There Never Were Any "Good Old Days" In The Democratic Party

by Howie Hawkins

March 1, 2004   


"A liberation movement for the Democratic Party" is one of the goals Ralph Nader stated for his campaign in the question and answer period of his February 23 press conference announcing his 2004 independent presidential candidacy. He went on to a lament that progressives had let their Democratic Party slip away to corporate interests since about 1980.

While Nader is certainly correct to say that the Democrats are more thoroughly corporatized than ever, perpetuating the myth that the Democrats were ever a progressive party undermines the cause of independent progressive politics and his own campaign.

Indeed, whatever his intentions, Nader implicitly gave wavering voters permission to vote for Gore in 2000 with such statements as the Democrats could take back Green votes by going back to their progressive roots, and that one positive result of his campaign would be to create a spillover vote down the ticket to help elect Democrats to Congress.

In 2000 and now again in 2004, Nader seems to be underselling his own prospects by giving the Democrats more credit and import than they deserve. Nader had far more support and sympathy than the final 3% vote on Election Day in 2000 indicated. A Zogby poll found that 18 percent of the population seriously considered voting for Nader. An analysis of the National Election Study data by Harvard political scientist Barry Burden shows that only 9% of the people who thought Nader was the best candidate actually voted for him. If people had not voted strategically for the lesser evil, Nader would have had over 30 million votes instead of 3 million and might have won the election, especially if he had been allowed in the debates.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a substantial proportion of Nader supporters thought Bush was the lesser evil. While 54% of the people who thought Nader was the best candidate voted for Gore in order to defeat Bush, 37% of the people who preferred Nader voted for Bush in order to defeat Gore. Nader's populist anti-corporate, clean politics, environmentalist issues clearly appealed to substantial sections of the bases of both major parties as well as independents.

Burden also shows that Nader would have won the election using the Condorcet system of preference voting in which voters rank each candidate against each other candidate, the system which most voting system experts consider the fairest and most accurate way to reflect voters' preferences. In a Condorcet preference vote, Nader would have won the 2000 election. This is the only presidential election for which there is data to conduct a Condorcet election retrospectively, in which the Condorcet winner was not the actual winner. (See http://psweb.sbs.ohio-state.edu/faculty/hweisberg/conference/burdosu.pdf)

Nader would do better to simply state that the Democratic Party is beyond reform, completely captured by corporate interests, and that progressives need their own party independent of corporate influence. Ironically, it is the same "liberal intelligentsia" that Nader now scolds for a failure of nerve that perpetuates the myth that the Democratic Party is potentially progressive. This myth, to which Nader also contributes by some of his statements, encourages activists to try to reform the Democratic Party from within.

But what progressive roots of the Democratic Party are there?

Surely they don't mean the slaveholders and Indian exterminators of the pre-Civil War Democratic Party. In the 1800s, the only post-Civil War Democratic administrations, those of Grover Cleveland, were not much different from the Republicans in their hard money economic policies that were killing the agrarian economy. While Cleveland did clean up some of the corruption that had become so endemic after some 25 years of Republican rule, Cleveland was no friend of the working people as evidenced by his use of federal troops against the march on Washington by Coxey's Army of the unemployed seeking public works for jobs and against the Pullman railroad strike.

The idea that the Democrats are a progressive party is a 20th century idea. And progressives entering the Democratic Party to reform it is an old and failed approach. Since 1936, when the labor movement and the Communists, then the largest and most influential current on the Left, dropped all serious pretenses of independent labor or socialist politics and joined the Democratic Party coalition, reforming the Democratic Party has been the dominant strategy on the progressive side of American politics. The new left social movements emerging in the 1960s -- the civil rights, peace, women's, community organizing, and environmental movements -- oriented to the Democratic Party. There were the McCarthy and McGovern campaigns, a New Democratic Coalition and a Rainbow Coalition, a Jerry Brown campaign in 1992, all aimed at reform.

