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Democrats: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

Photo by P Bear | CC by 2.0

The Republican Party is home to many a vile reactionary, but its principal function is, and long has been, to serve the most odious wing of the American ruling class.

Before Hillary Clinton threw away a sure victory last November, Donald Trump was well on the way to blowing that dreadful party apart.

No credit is due him, however.  The harm he was on track for causing was unintended.  Trump was not trying to do the GOP in; he was only promoting his brand and himself.

However, by stirring up longstanding rifts between the party’s various factions, he effectively put himself on the side of the angels.  Without intending anything of the sort, and without even trying, Trump turned himself into a scourge upon America’s debilitating duopoly party system.

As Election Day approached, it was unclear whether the GOP’s Old Guard would ever be able to put their genteel thing — their WASPish Cosa Nostra — back together again.

With Hillary Clinton in the White House, their odds were maybe fifty-fifty.  Had the Democrats nominated a less inept Clintonite like Joe Biden or an old school liberal like Bernie Sanders, their odds would have been worse.

But then, to nearly everyone’s surprise, including his own, Trump won — or, rather, Clinton lost, taking many a Democrat down with her.  The debacle wasn’t entirely her fault.   For years, the Democratic National Committee had been squandering its resources on getting Democratic presidents elected, leaving down ticket Democrats wallowing in malign neglect.

And so, for a while, it looked like the GOP would not only survive Trump, but would thrive because of him.

Even so, Republicans were not exactly riding on Trump’s coattails.  The party’s grandees had problems with the Donald, as did comparatively sane Republican office holders and office seekers; so did Republican-leaning voters in the broader electorate.  But with Clinton flubbing so badly, none of this mattered.

Being unfit and unprepared for the office he suddenly found himself holding, Trump had no choice but to call on seasoned Republican apparatchiks for help.  Thus he ended up empowering the very people he had beaten into submission months before.

Thus the Republican Party and the Donald became locked together in a bizarre marriage of convenience.  Their unholy aliance has by now become a nightmare for all concerned.

Moreover, with each passing day, the situation becomes more fraught – to the point that even Republican Senators, three of them so far, have already said “enough.”

Republicans continue to run the House and the Senate, and they occupy hosts of other top government offices, but the Republican Party has gone into damage control mode.  It had little choice, inasmuch as its Trump induced, pre-election trajectory is back on track.

After only a brief hiatus, the chances are therefore good once again that if the country and the world survive Trump, he will be remembered mainly for destroying the party that Abraham Lincoln led a century and a half ago.

This is therefore a good time to give Republicans space to destroy themselves and each other, cheering them on from the sidelines – especially as they turn on Trump and he turns on them.

Saving the world from that menace is plainly of paramount importance, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the alternative is arguably even more unpalatable. Trump is an accidental malefactor; he goes where self-interest leads him.  Vice President Mike Pence, his constitutionally prescribed successor, is an opportunist too, but he is also a dedicated theocrat and a thoroughgoing reactionary.  A skilled casting director could not have come up with a more suitable vector for spreading the plagues that Republican donors like the Koch brothers seek to let loose upon the world.

With Pence in the Oval Office, the chances of nuclear annihilation would diminish, but everything else would be worse.  Trump is temperamentally unable to play well with the denizens of the “adult daycare center” that official Washington has become.  On the other hand, because his effect on people is more soporific than terrifying, and because he is, by nature, a “pragmatic” conservative — a mirror image of what Clinton purported to be — Pence could end up doing more to undermine progress than Trump could ever imagine.

Therefore, Trump’s demise, though necessary, would be a mixed blessing, at best.

Trump is not likely to “self-impeach” any time soon; and. at this point, only persons who have the ear of Republican bigwigs can do much of anything to hasten his departure from the scene.  But there are other ways to “deconstruct” the duopoly party system — as Trump’s fascisant, pseudo-intellectual (formerly official, now unofficial) advisor, Steve Bannon might infelicitously put it.

After all, Democrats are part of the problem too — arguably, the major part – and they can hardly remain entirely indifferent to the concerns of voters who lean left.

***

It was different back in what now seems like the Jurassic Age.

In the pre-Bill Clinton era, the Democrats were a “catch-all” party, in which left and “leftish” ideologies coexisted more or less comfortably with the usual Dreck.  Left tendencies were discouraged, but they were usually, albeit grudgingly, tolerated.

The Clintons and their co-thinkers put the kybosh on that, effectively eliminating the party’s always feeble left wing.

For that, it is fair to blame both Clintons, not just Bill.  Although, Hillary has a knack for getting herself identified with goody-goody malarkey, she, like Bill, has always been in Wall Street’s pocket; and, like him too, she has always despised her party’s leftwing.

According to the conventional wisdom, she was more of a co-President than a First Lady.  She and her people have been working hard for many years to establish that perception.

