Seven Stories Press just released Ted Rall’s new book, “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” Rall is a graphic novelist, a syndicated columnist and the author of many books of art and prose, including biographies of Edward Snowden, Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis. You’ve probably seen his political cartoons, which are often published in urban weeklies.
“Political Suicide” uses the graphic novel form to trace the history of the Democratic Party’s rightward movement over the last few decades, and how its leadership has worked to suppress the party’s progressive wing.
Ted & I talked on June 27th for my podcast, “Voice for Nature & Peace.” You can listen to the full conversation here. What follows are two extended excerpts, edited for clarity.
Kollibri: There’s often been a discussion about the Democrats: “How come they don’t win as much as they should? How come people like Trump are able to win?” It often comes down to this argument of, “Is it incompetence or is it corruption?” And your book comes down pretty solidly on the side of corruption.
Ted: Yes. The question is: Is it a plan? Is it a conspiracy or is it a system? I think it’s more a system that ends up creating systemic corruption. That’s my conclusion. Obviously, it’s impossible to know without being a fly on the wall in the room where it happened. But, since we’re not, you kind of have to draw the conclusion that these are people who know what they’re doing, but they don’t know why.
I think they sort of have articles of religious faith within the DNC. For example, the whole centrist/triangulation thing. You know: “If you go too far to the left you just can’t win.” But there’s no real data to support that it. It may be true but [they need to] prove it. They haven’t been winning much with their current approach. This is not a party that sweeps a lot of elections.
There are more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. So by definition, if everybody votes in roughly equal numbers, Democrats should win most of the time. But they don’t, so obviously what’s happening is that Democrats are less motivated to vote than Republicans. So the question is, “Why is that?”
Are people who are left of center intrinsically more apathetic of lazier or less likely to vote when it’s drizzling on a cold day in November? Or, are they just simply less excited about their candidates and feel that less is at stake. We can argue about this, but obviously you know where I come down on this point: I think they’re just less excited.
You know that, for example, if Joe Biden is elected, you’re not going to have an exciting new policy agenda that’s really going to thrill us. Where, if say, Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren had been [nominated], you’d know there would be a possibility that some exciting policies would be at least proposed and fought for, if not necessarily enacted.
Kollibri: It seems to me that with Biden, this is the toughest case they’ve made for themselves in years that they’re the “lesser of the two evils.”
Ted: Yes. No doubt. What’s funny about this is that Biden is asking, essentially, for a blank check. It’s not very likely that he’ll even be alive in four years. So, we don’t even really know who the president will be because it’ll be the vice president. But we don’t know who his vice presidential pick is. Yet we’re being asked to support this future, unknown president.
Also, the country effectively will be run by the cabinet and a shadow cabinet of DNC power-brokers. And we don’t know who any of those people are either. Literally, it’s, “Vote for this unknown cabal. All we can tell you is that they’re not Donald Trump. We will also tell you that on all the key issues that progressives currently care about—whether it’s defunding the police: Biden says he’s against that; the Green New Deal: Biden says he’s against that too, “can’t afford it;” or Medicare-For-All: Biden says he’s against that, too…; student-loan forgiveness: on that, Biden has been downright Scrooge-like, which is especially weird. It’s like the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed his thinking on anything. You’d think that with the economy in the toilet, you’d say, “Well, it’s too much to ask for a country with at least 25% unemployment to pay back their student loans.” Or maybe it’s a lot to ask people in the age of COVID to go work for less than $15 an hour. Or maybe Medicare-For-All isn’t even as much as we need because people are literally not going to the doctor because people feel like they can’t afford it, and the pandemic shows the insanity of that.
But he hasn’t changed any of it…
I was thinking about framing. The sales pitch for each candidate: we all know it. Hillary’s sales pitch was, “I have an awesome resume, I’m really experienced, I’m very qualified.” Donald Trump’s sales pitch was, “America has become a shit-hole country. Our infrastructure is falling apart. The streets of our Midwestern Rust Belt cities are crumbling. I will make this country the way it looked in the 1950s during the post-War expansion, and also, incidentally, white males will be back in charge. It will look like the 1950s again.” We understand the sales pitch: “Make America great again.”