The result of all these decades of reform Democratic politics is a Democratic Party that has moved steadily to the Right because it could take its Left for granted. The Bayard Rusin/Michael Harrington strategy of realignment has come to pass as the Dixiecrats became Republicans in the South, but the Democratic Party has continued to move Right and its corporate interests dominate its labor and reform movement constituencies more than ever. There are no platform fights anymore. The last fight was over the Jackson demands in 1984. In order to be accepted within the Democratic Party, reform Democrats have silenced themselves and lined up behind the long line of lesser-evils against the even-worse Republicans.

Instead of speaking with its own voice and putting its own analysis and program before the public, the Left has tried to rely on Democratic politicians to speak for them. As a consequence, the Left has largely disappeared from American public affairs. Today, the Left in the corporate media is simply the Democrats; anybody to the left and independent of the Democrats is regarded by the corporate media as marginal, if not downright delusional, as their treatment of Nader illustrates.

In fact, the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of progressive movements for social change since the populists disappeared into it with the Peoples Party/Democratic Party fusion campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. In the current election, a new generation is learning this same hard lesson. The Dean campaign captured the strongest current of the reform spirit in the Democratic grassroots in 2003. But between the Party establishment and the corporate media, they were cut off at the knees. Here is the testimony of one young Deaniac who recently contacted the Green Party of New York State:
"I'm a 27 year old attorney living in _____ County New York. I've been active in the _____ County Democratic Party Committee, and was recently appointed the Secretary of that organization. Until Governor Dean's withdrawal from the Democratic Party's Presidential Nomination Campaign today, I thoroughly believed that the man who represented the last best hope to reform the Democratic Party and return it to its far more progressive roots would do precisely that. Unfortunately, his withdrawal, coupled with the work I have done inside the Democratic Party has made it clear to me that the Party cannot be reformed neither from the inside, nor from the outside. I did not vote for my Party's nominee in either of the last two Presidential elections, and while I have long been hopeful the party would once again put forward a leader as inspiring as President Franklin Roosevelt, I am now certain that the Party must go the way of the Whigs in the 1860 election and fade away to be replaced by a new progressive third-party that will ultimately become the second party. I am certain that to accomplish this, such a third-party must begin to organize at the local level and effectively work to build itself from the ground up. After my final protest vote for Governor Dean in the March 2nd primary, on March 3rd, I intend to change my party registration to Green...."
It is exasperating to see so many peace and justice activists and "left" intellectuals still arguing in 2004 that the best way to fight war and repression in 2004 is to support the Democrats who have supported Bush's program of war and repression. Contrary to what liberal intelligentsia says, Bush is not a big departure from the past. His policies thoroughly reflect a bipartisan consensus on the central foreign and domestic policies of concern to the corporate elite, a consensus that has been actively forged and adapted to changing circumstances by corporate elites for more than a century.

It would go completely against the grain of the Democratic Party's history to oppose Bush's military adventures abroad and repression at home. Indeed, historically, the Democrats have been the more "internationalist," which is to say the more aggressively imperialist, of the two corporate-backed parties.

Bush's policy in Southwest Asia is the Carter Doctrine in action. The Carter Doctrine essentially declared that the U.S. would use military force to control access to Persian Gulf oil. It was under Carter, in July 1979 (six months before the Soviet invasion) that the CIA began recruiting, training, arming, and assisting attacks by the fundamentalist Islamist militias in Afghanistan that yielded today's Taliban and al Qaeda. They were supported against the secular pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan in hopes of provoking a Soviet intervention, successfully as it turned out, as Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, boasted to Le Nouvel Observateur in France (Jan 15-21, 1998, p. 76) during the Clinton administration a few months after it had initiated a new covert war in Afghanistan.

But the history of Democratic interventionism and repression is much deeper. Woodrow Wilson sent US troops to suppress popular social and anti-colonial revolutions in Mexico, Russia, China, The Philippines, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, a far more expansive counter-revolutionary record than the "Rough Riders" of the previous Taft and Teddy Roosevelt administrations. After enabling US capitalists to enrich themselves selling arms to the allies in World War I, Wilson (who in 1916 ran as the peace candidate to keep us out of that war) threw US troops in at the end in 1917-18 to secure an expansion of US influence in the post-war redivision of world power and a share of the spoils of victory. Meanwhile, Wilson brought segregation to Washington, D.C. and ignored the Bill of Rights as his administration jailed or deported 7,000 peace and freedom activists, including Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who would receive over 900,000 votes while campaigning from jail in 1920.

