Z Magazine, May 2015. Like other radical Left writers and activists who have spent considerable energy criticizing Barack Obama and his corporate-imperial Democratic Party, I am sometimes accused of downplaying the danger posed by the U.S. Republican Party (GOP). As an author of two books and countless essays that have strongly disparaged and denounced the George W. Bush administration and the Republicans more broadly, I find the charge unfair. In both of those volumes and in numerous shorter print and online commentaries, I (along with numerous others from the radical Left) have consistently portrayed the GOP as a vicious, sociopathic, radically regressive, racist, sexist, imperialist, chauvinistic, repressive, arch-capitalist, ultra-reactionary, and even evil organization that endangers democracy, justice, and life itself at home and abroad.
For what it’s worth, I (like most Leftists) have always detested the Republican Party. It’s how I was raised during my 1960s grade-school years on the South Side of Chicago: to root for the White Sox and hate the Cubs and the Republicans. And that was when the GOP was moderate and reasonable—actually “conservative”—compared to its current radical incarnation.
At this point, the organization has degenerated into sheer classist, racist, nationalist, ecocidal, and patriarchal savagery. With its opposition to the expansion of health insurance coverage to some of the poor (under a Republican-inspired, Big Business-friendly program called “Obamacare,” absurdly condemned as “socialist”), its repeated opposition to the provision of unemployment other elementary benefits to the poor, its open jihad against unions and collective bargaining rights, its dreadful efforts to roll back the voting rights of minorities, and its diehard opposition to the findings and urgent recommendations of climate scientists, the GOP is an arch-authoritarian atrocity.
Even some elite Republicans are horrified at what the organization has become. By the judgment of former top Republican intellectual Norman Ornstein (a longstanding political analyst and commentator at the American Enterprise Institute), the GOP isn’t a functioning or conservative party any more. Ornstein thinks it is now more like a paranoid and “apocalyptic cult,” a radical right-wing insurgency.
A Long Record of Perfidy
Given the ferocious institutional monster that the Republican Party has become, why do so many Left radicals (this writer included) still feel no less, and often even more, revulsion towards the GOP’s official sole partisan rival the Democrats as they do for the Republicans? Part of it is that it’s the entire U.S. “two party” system—including the Democrats as well as the Republicans—that has shifted well to the corporate and imperial right over the last four decades. Currently no further to the portside than the Eisenhower and Nixon Republicans of the post-World War II era (Obama himself has suggested that he is an “Eisenhower Republican”), the Democratic Party has richly earned radical Leftists’ enmity over the decades with a long series of actions that affront our core values of peace, social justice and equality, popular and participatory democracy, and environmental sustainability. I do not have time or space here to do justice to the long record of Democratic Party and Democratic policymakers’ hideous record of capitalist and imperial perfidy, but some highlights include:
- The Kennedy administration’s nuclear deceptions and saber-rattling, which brought the world to the literal edge of annihilation.
- The Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administration’s criminal and mass-murderous, imperial War against Vietnam, butcher also of the stillborn domestic “War on Poverty.
- The Carter administration’s decision to arm, train, and fund fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and its neoliberal turn to corporate deregulation.
- The Clinton administration’s vicious elimination of the poor families’ prior entitlement to federal cash assistance.
- The Clinton administration’s championing and passage of the radically regressive, arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement.
- The Clinton administration’s deregulation of financial derivatives and tearing up of the previously existing New Deal firewall between commercial and invesment banking.
- The Clinton administration’s decision to launch a New Cold War with Russia, including the criminal bombing of Serbia on fake “humanitarian” pretexts.
- The Clinton administration’s enforcement of economic sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqis.
- The Obama administration’s bailout and protection of the Wall Street financial institutions and chieftains who collapsed the S. and global economy.
- The Obama administration’s passage of a Republican-inspired version of health insurance reform (the absurdly named “Affordable Care Act”) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love.
- The Obama administration’s undermining of urgent global efforts to impose binding limits on world carbon emissions and its related approval and encouragement of the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading producer of gas and oil.