But with Biden, the sales pitch is: “A return to normalcy.” Quote-end-quote, a return to Obama-era normalcy. The problem with that it is two-fold. One, Obama wasn’t that great. Things weren’t that great under Obama. But I think the bigger problem with the sales pitch is, this isn’t really normalcy. It isn’t normalcy to have a president who is clearly mentally decomposing before our eyes.
The last two years of Woodrow Wilson, the last two years of Eisenhower, the last years of Ronald Reagan: were all presidents who were mentally impaired in some way. But the thing is, they weren’t elected that way. Here we’re being asked to literally vote for a guy who tells us, “I’m not that sharp. That’s why I’m only going to be a one-term president.” There’s this implication: “I’m going to have all these awesome people running the show behind the scenes. I’m going to have my own team of best and brightest.” Parenthetically, there’s no evidence to support that because he won’t tell us who they are. I assume they’ll just be a bunch of Obama-era hacks because those are the people he knows. They weren’t great either.
So the sales pitch doesn’t work, because we’ve never been asked to vote for, basically, a president whose already mentally impaired out of the gate, and that everything’s going to be run by a shadow government that we don’t even know. That’s never been something the American people have been asked to sign up for. It’s not really normalcy. It’s something else…
Kollibri: A lot of your book—to turn to “how we got here”—covers the recent history (and further back than that) of the Democratic Party, showing the patterns here, and showing how they’ve presented themselves as one party but they’ve been something else, basically the entire time. I think that a lot of this history is really what’s valuable about your book, and what people wouldn’t ve have known before.
For example, I was fascinated particularly by the section on Jimmy Carter, because he’s presented as such a saint these days, and yet he did have a very checkered history in that office, and he was the beginning of the rightward lurch.
Ted: Yes. Carter is super old and obviously could die—and will die soon—and when he does, just watch how he’s a lionized as a hero of American liberalism. But that’s bullshit. He absolutely was the beginning of the whole Democratic “southern strategy” which Clinton followed… Carter definitely ran as a moderate and governed as a right-wing Democrat. People forget that he brought back draft registration. He funded the Mujahideen, who ultimately morphed into Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Afghanistan looks the way it does now because he listened to Brzezinski.
The Reagan defense build-up of the 1980s—we call it the “Reagan” build-up—but it really began in 1978 under Jimmy Carter and just continued under Reagan.
Carter was a hawk. In fact his policy with Iran was hawkish enough to provoke the hostage crisis. It didn’t just befall him. It was something he brought on himself by propping up the Shah, and inviting the Shah to come to the United States to seek medical care.
Any progressive historian has to look at Jimmy Carter and say, “This guy is the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party as a party that represents working class people.
Kollibri: Then just a few years later, we had Jesse Jackson running in sort of a similar role as Sanders was the last two years, coming from the progressive left. Jackson was the first candidate I supported. 1988 was the year I turned 18 and I was able to caucus for Jesse Jackson where I was going to college that year. I remember looking back at Jesse Jackson’s platform a couple years back and being like, “Wow, this is almost unrecognizable as being a Democratic Party platform at this point.”
Ted: Jesse Jackson’s achievement was remarkable. His foreign and domestic policy agenda was far to the left of anything that even Bernie Sanders could contemplate today. He ran twice—‘84 and ‘88—‘88 was the bigger run. I was 25 in that election and I voted for him too. I think it’s been forgotten to history because the Democratic Party and their media allies have covered it up.
But he won a lot of primaries. He really well against Dukakis. He absolutely gave the Democratic Party a major run for it’s money. He did better than anyone expected that he could have—possibly including himself! After that primary run, you have to look back and say, “You know, he may not have necessarily been ahead of his time. He may not have realized that it really was his time.” But then, that’s all been swept under the rug ever since and the Democratic Party really didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
Kollibri:No. One of the ways his platform really stood out [was] he was actually calling for defense cuts. I recall that the Democrats used to be the party that would call for defense cuts but I believe that stopped with Clinton.
Ted: Yeah, it did. And Clinton definitely helped move the needle to the right. Look, we’re talking about a party that has not proposed defense cuts in many decades. It also hasn’t proposed an anti-poverty program since the 1960s. Literally. I use the word, “proposed” very carefully. In other words, it’s not like Obama or Clinton ever put forward a bill and then the Republicans—the big bad Republicans—killed it. No, they never even asked for it. It obviously, clearly was never a concern of the Democratic Party, or the White House, at all. They didn’t care. They didn’t even want to put themselves on the record as saying, “This is something that ought to be something we care about in this country.”
