by Louis Proyect
(Swans - December 17, 2007) As 2007 draws to a close, one must acknowledge the utter incapacity of the Democratic Party to mount any kind of serious challenge to the Bush White House. Despite lip service paid to ending the war in Iraq and forestalling a new war with Iran, the Democrats continue to find a way to fund the former and prepare for the latter. Domestically, they have done nothing to resist the ongoing dismantling of the welfare state safety net nor are they able to address the underlying cause of the immigration "crisis," namely the inability of the Mexican economy to produce jobs -- a function of neoliberal trade agreements that the Democrats pushed for under Clinton.
Although a leftist presidential campaign has not yet emerged, one can be sure that the Democrats will attack it vehemently no matter how awful their own candidate turns out. You can already see a parade of "lesser evil" politics in the pages of The Nation Magazine, a primary outlet for Naderphobia in 2004. It would be worth reviewing a recent forum on the 2008 elections in the November 26, 2007 issue (1) that allowed well-known liberal personalities to stump for their favorite candidate in rather impressive displays of self-deception.
From John Nichols, who covers the politics beat for The Nation, there is a pitch for Joe Biden, the malapropist Senator from Delaware who Nichols described as "muscularly partisan." In keeping with the sports imagery that typifies punditry chat on the elections, Nichols writes as if Biden were going to the Super Bowl:
In the blood-sport competition for the presidency, Biden's flair for finding the GOP jugular ought to count for something among Democrats who grumble about their last two nominees' failure to play offense.
Nichols acknowledges that Biden supported the invasion of Iraq (how could he not?), but gives him credit for blocking some retrograde Supreme Court nominees. While it is true that Biden has voted against the likes of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, he and fellow Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama did not bother to vote against the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General, the very Mukasey who could not answer whether waterboarding was torture.
It should be mentioned that Nichols had already chided Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Obama for their no-vote on Mukasey in the November 11 issue, but apparently their refusal to take a position against Mukasey was understandable in light of their need to continue on the campaign trail. As Nichols put it, "Running for president is, to be sure, a big deal." Certainly, it would seem a bigger deal than standing up to torture and Bush's Star Chamber approach to the law.
The Nation called upon Hunter College professor and feminist Ellen Chesler to explain why its readers should support Hillary Clinton. Since Clinton has received a fair amount of criticism in the pages of The Nation, Chesler certainly had her work cut out for her. One can assume, however, that enthusiasm for the war-prone centrist will grow apace if she wins the primary because after all it will be supremely necessary to stop -- fill in the blank.
Chesler approaches her candidate as if she were a Girl Scout: "She is intelligent, energetic and disciplined. She has shown herself to be warm and likable." More important criteria such as political principle and dedication to social justice seem to be less important. Anticipating the disgust that some progressives would feel over a Clinton candidacy, Chesler cites the kosher stamp of approval she gets from "major-labor unions [sic], the ACLU, Americans for Democratic Action, Planned Parenthood and other progressive organizations." Considering the dreary record of "major-labor unions" over the past 35 years or so, as jobs and pensions have disappeared in concession after concession to the bosses, one might think a bit more critically about what this means, especially in light of one trade union leader in Clinton's home state:
In 1990 the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, run by Clinton appointees, arranged a $300,000 loan for Morrilton Plastics, a company that made parts for Detroit automakers, enabling it to build up inventory in anticipation of a strike by the United Auto Workers. At the time, the loan outraged union activists. Bill Becker, head of the state AFL-CIO, bluntly accuses the Clinton administration of "union busting." (2)
Chesler strains mightily to bolster Clinton's progressive credentials, which is analogous to putting rouge on a corpse. On foreign policy, there are very few liberals who give much credit to Hillary Clinton, especially after her vote to stigmatize the Revolutionary Guards in Iran as a terrorist organization. Considering the loss of civilian life in Iraq since 2003 to be in the 75 to 85,000 range, one might expect politicians to be voting on resolutions to describe the American military in those terms.
On domestic issues, her support for "universal healthcare" is, for Chesler, her "signature issue." Since the medical industry is the major roadblock to a more equitable health care system today, it is rather surprising that they put so much trust in a candidate who is supposedly inimical to their interests. On July 12, 2006, The New York Times reported:
As she runs for re-election to the Senate from New York this year and lays the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2008, Mrs. Clinton is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from doctors, hospitals, drug manufacturers and insurers. Nationwide, she is the No. 2 recipient of donations from the industry, trailing only Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a member of the Republican leadership.
Unlike the feckless Ellen Chesler, these deep-pocketed contributors have a clear idea about which social class Clinton favors, and it is certainly not the disadvantaged subjects of Michael Moore's Sicko. Essentially, Clinton's plan is like the one that Mitt Romney adopted as Governor of Massachusetts. It provides government subsidies that allow the uninsured to buy coverage from vendors such as Blue Cross, Aetna, et al. For some this would take the form of tax credits. For others it would take the form of direct subsidies if they could not afford insurance. In either case, they are still at the mercy of insurance companies that are bent on cost cutting at the expense of the most vulnerable. The one health plan that might make sense -- a single payer plan in the Canadian style -- has been endorsed by only one candidate and that is Dennis Kucinich.
