutionally creating a multiparty system.
Identity Over Class Politics
A sixth basic class rule function of the two reigning U.S major political parties is to organize and channel the electorate’s political consciousness and electoral “choices” around real and perceived differences of regional, racial, ethnic, national, personal, sexual, religious, and/or familial identity instead of shared class sentiments and issues. In the neoliberal era, “identity politics” has come, in the words of the eminent Marxist historian Perry Anderson, “to replace what was once [during the long New Deal era of 1935-1980] something like class politics…as the basis of coalition formation and electoral mobilization [in the U.S.]. In the process,” Anderson noted three years ago, “traditional income formations [of voting behavior] have been losing their salience, or warping into their opposite.” In 2008, for example, Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the majority voters living on less than $50,000 a year and the Democratic victor Obama won a majority of those receiving over $200,000 a year.
Obama’s two presidential victories depended not on labor and working class support so much as on the votes of racial and ethnic minorities, the rising female vote, unmarried professionals, single parents, and gays. Obama was what Anderson called “the perfect candidate for the new [identity-politicized] hour: not only younger, cooler, and more eloquent but magnetic for the minorities on which victory depended.” So what if Obama set new Wall Street campaign funding records in 2008 and consistently as President served the corporate and financial elites who rule the nation in numerous ways (campaign finance is just the tip of the iceberg)? Democrats hold the upper hand over Republicans in U.S. presidential contests, winning the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections (but losing the Florida governor’s and U.S. Supreme Court’s vote in 2000) largely because the racial, ethnic, gender, and broader social demographics of the national electorate have changed in their favor.
This does not mean that U.S. citizens necessarily or inherently privilege social identity over economic class in terms of what they think matters in public affairs. It reflects the significant extent to which the U.S. party and elections system privileges non-class social identity politics when it comes to forming coalitions and marshalling voters and Democrats “long-term trend away from economic class issues” (Jeff Faux) in deference to the wealthy few. Reduced to a corporate-managed electorate (Sheldon Wolin), the citizenry is identity-played by a moneyed elite that pulls the strings behind the duopoly’s candidate-centered spectacles of faux democracy. As the Left author Chris Hedges noted three years ago, “Both sides of the political spectrum are manipulated by the same forces. If you’re some right-wing Christian zealot in Georgia, then it’s homosexuals and abortion and all these, you know, wedge issues that are used to whip you up emotionally. If you are a liberal in Manhattan, it’s – you know, they’ll be teaching creationism in your schools or whatever…Yet in fact it’s just a game, because whether it’s Bush or whether it’s Obama, Goldman Sachs always wins. There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.”
“We Don’t Have the Numbers”
A seventh class rule function of the reigning U.S. party and elections system is to feed the illusion that left progressives don’t reflect majority public opinion when they advocate things like single-payer national health insurance, progressive taxation, serious environmental protection, major government jobs programs, and a transfer of taxpayer dollars from the gargantuan U.S. military empire to positive social programs. Candidates who advocate such things typically don’t get very far in the Democratic Party’s congressional and presidential primaries because party gatekeepers, donors, and the media generally make sure to crush them. The fact that such candidates campaign on behalf of policies that most US citizens actually support but lose out in the supposedly democratic (in fact rigged and plutocratic) primary elections system fuels the deadly and false belief that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support. This can further feelings of futility and isolation among progressive citizens and activists.
“Two Wings of the Same Bird of Prey”
Left radicals often claim that the two parties are completely identical, the exact same – that there are no real differences between them. I never quite say that. I prefer to follow the 20th century U.S. socialist Upton Sinclair in calling the Democrats and Republicans “two wings of the same bird of prey.” Yes, they’re both state-capitalist. Yes, they’re both nationalistic, militaristic and imperial. But the ruling class could not effectively sell the major party duopoly if there were no differences whatsoever between them. They have different histories, different regional bases, different racial and ethnic and gender and religious constituency profiles, different positions on various social and identity issues, and so on. They also have somewhat different investor class profiles (in terms of which structural, regional, and cultural blocs of big capital they represent) even if finance capital (itself not without internal divisions) is the leading force in both parties in the neoliberal era.
