Democrats and the Politics of Change

Photograph Source: Georgia Democrats – CC BY 2.0

With the political season underway, the question of an effective politics is the subtext of the debates and speeches intended to motivate constituencies and movements. This should read as odd: in the U.S., it is the act of getting elected that defines effective politics. But as neoliberalism has crept into every aspect of modern life, elections have become an anti-politics, a way of working against the democratic will.

However, this formulation isn’t complete. For the last half-century, the consolidation of political and economic power has motivated the political establishment’s policy objectives. Electoral politics has been made a game of minimizing democratic tendencies. Programs and policies to consolidate power miraculously slipped past cautionary incrementalism. It is this singular direction that tells the wider story.

Nevertheless, arguments for incrementalism are still used to dampen resistance to this capitalist takeover. Public schools, roads, healthcare, transportation, pensions, housing and on and on have been privatized, power over labor has been handed to capitalists and foreign policy is now run by and for Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil. There was nothing incremental about the structural changes that have taken place.

No popular vote was taken in support of a capitalist revolution, nor in support of any of its major political and economic objectives. Oligarchs funded right-wing think tanks and university economics departments to give intellectual cover to naked power grabs. Trade agreements were used to shift sovereign power to multinational corporations and the oligarchs who own them.

A paradox was created within the partisan frame: the last two Democratic presidents were the most successful Republican politicians of the neoliberal era. Bill Clinton oversaw the emancipation of capital and the final destruction of the idea of the polity. Barack Obama oversaw the resurrection of the neoliberal order, with the wealth and power of the oligarchs and corporate chieftains his central concern.

Calls for allegiance to the mythical political ‘center’ suggest a gravitational force. But then, why was a revolution launched against it from the right after 1968? The New Deal and various programs of social reconciliation were unceremoniously tossed on the rubbish heap. But isn’t revolution precisely what we are now being told isn’t possible? If only our centrist friends had been advising the capitalist revolutionaries on what wasn’t possible in the 1970s!

In the present, this tendency can be seen in the Democratic establishment’s favoring of Republican-like candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over closer representatives of the nominal party ethos, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In fact, were one to set aside the prior’s party affiliations to judge them by their political acts, both would clearly fall into the Republican purview. It is only by this skewed measure that Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren aren’t mainstream Democrats.

This distance between the Democrat’s nominal ethos and its governing practices is alternatively explained as that between electoral marketing and service to power. Modern Democratic presidents have enacted truly radical programs. Mr. Clinton officially ended the New Deal in favor of giving capitalists free reign over American political economy. Mr. Obama resurrected neoliberalism following the massively disruptive circumstances it created.

In other words, the national Democrats haven’t acted cautiously or incrementally. In the service of power, they have acted boldly. It is only with programs that would redistribute power downward— as with a robust Green New Deal, Medicare for All and / or enacting universal suffrage and publicly funding political campaigns, that decorum and moderation have ruled.

This distinction between getting elected and the power to enact programs needs to be expanded on. While for obvious reasons this isn’t a problem for candidates whose politics end with being elected, it is for those whose programs redistribute power downward. With recent history as a guide, having well-considered program proposals has no bearing on their probability of being enacted.

One explanation for the Democrat’s #resistance to Bernie Sanders emerges from the ‘wrong left turn’ mythology of Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was Mr. Carter who began deregulation and privatization of the public realm, engineered the financial portion of the de-industrialization of the heartland and allowed the economy to be killed for the benefit of Wall Street.

Rather than Mr. Carter’s liberalism causing his electoral loss, it was the brutal recession that Mr. Carter’s Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, engineered near the end of Mr. Carter’s term that led Democrats to abandon him. Mr. Carter’s policies launched the neoliberal era. Acting on his behalf, Mr. Volcker decimated the industrial base while diminishing the lot of organized labor.

Back in the present, a major drawback of the reactive politics of this era is that they reinforce existing power by foregoing creation of a political movement to support them. Gun control efforts are simply overwhelmed. The U.S. is the largest maker of guns and purveyor of violence in the world. Racism has its explicit and implicit forms as illustrated by Wall Street’s disappearance of the preponderance of black wealth through predatory finance around 2009.

Implicit racism has a political solution while explicit racism is left asking people to be nice to one another. Had Barack Obama put predatory financiers in prison and closed bank lending units and ‘external’ lending facilities that engaged in predatory finance, predatory lending practices would have been curtailed. Instead, predatory lenders were bailed out as Democrats claimed the disappearance of black wealth inexplicable.

The Green New Deal likewise suffers from this lack of a supportive political context. Taken as an aggregation of individual programs, it is posed as a ‘wish list of progressive programs.’ As the integrated whole needed to facilitate environmental replenishment and healing, the loss of any of the constituent parts quickly renders the whole politically infeasible. This exposes the political content embedded in ‘process.’

In contrast, when George W. Bush launched the U.S. war against Iraq or when Barack Obama ‘saved’ Wall Street, system logic prevented the programs from being rationalized into oblivion. Raytheon didn’t have riders added that the company would be paid a billion dollars for every Iraqi killed and Goldman Sachs didn’t play the terms of the bailout off against the Obama administration through the Chinese government.