Kollibri: Right. So at this point, it’s basically just a hollow reputation that the Democrats are just coasting on.
Ted: I believe so, yes. It reminds me a lot of how people come from all over the world to the United States, to a country that they think the streets are paved with gold, and I’m always like, “You know guys, we’re just coating on our old rep. But it ain’t true.” This country is just not that great. When you come here as an immigrant, it’s not much fun.
The Democratic Party is very similar. They’re still coasting on the reputation created by FDR, and to a lesser extent I would say, by LBJ. And that’s pretty much it. LBJ was the last president who really made fighting poverty and income inequality any kind of priority.
Kollibri: So now we’re in this place where: Where’s a progressive supposed to go? And maybe there just isn’t any place for a progressive to go within the electoral arena.
Ted: There’s the Green Party. People can say that’s not viable. Well, it’s not viable because people choose to not vote for it. Obviously, both major parties at one time were minor parties and then people donated money to them and voted for them and they became bigger. At some point, people had to be willing to quote-end-quote “waste their vote” in order to change the existing dynamic, like in say 1832 or 1856 or 1860.
The same thing is true now. If you want a party like the Greens or a new party—I’ve been advocating for a new progressive party—but if you want that to happen, you’re going to have to vote for them and create it. You’re going to have to be willing to quote-end-quote “waste your vote.”
But I think the truth is that the system is set up to keep third parties from having ballot access. The die is caste. The game is fixed. It’s very very difficult to get any traction because the duopoly really controls everything. The one thing they can agree on—well, they can agree on lots of things, unfortunately—is that they don’t want any third party to gain any traction.
Kollibri: They work very hard at that at the state level. Also, the fact that the debates were taken over by the two parties. That made a huge difference too.
Ted: That’s something that went almost unnoticed. It used to be—for those of us, like you and me, who are old enough to remember—presidential debates were always sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Now, it’s called like the Commission on Presidential Elections—or something like that—and that thing is run by the two major parties.
It’s not a coincidence that the last time there was a third party candidate—like say John Anderson in 1980 or Ross Perot in 1992—it was under the auspices of the League of Women Voters. But ever since the two parties have run it, they’ve managed to keep people like Ralph Nader off the debate stage, but I think that does a tremendous disservice to democracy. We need as many choices as possible.
It shouldn’t just be a major third party candidate like Ralph Nader, but I’d like to hear from the Socialist Workers. In other countries, the smaller parties are taken a lot more seriously by the media, and are given more of a voice, so quote-end-quote “fringe” or smaller constituencies have a voice in the system and that’s part of the reason—in my view, it’s the main reason—why voter turnout in other countries is so much higher…
Kollibri:So it comes back around to that Howard Zinn quote again, about how “it’s not important who’s sitting in office, but who’s sitting in the streets, and sitting in the lunchrooms” and all that.
Ted: That’s right. There’s this famous poster from the May 1968 uprising in Paris of a woman throwing a brick at the viewer and it says, “Beauty is in the streets.” What that means is that real politics is in the street, it’s protesting. We see that right now with Black Lives Matter.
Until the pandemic, protesting was something that people did—especially white people—did on weekends as a getaway to Washington or to their state capitol, and you went and walked around and you chanted and you felt good about yourself and then you went home and got ready for the work week. Now, with one in four voters unemployed because of the pandemic—sitting at home, nothing to do, no distractions, no sports—really there’s nothing to do but protest or stay at home. Suddenly we’re in an era of permanent protest and the power of that is just amazing. We have a long long way to go, but I thought we were never going to get rid of those stupid Confederate statues or those stupid Confederate flags. Suddenly, “Oh, we don’t need those anymore.” And the difference is protest every single day on an ongoing basis. That’s all the difference in the world. That’s what the ‘60s were like. We haven’t seen that since the ‘60s, where protest is everywhere. It’s not just a big splash in Washington on May Day and then we all go home. It’s every single day and it’s in Dayton, Ohio, and it’s in Lansing, Michigan, and it’s everywhere.
That’s where politics lives: outside in the streets.