At the same time, there’s a related division of labor between the two major parties. For various historical reasons, it’s the Republicans who tend to identify themselves more with hatred of big government, government regulation and the welfare state. The Republicans exemplify Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” (the manipulation of populism by elitism) in a more outwardly ugly way than do the Democrats – with no small hint of open white-nationalist racism, nativism, sexism, and evangelical false piety. The Democrats are by far and away the most skilled, effective, and well-positioned party when it comes to buying off and shutting down popular, Left and potentially Left social movements and when it comes to co-opting independent Left politics. It’s the more urban/urbane, racially and ethnically diverse, female, and outwardly liberal, and purportedly progressive, socially concerned Democrats who have most effectively contained and captured the energies when it comes to the labor, environmentalist, civil rights, feminist, gay rights, antiwar, and immigrant rights movements. The Democrats are the top shock absorber when it comes to keeping popular forces weak and divided. And it’s the Democrats who tend to own the racial and ethnic minority vote and the female vote, which is the main reason they tend now to win presidential elections in an increasingly non-white America with more and more people living outside the traditional patriarchal family.
What Impact Are Trump and Sanders Having on the Party System?
Trump: Right Wing Racist Populism Manipulation
Reflecting widespread mass anger at the ever steeper hyper-inequality, ubiquitous economic precarity, and soulless corporate-financial plutocracy of the 21st century New Gilded Age, the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders “insurgencies” have roiled the major party’s corporate, financial, and imperial establishments. The considerable popular support that the fascist-lite Trump has received in the primary campaign has been great enough to seize the Republican nomination from a ridiculously large field of candidates divided between a scattering of more mainstream and neoliberal, corporate-Wall Street Republicans (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie) and a crazy cadre of hard-right characters (the loathsome Christian-constitutionalist neo fascist Ted Cruz, the ludicrous free market brain surgeon Ben Carson, the evangelical comedian Mike Huckabee, and the vicious bastard Rick Santorum et al.). As the Left economist and political commentator Jack Rasmus notes, “Primaries are tolerated so long as they don’t challenge party leadership control. Sometimes a candidate from below slips under the fence—like [Democrat George] McGovern in 1972 or Trump today in 2016.” In the wake of Trump’s triumph over the GOP establishment, Rasmus rightly adds, “the Republican party elite will no doubt do its fence mending to prevent another Trump.” The GOP leadership will change its primary and nomination system to make sure that an independent challenger like The Donald can’t break through again.
The nominally socialist Sanders’ far more genuinely populist, polite, and civilized upsurge has targeted the One Percent, with extreme U.S. economic inequality and (the) plutocracy (that follows in such disparity’s wake like stink on shit) his consistent and wildly popular (for some very good reasons) top issue. Bernie has exceeded all original expectations (including those of his own team) but has not been able to defeat the arch-neoliberal Eisenhower Republican Hillary Clinton (the preferred candidate of least resistance for the financial elite) in the far less splintered Democratic field (neither Martin O’Malley nor the hapless Jim Webb ever registered more than a tiny bleep on the candidate radar screen). Along with vast personal financial resources to invest in his campaign, Trump’s advantages over Sanders have included a far bigger field of competing candidates in the party whose nomination he sought and a vast windfall of free coverage from the corporate media of which he is largely a creation.
Trump is the more disruptive force on the rightmost side of the right-wing U.S. party system. He’s been ripping at the fabric of a Republican Party that is already badly frayed by class differences between its super-wealthy corporate and financial elite and its white middle and working class base. He’s run off the elite capitalist neoliberal and imperial (Council of Foreign Relations) leash in ways that resonate with a lot of angry and alienated working class and lower middle class white voters. Along with his highly personal and incredibly juvenile attacks (almost like something from Jersey Shore) on top Republican politicians and his incredibly high disapproval numbers especially among women (70 percent of whom view Trump unfavorably), that’s why a fair portion of the Republican establishment has tried to block his nomination. Many top Republicans won’t back him in the general election. (One of the Koch brothers has even recently suggested that he’ll go with Hillary Clinton over Trump, along with foreign policy neocons like Robert Kagan and Max Boot). It’s hard to see how many evangelical Christians (a key part of the Republican base) could get seriously behind a candidate who is so obviously a product and eager, uber-narcissistic embodiment of the salacious, soulless, and amoral culture of celebrity and worldly goods.
