Democrats: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Like HIV or COVID-19, the Democratic Party is likely to be with us for some time to come. The best we can hope for is that it becomes more manageable.

This is already the case with HIV, and there is reason to think that, despite Donald Trump’s depraved indifference, the worst and most debilitating ravages of covid-19 disease will also be more or less under control by this time next year.

Of course, if Biden blows it Hillary-style come November – he has it in him — or if Trump plunges the country into a civil war or some functional equivalent, all bets are off on that along with so much else. But if all goes well this election season – in other words, if, given the choices presented, the majority rules – the Democratic Party will emerge stronger than ever, at least for a while.

On the other hand, the Republican Party will be much closer to becoming nothing more than a marginal nuisance, except perhaps in a few benighted regions. Thank God for that.

This was already happening before Trump, but when the Trumpian menace struck, rightwing knuckleheads and unabashed loony-tunes came rushing out from under the rocks where they had been dwelling. Getting rid of them and their effects could take years, but it should not take a great deal of effort, even for Bidenites, to keep the problem contained.

Bidenites; what a sorry load they are. By quashing the Sanders and Warren insurgencies and making Joe Biden their nominee, the Party’s old guard – led now by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and, most shamelessly Bidenesque of all, James Clyburn – have made the world safer for their funders, or so it now seems, but at the cost of mightily increasing the divide between themselves and their party’s rank-and-file, especially the large and growing part of it that has come of age politically over the past three or four decades.

But with Trump’s incompetence and unfitness for the office he holds beyond serious dispute, with his corruption and malevolence now clearly exposed, with a Trump-exacerbated pandemic killing thousands of Americans daily and afflicting tens of thousands many more, with fires raging throughout much of the west thanks in part to Trump-encouraged anthropogenic global warming, with racial conflicts intensifying, and with the deleterious consequences of rising inequality increasingly evident, it is hard to see how Democrats could fail to come out on top this November. It is even hard to see how Biden could lose.

But, where Democrats are concerned, we cannot write off that possibility entirely. And neither can we entirely write off Trump.

There is, after all, no skullduggery too low for that miscreant and his underlings to undertake, should they think that doing so would be advantageous; and their propaganda apparatus – on social media, at Fox News, and on rightwing Talk Radio and other pernicious media outlets – is adept at winning over depraved hearts and dumbed down minds.

If the polls are right, we have a lot of that in the Land of the Free, and they have made Trump, a conman sociopath, their cult leader. Therefore, expect trouble ahead, no matter how the election goes.

Now is therefore no time for complacency, but inasmuch as reality and basic decency do have a way of prevailing eventually, there are ample grounds for optimism too. Even so, until the doofus the Pelosiites have inflicted upon us, the personification of all that is wrong with the politics that made Trump possible, is safely installed, vigilance is all.

Supposing, though that Trump does defeat himself handily, as seems far more likely than not, and therefore that Democrats do win big time this November, as they surely would in any free and fair election, and supposing that the mayhem he unleashes is put down, as is also more likely than not, what then?

For one thing, there would no longer be any need to make common cause with Democratic Party grandees or anyone else for whom Trump is anathema, even if their own politics is not much better, or even different, from the politics Trump nowadays, self-servingly, espouses. Hallelujah for that!

And then, it will be time to decide: should the goal be to reconstruct the Democratic Party, to rebuild it from within with a view to making it more than just a lesser evil, but a force for progressive social change in its own right?

Or will the time have come finally to break with the past by moving forward, full-speed ahead, with an alternative to the Democratic Party that could proceed unencumbered by its wretched present and past?


At the dawn of the Common Era, leading thinkers in ancient Israel, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, were working their way through what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age.

This involved, among other things, slowly, but inexorably, weaning their religious observances off animal sacrifices and arcane priestly rituals. With the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the old ways were done in completely. There was no choice but to concoct less archaic forms of religious life.

In that context, there were then two prominent schools of thought in Jerusalem and its environs, and in ancient Babylon, concerning theology, ritual, and ethical practice. They were founded by two of Judaism’s greatest sages, Hillel and Shammai.

What distinguished the positions they took defies easy characterization. It would nevertheless be fair to say that, on the whole, the followers of Hillel were more in tune with prevailing practices and understandings than those associated with Shammai; that they were, as politicians, journalists, and media pundits would say, more “pragmatic.”

Needless to say, those who talk that way know next to nothing about pragmatism, the philosophical tendency that was the glory of nineteenth and early twentieth century American philosophy. But let that pass; “pragmatism” is a word that begs to be misused.

In any case, the more “pragmatic” side generally won out. Ever since, however, the generally accepted view has been that Shammai’s arguments, even when defeated, also have merit and should therefore continue to be discussed and, in appropriate circumstances, taken on board.

When the time finally comes to decide whether to try to reconstruct the actually existing Democratic Party or to forsake it in favor of something new, the debates that will ensue are bound to have a similar character.

One side will prevail, of course, at least for a while, but it is already clear that both sides’ views have merit and should be discussed and preserved.