FDR is the Democratic president who many people think of as embodying the "good old days" of the Democratic Party. But racism, repression, and imperialism reigned in his administration as well. Accommodating the southern Dixiecrat wing of the Party, Roosevelt allowed federal New Deal programs to be segregated in the South, meaning the exclusion of most African Americans from access to them in the South and many places in the North and West as well. He appointed the openly anti-Semitic Breckinridge Long to handle the refugee crisis as fascism rose in Europe, insuring that Jews could not immigrate to the U.S. as the holocaust unfolded in Europe. Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps. Although the National Labor Relations Act passed under Roosevelt to normalize trade union organizing, Roosevelt authorized the use of federal troops to break strikes in many cases.

The core financial support for the Democrats under Roosevelt came from the capital-intensive oil and manufacturing industries and internationally-oriented banks that favored more muscular US imperialism based on state intervention in the economy at home and to encourage business-friendly regimes abroad. (See Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, Hill and Wang, 1986.) As World War II broke out, like Wilson in World War I before him, Roosevelt feigned a hands-off approach as he prepared to enter the war to enhance US power in the post-war world. From 1939 to 1945, Roosevelt's State Department enlisted the Council on Foreign Relations to plan to make the U.S. the dominant power in the post-war world. Called the Grand Area Strategy, it planned to make the U.S. the dominant military power and in control of the Grand Area, which meant the non-German, until the fortunes of the war turned in 1943, when the Grand Area became the non-Russian world. (See Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy, Monthly Review Press, 1977.)

The only real difference between Roosevelt's Grand Area Strategy and Bush Jr.'s infamous National Security Strategy of 2002 for world domination is the geographic scope of the imperial ambition. The Grand Area Strategy became the post-war containment strategy against Soviet Union which sought to make US satellites of all countries outside the Soviet sphere of influence. Bush Sr. expanded this imperial ambition to include the whole world with his declaration of a New World Order after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The incoming Clinton administration declared its complete agreement. As Clinton's first National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, stated it in a 1993 speech entitled "From Containment to Enlargement," the U.S. would accomplish this goal by "Diplomacy where we can; force where we must."

But going back to the next Democratic administration, that of Harry Truman, we find the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though the Japanese were seeking to surrender. Those bombs were aimed at establishing US power in the post-war world. Back at home, though Truman nominally opposed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, once passed, he made ample use of it to send in federal troops to break several major strikes. In 1948, the Democrats adopted universal national health insurance as a platform plank. But when they held the presidency along with majorities in Congress under Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton, they failed to enact that plank. Clinton had the plank removed in the 1996 platform.

President Kennedy is somehow portrayed today as a champion of civil rights. But reality is that Kennedy approached the issue politically, trying to walk a tightrope between his supporters in both the segregationist and civil rights camps. It wasn't until June 1963, as the March on Washington loomed, that Kennedy sent a watered down version of the Civil Rights Act to Congress. Kennedy also authorized the FBI's wire tapping of Martin Luther King. He kept his promise to southern Dixiecrats to not challenge right-to-work laws no matter what the Democratic platform said. He authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the assassination and coup against Diem in South Vietnam, where he continued Eisenhower's policy of sending military advisors, and played chicken with nuclear weapons against Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.

The Johnson administration is often portrayed as another touchstone of the progressive tradition in the Democratic Party. It is true that the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and an underfunded War on Poverty program were initiated under enormous pressure from the civil rights movement. But Johnson is also the president who sent liberal icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to inform the Mississippi Freedom Democrats that they should accept two honorary seats at the 1964 Democratic convention while the segregationist Mississippi Democrats would be seated. After the convention, Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate and then escalated in Vietnam.