Primary candidate Trump has run with some very noxious rhetoric that has long been part of the elite, Machiavellian, populace-manipulating Republican playbook. He has tapped and intensified ugly strands of frustrated white nationalism, nativism, and male chauvinism that the arch-plutocratic GOP has been cultivating for decades. At the same time, however, Trump has often sounded remarkably populist on jobs, trade, and corporate conduct in ways that specifically working class voters appreciate and wealthy Republicans loathe. He has been critical of policies and processes that opulent Bush and Romney Republicans (and elite Clinton and Obama Democrats) hold dear, including corporate globalization, so called free trade, global capital mobility, cheap labor immigration. Trump has also raised some crude “isolationist”-sounding objections to something else that establishment Republicans and Democrats both like: destructive U.S. imperialist adventurism. Trump has dared to question the wisdom of the U.S. the bombing of Libya, the destabilization of Syria, and the provocation of Putin’s Russia.
Trump has on occasion threatened to bolt the GOP and to launch his own campaign outside the Republican Party. He boasts of being so wealthy that he doesn’t have to rely on establishment corporate and Wall Street funders. His personal fortune (probably less spectacular than he claims) is part of his populist appeal, ironically enough.
Along with the free media attention he has received, the notoriety he already enjoyed as a television celebrity, and the significant extent to which he channels (highly understandable) mass hatred of U.S. politicians (and of Hillary Clinton) and refined upper middle class liberals, the blustering billionaire Trump’s devious but performance as angry champion of the (white) working man is no small part of why he has risen above the usual sorry non-establishment Republican pack to seize the nomination from the Wall Street-vetted sorts who normally ascend in accord with Ferguson’s “investment theory.” It’s an extraordinary and no small indication of how dysfunctional and out of touch with underlying socioeconomic reality the “apocalyptic cult” (leading Republican thinker Norman Ornstein) that is the GOP today has become.
Still, it may be easy to exaggerate the extent to which Trump is truly upsetting the establishment-ruled Republican applecart and the U.S. two-party system. His actual policy positions and the people he and the GOP put around him (an old Washington maxim notes that “personnel is policy”) will much more closely match the standard ruling class neoliberal and imperial (CFR) agenda than his populist primary campaign rhetoric. In the wake of securing enough delegates to prevail at the Republican National Convention, Trump has made some peace with key players atop the Republican establishment, including the noxious Ayn Rand-worshipping House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Trump is playing the Hitchensian game in a dark, possibly Hitler-inspired way. He certainly knows that he needs establishment support if he is serious about moving his reality television show into the White House.
In an editorial calling Ryan’s recent endorsement of Trump “a sad day for the GOP – and America,” the Washington Post’s establishment editorial board noted that “Judging by his wild swings of position over the years, Mr. Trump does not believe in much of anything.” That would seem to be an accurate judgment: Trump is all about image, marketing, wealth, celebrity, uber-narcissism, personal insult, and sociopathic self-promotion, period.
But then the Post editors wrote the following: “The convictions that he does hold – against free trade and U.S. leadership abroad, for dividing the nation by religion and ethnicity – are antithetical to the principles Mr. Ryan sa[ys] guide him.” There’s quite a bit wrong with that second sentence, including the deletion of Ryan’s deep commitment to racism, nativism, and state capitalism and the identification of imperial adventurism with global “leadership.” For the purposes of the present essay, however, the Post editors’ main mistake is to believe (for some mysterious reason) that Trump sincerely opposes so-called free trade (unlimited global investor rights).
Meanwhile, Trump obviously exacerbates some of the terrible, hallmark aspects of the U.S. party system discussed in the second sub-section of this essay. The ridiculous, bombastic, and interminably insolent Donald – brash mocker and enemy of established norms of civility – carries the mass media’s infantilizing obsession with candidate personalities, “qualities,” images, and brands to new heights (Trump is himself darkly and creepily fixated on such matters). At the same time, Trump’s vaguely neo-fascistic white nationalist racism and nativism (which may be sincere or may just be more manipulation) reinforce the racial and ethnic identity politics focus and (indeed) obsession that is a critical class-rule component of the U.S. two party order. As political scientist Emily Thorson noted on Politico last March:
“After Barack Obama’s inauguration, it was easy — and reassuring — to believe that the country had finally moved beyond the racial divides that have long shaped the American political landscape. Racial fault lines run deep in American life, and for generations, presidential candidates have carefully tiptoed around the topic…Not Trump. From the beginning of his campaign, he has loudly declared such tiptoeing to be part of the problem, choosing instead to make issues of race and identity a centerpiece of his political strategy. He has characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, called for a ‘total and complete’ ban on Muslims entering the U.S., and, more recently, implicitly condoned attacks on black activists at his rallies.”
