Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Fool's Game

In the progressive debate over American politics, an ugly aspect of reality is expressed by the conviction that “both parties are the same.” On one level, there’s truth in that statement. On another level, I don’t agree, and I think it can pose a trap for us.

The truth is that both parties are beholden to the corporate class that owns this country, and to the “national security” forces that advance the interests of that class. This is a very sobering truth that should not be avoided, because to do so is to succumb to a perpetual naïvete in American politics. The citizenry, which has been effectively reduced to a mere “electorate,” is expected to believe in the story of two diametrically opposed national parties and to put its hopes in one of the two. Liberals put their hopes in the Democratic Party, for differing and complex reasons which ultimately boil down to the simple fact that the Republican Party does not accommodate liberal points of view, whereas the Democrats ostensibly do.

The trap, however, which is laid for us in the statement that “both parties are the same” is that this ugly truth tends to produce apathy, despair, and an anger which can find little outlet in positive action. Political action outside the two parties has been effectively marginalized in the last four decades by reactionary forces, aided by the media, which has become almost wholly reactionary itself. Such political action must continue, however, and grass roots progressives must find new ways to organize, both in opposition to the corporate class and in support of positive alternatives that are firmly based in local communities. But progressives must also step up their efforts to change the Democratic Party and gain greater influence over its actions and policies.

This is simply a matter of practical politics. Grassroots change can only work in concert with transformation of existing political institutions. They have to go together because a movement wholly situated outside these institutions, without effective allies within them, will be defeated by the superior financial clout of the corporate class.

The realization that both parties serve the corporate class is a general truth that should not obscure important differences within that class, and within the political culture. The key difference at this time is between corporate internationalists who see themselves as part of a network that includes other countries, and proto-fascists who dream of total American dominance of the world. The Republican Party is now virtually controlled by the latter faction. At home they seek to abolish Constitutional government in favor of a centralized authoritarian state similar to China, where dissent is silenced, women and minorities are kept within patriarchal and white supremacist norms, and revanchist Christian groups are granted a repressive supervision over social and cultural policy. The Democratic Party is largely controlled by the internationalists, whose domestic policy tends to be more liberal, allowing more opportunity for women and minorities and putting a brake on fundamentalist demands. In foreign policy the Democrats still support corporate interests abroad, but with more of an emphasis on cooperation. On human rights they are alarmingly similar to the fascists, practicing double standards in regard to Israel and U.S.-sponsored authoritarian regimes, although there are conflicts within the Party on these issues.

The Republicans in power are an unmitigated disaster for progressives. They admit of no influence whatsoever. The Democrats represent a chance for influence. But the road is uphill and littered with obstacles. This is the difference, and it should not be ignored. To simply throw up one’s hands and say they’re absolutely the same is to counsel despair.

Liberal observers are often perplexed by the passive behavior of Democrats in the face of vicious Republican attacks. I have been puzzled myself. At times I can’t help but think that Democrats in Washington don’t realize how weak and pathetic they appear. Republicans are bold and relentless in their attacks. There is no lie they won’t stoop to tell. Yet rarely do Democrats hit back. And it’s not all just an attempt to be adult or “above the fray.” Obama and the Democrats talked seriously about bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle”—this after 16 years of unparalleled Republican viciousness and intransigence.

The reason for this odd behavior, I believe, has to do with the two parties’ different constituencies, or “bases.” The Republican base generally does not recognize the corporate class as an enemy, unless certain elements, such as the Hollywood entertainment industry, are demonized as cultural elitists. Thus there is no conflict between the right-wing electoral base and the party’s corporate funders. But the Democrats, on the other hand, are split between their corporate funders, who are fundamentally conservative, and their electoral base, which tends to be more liberal on both domestic and foreign issues. So they try to placate their electoral base in certain ways, while being careful not to rock the corporate boat. Their passivity in the face of Republican attacks is not due to their fear of Republicans, but their fear of the corporate class and the national security apparatus that supports it.

Liberals who advocate accommodation in order to get things done are wedded to a very narrow idea of what is possible. Since the political make-up of Washington is what it is, they counsel resignation to that fact. But the possible isn't some inert fact. You influence what is possible by taking chances. To not take chances is to relegate the party to minority status even when it has Congressional majorities and the White House. We’ve seen exactly that during Obama’s first year. He and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, don’t take progressives seriously. They don’t fear what progressives can do because we haven’t proven we can do anything.

