US politics: a time for change?

Submitted by martin on 13 January, 2008 - 10:57 Author: Barry Finger

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.


Submitted by USRed on Wed, 16/01/2008 - 20:01

"I had been active, as a socialist, in the Democratic party for almost a
quarter of a century when I realized that it was not a political party
at all.

"That notion came to me in Paris in 1983 when I was teaching at the
St.-Denis (formerly Vincennes) campus of the university. I was trying
to explain American politics to my students when I suddenly realized
that I could simplify their lives and mine by telling them that there
were no political parties in the United States. The Democrats and
Republicans, I said, were not parties in any European sense of the
word. They were undisciplined and periodic coalitions, which came
together on the basis of electoral opportunism every two years -- and in
a national sense, only every four years. They had no real program, and
the platforms adopted by party conventions were, by the common consent
of all, simply consigned to the wastebasket once they were voted.

"The institution of the primary, I continued, was a marvelous, and
uniquely American, example of this organized anarchism. In Europe, the
parties of the Left tend to name leaders on the basis of a political
viewpoint and, in any case, only dues-paying members of the party have
the right to elect delegates, who in turn select that leader. Even
conservative parties such as the British Tories have some kind of a
mechanism whereby leaders 'emerge.' Moreover, in the parliamentary
system it is quite common for victorious parties to enact their entire
electoral program. That happened in the 1945 Labour government in
Britain and as a result of the Socialist triumph in France in
1981-1982. But in the United States anyone who declares himself or
herself a member of a party can, without the payment of dues or the
affirmation of a single political principle, help determine the
leadership, program, and policies of the party.

"Indeed, it was only in my own lifetime that the custom of crossover
voting in primaries was eliminated. That is, it used to be quite easy
for voters to select the party to which they 'belonged' on primary day
itself. This meant that Democrats could vote in the Republican primary
to select the worst possible candidate from the Republican point of
view, and that Republicans could return the favor. Under such
circumstances, I told my students, it was all but impossible to have a
serious, disciplined party -- indeed to have a party in any sense of the
word -- since elected officials responded to their amorphous,
unorganized base and not to any institution.

"This puzzling fact was one of the reasons why generations of American
socialists had committed political suicide. They had attempted to
create a party and movement in the United States on the European model --
only that model didn't apply. It took a long time for American
socialists -- and for me -- to grasp this home truth. We righteously
pointed out that the Democratic party contained a good number of the
most reactionary people in the United States: not just crooks and
swindlers, which was obvious enough, but union busters, militarists,
racists, sexists, and just about every single variety of political
desirable. What we did not notice was that, at the very same time,
the Democratic party had, since the New Deal, also contained the clear
majority of the progressive forces. That was, and is, a blatant
contradiction. A very American contradiction."

(Michael Harrington, THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER, 1988, pp. 67-68.)

Submitted by USRed on Thu, 17/01/2008 - 21:07

I see little choice in the matter, Sacha. The U.S. electoral system -- something which socialists cannot change by an act of will -- does not allow for a credible form of "independent political action" (as the Trotskyist and Trotskyist-derived portions of the U.S. Left call it). The real options are to support and build the anti-corporate left wing of the Democrats to the point where either (a) the Democrats become dominated by the left or (b) more likely, the "party" splits along ideological and class lines, or to abstain from electoral politics altogether except as a form of protest, which ensures that American workers will not take you seriously.

I wish it was otherwise. As Michael Harrington effectively says in the quote above, the Democratic Party taken as a whole is a cesspool. But it's a cesspool in which those fighting for a pro-worker politics have no choice but to wade.

It's true that prior to the 20th century, U.S. primaries were machine-driven, closed affairs. With open primaries the parties became more amorphous -- which is why industrial unions in the 1930s were able to influence them in a positive way, within limits. But the Civil War certainly was important in shaping U.S. electoral politics. As a comparison, reference Ireland, in which the Labour Party has never risen above third place, because Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were the opposing sides in the Irish Civil War, which was the crucial fact in the organization of the modern Irish state.

The institution of the Presidency, elected separately from the legislature, is also a barrier to the building of a mass third party. (Note that Charles De Gaulle, by creating an elective Presidency for the Fifth French Republic, largely destroyed the multi-party nature of French politics.) And then there’s the Federal system. The effects of this on American politics are often overlooked — the most dramatic example is, of course, the Civil War. The U.S. is the only country that fought such a war over the abolition of slavery because it is the only country that defined so basic an institution as local! Consider such matters as corporate charters to see how federalism privileges the rule of bourgeois politicians. Furthermore, federal systems contribute “fuzziness” to electoral results -- as in Canada and Germany, where opposition parties tend to gain control of the states or provinces in elections that react against the center.