“These actions are not isolated incidents of racist speech; they are critical parts of Trump’s larger campaign narrative, which seeks to ‘make America great again’ by rewarding those whom he sees as deserving (the people who originally ‘made America great’) and punishing the undeserving (those he sees as contributing to the nation’s downfall)….Trump’s laser-like focus on who deserves what — and his willingness to explicitly draw connections between deservedness and race — resonates with many Americans…Trump’s rhetoric has…tapped a set of beliefs already held by many Americans: that the system treats white people unfairly, and that minorities are getting more than they deserve.”
One day after Ryan gave him his endorsement, the orange-faced Trump went on a racist and nativist rampage. He’s been making heavily racialized attacks ever since against the U.S.-born Mexican American federal judge who is overseeing a class action lawsuit against the fraudulent “Trump University.” The Donald has “doubled and tripled down on the attacks—and has ordered his surrogates to do the same – even though he has no support inside the Republican Party on the issue. Many of Trump’s closest allies, including Newt Gingrich, have condemned his remarks, which means that Capitol Hill Republicans – many of whom will be up for reelection in the fall—are beside themselves. The Democrats,” the centrist New Republic reports with disgust, “are taking this controversy national, revealing a strategy to saddle every Republican across the country with Trump’s antics.”
Then there’s Trump’s many degrading and demeaning statements about women have resonated with millions of sexist males. The Donald’s nauseating misogyny and sexism are also bound to reinforce the hold of identity over class politics in the U.S. They seem likely to doom him in a contest with Hillary Clinton, who can now (after her crushing defeats of Sanders in New Jersey and California) be finally called the presumptive Democratic nominee and who hailed her nomination triumph last Tuesday as a victory for women’s rights. Females make up 52 percent of the electorate in the U.S.
The Republican Party’s sharpest elites will try to keep a healthy distance from their party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, this fall. They have no choice if they want to sustain their hold over Congress and not lose power in the states. Surely they are already at work fashioning adjustments to make the Trump phenomenon a bizarre one-off experience. Among other things, look for them to dramatically reduce the number of candidates permitted to enter the primary race.
Sanders: Neo-New Deal Populism in Service to Establishment Neoliberalism
Bernie Sanders has been less threatening to establishment Democrats than Trump has been to the Republican establishment. Sanders may talk about leading a “political revolution.” He may on occasion be willing to let himself be called a democratic socialist. He’s raised some embarrassing points about Hillary Clinton when it comes to her Wall Street funding profile, her Goldman Sachs speeches, her longstanding support for (and transparently calculated campaign reversal on) the arch-global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership, and her sickening vote for the Iraq War.
The enthusiasm his campaign has evoked, most particularly among young people, has gone far beyond anything Bernie and his team anticipated. His giant and roaring crowds, his record setting mass of small donations, and his caucus and primary vote totals have exceeded anything Hillary and the DNC expected when she at first happily welcomed her “good friend” Sanders into the race. The Clintons and their establishment party allies have felt compelled to respond to the Sanders phenomenon in nastier and dirtier ways than they ever imagined. They certainly did not envisage having to rely on the openly authoritarian ruling class fail-safe device (introduced to prevent another left-liberal like George McGovern from winning the Democratic nomination) called the “super-delegates” (the 15 percent of openly unelected Democratic Party Convention delegates comprised of Democratic Party officials and elected politicians) to claim victory. Sanders may not get the nomination but he has certainly caused considerable discomfort in the Clinton camp and the in the Democratic National Committee (DNC). As Rasmus observes, “Democratic party leaders will never allow another ‘independent,’ like Sanders, to ever contest for their party’s nomination. Sanders has given them a political scare. The Democratic party fence will undergo some major rewiring.”
Still, Bernie’s challenge to the Clintons and the DNC has been tepid and cowardly on the whole. Sanders said from day one that he would “of course” back the eventual corporate Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, with no questions asked and no conditions demanded. He’s an Empire Man who refuses to make substantive criticisms of the U.S. permanent global war of terror and the giant Pentagon System despite the fact that his liberal domestic social agenda would require massive cuts in the nation’s globally and historically unmatched war machine.
