November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised

Photo by Steve Bott | CC BY 2.0

If, as is widely predicted, Democrats trounce Republicans in the 2018 mid-term elections, the political scene in the United States could become a tad less awful. That is the good news.

The bad news isn’t news at all; it is that Democrats worth supporting for reasons other than Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and the odiousness of House and Senate Republicans, Republican governors, and Republicans at all levels of state and local government, are few and far between.

As candidates emerge from this spring’s and the coming summer’s primaries, the situation may become less bleak, but it will still not be good. The reason is plain: Democrats are odious too, and even if that wretched party is ultimately salvageable, this is not going to happen over the next few months.

It would be a step in the right direction, though, were some fresh progressive faces to come on the scene – women (the emphasis this year is on them) and men of evident dedication and integrity who would give voters reasons to vote for Democrats beyond the ones that are so painfully obvious.

As matters now stand, the only arguably defensible reason to vote for Democrats is to vote against Republicans. If the party leaders can be kept from sabotaging the efforts of genuine progressives, and if there are enough of them and their spiels turn out to be more honest than, say, Obama’s was ten years ago, then, perhaps that could change for the better.

Transforming the Democratic Party is a Herculean task. But it is a lot more doable than overturning the duopoly party system that Democrats and Republicans have concocted over the years.

That would be a better, cleaner way to proceed; in other so-called democracies, it would be an unexceptionable way as well. However, our political class has made it effectively unavailable to Americans; this has been proven time and again – for example, in the Nader campaign in 2000 and then in 2016.

If a candidate as good as Jill Stein, running against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, couldn’t bring the Green Party out from the margins, there is only one conclusion to draw: that we are stuck with our disabling duopoly party system not just for the time being but for as far into the future as can be foreseen.

It is like being in a bad marriage without the possibility of divorce. The only options, then, are withdrawal, giving up on efforts to construct a better possible world, or else to try to transform the relation of progressive to the Democratic Party in fundamental ways. In practice, this would mean transforming the Democratic Party beyond recognition.

That would be like fixing a marriage grounded in irreconcilable differences. The odds of that are poor, just as are the odds of making the Democratic Party part of the solution, as the saying goes, and not just part of the problem. However, the Trump phenomenon makes those odds a whole lot better than they used to be.

Because there is no other feasible way to get American politics back onto a progressive track, there really is nothing to do but take up the challenge.

On the domestic front, progress ended, for all practical purposes, four decades ago, in the mid-seventies.

In the international arena, it ended long before that; in many respects, it never even began. After all, the United States was never exactly the “city upon a hill” that it purported to be – certainly not in the Western hemisphere south of the Mexican border, and not in China or the eastern Pacific. And, except for the few years in which Nazi Germany was a common enemy, it was, along with other capitalist countries, overtly hostile towards the Russian Revolution and then the Soviet Union. Amicable relations with the Soviet Union ended even before the Second World War came to a definitive end.

Then, with the assumption by the United States of its role as a global hegemon and the not unrelated rise of the Cold War world, the United States stopped being anything like a force for peace and justice in world politics.

Getting it back onto a progressive track will therefore require fundamental changes; and even restoring aspects of the now all but defunct New Deal – Great Society political settlement will take some doing.

To that end, the Democratic Party, in its present state, is emphatically not helpful. This is why unless progressive insurgencies within its ranks succeed, voters eager for “hope and change” will find that no aid from that quarter.

The 2018 midterms could turn out to be a step on the way to success – but if and only if genuine progressive voices prevail. If they do not, then, even if all goes well for Democrats, voters will find that they have been suckered again.

It is not just the handful of Democrats who could as well be pre-Trump Republicans who are standing in the way. Mainstream liberals of the Chuck Schumer — Nancy Pelosi type are more numerous and just as bad. They are the ones that must be taken on.

It speaks volumes, for example, that one of the most prominent and powerful liberals in the House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer, Pelosi’s second-in-command, would go on record actively endorsing Israeli massacres of peaceful Palestinian protesters. Hoyer is not alone. Quite a few House and Senate Democrats are even worse – Chuck Schumer, for example, is much worse.

