With two weeks before the mid-Presidential-term US elections, the number of Democratic Party political solicitations in my e-mail inbox now approaches fifty a day. The curious-- “cynical” might be a better word-- thing is that none mention a genuine issue, none suggest an argument for a cause. All come with a folksy tone, an easy familiarity (from Bob, Chuck, Nancy, or Michelle) and all presume that I’m on their “team’ with cash at hand. The cheap emotional card is pulled frequently-- “Do you want to wish President Obama/Michelle Obama/Nancy Pelosi a happy birthday?” or “You didn’t respond to our request, do you HATE Bob Mueller?” Some are scolding: “TRAGIC ENDING. I [Nancy Pelosi] e-mailed yesterday. Barbra Streisand e-mailed. Harry Reid e-mailed. Now I’m e-mailing again…” And some are foreboding: “This is bad news…” One of the hilarious best: “Hi Friend, I just got off the phone with Senator Menendez, and he asked about you specifically.” Sure, he did...
But not a serious issue, an urgent cause, or a principled stand revealed.
Despite the lack of issues, not to mention a program, the Democrats fundraising tactics are working: ActBlue reports that Democrats raised $385 million in the third quarter alone, more than they raised in the entire 2014 midterm effort. Clearly, Trump-hating, even in its most visceral form, pays off.
However, the fund-raising orgy comes with a cost to democracy. Over 60 contested house seats sought by Democrats drew over a million dollars in campaign-fund donations in the third quarter alone compared to only 3 in the same quarter of 2014. The price of running a competitive campaign has risen dramatically (Source: WSJ, 10-16-2018).
Texas Senate Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke, a frequent solicitor appearing in my inbox, raised $38 million in the third quarter.
To date, Democratic House candidates have scheduled $122 million in TV commercials (Republicans $67 million) (WSJ, 10-16-18). It should be obvious that such fund raising is beyond the reach of truly independent candidates. The financial bar is set far too high to forego support from corporations, other well-heeled organizations, or wealthy contributors and expect to wrest power from Democratic or Republican incumbents. Accordingly, democracy is further stifled.
The notion of an authentic grass-roots campaign has nearly disappeared from the arsenal of the two major parties.
While posturing as a “people’s party,” the Democrats have largely substituted emotion for issues. Hatred of Trump and fear of Russia have served as the catalyst for the 2018 campaign. The Democrats have crudely sought to fold the two emotions into a brew disconnected from the sinking living standards, growing insecurity, and uncertain future of working people. A truly meaningful assault on Trumpism would necessarily target Trump’s pro-capitalist measures, cast light on betrayals by the Democratic Party, and underscore the failings of the two-party system, consequences that Democratic Party leaders dread.
It is no wonder that some commentators are describing political behavior today as “tribal.” In place of principled differences, the two parties have urged an amalgam of brand loyalty and blind faith. Stoked by a corporate media with its own interest in masking class-based issues and promoting imagery of class harmony, personal invective, anonymous charges, rumors, and internet gossip constitute the substance of political debate today. We have a reality TV-star President for reality-TV political theater.
After many decades of rightward drift by the two-party monolith, it is exceedingly difficult to find even a glimmer of hope that either party can be wrested from its corporate mooring. Yet hope does spring again and again with large sections of the US Left which attempt to pry open a door and commandeer the “people’s party,” a task now embraced by the youthful veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
With the last Presidential election, growing dissatisfaction with centrism found a home with Trumpism, a process that previously fueled the Tea Party movement for the Right. The Left experienced a similar distaste for centrism, a counterpart process that fueled the Bernie Sanders campaign-- a candidacy quickly subverted by the Democratic Party leadership.
After the election, disenchanted young Democrats found expression in the nominal political residence of their pied piper: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA provided an organization; its burgeoning numbers provided energy and impact; but it left the youthful activists in ideological limbo, torn between a slapdash socialism and a decadent Democratic Party.