Last April on CBS and NBC, leading up to the New York primary, Bernie contritely exonerated Hillary for her revolting 2002 Iraq War vote. He cowered meekly before the looming establishment media alpha donkey Charlie Rose to claim that “of course I do not hold her accountable” for “Iraq War deaths.” It was terrible to watch, but it was all too darkly consistent with Sanders’ previous and eager endorsement of Obama’s vast jihad-fueling drone war program, which has been aptly described by Chomsky as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.” Perhaps the Sanders campaign should have coined a new campaign slogan: “Hold Democrats Accountable for War Crimes? Never!”
Bernie’s been very careful not to go for the kill against Hillary. If he had been serious about preempting her coronation, he would have gone after her egregious, Nixonian e-mail scandal (a result of Mrs. Clinton’s determination to hide damning communications with elite donors to the corrupt global-capitalist Clinton Foundation during her years atop the U.S. State Department) instead of writing that criminal outrage off as a cheap charge launched by nasty Republicans – and as something “the American people” were “tired of hearing about.” He would also have targeted her terrible Kissingerian conduct in Libya (Benghazi included), Syria, Ukraine, and Honduras. Seriously contesting Hillary’s anointment would have meant going after the neoliberal and imperialist atrocity that is the Clinton Foundation. It would have meant highlighting the early and leading role the Clintons played in turning the Democratic Party further to the pro-Big Business right back in the 1970s and 1980s. It would have involved going hard at the dreadful record of the 1990s Clinton administration in deregulating Wall Street, passing the arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade agreement, in passing the viciously poor-bashing and racist so-called welfare reform of 1996.
Seriously contesting “Lady Klynton Kissinger-Sachs (as she is known on Wall Street)” (Jennifer Matsui) would also have involved a much more intelligent, honest, and radical approach to Black America and the problem of racial oppression in America. That would have required calling out the cruel, underlying mass-incarceration-ist racism that has always been at the heart of the cold-blooded Clinton project (another good source on that besides the Michelle Alexander essay just hyperlinked is the eleventh chapter of Elaine Brown’s masterful book The Condemnation of Little B). It would have meant connecting Sanders’ own youthful Civil Rights activism (oddly underplayed in his campaign) to campaign oratory about the central role that white racism and ruling class racial divide-and-rule (a game the southern-seasoned Yale Law graduates Bill and Hillary have long mastered with Machiavellian expertise) has always played in keeping the American ruling class prosperous and powerful. It would have meant Bernie not bluntly dismissing reparations as a “divisive” issue and Bernie learning how to adjust his humorless and rapid-fire speaking style for Black church audiences. That’s all part of how Sanders (from the whitest region of the nation) might have avoided being so badly played by the racial identity politics card that the Clinton machine dealt to defeat him.
From the outset, Sanders explicitly admitted that his real role in this election was to help expand turnout for Hillary Clinton and the mainstream Democrats – to help the dismal dollar Dems bring more young and understandably disaffected voters into the major party electoral process. It’s what Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon called Bernie’s “sheepdog” role and what I have called his “Judas Goat” assignment: to herd reasonably alienated voters back into the corporate-managed social movement cemetery and radicalism-butchering abattoir that is the Democratic Party.
The “socialist” Bernie could have done significant, maybe even fatally disruptive damage to the wretched neoliberal nightmare that is the Democratic Party, once aptly described by the former top Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips as “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” But that was never the what Sanders and his team wanted, despite their misleading talk of “revolution.” Why not? As Jeffrey St. Clair noted on Counterpunch last April:
“For starters, many of Sanders’s top advisers, such as Tad Devine, are Democratic Party loyalists, who will certainly want jobs in other Democratic campaigns in the next election cycle. More pressingly, although Bernie talks of political revolution, he’s really a reformer. His goal is to refashion the Democratic Party from the inside… His entire political life testifies to his liberal incrementalism. The man has been in elected office since 1981, tweaking at the gears instead of monkey-wrenching the machine. If Sanders now seems like a radical, it’s only a measure how far to the right the Democrats have migrated since the rise of the neoliberals…Ultimately, Bernie Sanders is a loyalist to liberalism. That’s why he voted for Bill Clinton’s racist Crime Bill. It’s why he voted twice to overthrow Saddam Hussein during Clinton time and endorsed a cruel sanctions regime that killed more than 400,000 innocent Iraqi kids. It’s why he backed the Clinton war on Serbia, voted for the AUMF that has been used to justify total and enduring war since 9/11, backed the Libyan intervention and, most crucially, pledged to support Hillary if she is eventually the nominee, which she was pre-ordained to become” (emphasis added).