With Democrats like that, who needs Trump’s shyster lawyer, Ambassador David Friedman, or Jared Kushner, his airhead son-in-law, or Nikki Haley, his U.N. ambassador and AIPAC’s best friend?

It is not just Israel that brings out the worst in those Democrats; their moral corruption and overall obtuseness is global in extent and dangerously reckless.

Five Democrats (Manchin, Donnelly, Warner, Heitkamp, and Nelson) even voted for Bloody Gina (Haspel), the CIA torture impresario who, as if to exemplify what Hannah Arendt meant by “the banality of evil,” declared before the Democratic caucus that she was only following orders.

More “liberal” Democrats didn’t stoop quite so low on Haspel, but neither did they call on Trump to do for the CIA what he has done for government departments and agencies that, unlike the CIA, actually do socially useful things – seeing to it that they are led by rank incompetents whose views and values are at odds with the work they are supposed to do. If ever there was a need for one of Steve Bannon’s “deconstructers,” this was it.

Worse yet: it was liberal Democrats, not Trump, that got the new Cold War going, putting the future of life on earth “as we know it” in peril.

Thus they pose a clear and present danger.

Of course, Trump poses an even clearer and more present danger; and it goes without saying that, by any measure, Democrats are the less odious duopoly party. But if that is all they have going for them, they are in trouble – not just in the long run, but in the 2018 elections as well.

Following the example Hillary Clinton set two years ago, could they somehow manage to keep their “blue wave” from materializing? It isn’t likely, but they are Democrats, after all; losing sure things is what they are good at.

No matter how god-awful Republicans may be, Democrats deserve to lose. Anyone who thinks otherwise has fallen for a snare and a delusion.

Democratic Party apologists love to invoke Otto von Bismarck’s account of politics as “the art of the possible.” They are also keen on reminding progressives of reasons for thinking that the best way for candidates or parties to pick up votes is to occupy the dead center.

With these arguments, they and their media flacks vilify progressives who would stray from their party’s general line.

What they fail to acknowledge, though, or even to realize is that their reasons only pertain when parties or candidates vying for votes are conceived apolitically, in just the way that the rational economic man (sic) of economic lore, the homo oeconomicus, is.

A homo oeconomicus chooses from among given alternatives. Politics, however, is about more than rational choice; it is about contesting alternatives, shaping them, and changing what there is to choose among.

Moreover, for their apologias to apply, voters would have to agree on how the alternatives they choose among can be arrayed on a spectrum – presumably, from left to right, but in principle according to any dimension – and care preeminently about where on that spectrum they stand.

Obviously, this is not how electoral politics works. Those who go on as if highly stylized rational choice models are pertinent to it are only, deliberately or not, defending the willful blindness of lesser evil voting advocates.

There will be a lot of them opinining as the November election approaches; it happens every two and four years. The details change, but the core arguments always remain the same.

A column by Eric Alterman in the May 28 edition of The Nation is a case in point. Alterman is an old hand at conjuring up leftish arguments for keeping the Democratic Party on a rightward course; and he is always ready to question the sanity of anyone who would dare suggest that it might be a good idea to breach the duopoly’s stranglehold.

Thus he was a conspicuous supporter of efforts to blame Ralph Nader for the election of George W. Bush.

The “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush” line was nonsense when it appeared eighteen years ago. Efforts to recycle an up-to-date version of it fare no better now than they did then.

A difference, though, is that nowadays more people understand that the politics Democrats promote is both a cause and an effect of a general degradation of the ambient political culture. Its role in making the Trump phenomenon possible and even necessary can hardly be exaggerated.

To defeat Trump and to counter the power of the GOP, it may be necessary, this electoral season, to enter into tactical alliances with Democrats – the ones who know better but think “my party, right or wrong,” and the ones who do not. This is a risky business. Because the Democratic Party is part of the problem, even temporary alliances could go dangerously wrong.