- Obama’s embrace of the expanding U.S.-totalitarian national security and surveillance state and his related and unprecedented repression of leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists.
- Obama’s relentless and reckless military imperialism within and beyond the Muslim world, that has fueled the expansion of extremist Islamic jihad and sparked a new confrontation with Russia.
A major part of Left radicals’ animosity for the Democrats has to do with the fake-progressive deception that has gone along with this perfidy. The late and formerly Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
The Democrats have no monopoly on such manipulation in the two-party system. The Republicans have long practiced their own noxious version. Still, the division of labor between the two dominant corporate and imperial political entities in the U.S. party system assigns the greater role to the Democrats when it comes to posing as the political arm of the working class majority, the poor, women, and minorities at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. For the system- serving task of shutting down, containing, and co-opting popular social movements and channeling popular energies into the nation’s corporate-managed, narrow- spectrum, major-party, big money, and candidate centered electoral system, the Democrats are far and away “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford’s phrase). For the last century, the Marxist political analyst Lance Selfa notes, it has been their job to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive segments of the electorate” by masquerading as “the party of the people.”
The Democratic Party has been most adept at ruling in accord with what David Rothkopf (a former Clinton administration official) in November 2008 called (commenting on then President Elect Obama’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments) “the violin model.” Under the “violin model,” Rothkopf said, “you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, “you” gain and hold office with populace- pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric even as you govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions and class hierarchies.
Making little secret of their commitment to radical capitalist ideals and “free market” doctrine and barely cloaking a policy agenda that is transparently cruel towards working people and the poor, the Republicans are more honest about—and less able to hide—their allegiance to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s phrase).
Another part of radical Leftists’ aversion to Democrats has to do with social and institutional proximity, authority, and control. Leftists commonly work under the control and discipline of coordinator class Democrats and “liberals,” not Republicans. It has long been Democrats’ job to police and define the (not so) “left-most” parameters of acceptable debate, especially within institutions where radical Left intellectuals and activists most commonly work and apply pressure: labor unions, non-profit advocacy and service organizations, schools (from K through “higher education”), media organiza- tions, “progressive” foundations, and think-tanks. As a radical Leftist who has spent years trying (with very limited success) to work effectively in such organizations, I’ve never had to contend with Republican authorities. It’s always Democrats in charge, setting the narrow boundaries on what can and can’t be said, written, advocated, and done—and on how far a radical Leftist can go in terms of professional advancement. It is Democrats who determine the permissible limits of progressive action and discourse, who tell radicals most directly: “This far and no further.”
Liberal-Left rancor in such organizations is a two way street. Working under the supervision of Democrats, radical Leftists often incur remarkable, vituperative hostility and mistreatment from their “liberal” and “progressive” superiors. It’s not surprising. Effective Leftists threaten more than just Democrats’ and liberals’ institutional and ideological power and authority. They also endanger Democrats and liberals’ own sense of themselves as the noble, courageous, and enlightened guardians of the common good. How dare Leftists discuss and treat them as friends of privilege, inequality, injustice, and empire? Left radicals offer no such outflanking challenge to the institutional position and self-esteem of Republicans.
Another reason many radical Leftists abhor Democrats, curiously enough, has to do with our abhorrence of the Republicans. Again and again, Democrats tell us to keep our mouths shut and get in line behind their painfully constricted definition of how far (not very) to the portside “progressives” can go so as to stay united against the Republican enemy. “Be quiet,” Democrats’ and liberals’ repeated and often heated admonitions to Left radicals runs, “or you’ll only help the Republicans win. You don’t want that, do you?”