At the same time, Sanders reinforces the exaggerated focus of progressive activism on major party, candidate-centered electoral politics instead of social movements, popular disruption, and direct action around issues and radical change beneath and beyond the games that politicians play. Here again St. Clair hit the bulls eye:
“More and more this vaunted [Sanders] ‘movement’ seems to be little more than a kind of moveable feast, which follows Sanders around like a swarm of post-modern Deadheads, from venue to venue, to hear the senator deliver the same tepid stump speech he’s been warbling for the last 8 months…What might a real movement have done? If Sanders could turn 30,000 people out for a pep rally in Washington Square Park, why couldn’t he have had a flash mob demonstration mustering half that many fervent supporters to shut down Goldman Sachs for a day? If he could lure 20,000 Hipsters to the Rose Garden in Portland, why couldn’t he turn out 10,000 Sandernistas to bolster the picket lines of striking Verizon workers? If Sanders could draw 15,000 people in Austin, Texas, why couldn’t his movement bring 5,000 people to Huntsville to protest executions at the Texas death house? If Sanders could draw 18,000 people to a rally in Las Vegas, why couldn’t he just as easily have lead them in a protest at nearby Creech Air Force Base, the center of operations for US predator drones? Strike that. Sanders supports Obama’s killer drone program. My bad. But you get the point. Instead of being used as stage props, why hasn’t Sanders put his teaming crowds of eager Sandernistas to work doing the things that real movements do: blocking the sale of a foreclosed house in Baltimore, disrupting a fracking site in rural Pennsylvania, shutting down the entrance to the police torture chamber at Homan Square in Chicago for a day, intervening between San Diego cops and the homeless camp they seek to evict? Why? Because that’s not who Bernie Sanders is and that’s not what his movement is about. He’s willing to rock the neoliberal boat, but not sink it” (emphasis added).
When Saul Isaacson recently asked him if “the Sanders movement” is “around to stay,” Chomsky answered as follows:
“I think a lot of it’s up to him. I mean what they should have been doing all along is kind of marginalizing the focus on elections, which is secondary, and using the opportunity to build or sustain the ongoing movement which will pay attention to the elections for 10 minutes but meanwhile do other things. Now it’s the other way around. It’s all focused on the election. It’s just part of the ideology. The way you keep people out of activism is get them all excited about the carnival that goes on every four years and then go home, which has happened over and over. The Rainbow Coalition [had this effect] …the time to be political is not when you have parties and carnivals. It’s kind of a show, the election. It affects something but not that much” (emphasis added).
(And, of course, Bernie’s not really a socialist. He’s a social-democratically inclined neo-Keynesian New Deal liberal at leftmost. He has picked an argument not just with Karl Marx and Eugene Debs but with Webster’s Dictionary by falsely proclaiming that socialism is consistent with continued private, for-profit ownership of the means of production, distribution, and investment. This is no small or merely academic error because it is becoming clearer every day that capitalism properly understood is institutionally hard wired to dismantle livable ecology and destroy all prospects for a decent human future.)
The Sanders campaign certainly deserves credit for showing that (in Ron Jacobs’ words on Counterpunch) “a substantial number of Americans are interested in redistributing wealth and making government work for the 99 percent.” But reputable surveys have shown for decades that most Americans already supported those things. And Sanders’ coming, inevitable, and promised surrender to Hillary Clinton is likely to play the deadly seventh role of the U.S. major party system I discussed above: fueling the false belief that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support and furthering a sense of futility and isolation among progressive citizens and activists.
Bernie Sanders ran as a New Deal Democrat, pushing for “something like class politics” (Anderson) in a post-New Deal neoliberal era. But besides being something of a quiet imperialist (something that fiscally negates social democracy), he’s a man out of time. We inhabit an epoch where the critical institutional components of the long lost New Deal coalition (chiefly a rising new industrial labor movement and a world-leading capital intensive mass-productionist multinational corporate sector) no longer hold sway. It is a time in which the globalization of capital and markets make the living standards and consuming power of the U.S. working class majority a matter of far less concern to the national and global economic elite than they were was back in the “Fordist” and Keynesian days of Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Just how successful Bernie will be in convincing his supporters, and especially his young socialist-leaning backers to line up with the noxious neoliberal Clinton machine is an open and fascinating question. Many young American voters are unimpressed both with the major party duopoly and with “the game of Lesser Evils” (Michelle Alexander) – a game that has delivered little if anything progressive under eight years of Barack TransPacific Obama. A fair portion of Bernie’s supporters would vote for an actually left and socialist third or fourth party if the U.S. was magically transformed into a multiparty nation. Many of them will prefer to sit the election our or vote for Jill Stein and the Green Party before marking a ballot for Lady Klynton Kissinger-Sachs. And I suspect that a certain significant number of older independent voters for whom Bernie Sanders was their first choice will opt for renegade Trump in the general election.
