Warning! Corporate Democrats May Use Anti-Trump Momentum to Shore Up Their Failed Policies

January 28, 2017

The sign said “Trump is a Ruskie”. Another read “I’m Still with HER.” And others: “Thank you Obama,” “Thank you Michelle.” At the Inauguration protests and at the Women’s March, loyal Democrats and Hillary supporters turned out to defend their party. On the dais Inauguration Day, Democratic Congress people wore buttons that said “Save Our Care,” meaning Obamacare. And at the Justice Department, the investigations went on into ties of Trump people with the Russians.

None of this is unexpected. None out of line. But it bespeaks an eagerness – largely unconscious on most people’s part, no doubt – to defend the party that was from the party that might be. To reassure Democratic loyalists that “It wasn’t our fault” that Trump won.

Whatever the verdict on that question, it’s clear that the Democratic Party has alienated voters, and not just its supposed working class base. The young, the left, the hyper-educated didn’t turn out for the Party’s standard bearer. More tellingly, as Bernie Sanders pointed out, the Party has been losing elections for a long time, so that today Republicans control most state legislatures and governors’ seats, not to mention both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. And this was a party that was deeply divided almost up to election day in November and a wreck when Obama took office eight years ago. A party whose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were deeply unpopular when it lost control of Congress two years before Obama’s ascendancy, and which subsequently brought the nation to the brink of economic ruin.

As Bernie Sanders pointed out in his gentle way after the election, when you’ve lost as many games as the Democrats have, you have to conclude you’re doing something wrong.

The current upwelling of outrage at the Trump administration, with all its revolutionary potential, simply cannot become another opportunity for the Democrats of business as usual to take the stage again.

The widespread movement to defend immigrants and Muslims certainly crosses whatever lines there may be between party apparatchiks and Bernie voters. But even here there are dangers that the old instincts will distort the movement. The vigorous defense of local authority in California and the sanctuary cities is heartening. At the national level, Democrats are not risking such a radical stance. In The Nation, We Can’t Throw Other Immigrants Under the Bus, Cesar Vargas warns that extremist Republicans are already offering to trade a citizenship route for the Dreamers for an end to family migration and other immigration programs. And, he notes, “Democrats are, with good intentions but a misguided strategy, championing the BRIDGE Act, which would provide temporary relief from deportation and work authorization to undocumented youth, essentially DACA [Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] minus a path to citizenship.” Timid Democrats threaten, in his words, to “throw immigrants under the bus in order to save DACA” and reinforce a “good immigrant vs. bad immigrant” narrative that falls neatly into the hands of the right.

Efforts to “save Obamacare” are equally misguided. The faults in the program that Republicans have harped upon are not imaginary. From the perspective of a single payer plan, Obamacare is principally a new lease on life for the insurance industry. Even expanded state Medicaid programs are often handled by private insurance companies like Anthem (California). And any repeal is likely to retain protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and young people. In fact, Republicans are justifiably worried about repeal (see New York Times, Affordable Care Act Republican Retreat).

By welcome contrast, Representative John Conyers has reintroduced H.R. 676, “The Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act.” With 85 sponsors last session and growing, the bill needs the support of every Democrat and any Republican who can see no way out of the bind the party has constructed for itself.

Apart from the rocky roads of legislation in a Trump-controlled Congress and the defense of threatened populations, the current rebellion has to turn into the “revolution” Bernie Sanders proclaimed, starting with mobilization to take the Democratic apparatus from the base up and transform it into the populist party it once claimed to be. That claim never held a great deal of water, of course, because, to the degree the party was “progressive,” it was so in the mold of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Even the New Deal was principally an effort to put capitalism on life support, directed by many of the captains of industry and finance. And “progressivism” in economics has largely followed that precedent. Has no one else noticed the Robert Reich, certainly no “corporate Democrat”, features his new book Saving Capitalism on the bookshelf behind his seat during his daily podcast of the 100 Days of Resistance?

And, while progressives’ commitments to equal justice and broad opportunity for all will certainly be a part of any reawakened Democratic electoral machine, it would also help the cause if Democrats acquired a deep appreciation for the exhaustion of ordinary Americans with bureaucratic overreach and incompetence. Ask a typical Democratic candidate about the more onerous characteristics of the bureaucratic state, and you will get a shrug and a defense of government action for the common good – as if that were the question. The left in America has no critique of bureaucracy, a failure that makes the right’s tendentious one plausible to millions of Americans, as David Graeber points out. But neither bureaucracy nor “science-based” policy making – another sacred cow in the current uproar over the triumph of the right – are compatible with democratic procedure.