The nature of the American electoral system is what it is, and not to be overcome by an act of will. The reason that third parties haven't become major parties once the ballot access rules were changed in the 1890s is not a failure to try. It’s been tried, and tried, and tried again. Similarly, the link of major institutions such as the NAACP and the AFL-CIO to the Democratic Party is not to be overcome by an act of will.

As the Old Man said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please."

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Fri, 18/01/2008 - 00:48

USRed -

Of course, you're right; neither the electoral infrastructure of American politics nor the links to the Democratic Party of major unions and other progressive organisations cannot be overcome by "an act of will". Neither will the instinctual identification many American workers undoubtedly feel towards that party.

But I think it's possible to recognise those realities and still draw different conclusions than you do. I think that your formula - i.e. "it won't be overcome by an act of will, so we'd better wade through it" - is a recipe for ending up saying "it won't be overcome at all", and burying yourself in the Democratic Party.

The idea that you entertain the notion of the "left" in the DP (I would question the politics of a lot of that 'left', to be honest, but that's maybe another debate) might gain hegemony at some point suggests to me that your perspective for revolutionary entryism in the DP isn't really feasible at all. Quite how this could be possible when the DP is so dominated by big business and so enmeshed in the system of corporate patronage is beyond me.

Consider the implications of arguing your position to what one might call, to use the jargon, "the most advanced workers" - that is, the workers who recognise and accept the basic ideas that workers need their own independent voice in politics, based on and accountable to their organisations (Labor Party Advocates did have the support of unions organising 2,000,000 people, remember). Your position says "no, no, no - don't bother trying any of that independent working-class representation nonsense; what you need to be doing is wading through a cesspool."

Even to workers who are nowhere near that level of political consciousness your position still preaches an almost nihlistic despair; it's the only show in town (no matter how ultra-bourgeois it is in policy and composition), everything else is pathetically small or has failed (despite the potential of projects like the LPA or even Nader's 2001 campaign), and one day "the left" might come to dominate. Your position tells workers who're disatisfied with what the Democrats offer to put up, shut up and "wade through the cesspool", and it tells workers who vote Democrat out of instinct that they're doing the right thing and if only "the left" could dominate a bit more then things would be looking pretty good.

The instinct to back the Democrats is not something revolutionaries should be encouraging on any level. The instinct to break away, to do something new, something different, something independent is what we should be nurturing no matter how gargantuan the task seems.

There are lots of things that "will not be overcome by an act of will." The biggest one that I can think of is the fact that about 0.000001% of the world working-class currently has healthy revolutionary socialist consciousness. So if we can't even conceive of something as comparatively immediate-term as an independent working-class formation in American politics then how the fuck are we going to tackle even bigger obstacles that won't "be overcome by acts of will"?

Revolutionaries will have to wade through lots of cesspools on the way to workers' government, I'm sure. But the Democratic Party should not be one of them.

Submitted by USRed on Fri, 18/01/2008 - 20:35

I wish I had more time to contribute to what could be a fascinating and important discussion here.

I think Arthur pretty much gets where I'm coming from. I don't mean to sound especially electoralist. I'm not -- especially since the U.S. political system requires supermajorities in favor of reform for reform to be legislated into existence. There are incredible barriers or choke points to actually enacting reforms. These are not going away short of Constitutional reform or some catastrophic political rupture. In Europe a political party can "take power" with 51% of the popular vote. It's very hard to say how many votes a real Left would need in the U.S. to "take power." To be specific, it would have to control the Presidency, 60% of the Senate, a majority of the House, AND ensure the Supreme Court wouldn't interfere (which probably means 10 years or more of reformers controlling the appointment process) to have the political wherewithal to enact serious reform. And this presupposes a coherent political party; the Democratic Party is very ideologically diverse -- i.e., cross-class -- and undisciplined (its legislators have wide latitude to vote as they please -- hence Harry Reid and Dennis Kucinich can both be Democrats, when in Europe they'd almost certainly be in different parties).

And of course Left parties in Europe can have influence in coalition governments; in the U.S. the political process is much more winner-take-all and easily leads to a divided-government stand-off.

So traditional reformism isn't really even a practical option in the U.S. today, if it ever was. We have a demobilized working class, but an America with the best of European mobilization rates would still be facing an uphill battle.

My stance is the same as that of Michael Hirsch, who, like Barry Finger, is on the editorial board of NEW POLITICS. I've met Mike; I promise you, being involved in Democratic Party politics (mostly in local races) has not forced him to abandon his Marxism one iota. He has not "buried" his politics. See this piece:

By the way, I was involved with Labor Party Advocates. Most of the members of the unions that supported LPA had little-to-no idea that LPA existed; they certainly weren't involved with it. It was mostly Trotskyist groups and ex-members of Trotskyist groups who were involved. It was a case of the Left "capturing itself." It was depressing. It wasn't a mass movement. And I supported Nader in 2000. That campaign didn't lead to the building of anything. I had hoped that it would. But the Green Party is no more credible than it was before the the campaign. And it's full of middle-class kooks, many of them not particularly "left" in any obvious way. (I think Arthur mentioned somewhere that there was a fusion Green/Libertarian Party ballot in one state -- as if somehow the Libertarians, who'd like to privatize the fire department and the armed forces, are innately preferable to even the most pro-business Democrats!)