The most remarkable thing about the critical question of how Sanders’ supporters will vote (or not) next November is the stark readiness the Clintons and the Democratic Party establishment and its many allies in the mass media have shown to alienate and insult Bernie’s many left-leaning fans. As I argued in a recent Counterpunch essay titled “Feel the Hate,” this seemingly self-destructive willingness to disrespect Sanders’ supporters is just the latest reflection of the bottomless hatred that establishment Democrats have long held for “very liberal” (the pollsters’ term) progressive Democrats. I won’t repeat here all the examples of that contempt I gave in that essay but one subsequent and stunning illustration merits mention. It appears that some establishment Democrats are making contingency plans for the possibility that Hillary’s campaign could be derailed by a federal indictment (over her very real and serious e-mail crimes) by thinking about how to put together an emergency Joe Biden-led presidential ticket. So what if Sanders has mounted an historic campaign on progressive ideals and issues? “I think that would be a terrible, terrible idea,” Sanders has told the Young Turks, a pro-Sanders online news show. “That would say to the millions of people who have supported us, that have worked with us, that would say all of your energy, all of your votes, all of your beliefs are irrelevant.” Gee, Senator Sanders, do ya think?
Behind all this flaying around lay what Counterpunch’s Eric Draitser cleverly calls “the elephant (and donkey) in the room: both major parties are wholly owned subsidiaries of finance capital and the corporations that rule over us. This,” Draitser adds, “is the realization that millions of Americans have already made, and which millions more are making. This is the realization that keeps Democratic and Republican apparatchiks up at night. And this critical revelation is what Bernie, Liz [Warren] & Co [‘progressive Democrats’ pledged to support Hillary Clinton] are there to suppress.”
What is the Way to Move Forward?
The System Works for Them
The “unelected dictatorship of money’s” overall political contributions (more difficult to definitively trace in the Citizens United era) will tilt as usual toward GOP candidates this year, but not in the presidential race. Smart corporate and Wall Street operatives prefer the imperial ruling class operative they know very well – Hillary Clinton. They also love the identity-politicized drama of purported “partisan warfare” between the executive and legislative branches in Washington. The Blue-Red divide provides useful diversion, division, and the purported “democratic” cause of supposed government paralysis (presumed “gridlock”) while the One Percent continues to wield (actually effective) financial state-capitalist power for business rule as usual. The “marionette theater” is useful indeed for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Boeing, Exxon, and Raytheon et al.
As Leibovich found on the ground in the nation’s capitalist capital, the “hopelessly polarized” system functions quite nicely for the opulent minority. Much what is perceived as “Washington’s dysfunction” — gridlock, hyper-partisanship, the failure of Republicans and Democrats “to work together”—is highly purposeful in a business-friendly way. Washington DC in the New Gilded Age has become more concerned with economics than politics, Leibovich noted, and “much of the Washington’s economy – lobbying, political consulting, and cable news – is predicated on the perpetuation of conflict, not the resolution of problems” (Two Funerals, p. 99). It is conflict that attracts viewers and readers, after all. It is conflict that keeps cash flowing into Super PACs, conflict that sells political advertisements, and conflict that creates political careers that an ever-growing army of former office-holders turn into lucrative careers in the private sector – “monetizing their government service” (p. 40) by taking lucrative positions as lobbyists, consultants and media talking heads. Leibovich reported that an astonishing 50 percent of retiring U.S. senators and 42 percent of retiring congresspersons become lobbyists.