Making the case for Kucinich is Gore Vidal. While one would be hard-pressed to find serious fault with his specific proposals, the more serious objection has to do with his function within the Democratic Party machinery, which can be likened to wrapping a bitter pill in a glob of honey. For progressive voters to continue to have faith in the two-party system, it is necessary to have some window dressing such as a Kucinich or a Jesse Jackson of yore. In 2004, Kucinich explained his motivation in running thus: "The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What I'm trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy."
Considering the failure of the Dennis Kuciniches of the Democratic Party to ever win office beyond the House of Representatives, it is safe to assume that feelings of alienation will only deepen. The Presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court -- not to speak of the permanent government that resides in the Council on Foreign Relations and various other parastatal bodies -- remain the exclusive club of the most politically conservative social layers in the U.S. and will likely remain so as long as the dollar rules over politics. As Osama bin Laden put it in a recent communiqué:
So in answer to the question about the causes of the Democrats' failure to stop the war, I say: they are the same reasons which led to the failure of former president Kennedy to stop the Vietnam war. Those with real power and influence are those with the most capital. And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn't be any cause for astonishment -- and there isn't any -- in the Democrats' failure to stop the war. And you're the ones who have the saying which goes, "Money talks." (3)
Considering Hillary Clinton's falling poll numbers, there is every possibility that Barack Obama might be the nominee of the Democrats in 2008. While he has made a big deal about his departure from "business as usual," there is plenty of evidence that his campaign is more about glitter than substance.
Obama's candidacy is defended by Michael Eric Dyson, the African-American hip-hop scholar. Dyson claims that Obama "stood against the war in Iraq as a futile gesture of American empire that would do little to beat back the threat of terror." However, Obama's main complaint with the Bush administration -- like every other front-runner -- is tactical rather than strategic. In July 2003, he thought it wise to adopt a more multilateral approach to Saddam Hussein since "if we ultimately had to overthrow him, we would have built an international coalition that could have moved forward." Only last April, Obama told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that if Bush Junior had followed his father's example, he would have had no trouble backing him:
No President should ever hesitate to use force -- unilaterally if necessary -- to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened. But when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others -- the kind of burden-sharing and support President George H.W. Bush mustered before he launched Operation Desert Storm. (4)
Although Obama has been cultivating a reputation as an outsider determined to shake Washington up and remove the pernicious influence of corporations on decision-making, his record is in stark contradiction to his promises. In a ground-breaking investigative report on the Obama phenomenon in Harper's Magazine, Ken Silverstein describes a politician with well-honed self-serving instincts:
It's not always clear what Obama's financial backers want, but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform. And although Obama is by no means a mouthpiece for his funders, it appears that he's not entirely indifferent to their desires either.
Consider the case of Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, the nation's leading nuclear-power-plant operator. The firm is Obama's fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects. The loan guarantees were called "one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation" by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste; the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default.
In one of his earliest votes, Obama joined a bloc of mostly conservative and moderate Senate Democrats who helped pass a G.O.P.-driven class-action "reform" bill. The bill had been long sought by a coalition of business groups and was lobbied for aggressively by financial firms, which constitute Obama's second biggest single bloc of donors. (5)
While a review of the records of Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd will turn up similar anomalies (Mike Gravel is another Kucinich), there is really no need to spend time debunking them since they are not likely to be their party's standard-bearer.
One can only assume that if the Democrats decided to nominate even a Joe Lieberman for President in 2008, there would be tortured defenses of the need to back him in the pages of The Nation Magazine since old habits die hard.
Ultimately, of course, the Democratic Party can only be superseded through the dynamics of political action unleashed by powerful social classes in motion. In the decades before the American Civil War, the Whig Party played the role that the Democratic Party plays today. Back then the Democratic Party was united around the question of the need to defend slavery, while the Whigs offered a kind of temporizing opposition to the institution in the name of compromise. Reading Whig speeches of the period will remind you of the depressing fence-straddling stratagems of a Harry Reid or a Nancy Pelosi.
Then, as now, powerful social forces were gestating that could ultimately cohere in a new party that would challenge slavery to its foundations. Northern industrialists, small farmers, and workers throughout the country saw their own class interests as being diametrically opposed to the slave-owning masters of the Democratic Party. After a series of false starts through formations such as the Free Soil Party (arguably, the Green Party of their time), the Republican Party finally emerged and embarked on a revolutionary challenge to the old way of doing business. Of course, the ultimate trajectory of the Republican Party was to turn its back on any emancipatory project as the industrialists and workers eventually discovered that they could not come to terms on another form of slavery, namely one based on wages for work.
Ultimately, the workers will find a way to construct their own political party that can confront wage slavery and all the social ills associated with it. As 2008 unfolds, we can anticipate a growing receptiveness to new political approaches to the problems of our time even if they get short shrift in The Nation Magazine. We should not be discouraged by being in the minority on these questions, just as our forefathers were not. Carrying on in the spirit of Frederick Douglass, we should struggle until final victory.
4. Quoted in an excellent article by Jeff Taylor on Obama's foreign policy: "More Muscular Interventionism: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama," Counterpunch, June 23/24, 2007.
For over a decade we've brought you uninterrupted ad-free advocacy work free of charge. But while our publication is free to you, we are long on friends and short on cash. We need you, our readers, to help us financially. Please consider sending anow. Thank you.