Like endless numbers of their predecessors, the youthful idealists are preparing to exhaust their principles and vision on the bastion of hypocrisy, the Democratic Party. Inexperience may excuse this illusion, but older veterans of the Left know no similar excuse. They have witnessed the subversion of George McGovern’s Presidential campaign, rallied around an exciting 1976 Democratic national platform, only to see the sanctimonious Jimmy Carter quickly run away from it. They have observed the Democratic Party leadership wilt in the face of right-wing reaction, abandoning the New Deal gains piece by piece. They have supported “insurgents” like Jesse Jackson or Howard Dean, only to see the dissidents pacified and escorted back into the fold.
It is a long and tortured history of failure, Don Quixote-like journeys to wrest the Democratic Party from the grip of its corporate owners. Sadly, many who embarked on these journeys were lost by the Left; disappointment bred inaction and cynicism.
Beyond the socialists (DSA), the US left is a small, largely electorally irrelevant motley mix, stretching ideologically from center-left liberals disenchanted with the Democrats to committed Marxist-Leninists.
Despite the fact that their endorsements or support will have virtually no effect on the outcome of the interim elections, the predictable stampede to support the Democrats has begun. Grandiose exhortations to stop Trump will serve as coded messages to support Democrats in the interim election. The ideological bankruptcy that fails to put promoting third parties, independent candidacies, anti-monopoly coalitions or advocating for socialism ahead of unconditional support for Democrats guarantees that the rightward two-party drift will continue, Trump or no Trump.
Unconditional support for Democrats reinforces the two-party stranglehold in two ways:
- It acquiesces to the already prevalent view that there is no other route to progressive change.
- It thwarts the development of third parties or actions that will disrupt the grip that Democrats have upon the Left.
That grip is continually strengthened by the insidious material influence (money!) spread by foundations, nonprofits, think tanks, right-wing labor organizations, etc. that enables the Democrats to capture the Left. And of course many reluctantly support the Democrats because they fear the ire of their allies in the broader mass and labor movements.
For decades, Leftists have explained their support for Democrats through a clumsy, misappropriation of Marxist-Leninist theory. Many have advocated a “United Front” tactic in the face of what they perceive as the threat of fascism. Specifically, Republican Presidential candidates-- Nixon, Reagan, Bush II, and now Trump-- are seen as harbingers, if not bearers of fascism. It is a bitter irony that much of the 1968 Nixon-era Republican platform would appear largely acceptable to today’s Democratic Party leadership.
But the fascism of the first half of the twentieth century does not figure in the crises facing the US today. Fascism was a ruling-class response to a dire challenge to its rule spawned by disillusionment from a bloody, but meaningless World War, crushing economic crises, and, especially, the political challenge from a powerful revolutionary Left.
Those conditions simply do not coalesce in the US at this time.
Instead, the ruling class in the US (and many other countries) faces a crisis of the legitimacy of the centrist parties that have ruled throughout the Cold War until today. Opinion polls in the US (and many other countries) show nearly non-existent confidence in the long-standing ruling parties. The Trump phenomenon and the Sanders experience demonstrate that dissatisfaction, no matter how imperfectly. The electoral successes of non-traditional parties in many other countries equally demonstrate a popular desire for a new course, a new direction.
One can bury one’s head in the sand and refuse to recognize the mass shift in political allegiance; one can continue to slavishly tail the Democratic Party or the now-discredited, corrupt parties of social democracy; one can choose to embrace the myth of containing the barbarian hordes; but this moment is different, demanding different strategies.
The Left must discard the unproductive, out-of-touch approach of defending the left flank of capitalism and begin an earnest search for a new, independent politics. The growing mass rejection of the old politics demands it.
The Left cannot grow in size and influence if it continues to attach itself to a rotting Democratic Party.
Paradoxically, continuing to support the discredited Democratic Party and failing to offer a credible alternative will only encourage more people to look rightward for inspiration and answers.