This isn't to say that the European Left is so much better off. Your politics is increasingly "Americanized" and your labor and social-democratic parties are thoroughly housebroken. And your revolutionary Left is mostly a sectarian and authoritarian mess. So the grass is not necessarily greener (redder?) on your side of the pond anymore.

Thanks for the civil (albeit too depressing!) discussion.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Sat, 19/01/2008 - 01:15

USRed -

The debate's not about what "the left" (however we're defining that) would have to do to "take power" by negotiating the US electoral system. The debate about what the American labour movement needs to do in order to assert itself as an independent force in US politics.

The fact that you had a bad time in LPA and Nader's 2000 campaign is anecdotal; it doesn't indicate anything about those projects that meant they were innately doomed to failure. And the stuff about the Green Party/Libertarian lash-up is an irrelevant red-herring; no-one's endorsed that or (as yet) argued for backing the Greens this time round.

You're going to have to do a lot more than bemoan the "depressing" nature of LPA to convince me that continuing to beg from scraps from the Democrats's table is the best policy for the labour movement.

Undoubtedly you'd don't advocate uncritical support, servility, capitulation or whatever. But your perspective - which rules out almost dogmatically any notion of an independent formation - cannot be anything other than a recipe for maintaining the business-unionist, "we'll give you money/activists if you promise a few piecemeal reforms"-type framework through which US labour relates to politics, albeit maybe with those piecemeal reforms increased a bit. Fine - reforms are good. But on this basis why shouldn't unions just sell themselves to whichever bourgeois party promises the biggest/best reforms?

Workers need an independent voice in politics. How does your perspective offer one? How does it even offer a strategy that might lead to one? How does it offer anything other than despair at the notion that such a thing could ever be possible?

Submitted by USRed on Sat, 19/01/2008 - 22:20

I thought I had effectively answered the questions you put to me, Daniel. Apparently not. So, I will try to make myself clearer.

It is important to understand that the Democratic Party is not a disciplined political capable of formulating and carrying out a program in the interests of a social class. It is not like, say, your Liberal Democratic Party. It is a coalition of local groups with social bases varying from constituency to constituency which meets every four years to elect a presidential candidate. In the 1930s this worked to labor's advantage as it tried to get a foothold in the DP. But in the long run it worked against labor, since the lack of disciplined voting meant that the DP could never be relied upon to produce on its promises. To counteract this, the labor movement would have to set up local organizations in every constituency and in alliance with organizations of traditionally oppressed groups (Black organizations, Latino organizations, etc.) run candidates pledged to a program. In essence, it would have to create a disciplined faction -- a real party within the Democratic "Party." But the labor movement, overwhelmingly led by class-collaborationist Cold Warriors, was never willing to do this.

I think the U.S. Left should put forth the demand that the labor movement build a disciplined party within the DP. Its candidates would run in Democratic primaries. They would refuse money from big capital. If they betrayed the working class when elected, they would lose the unions' support -- unions could run a new candidate with the primary. If union candidates lose primary elections, they do not have to support the winning, bourgeois Democrat -- they can either run independent candidates or refrain from endorsing the winner. This state of affairs would probably not be likely to go on for many decades -- either labor and its allies would gain the upper hand within the Democratic coalition, or there would be a split that would result in a more traditional type of independent Labor Party, as the Republicans emerged from the remains of the Whig Party.

I agree, working-class independence is key. This independence will likely take a more curious form in the U.S. than elsewhere. The strategy I have outlined is made more difficult by the AFL-CIO/Change to Win split. But it is still more likely to bear fruit than attempting to revive Labor Party Advocates.

You may still disagree with me, as is your right, but I hope you will at least understand that it isn't my intent to advocate electoral class-collaboration. If it was, I wouldn't be so disgusted by American unions supporting Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Submitted by USRed on Fri, 25/01/2008 - 07:21

It's entirely true that the strategy that I've outlined can't be separated from the need to build a far more democratic and militant trade union movement in the U.S. Hence the importance of organizations such as the Association for Union Democracy and the Labor Notes network. Most of the existing union leadership has no interest in such a strategy -- they will "go along to get along" in the usual business-unionist way because that's all they think is possible and/or they have no interest in a politics of class struggle, even one that goes through -- rather than simply around -- the Democratic Party.

The point is not so much purely legislative/electoral as it is to get the unions and allied (or should-be allied) organizations to create a political entity that is entirely theirs and has is accountable to them. Hence my stress on the building of a disciplined faction/party-within-a-"party."

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