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.