Giving the Game Away
The irony of the command is that by closing off and shutting down the possibility of serious popular confrontation with the elite corporate and financial interests that have been running the nation into the ground and pushing the concentration of wealth and power ever further upward—bringing us to an openly plutocratic New Gilded Age—the dismal dollar Democrats help the Republicans win elections again and again. Curiously enough given its remarkable unpopularity in the U.S., the “apocalyptic cult” (the GOP) stands a good chance of completing its takeover of all three branches of the U.S. government next year. It’s not really that a giant mass of Americans has been converted to the arch-reactionary aims of the GOP. The Republican Party is broadly disliked in the U.S., consistent with the fact that its agenda falls well to the right of majority progressive policy opinion in the nation. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last January found that just 25 percent of the U.S. populace hold a “favorable” view of the Republican Party, compared to 46 percent with an “unfavorable” view. The deeper problem is that Democrats repeatedly fail, by design, to act on their deeply dishonest claims of commitment to progressive change, leaving millions to give up on it and/or on voting altogether and many to vote by default for the only viable alternative party under the U.S. “two party” system: the Republicans, whose politicians and media talking heads have the virtue of sounding furious.
Look at Obama. He rode a wave of popular and progressive hope and the promise of universal health care into the White House as the nation fell into the Great Recession, itself caused to no small extent by the nation’s leading giant and arch-parasitic financial institutions. He had Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. He had a majority working class U.S. population that was deeply angry at the nation’s wealthy elite, which, understood as the literal top 1 percent, owned more wealth than almost all of the rest of the nation.
The Liberal Myth of the Powerless President
What did Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress deliver? Obama has been no less solicitous of the nation’s corporate and financial ruling class and has done little more for the nation’s working class majority than his more ham-fisted predecessor. The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend—when the right people want it.” And little to spend on the rest of us, the wretched rabble, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” who were left to ask “Where’s my bailout?” According to a standard liberal apology, Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good. Alas, the excuse runs, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party, big political money, a gerrymandered Congress, the deadening handing of American federalism, and racism. The deeper truth, however, is that Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things they said and say on the campaign trail—things that were fully within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.”
The financial crisis, Frank wrote, worked out the way it did—with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever—“in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way….When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.” At the same time, Frank proposes “a bit of blunt class analysis” suggesting that that big money exercises huge influence over Democrats as well as Republicans (imagine) and that the Democratic Party has been “transform[ed] in recent decades into a dutiful servant of the professional class” with “a generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people” and an “amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism” (Thomas Frank, “It’s Not Just FOX News,” Salon, January 11, 2015).
What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?
The dismal Dems typically point the finger of blame all over the place but rarely at themselves, who bear no small responsibility for the nation’s ever more chillingly rightward and oligarchic drift—in abject defiance of ever more technically irrelevant public opinion. Frank’s widely read book What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has been generally cited by liberals as a brilliant reflection on how clever, dastardly, and plutocratic Republicans succeeded in seducing working class whites over to their side by exploiting divisive “social issues” like gun rights and abortion. Rarely if ever noted by those same liberals is the significant extent to which Frank in the Epilogue to that book blamed the Democrats for leaving those whites open to such reactionary manipulation by abandoning the party’s past greater commitment to the economic concerns of labor and the working class majority in the quest for corporate money and elite approval. But the disappointed Democrat Frank might also take an honest and unflattering look in the historical mirror. The privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president he describes this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists tried to warn liberals and progressives about from the very beginning. The populace-demobilizing and dollar- drenched Democratic Party has continued to act in accord with its cringing captivity to elite interests in ways that radical Left writers and activists and others have been documenting and denouncing for decades. In defiance or ignorance of those warnings, Frank fell (by his own admission to Bill Moyers in January of 2009) into foolish “love” with the Obama presidential candidacy.
Dreams of Bernie v. Hillary’s Money Machine
In recent months, “Progressive Democrats” have been hoping to breathe new life into the nation’s hopelessly 1%-dominated “two party system” by running the nominally socialist, technically Independent, and genuinely populist and domestically progressive U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Iowa 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus and the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary. It is not a worthy endeavor—and not just because of Sanders’s terrible record on Israel-Palestine and other matters of U.S. imperial foreign policy. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals—much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a “socialist”—become its standard-bearer. It will nominate Hillary Clinton or—in the unlikely event of her withdrawal or defeat—some other Wall Street-financed corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair once accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] bird of prey” seem more progressive than they really are? Both organizations now stand well to the right of majority public opinion and in accord with the views of the elite political “donor class” on numerous key policy issues. Why lend a hand to corporate Democrats’ effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism?