The next Democratic administration, under Jimmy Carter, not only enunciated the Carter Doctrine already mentioned, but began the restoration of Cold War levels of military spending after a brief post-Vietnam scaling back under Ford. Behind a rhetorical cover of human rights, Carter gave strong support to many of the world's most repressive regimes, including Marco's Philippines, the Shah's Iran, Mobutu's Zaire, Suharto's Indonesia during its bloody annexation of East Timor, South Korea as it slaughtered hundreds of protesters, apartheid South Africa under the guise of "constructive engagement," the murderous Central American regimes with their death squads in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and Saddam Hussein's rise to power in Iraq. With Presidential Directive 59 in 1979, Carter made it US policy to plan for a "limited" nuclear war, including a first strike policy.

On the domestic front, just a few years after Nixon had declared "we are all Keynesians now," Carter reflected the turn in the corporate elite from Keynesian to neoliberal policies for managing capitalism. This policy turn was easy for the Carter administration to do since some two dozen of its top officials had been members of the corporate planning organization, the Trilateral Commission. Neoliberalism includes cuts in social spending, hikes in regressive taxes, cuts in progressive taxes, privatization, deregulation, corporate-managed trade, union busting, and corporate welfare. Taken together, these policies mean the stick of austerity for workers (on the theory it makes us work harder and raises productivity) and the carrot of welfare for the corporate rich (on the theory they will invest and the benefits of increased jobs and tax revenues will trickle down to the rest of us). Neoliberal austerity became the post-Keynesian economic policy of the corporate rulers as they ran into the internal limits to profits and growth under the Keynesian welfare/warfare state. Carter initiated these trends in 1978 with the appointment of Volker to the head the Federal Reserve and the combination of social program cutbacks and military spending hikes.

Reagan and Bush Sr. (as well as their counterparts in other countries, conservative and social democratic alike) carried neoliberalism further. But it was the Clinton administration that carried them further than Reagan and Bush Sr. could have dreamed.

Among the highlights: NAFTA and GATT/WTO, "welfare reform" and massive privatization under the rubric of "reinventing government," deregulation in energy, finance, and telecommunications, and Star Wars, growing military budgets, and sending US troops into combat 46 times (more times than Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. combined).

On the social issues, Clinton was terrible despite his "I feel your pain" pretensions. No effort was made to repeal the Hyde Amendment barring federal funding for abortions or the ban, initiated under Carter, on funding abortions in overseas aid programs. Gays were dismissed with "don't ask, don't tell" in the military and the Defense of Marriage Act. OSHA and EEOC were gutted of funds and staffing. Civil rights litigation at Justice was cut down to below the paltry Bush Sr. level. White racists had already been signaled Clinton's real intentions during his 1992 presidential campaign with his well-publicized trip back to Arkansas to see through the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a retarded black man, and his scolding of Jesse Jackson at a Rainbow Coalition meeting for inviting Sister Souljah. Several repressive federal anti-crime, anti-terrorism, and drug war bills, most notably the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, laid the legal groundwork for Bush's USA PATRIOT Act and brought US incarceration rates to the highest in the world.

Now, which Democratic administration embodies the progressive Democratic tradition to which we are supposed to return?

The Democrats might beat Bush, but they are not going to beat Bushism, which is basically the Bipartisan Consensus around neoconservative militarism and neoliberal economics. What is now called Bushism is not radical departure, but a continuation of this bipartisan consensus, with the majority of Democrats in Congress voting for Bush's key programs: the tax cuts, war budgets, war powers, and the PATRIOT Act.

Ralph Nader may be criticized for contributing to the myth that the Democrats might still somehow be transformed into a progressive party, but he is certainly right to scold the "liberal intelligentsia" for failing to fight for their beliefs inside or outside of the Democratic Party. Now they are converging around John Kerry on the grounds that he is "electable" against Bush Jr. without even so much as demands being made for the Democratic platform. Kerry voted for NAFTA, welfare reform, the PATRIOT Act, and the war to occupy Iraq. How different is that from Bush Jr.?

We cannot rely on the center-right Democrats to fight the hard-right Republicans. We never could. Now, not in 2008 or 2012, is when we should be building an independent progressive movement and party that can fight for democratic social change. In 2004, the Nader candidacy is the best embodiment of that cause we have.

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The Greens on Swans


Howie Hawkins is a Teamster truck unloader and Green Party activist in Syracuse, New York.

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Published March 1, 2004
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