The time is past due for “progressives’ to be grateful for being invited, even if only symbolically, to take a seat at the table. That may have been good enough for Bernie Sanders, but what is needed now are progressives who will overturn the table – clearing the neoliberals, the humanitarian interveners, and the Cold War revivalists, out.

Sanders didn’t exactly hold the line against the Clintonite leadership of the Democratic Party after they screwed him over in 2016, and he was about as good as Democrats got. Always the optimist, though, I do have some faith that at least a few bold souls emerging out of this year’s crop of fledglings will do better than their left-leaning colleagues have so far done, and that their example will rub off on at least a few of those more seasoned self-styled practitioners of “the art of the possible.”

I would have an easier time sustaining that hope if they would stop calling their politics “revolutionary.” Overblown, self-indulgent rhetoric debases political discourse more than it already is. There is no need to add to a problem that is already acute.

“Our Revolution,” a descendant of the Sanders campaign, is indeed among the most progressive forces in mainstream electoral politics today. For all its merits, though, it is not the least bit revolutionary.

The restoration of pre-Trump norms is not among its objectives, but part of its appeal is its promise of a return to a semblance of the “normalcy” that obtained before the maelstrom Trump unleashed. In this sense, it is, if anything, more “counter-revolutionary,” in a salutary way, than a force for revolutionary change.

Unlike two years ago, even the pillars of the old regime now have some insight into how that normalcy made Trump possible. They are therefore more willing than two years ago to cut some slack for candidates who articulate the hopes of the many voters who are way out ahead of the neoliberal mainstream.

Despite the malign neglect of the Democratic Party establishment and the unrelenting derision of the media that serve it, many, perhaps most, likely Democratic voters – and therefore most likely voters overall — fall under this description.

Whether the old regime’s elites would remain open minded towards views inimical to theirs were they to have reason to think that they might lose control of the institutions from which they benefit so egregiously remains to be seen. The chances that they would are poor. It is much more likely, if all goes as well as we have any right to expect, that intra-party wars lie ahead.

The concerns of the party’s leaders in 2016 had more to do with power than ideology.

For all his talk about “socialism,” Sanders was essentially a twenty-first century version of a New Deal-Great Society liberal. His views on the stewardship of the American empire and, more generally, on matters of war and peace, though kinder and gentler than those of most Democrats, fell squarely within the “bipartisan” mainstream.

But that was too much for the leaders of a party denuded of its never very radical left wing. Were their counterparts now, two years on, to be confronted by serious challenges from a militant rank-and-file committed to Sanders-like ideas that don’t turn mainstream at the water’s edge – ideas of the kind advanced, say, by Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labor Party – expect old regime Democrats to fight back viciously.

The late Gil Scott-Heron famously proclaimed: “the revolution will not be televised.” But that was before the digital age, before everything could be, and often is, televised. He was right, however, about the purported “revolution” now underway. It will not be televised because it isn’t happening.

What is happening instead are expressions of disgust and rejection of Trump and all things Trumpian.

Unless the party of Schumer and Pelosi, of the Clintons and Steny Hoyer, succeeds in pushing the line that “a vote for X (where X is anybody worth voting for) is a vote for Trump,” that is as far as it will go.

This may be enough to produce the Democratic “wave” we hear so much about, though no one should doubt that Democrats have it in them to elude certain victory. That is one of the few things they are good at.

But a revolution worth televising will not emerge out of any Democratic wave.

This is not in any way to diminish the importance of hobbling Trump and his cronies or of sending as many Republicans as possible packing.

But it is to underscore the importance of taking the Democratic Party on as well. Progressives cannot live with it, and neither can they destroy it, wonderful as that would be. But with time, diligence, and effort, changing it fundamentally for the better is not out of the question.

Working to elect some of the fledgling progressive Democrats now coming on the scene, if done in a clear-headed and properly skeptical way, could help with that. Working to diminish and, wherever possible, overthrow the power of the party’s Clintonite leadership would help even more.

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).