This service to power was managed through an internal logic that kept it from being cannibalized from within. There was nothing centrist or incremental about either the war or the bailouts. They were reckless and / or desperate acts. The committees of industry insiders that ‘advised’ the political leadership were there to divide the spoils, not to endlessly debate the meaning of the term pre-existing condition.

This has bearing when considering the 2020 presidential contest. Bernie Sanders correctly asserts that getting left programs implemented requires redistributing political power away from current concentrations. Otherwise, the logic that nothing is possible and there is no point in trying— to paraphrase Elizabeth Warren, is to grant that its current distribution is permanent and immutable, no matter how great the social need or brilliant the plan is to address it.

Back to Jimmy Carter’s ‘wrong left turn,’ given that it is a misreading of history, the Democrat’s aversion to left political programs is more probably stated as deference to existing power. This is the central impediment to democratic action within the Democratic Party. The Democrat’s fear isn’t of losing elections, but of winning them with a mandate to upend the existing order.

When presented truthfully, left programs are remarkably popular. This is why so much energy is put into ‘proving’ that they aren’t. Contrariwise, neoliberalism has had fifty years to prove itself. The result is that nothing works except for the very rich. The U.S. can’t solve the environmental problems it creates. It has the most dysfunctional healthcare system amongst rich countries. And Donald Trump is deeply emblematic of the oligarch class.

Establishment Democrats aren’t defending a system that ‘works,’ they’re defending one that doesn’t. The question then: is redistributing power a prerequisite for democratic political control? Or will it emerge as a result of machinations within the electoral system. Evidence has it that establishment Democrats and their surrogates are undermining the 2020 electoral process just as they did in 2016 in favor of Republican-like candidates.

This produces several contradictions for electoral politics: the first is the theory that getting elected places one on the inside of existing power. Again, Messrs. Clinton and Obama claimed Republican obstruction as they successfully promoted audacious political programs that favored existing power. ‘Obstruction’ only precluded policies that distributed power downward.

Second, if the political establishment represents the will of the people, what does shifting power outside of it even mean? House leader Nancy Pelosi has pre-emptively promised corporate representatives that none of the progressive agenda will pass the House. Without getting around establishment gatekeepers, any left / progressive programs promised by Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren are doomed.

Those who wield economic power are unelected. However, it is economic power that determines American politics. Were Bernie Sanders to win election, in what sense is he obligated to answer to economic power? Under liberal theories of democracy, the interests of capital hold no sway over politics. Under liberal theories of capitalism, economic interests operate in a realm separate from politics. However, without confronting economic power, there is no chance of achieving real political power.

Amongst Democrats, it is Mr. Sanders who appears to understand this paradox. Economic control over the political process isn’t ‘centrist’ because economic interests exist outside of the liberal conception of politics. Nor is it incrementalist for the same reason. That it takes a self-described ‘socialist’ to understand that a prerequisite for political democracy is economic democracy gives Bernie Sanders a workable frame for attacking the problem.

Third, how do elected officials sustain their claim of legitimacy given the wholesale abandonment of the mainstream political parties in recent decades? Granted, this conflates Party politics with the electoral process. Even before recent mass shootings, charges of environmental fascism were being used to counter government ‘interference’ in business decisions. The so-called founding ‘freedom to’ own slaves and commit genocide against the indigenous population has been updated for the era of ecocide.

(As an aside, eco-fascist calls for genocide find basis in the oft used term ‘Anthropocene’ as an assignment of cause for environmental decline. To date, over-population has had little to do with planet-wide environmental threats. Greenhouse gas emissions and species loss are attributable to industrial methods, a/k/a capitalism, not to population growth. The corporatists who favored the term Anthropocene to shift culpability away from capitalism need to rethink the term).

This issue of political legitimacy is about to get a lot more complicated. With Nancy Pelosi’s pre-emptive promise that oligarchs and corporate representatives get to decide public policy, attempts to enact policies in the public interest will be posed as authoritarian, totalitarian and fascist to the extent that they interfere with profits. The relation of ‘terrorism’ to lost profits in the Patriot Act was a shot across the bow for left programs.

The question then: is telling someone what to do, as solving environmental problems will inevitably require, substantively different from forcing circumstances such as environmental pollution onto them without asking their consent? Ironically, the prior leaves room for democratic consent while the latter is an imposition without political recourse. It is hardly accidental that industrial polluters pollute in areas where people lack the political power to stop them.

These questions have bearing on building the broad coalitions needed to wrest power from those who currently hold it. A robust Green New Deal could build the coalition needed to support left activist government, but only to the extent that it counters capitalist power. If left to establishment Democrats, they will produce a ‘poison pill’ with the intent of discrediting the environmental movement and destroying the left.

With the DNC once again acting directly and through surrogates to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign, my sense would be that all bets are off. If progressives and the left were waiting for someone to tell them that the rules don’t matter, the DNC just told you so.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.