I would venture that, on the whole, the less demanding stance – that it is better to bring about change by working as best one can with the Democratic Party, leveraging all the power one can through sheer obstinacy, the way that the Tea Party did inside the GOP – will win the day.

I would venture too that this is regrettably the wisest way to proceed. For now and the foreseeable future, America’s duopoly party system is too powerful to defy with any real prospect of success.

After Trump is gone and the Trumpian menace subsides, the call to return to “normalcy” will be all but impossible to resist, no matter how compelling the case for taking a more radical turn may be. If only for this reason, calls to build a new world on the ashes of the old will, for now, fall on too many deaf ears to take hold.

But, as in the so-called Holy Land two millennia ago, the less “pragmatic” position, precisely because it has merit, should also, as far as possible, be taken on board.

Therefore, if all goes well in the near future, electorally and in turning back whatever malevolent shenanigans Trump and his followers undertake, it will become increasingly timely to devote time and effort too to figuring out how best to reconcile these competing, even contradictory, understandings; figuring out, so to speak, how best to follow Hillel while according the teachings of Shammai their due.

In a slightly different possible world, the wisest course would of course be to proceed unencumbered by the deadweight of the Democratic Party’s past and present. In countries less undemocratic than ours — where ballot access is easier and where the prevailing party system is less deeply entrenched, this would be a natural, indeed unexceptionable, way to proceed.

However, in the circumstances that actually obtain, whatever falls outside the aegis of the Democratic and Republican parties is ignored or marginalized or vilified or otherwise neutered beyond repair. Therefore, at this point, efforts to break free entirely from the Democratic Party’s thrall would all but guarantee failure.

There is some reason to hope that, as party loyalties subside, this unfortunate but unescapable fact of life will eventually cease to obtain. But this will not happen soon enough to make much difference in the weeks and months ahead.

For now and the foreseeable future, hereditary Democrats will therefore continue to predominate, even as dissidents and insurgents do what they can to transform the Democratic Party radically for the better.

But, in the end, individuals’ ideological commitments, political beliefs, and familial and communal traditions are more nearly symptoms than causes of the problems we face in our potentially – and now actually — minority rule regime. The deeper problem is our institutions themselves.

There is, of course, the Electoral College. In the last century, it seemed to be nothing more than a tolerable anachronism. Nowadays, though, after the 2000 election, and then again after 2016, everybody knows better.

And, of course, there is that other vestige of the Founding Fathers’ (the mothers had no say) efforts to make a country out of thirteen colonies, the Senate, where states with tiny populations — Wyoming and Vermont, for example, and Biden’s Delaware — have as many Senators, two, as California, Texas, Florida, and New York.

But most of all, it is the way that Democrats and Republicans have managed to turn themselves into quasi-permanent fixtures of the state.

The authors of the Constitution inveighed against stable political “factions.” Most of them, intent on not emulating their colonial master, wanted to establish a (small-r) republic, not a faction-riven constitutional monarchy.

In eighteenth century republican political theory, individuals are supposed to deliberate disinterestedly on the public good, on what it is and how to achieve it; not to advance or impede the kinds of parochial interests that political parties and other “factions” represent.

Indeed, most of them wanted there to be no party system at all. That this would not be what they would get was already becoming clear even while George Washington was still president.

Of course, the party structure that took shape almost from Day One has changed somewhat over the ensuing two hundred years, but never so much as in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with the founding of the Republican Party.

From the first days of the republic, there was the problem of joining together states with economies based mainly on agricultural slave labor and states in which commerce and, before long, industry as well were the main economic engines. As the republic aged, four score and seven years’ worth, slavery became an increasingly divisive issue.

In later years too, with the chattel slavery system officially abolished, its effects continued to resonate, affecting nearly all aspects of American life, but especially the party system – conspicuously in 1948, when Strom Thurmond broke away temporarily from the Democratic Party over the Truman administration’s few and feeble advances in civil rights, and then again, in 1968, with George Wallace.

To be sure, there have been other points of contention as well, coincident with evolving structural changes in the capitalist order. Thus, immigration policies have frequently given rise to partisan contestations, as have fiscal and monetary policies; and regional interests of various kinds.

But, through it all, Democrats and Republicans, working more in concert than opposition, have managed to secure comfortable roles for themselves. They are not “established” parties in the way that, say, the Church of England is an established religion; they have no official role in the political regime. But they have made themselves the next best thing. Trump could still win, even while massively losing the popular vote, because the duopoly party system we live under has at least a semi-established status.

For much the same reason, no good would come from abandoning the Democratic Party altogether at this point in time, no matter how much sense that would make in (slightly) less undemocratic circumstances.

This sad state of affairs is not about to change in the next few months, no matter what horrors Trump unleashes.

This is the main reason why, for now, the more Hillelian course seems the wiser way to go.

To be sure, except insofar as doing so is necessary to combat the dangers Trump poses, there is no good way of living with Democrats of the Biden-Pelosi type. But even after the Trumpian menace is tamed, it will remain the case, for a while at least, that there is no good way of doing without them either.

The resulting situation is far from ideal, but if we are diligent and lucky and wise, it may be good enough. In any case, for the time being, it is the best we can get.

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).