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A Crisis of Relevance

And the word of the moment is . . . opportunity:

“What unites our party is a belief in opportunity, the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, whoever you love, America is the place you can make it if you try.”

Could you be any more tepid? The words were those of the former president the other day, giving his blessing to the naming of Tom Perez as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Perez is the safe, establishment choice to lead the party forward into the maelstrom of Trump, under a banner that seems garishly inoffensive: Tolerate our differences, give everyone a chance.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and the idea of “tolerance” may even have resonated with controversy half a century ago, but today it has the hollow ring of an ad slogan.

But this is leadership for you, trying to quiet everyone down and put forth the smiley face of unity. Behind closed doors, the military-industrialists plan their agenda, but let’s not worry about that. The role of the public, or at least the liberal, Democrat-leaning sector thereof, is to be afraid of Donald Trump and cheer for the good guys. Meanwhile, the actual future will be handled by the experts and their overlords in the corporatocracy.

In point of fact, a serious segment of the Democratic base sees beyond this well-tailored lie. The movement in the streets, the “creative turbulence,” as Charles Pierce put it, the furious cries for change, are aimed as much at the Democrats as they are at the Republicans and the Trumpsters.

Perez himself, after gaining the DNC chairmanship, put the situation as succinctly as anyone I’ve heard. He quickly undid his assessment and lapsed into “positive message” blather about inclusion, opportunity and the big tent. But first he asked: “Where do we go from here? Because right now we have to face the facts. We are suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance.”

A. Crisis. Of. Relevance.

The words cut like a wound across the chest. The last time the Democratic mainstream publicly acknowledged awareness of this crisis — as opposed to simply participating in its ongoing creation — was in 1972, when George McGovern seized the Democratic presidential nomination and ran for the presidency on a blatantly antiwar platform.

“I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan,” he said.

“And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.”

He delivered these words during the Democratic National Convention that year, then went on to run a wide-open campaign that was no match for Richard Nixon and CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), despite the Watergate break-in. And in the 45 years since, America’s wars have been off the table in every presidential election, and today — surprise, surprise! — we find ourselves mired in permanent war, with the Middle East and, indeed, the whole planet bleeding from the consequences.

McGovern also said: “The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plane.”

I call this participatory vs. spectator democracy, and I think this is what’s happening today in the nation’s streets and airports and in its town hall meetings: creative turbulence the likes of which we have not seen since the Vietnam War era. But what’s crucial is that this progressive uprising not limit itself to economic and domestic issues, as though U.S. militarism were a separate matter. The Democrats’ crisis of relevance is grounded in the party’s absolute acquiescence during the Obama years to the war on terror, and the only way for the party to reclaim power and credibility is to stand up to its own moral shortcomings, not just those of George Bush and Donald Trump.

Andrew Bacevich, describing the quasi-religious nature of American exceptionalism and the quest for global dominance, wrote last week: “Members of the Church of America the Redeemer, Democrats and Republicans alike, are demonstrably incapable of rendering an honest accounting of what their missionary efforts have yielded.”

He then offers “a brief inventory” of the consequences of our recent wars:

“thousands of Americans needlessly killed; tens of thousands grievously wounded in body or spirit; trillions of dollars wasted; millions of Iraqis dead, injured, or displaced; this nation’s moral standing compromised by its resort to torture, kidnapping, assassination, and other perversions; a region thrown into chaos and threatened by radical terrorist entities like the Islamic State that U.S. military actions helped foster. And now, if only as an oblique second-order bonus, we have Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency to boot.”

Let us lift the silence! If the new DNC chairman is able to concede that his party is in the midst of — and being destroyed by — a crisis of relevance, then perhaps he can defy the establishment that backed him and stand up to the State of War, as McGovern did 45 years ago.

What we need is a public plan for peace. The opportunity is ripe.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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