Why Lincoln Chafee Won the Election

One of the more interesting figures that emerged from the recent Democratic primaries was my former Mayor and Governor, Lincoln Chafee, the scion of a long line of blue blood Yankees who have been political players in the state since colonial times. While his performance in the debates was abysmal, best demonstrated by his ‘my dog ate my homework’ response for why he voted for the Gramm-Leech-Bliley Act that desegregated investment and depositor banking, ultimately he was the victor of this year’s Democratic Party contest. Let me explain.

Chafee and his father were the last of the Rockefeller Republicans, that left side of a big-tent party that emerged from the 1964 elections with a soul polarized by an increasingly nativist wing and an antithesis in the business community that was really opposed more to the New Deal and its regulations rather than to a phantasmic boogeyman named ‘Communism’. Yet for all the unease felt between the two, particularly in cases like when Goldwater in 1964 or Nixon in 1968 made blatant bids for the white supremacist working class vote, theirs was a strange match made in hell.

This of course all changed in the advent of the neoconservative movement, which had no shame about bidding for this white supremacist element that had been rebranded as Evangelical Christianity. Suddenly, after spending a generation waging war on the First Amendment, particularly in regards to association with radicals and risqué speech, the GOP were using these same legal arguments for their diametric opposite purpose as a matter regarding religious freedom.

When Chafee’s father dropped dead in the final days of Bill Clinton’s second term, it was seen as a no-brainer to appoint his son to finish his Senate tenure. But in a year that was anything but normal, he ended up becoming a strange outsider, voting against the Iraq war and opposing the Bush administration policies on same sex marriage, climate change, and the rest of the neocon package.

His post-congressional single term as an independent governor was actually a business-as-usual government, ever since World War II the order of the day has been a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor. He did oversee the so-called “pension reform” heist that invested it in high-stake high-fee hedge funds but that guilt really lies on the shoulders of his Treasurer and successor Gina Raimondo. (In a deposition about 38 Studios, he rather famously referred to Raimondo as ‘Ms. Wall Street’, showing no love was lost between the two.)

The obvious conclusion would be that our subject had moved towards the Democrats over the past decade and a half. But in reality the opposite is the fact, the Clintons have now succeeded in creating a platform that Chafee, his father, and the rest of the Rockefeller Republicans would have felt comfortable standing on four decades ago, one that is anti-union, pro-business, pro-free trade, pro-choice, and not anti-gay or anti-black.

What we have witnessed is not the reinvigoration of the Democratic Party, the goal of the Progressive Democrats a decade ago when they elected a Congress intended as a referendum on Bush and which including the exchange of Chafee for Sheldon Whitehouse, a true loss for the Congressional delegation in my mind. Instead, we have seen the Democrats transformed into what George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford always strove for, a corporate party whose only sense of principle was the bottom line. And now, because these same Progressive Democrats are demonstrably offering the argument of lesser-evilism and telling themselves every excuse in the book about why Clinton is not awful, with everything from the neoliberal privilege check of identity politics to self-delusion to outright saying Jill Stein and her numerous African American supporters like Bruce Dixon are enabling white supremacy, we can borrow a phrase from another period and say they are the functionaries of the Thermidor akin to what Trotsky described eighty years ago.

Today, when all relationships are being translated into the language of monetary calculation, the economic contradictions come to the forefront with exceptional sharpness. Raising itself above the toiling masses, the bureaucracy regulates these contradictions. It uses this function in order to strengthen its own domination. By its uncontrolled and self-willed rule, subject to no appeal, the bureaucracy accumulates new contradictions. Exploiting the latter, it creates the regime of bureaucratic absolutism. The contradictions within the bureaucracy itself have led to a system of handpicking the main commanding staff; the need for discipline within the select order has led to the rule of a single person and to the cult of the infallible leader.