To be sure, with Hillarycare, she did set the cause of health insurance reform back a generation, and, among other things, she encouraged her husband’s military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, and she cheered on the lethal sanctions regime his administration superintended in Iraq.  But it is unclear how much influence she actually wielded, or what she accomplished.   Nevertheless, by her own lights and in the view of most voters, she owns what the Clinton administration did, just as surely as her husband does.

With or without a left wing, the Democratic Party’s center has stood slightly to the left of the Republican Party’s for at least the past century.  Throughout all that time, leftists intent on making their convictions mainstream have had no choice but to work within the Democratic Party’s ambit.

There were some on the left for whom even marginality was preferable to that.  Many of them operated with the Marxist or anarchist traditions.  For principled or strategic reasons, they wanted nothing to do with a “bourgeois” party, especially one as blemished as the Democratic Party plainly is.

By no means, however, were all socialists, or even most Marxists, categorically opposed to working with Democrats.  Anarchists were less willing to collaborate, but they have always been so few in number that their marginality was assured in any case.

Libertarians and proponents of other pro-capitalist or capitalism-friendly ideologies sometimes formed independent political movements too.  But, with few exceptions, independent centrist or rightwing politics has generally been more of a problem for the Republican than the Democratic side of the governing duopoly.

In states that permit “fusion” voting, technical breaches of the duopoly system have been fairly common.  For example, in New York, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party and, in recent years, the Working Families Party have often run the same candidates for the same offices.  This can be salutary in some circumstances, but it is hardly a way to transform the status quo.

There are also so-called third parties.  Unfortunately, it has been a long time since any of them were useful for anything other than attracting protest votes.

Had Bernie Sanders led his supporters into the Green Party last year, the Greens might finally have broken into the mainstream.  But there was never any realistic prospect that Sanders would turn against Clinton, and there was even less chance that he could actually have won had he run as a Green – even with Trump for an opponent.

Had he tried, he would now be blamed for Trump’s victory, just as Ralph Nader is still blamed for George W. Bush’s.  In the end, that might have done the Greens more harm than good.

But the fact remains that Sanders gave up a chance to equal or even exceed Trump’s contribution to busting through the duopoly’s stranglehold.

In any case, in the United States, the Green Party seems to be a non-starter. They have been around for more than two decades, and gotten exactly nowhere.   And if, after running an outstanding campaign against the likes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, they still couldn’t securely establish themselves as a significant political force, it is hard to imagine how they ever could.

I, for one, will continue to vote for them, when no better option exists, but only because, for me, not voting at all is not an option.  It might, however, be no less consequential.

The duopoly would be more vulnerable if there were thriving social movements that could form the basis of a viable, genuinely progressive alternative to the Democratic Party.  But there is nothing like that in the United States today.

There was a time when the labor movement might have been able to serve that purpose, but the unions threw their lot in with the Democratic Party instead.  This was a big part of the reason why, back in the day, that party was less decrepit than it has since become.  In any case, what was possible years ago no longer is; the labor movement has enough trouble just remaining extant.  It is far too enfeebled to launch initiatives of its own in the electoral domain.

From the time that the Nixon administration ended the draft, anti-war movements have seldom been strong enough even to organize large demonstrations.  A political party is out of the question.  And even when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, it could never hope to field a viable electoral party on its own.  How could it with a core constituency drawn from a disempowered minority?   It is the same today with Black Lives Matter and similar efforts in other communities of color.  If there were other, less parochial groups for them to ally with, the situation today might be different.  But those groups don’t exist.

It therefore seems that the only feasible vehicle for deliverance from the duopoly system comprised of the Democratic and Republican Parties is the Democratic Party itself.

As Chester A. Riley would say: “what a revolting development that…[turns] out to be.”

Never having been all that wonderful to start with, the party of the New and Fair Deals and of the New Frontier and Great Society has been, for all practical purposes, beyond redemption — at least from the time that the Clintons and others like them have had their way with it.

To stop being a major part of the problem, even if only to become a small part of the solution, it would have to change beyond recognition.  How likely is that?

In some down-ticket cases, it is probably possible, though officials in local and state parties can be, and often are, as hidebound as their national counterparts.

But there is at least a broadening awareness of the problem – if only because the idea has taken root that, despite everything, Democrats at the national level stand a good chance of being slaughtered again next year, so long as they have more to offer than opposition to Trump.

The problem, we are told, is not that anti-Trump sentiment isn’t broad or intense enough, but that potential Democratic voters won’t turn out in sufficient numbers for Democrats to win if the Democratic Party offers them nothing to vote for.

I am not so sure; Trump is such a clear and present danger, and such an embarrassment, that he just might be capable of prompting significant Democratic victories, even if all Democrats have to offer is opposition to Trump.

As of now, it looks like that is all they do have to offer.