Politics as partisan and ideological theater, it turns out, is more materially rewarding than “doing the people’s work” and serving the common good. All the partisan, outwardly “ideological” shouting over the airwaves and across the cable news spectrum is “winking performance art” meant to hide the “’reality,” that “off-air, everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners” (p. 99). Behind the scenes, smart Washington operatives of both parties are figuring out how to profit from “the continued and sweaty orgy raging between corporate and political enterprise” (p. 308) and the ongoing “romance between Washington and Wall Street” (p. 331). The “partisan” and “ideological” bickering that dominant media point to as the source of “Washington’s [constantly bemoaned] dysfunction” (and as proof of “big government’s” inherent failures) is all part of the big capitalist hustle. “The city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected” (p.10) by the “sweaty,” cross-party contest for gain, fame, and pleasure…for more. Constantly said to be “not working,” Washington actually works quite well for its permanent class of insiders, including an army of lobbyists and consultants granted hefty payments for coordinating the orgy behind the scenes – and the journalists who profit from the ongoing spectacle of partisan and “ideological” dysfunction.
“Voting Will Not Alter the Corporate Systems of Power”
Real progressive people’s hope has little to do with U.S. politicians and their endless rolling electoral dramas that are broadcast 24/7 across the cable news empire. Hedges said it very well four years ago, writing in the wake of his arrest along with other activists for joining an Occupy demonstration outside the headquarters of Goldman Sachs in New York City:
“Voting will not alter the corporate systems of power. Voting is an act of political theater. Voting in the United States is as futile and sterile as in the elections I covered as a reporter in dictatorships like Syria, Iran and Iraq. There were always opposition candidates offered up by these dictatorships. Give the people the illusion of choice. Throw up the pretense of debate. Let the power elite hold public celebrations to exalt the triumph of popular will. We can vote for Romney [2016 update: Trump] or Obama [2016: Hillary] but Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil and Bank of America and the defense contractors always win. There is little difference between our electoral charade and the ones endured by the Syrians and Iranians.”
Real radical and democratic hope rests in the majority working class citizenry and the possibility that a critical mass from its ranks will join a great social and political movement against capitalism and its evil siblings imperialism, racism, sexism, and ecocide. The most urgent political task of all is to create and expand such a movement beneath and beyond the rigged, candidate-centered electoral spectacles, whatever their partisan outcomes. The quadrennial electoral extravaganza is no place to go looking for justice, much less for popular and democratic revolution. “The really critical thing,” Howard Zinn once said, “isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.”
Elections, candidates, and parties come and go, though now the debasing major party election spectacle seems to last forever. Far more relevant to hopes for a decent future is our determination to build radical and lasting through-thick-and-thin peoples and workers power organizations both to win needed reforms and to undertake what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced: the radical reconstruction of society itself.”
Neither progressive policy proposals and programs nor radical societal vision beyond capitalism are in short supply. Leftists are commonly, even almost ritually told that they carp and complain without offering solutions. But as Chomsky wrote ten years ago, “there is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’” What is most missing on the Left are not policy and societal solutions but rather cohesive, resilient, long-lasting radical organization tying together the various fragmented groups and issues around which Left progressive and Leftists often fight very good struggles in the U.S. Without serious, durable, unified, and convincing Left organization, neither revolutionary vision nor reform proposals are going to go very far. This is no small matter. Given capitalism’s systemically inherent war on livable ecology – emerging now as the biggest issue of our or any time – the formation of such a new and united Left popular and institutional presence has become a matter of life and death for the species. “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 15 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”
This year as every four years, the U.S. Left, such as it is, can be counted on tear itself up in the usual quadrennial debate about how to best respond to the narrow and stupid, plutocratic electoral choices on offer from the horrid party and elections system I discussed in the second section of this essay. We can obsess and hold our breath until we’re blue in the face about supposedly nice cops (Carter, Clinton I, Obama, Clinton II) versus bad cops (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, Trump) – about execution by bullet versus execution by hanging, death by heart attack vs. death by stroke – or we can stop, inhale, and dig down to do the elementary work of building “ongoing, dedicated, popular movements” with deeply rooted and durable lives and a revolutionary mission beneath and beyond the masters’ ever more endless election cycles.
An old IWW slogan ran “don’t mourn, organize.” I see nothing wrong and much good about proper mourning. We on the Left have much to mourn about what the profits system and its many intimately related evils have done to life on Earth – and about how we have failed to respond in a remotely adequate fashion. Let’s mourn and organize like never before beneath and beyond the latest quadrennial big money-major party-candidate-centered-mass-marketed shit show, whatever its outcomes.