The 2006 election demonstrated a tentative move to the left by the American electorate. The discontent is not likely to abate any time soon. But a left that fails to force a break with the Democrats will find that this new aspiration for change will eventually dissolve into anti-political skepticism and despair.
This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper. Click here for another article on this issue by Sacha Ismail, and response by Eric Lee.
The impenetrable fact about the American political process is its preeminent success in denying its rank and file all collective power over the organization of society. That firewall is first established through the effective restriction of political access to those parties and such individuals within these parties who can be relied upon as acceptable, that is, responsible social partners. The acid test for acceptability being their effectiveness in defending the superior interests of the capitalist state against the masses.
The Republicans and Democrats are merely the Team A and Team B of the ruling class, shuffled back and forth when one has exhausted its usefulness in further advancing elite interests. The Democrats, since the 1930s, have been the party of reform, of social initiatives. Their specific usefulness resides the DP’s unique ability to enact, when traditional forms of market discipline are no longer effective, modest programs of institutional concessions that channalize and disperse social discontent before such grievances cohere into unwieldy movements for change. It is the holding pen of the trade unions, the civil rights coalitions and the peace movement.
The current exercise in "participatory" democracy, the American primaries—in which the public "selects" its Team leaders is a particularly squalid show. It combines, at least on the Democratic side, the inspiring promise of shattering the social barriers of blacks and women to the highest echelons of political office with an insipid scam of "change" and "hope" carefully crafted to withhold the power to put reforms into practice in ways that strengthen the political force of the working class and the oppressed at the expense of the Establishment.
The Democratic nominee for President will most likely be determined by February when huge voting blocks of large states will weigh in. This frontloading process, sold as a small d- democratic initiative, reinforces the imperative to candidates of quickly raising huge sums of money to become and remain competitive—to buy television, radio and print ads; and to hire "political strategists," advertising hucksters and an army of liaisons to the corporate world where candidates audition and sell their viability as corporate assets.
It minimizes the power of social movements whose natural advantage is not fundraising but mass mobilization and reduces them to vote fodder. Most tragically, it cynically conditions large chunks of the poor and the working class, as well as their spokespersons, to strategize reflexively within the system, to dismiss as unrealistic those candidates such as Dennis Kucinich or even John Edwards, who present even modest anti-corporate agendas.
Hillary Clinton is the candidate of corporate liberalism at home and empire abroad. She shies away from no business sector in her bid for the nomination-- not big insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, defense contractors or Wall Street hedge fund moguls. Unions have endorsed her in droves, despite having placed known union busting consulting firms in positions of prominence within her campaign. She began her career as a corporate lawyer and once famously said that you cannot be a lawyer without working for banks. She is inextricably bound to her husband’s administration, which shredded the federal safety net for the poor, reversed customer safety regulations that would have prevented the sub-prime meltdown now wreaking havoc on the working class, ended what was left of public control of the airwaves clearing the way for a few mega-corporations to consolidate their hold over public opinion, and passed free trade legislation without a scinitilla of worker protection thereby accelerating the global race to the bottom.
There is not a modicum of difference between Clinton and Barack Obama, touted by the media as the "agent of change." Neither is for national health insurance, although both present programs for increased access to medical care. Neither questions the foundations of imperial foreign policy. Neither is for defunding the war in Iraq, or for complete withdrawal of troops. Neither offers a meaningful program to eliminate Taft Hartley, which limits union power and fractures working class solidarity. Neither has a program to address poverty, to provide decent jobs and ensure livable wages. Neither is for the public financing of elections.
Where socialists and leftists actively seek divisiveness, press to raise awareness of class and social differences in domestic and foreign policy and urge the exploited to act on that awareness, Obama’s clarion call is to "move beyond partisan differences." Neither Barack nor Clinton offers the left an opportunity to advance one step in transforming the oligarchic American state where a tiny, privileged elite controls money and politics.
Sadly, Dennis Kucinich, the most decent and solidly left leaning candidate, correctly indicts the Democratic Party in terms that portend his own future political capitulation to the "will" of the Democratic nominating process. "What I see is that the Democratic Party abandoned working people and paradoxically they are the ones who hoist the flag of workers every two and four years, only to engender excitement and then turn around and abandon the same constituency. This is now at the level of a practiced ritual." Rather than break with a party institutionally wedded to the system by building a mass progressive alternative, Kucinch will no doubt exercise his influence over the Democratic Party left-- and those outside the DP for whom his candidacy inspires - to remain steadfast and actively work for the pro-corporate candidate the Democrats ultimately agree to run.
The tragedy of the Democratic Kuciniches is that, having fully recognized the problem, they nevertheless remain, at the end, vote herders for the Establishment. They fear nothing more than the accusation of having acted as spoilers for the rightwing. Yet without sustained pressure from insurgent movements independent of the Democrats, the entire political center invariably drifts to the right as it has for decades since the demise of the civil rights movement and the New Left.
As for the Republicans, John McCain presents himself as something of the Republican Hillary Clinton, an experienced manager of the status quo without the elitist social baggage of the zelig-like Mitt Romney or the manifest incompetency of the Bushites. Yet it is Michael Huckabee and Ron Paul who are the real anomalies and who deserve some scrutiny for what they represent.
Huckabee is a religious primitive with respect to science, and to women and gay rights. Still, he has raised the flag of plebianism within his party. He famously quipped that the difference between Romney and himself is that Huckabee reminds people of the fellow they work alongside, while Romney reminds people of the boss who laid them off. Huckabee rales against corporate greed and the economic inequality, which shakes the Republican establishment and invites reprimands that his economic populism would be more suited to the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, his actual program consists in little more than the replacement of the hated Internal Revenue Service with a national sales tax.
Ron Paul presents himself as a "pro-Constitution" libertarian. His opposition to Empire and spirited defense of individual rights against an intrusive State have earned him some misplaced support as a "left-Jeffersonian" within the ranks of politically untutored students and youngish professionals. This relatively privileged sector is ever so self-assured that they—and therefore all "worthy individuals"—can and should be able to privately handle social adversity and retirement without the assistance of any the "nanny state". He offers the prospect of a trans-ideological Left-Right coalition. But a closer look at his actual platform is rather chilling.
Beside the usual nut wing defense of the gold standard and opposition to every social program, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, federal disability insurance, etc. Paul also opposes the food and drug administration, the post office and virtually any market regulation. Along similar lines Paul repudiates the right to an abortion, gay rights, affirmative action—that is all, "collective rights"-- and the extension of any social services and citizenship privileges to unregistered immigrants. The purpose of the American military is not, for Paul, Empire, but protection of the border against invasion by foreign hordes from the south. He is now known to have had a bone chilling history of racist rants, including past support for such luminaries of "white power" as David Duke.
It is a rather heartbreaking commentary on American politics that some well-known leftists, including those associated with CounterPunch magazine, have actually made the case for a Paul-Kucinich alliance.
The 2006 election demonstrated a tentative move to the left by the American electorate, which has begun to question the blatantly pro-corporate social and economic priorities of the current Administration and the desirability of limitless military adventurism. The discontent sustaining that move is sizeable and not likely to abate any time soon. It is therefore likely that the Democrats will be able to ride that wave of social restlessness and dissatisfaction in the short term. But a left that fails to force a break with the Democrats will find that this new aspiration for change and hope will eventually dissolve into anti-political skepticism and despair.