Thankfully, perhaps, the ever-escalating cost of presidential campaigning seems to be turning Sanders against making a presidential run either outside or inside the Democratic Party. Sanders has become increasingly reticent about the effort. It’s not because he thinks that Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidates are likely to advance anything remotely like a progressive agenda to tackle the issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change (issues that Sanders sincerely holds dear).
It’s because the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship” has already selected Hillary, Inc. as the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer even before the electoral formalities get underway in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada. As Sanders’s adviser Tad Devine told Salon’s Luke Brinker last March, “We have not really raised money…. He [Sanders] has absolutely no rapport with the people giving him money…. As a matter of fact, he’s spending most of his time trashing them.” By Brinker’s calculation, Sanders’s Senate campaign committee possessed a modest $4.5 million while his political action committee (“Progres sive Voters of America”) raised just over $535,000. “Meanwhile,” Blinker noted: “Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each aim to raise well north of a cool billion for their campaigns; Bush’s financial juggernaut is already on track to collect $50 million to $100 million for the first three months of this year, and while his party’s base is decidedly skeptical of him, his cash cow of a campaign may ultimately be too much for his rivals to overcome. As for Clinton, there’s no doubt that much of her strength in early polls reflects goodwill among Democratic voters—of course, 2008 attests that such sentiment can be fickle—but is that what’s really behind the recent spate of headlines that for all her flaws, Democrats have no other alternative? Hardly.
Above all else, the party apparatus is loyal to Clinton because, in the unlikely event that she doesn’t run, they don’t see any other candidate who could build anything like her money machine, and in the near-certain case that she does enter the race, strategists don’t see how any potential rival would compete against it. So why alienate a potential president by backing someone else.” (L. Brinker, “Bernie Sanders is Increasingly Iffy on Running for President—and the Reason is Thoroughly Depressing,” Salon, March 13, 2015.)
Also significant, the corporate media is highly unlikely to treat Sanders as a remotely “serious” and “viable” candidate—an additional and related death blow to his chances. Never mind that much of what Sanders advocates—genuinely progressive taxation, restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, single- payer health insurance, strong financial regulation, public financing of elections, large-scale green jobs programs to put millions to decently paid work on socially and ecologically necessary tasks and more—is popular with the U.S. working class majority. That’s technically irrelevant. As Brinker bemoans, “the question of who counts as [a] ‘serious’ [presidential candidate] cannot be separated from the question of money. What we’re witnessing is a vicious circle whereby candidates struggle to raise money and therefore struggle to get their messages out and rise in the polls, and because said candidates’ polling numbers are nothing to write home about, it’s difficult to get donors to pay up…. The implications of such an order are nothing if not pernicious. Economic inequality and political inequality, it turns out, are indelibly linked…. Call it what you will—a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a corporatocracy —but this state of affairs is not emblematic of a democracy.”
A saving grace for a Sanders run perhaps would be if he were to drop all pretense of trying to win and used the campaign stage as an educational platform. He could exploit the process to relentlessly expose the dollar- drenched absurdity of the nation’s 1% elections and party system. He could advocate for a powerful new popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed candidate- centered quadrennial electoral spectacles that are staged as yet another method for marginalizing and containing the populace. The movement would include in its list of demands the creation of a party and elections system worthy of passionate citizen engagement.
Imagine a Democratic Society
Sanders or other supposed potential electoral “saviors” aside, backing a “progressive” candidate in Demo- cratic presidential caucus and primary race is not the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate- imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party and the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the U.S. elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire—the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states). Alternately, and more positively, they could do something along the lines of what Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011—hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage: “We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire?…. The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what we want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you.” “What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people vote for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”
With the first $5 billion presidential campaign contest coming around the corner, an “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky) very possibly pitting 2 dynastic families (the Clintons and the Bushes have together have held the White House for 20 of the last 26 years) against one another in an ever more openly plutocratic New Gilded Age, now seems as good a time as ever to embrace a different, genuinely popular politics from the bottom up. The top-down method has failed miserably and not incidentally threatens to wipe out life on Earth in the not so distant future.
Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).