Obama was the last prominent Democratic politician who was in any way charismatic.  And, so far, the only ideas Democrats have that anyone could enthuse over come from the party’s Sanders wing.

Unfortunately, those Sanders Democrats lack the institutional resources needed to withstand the assault from the party’s center that is sure to come, the minute those holding power feel that they are in any significant way under attack.  This is how it was last year, and it is likely how it will be next year as well.

Can the ideas Sanders Democrats offer nevertheless carry the day?  This is possible, but unlikely.  After all, those ideas are just contemporary versions of social democratic policies that nearly all developed capitalist countries, except ours, have had in place for more than half a century.

And so, Trump’s sheer awfulness had better be enough to save the world from Trump, even if salvation means nothing more salutary than a Pence presidency, a legislature controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and, with the constant fear of nuclear annihilation subsided, the comforting miseries of life in a regime in which the ravages of inequality intensify, and environmental catastrophes become increasingly omnipresent.

Is there still a reformist way out – if not to a world where reason rules, at least to a better possible world than the one that, if all goes well, will be staring us in the face?

***

Evidence from the UK suggests that maybe there is.

To be sure, U.S. and UK society differ in many ways, and the British Labour Party, for all its shortcomings, has always been more congenial to leftwing politics than the Democratic Party has been.

But they had their Clintons in the form of Tony Blair; and inasmuch as a Bernie Sanders was possible here, why would an American version of Jeremy Corbyn not be possible here as well?

Whether or not Corbyn someday becomes Prime Minister, he has already shown that a mainstream, essentially bourgeois catch-all party can in principle sustain a leadership that is not in thrall to warmongers, imperialists, and the military-industrial complex.

If I am right, fascism is not the only thing that “could happen here.”  A mainstream political party, historically continuous with the one that Clintonites control today, is possible too.

Such a party could end, or at least significantly diminish, the perpetual war regime that is leading us to ruination, freeing up resources that could make the lives of the vast majority of Americans significantly better.

This is what the Green New Deal was about.  If only we could go that way!  Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that we can – because, if recent history is any guide, the Greens’ chances of entering the mainstream seem practically nil.

The chances of moving the Democratic Party closer to what the Green New Deal envisions are a tad better – but only if voters make it clear as can be that, at the national level, they will only vote for Democrats who meet reasonable standards.

In 2016, I would have voted for Sanders, had he been on the ballot in Clinton’s stead.  In view of how dire our situation is bound to remain, even if Trump goes, I would vote for Sanders-like candidates running on the Democratic line next year too, provided that, unlike more mainstream Democrats, they are not too intent on war-mongering and on reviving the Cold War.

I would be much happier, of course, voting for Democrats with views on foreign and military policy like Corbyn’s.  But politics is “the art of the possible,” and Democrats like that are few and far between.

Even so, there are limits.

For example, I could never bring myself to vote for a flagrant hypocrite, and I would urge others not to do so either.   This would rule out anyone who, like most Democrats nowadays, berates Russia with Rachel Maddow-style vehemence for interfering in the political affairs of other countries, but who does not also acknowledge that no country in the history of the world has ever interfered in other country’s political affairs more sedulously and persistently than the United States.

And I could never vote for a Democrat who glorifies the military and its generals, and who pretends that our vaunted “troops” are “serving their country” and defending its freedoms when, in fact, they are serving an empire the very existence of which threatens the basic rights and liberties of all Americans

On the other hand, I would happily support anyone who would forthrightly state the obvious: that, with few exceptions, generals are mostly ‘mad dogs” who like to kill or sleaze balls of the John F. Kelly variety; that soldiers are mostly economic conscripts; and that the last and perhaps the only time that the American military fired shots in defense of freedom was some seventy decades ago, in the European theater of World War II.

An American Corbyn would bring points like these up repeatedly; Sanders and Elizabeth Warren not so much.

An American version of Corbyn would also point out that the Bush-Obama-Trump war on terror is creating, not diminishing, terrorism; and that American efforts to dominate and control the Muslim world, from the western tip of Africa to beyond the eastern Pacific rim, are morally and politically wrong-headed and blatantly counter-productive.

I could go on, but what would be the point of only supporting candidates who, for example, insist on fair play for Palestinians, or who advocate for nuclear disarmament, – not just in North Korea but also in India and Pakistan, and, of course, in the perpetually bellicose state of Israel?

These are not radical suggestions; just radical departures from the status quo; and the sad fact is that we don’t have nationally prominent mainstream politicians like Corbyn who are willing to go even that far.  We could, but we don’t. The Brits are better off.

What we do have are Democrats who are not raging Clintonites, politicians in the Sanders and Warren mode.

Grudgingly and for want of better but still feasible alternatives, we may have to be satisfied with that – not forever, but until are finally able to break free from the disabling and abased political order that afflicts us, enabling the resumption of long dormant struggles to change the world radically for the better.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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