Margaret Kimberley, a columnist I have utmost respect and admiration for, has of late been stating, in response to the paranoia over Trump, that neoliberalism itself is a form of fascism. Perhaps with some irony we can look to the behavior of Bernie Sanders recently, barking to get his followers into the paddock, and recall what Trotsky’s opponent was saying as part of a response. Stalin claimed that Trotsky’s united front was treachery because the Social Democrats were “social fascists”, a claim that envisioned an apocalyptic class war wherein, after the Nazis were elected, the Communists would come to power next.

Two generations of Trotskyist and Cold War historians have upheld the view that Stalin’s social fascist line was an act of suicide and a political posture that caused total chaos and needless bloodshed. Yet I have interrogated this logic seriously and would argue otherwise.

First, it was Aimé Cesaire who described fascism as a boomeranging of the violence of colonialism and empire upon Europe, something Frantz Fanon further explored by comparing anti-black racism with Sartre’s description of anti-Semitism and the Jew.

Second, the Labour and Socialist International, a body that existed between 1923 and 1940, formed as a replacement of the Second International to rival the Comintern, was pro-colonial and accused the ‘Stalinists’ of ‘dogmatism’ and ‘ultra-Left extremism’ for being anti-colonial.

In other words, for opposing racism and empire with a principled and unwavering commitment that refused the argument of ‘lesser-evilism’, Communists were blamed for the last eight decades of enabling the rise of Nazism, just as today we Greens are accused of welcoming the rise of Trump. Jacobin, which has taken up the role that its Democratic Party socialists of America predecessor Commentary held in a prior generation, has gone to this extent by publishing a new story about German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann, making the analogy all but blatant.

Such a segue into Soviet historiography might seem ill-conceived here. Yet I imagine John Chafee would look at the postwar state he shaped and recognize it as akin to the same single-party Soviet states he used to oppose while a moderate Republican, particularly as Nixon’s Naval Secretary. The northeastern states, with almost uniformity, have begun to resemble the Eastern Bloc circa 1983. We have over-extended our military into Afghanistan at the cost of domestic economic debt deflation and been encountered with a new dissident movement internally that challenges the basic coordinates of the nomenklatura and its hegemony. The behavior of this neoliberal nomenklatura towards Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives is reminiscent of how Adropov took a hands-off approach to the Polish Solidarity union movement. Back then, he feared a repeat of the public relations fiasco of Prague 1968 and behaved accordingly. Now, figures like Alan Dershowitz try to grapple with the insurgency in a similar fashion.

We are faced with an election this year where we can say that, without a shadow of a doubt, the duopoly candidates demonstrate clearly what a bunch of miserable monsters the Baby Boomers have the capacity to be. Lincoln Chafee’s inability to make gains this year was due to the blue-blood aversion to nastiness his father raised him to practice. But at the same time it is also possible to discern two other points as a corollary.

First, if Chafee’s breeding taught him to avoid Trump/Clinton-styled rudeness, it also should have taught him to be assertive, confident, and brave enough to call for basic decency, perhaps going as far as trying to force Clinton out of the race after she was caught red-handed gerrymandering the primaries (if not earlier). Yet in reality the only person who hailed from the old country club networks of the political elites trying to do something like this was Mitt Romney, who lamely sought to execute such a move against Trump before withering away to obscurity. The fact that someone like Lincoln Chafee did not step up within the Democratic Party in a similar fashion damns all their self-importance.

But second, a much more vital point. If the Baby Boomers were the generation that gave us Trump and Clinton as candidates this year, what does that say about their parents, or for that matter the whole mythical Greatest Generation? Tom Brokaw’s over-hyped book from two decades ago on that subject included a profile of the elder Chafee. When the old man and his contemporaries were in the midst of their golden years, walking still among us, there was a level of decorum that has been thrown to the wind this year in politics. But they were also the men of Operation Paperclip, the segregationists, and the McCarthyite days. If anything, the true greats of that generation were either killed on the Eastern Front fighting the Nazis or were exiled by the second Red Scare.

I guess this just brings home the lyrics of another unbearable Baby Boomer:

Only the good die young.



Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.