I am convinced that accommodation is a failed strategy, both politically and in terms of successful policy. You can accommodate with Eisenhower Republicans, with reasonable men. But they don't exist any more. Reaching out to fascists is naïve. But because of corporate dominance of the process, Obama and the Democrats will continue to put on this dumb show of bipartisan reasonableness unless progressives find ways to flex political muscle. This constant scurrying to the right, a repeat of Clinton’s failures, won't stop until progressives develop strength and resolve to confront, challenge, and put their foot down, not just to Republicans (although that would be a good start) but to the so-called centrists, the corporate shills who stand in the way of change.

That means developing an aggressive, in-your-face political identity that doesn’t back down from right wing threats and intimidation, that gives back as good as it gets, and that is not afraid to attack the servile media, the complacent DC pundits, and most of importantly of all, Wall Street, the intelligence spooks, and the Pentagon. By rallying the base with a fighting spirit rather than the meek accommodation that gets us nowhere, progressives can become a force to be reckoned with, inside and outside of the Democratic Party.


Ghost Dansing said...

your analysis is more textured and refined than mine, however our opinions are parallel on this.

one thing i would point out, and i think we may agree on this, is that America is not now exactly a Democracy. it is a Corporate Plutocracy.

the other thing i would point out is the successful conversion of the American psyche to all the themes that support that Plutocracy.

the ideas of Reaganomics, Milton Friedman, Austrian School, laissez faire have been insinuated into the minds of the population, for example.

the bellicosity in foreign affairs displayed by the Bush administration played to a demographic that thinks in terms of sports events; responds to those idioms.

the Democrats fear appearing "soft on defense". and government social programs are for sissies that want the government to take care of them from cradle to grave.

entitlements are socialism, and Liberalism is a dirty word that has been driven from the vocabulary, even though the very concepts that formed the basis of America were in fact Liberal, flowing from the European experiences of the Enlightenment.

The Republicans cannot exploit a political reality that does not already exist (albeit carefully nurtured from seed to florid reality by movement conservatism)at some level.

The Democrats, regardless of their Liberal basis, and Progressive constituencies in numerous areas, must also contend with a substratum of political realities until ideas that successfully compete with the "black-and-white", "with-us-or-against-us", American-against-the-world ideas can be re-introduced and grow in the public consciousness.

FDR was not Satan; in fact saved America from Communist influences as well as Capitalist excess. Corporatist flirtations with fascism is not new. The modern Republican Party is simply the latest, strongest manifestation of this tendency.

We can start reversing this advanced trend of Rightism by reintroducing Americans to their true ideological roots in Liberalism, where the groundwork for a revolutionary, secular democracy was envisioned and established by Liberal documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Progressive movement is active in the pursuit of the promise held forth by Liberalism; a pluralistic ideology that does not reduce all human value systems to corporate profit margins; trees are OK too.

Tom said...

How many times in my blog and elsewhere I have pointed out that the accommodation you talk about here lost the Congress in 1994,1996,1998, 2000, 202, and 2004, and the White House in 2000 and 2004.

It was only running as Democrats that brought success in 2006 and 2008. Yet it was the "centrists" who won the White House and who are governing as same.

The question before us is, how do we progressive liberals exercise our clout within the party? How do we stand up to the corporate masters who control both parties of Congress and the White House (and the Extreme Court, while we're at it)?

We can blog till we're blue in the fingers, we can write letters to the editors, we can argue with our co-workers, but is any of it going to change?

Glenzilla has a thing going where we contribute to primary opponents of Blue Dogs, but you see what happened with that in Connecticut--they elected Lieberman, anyway.

I'll keep blogging, and I'll keep writing letters to the editor, and I'll keep signing online petitions. If we had elected Roosevelt last year instead of Kennedy, I would probably make enough money to contribute to campaigns to elect real leaders for our party.

Any other suggestions?

Chris Dashiell said...

Ghost Dansing's analysis is an excellent summation of our predicament, I think. Tom's concerns are well stated. I think it will take more participation by progressives in community (not just national) politics for more influence to be felt. Those of us who are still doing ok economically can often shelter ourselves in private concerns. This is understandable, but we will need to give up some time and comfort by actually getting involved with political footwork (not just handwork--typing) in order to effect change.