If we are to have new Democrats, we shall have to re-think small-d democracy, starting with the functioning of the party itself. I recently attended the Assembly District elections for delegates to the California Democratic Central Committee, the body that makes many of the most important policy and candidate endorsement decisions for the state party. Wondering who else sat on this committee, I looked into the bylaws and found that the Central Committee, much like the National Convention, was stacked with office holders, stalwarts of other Democratic organizations, and appointees. Structures like these have stifled populists and left dissidents within the party for decades, if not forever. They will have to change if the corporate Democrats are not to assume their accustomed places at the head of the Party in Rebellion.

Hence, we need all be cautious as we adopt one or another path of “resistance.” To each “action alert” or “strategic plan” we have to ask “What agenda does this serve? Whose party does this defend? and, How does this advance the real revolution we need?”  And we’ll have to adopt Bernie’s 50 state strategy and Nader’s grassroots mobilization in each Congressional district in the country, first of all to put the Congress critters on notice that we are watching, but also, and for every election that comes along, not just to elect Democrats next time, but to elect the right people up the chain, Democrats, Greens, independents, what have you, from party officers to public officials at every level.  Then we might have a chance to construct a government capable of confronting the challenges of our time.

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Update: The Next American Revolution, revised

February 26, 2011

This project was based on the conviction that we need a revolution to save ourselves, the overthrow, ultimately of the latest version of capitalism that is impoverishing most of us, trashing the planet, and running our political system. But that will require first of all, a constitutional revolution to lay the political groundwork for a democratic struggle over our future. That conviction has only deepened since I started work on the book, and recent events in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states have underlined both the need and the importance of acting.

But I have also come to see the task of the book differently, in part because I know more and more that I have no ready answers. As if we didn’t already know it, events in the Middle East have shown just how unpredictable are the time and place of revolutionary upheaval, and of the outcome of seemingly successful popular struggles. What are we to make of these events here? Certainly, Wisconsinites of all stripes have drawn important conclusions from the popular uprising in Egypt, not so much intellectual conclusions as ones of the heart — that popular action is legitimate, that success against our petty tyrants is possible, that pulling together people from all walks of life really can happen.

Does the uprising in Wisconsin “have feet”? Can it travel to other parts of the country, as the Tunisian uprising has spread elsewhere in the Middle East (and Midwest)? We don’t know. As a social scientist (by training, not by profession any more), I think I know that a lot depends upon the authorities. Will they provoke similar uprisings around the country, or will they lie low, counting on the apathy of citizens even in the face of rising food and gas prices, high hidden unemployment, continuing foreclosures, the scandal of Washington’s deals with Wall Street, and all the rest?

So the present vision for the book, if I continue working at it, is to look more closely at revolutionary paths, both those closed to us and those that might be open. I think I see two of each. Of those closed to us, the most obvious is what the seventies called “armed struggle.” The American state is simply too well-equipped for any such option to succeed, whether your vision is short-term of “long march”.

The other closed option, alas, is a Tunisian or Egyptian style popular uprising. Like armed struggles, such uprisings gather strength from the odd combination of intransigence and internal weakness. The American state is both quite capable of buying off and diffusing popular demands and maintaining a unified front in the face of massive popular demonstrations. Witness the Bush administration’s response to the enormous February 15, 2003 demonstrations in opposition to making war on Iraq. Or the Democrat’s willingness to curry anti-war support while refusing to act upon anti-war demands. Barring some enormous and unforeseen crisis, Americans simply won’t turn out for the sorts of protests that overturned Ben Ali or Mubarak. And those who do will be bought off or ignored, probably both.

Of the options that might succeed, I currently see two. The first is a constitutional revolution built upon a long process of organizing and agitating. Move to Amend and Fix Congress First! are both making stabs at this, but without the sort of radical democratic agenda I would advocate (see my chapter 2). As I originally intended, I hope to lay out some of the ingredients of such a struggle. But I’m not now convinced we will get very far by this route. Or maybe I’m just not up to the political organizing it would take to get there. And I know lots of people who could not believe in any such grand revolution. From them I take the second path, what I am tentatively calling “practical secession.”

There are a number of active secessionist movements in the U.S. today. Kirkpatrick Sale, a thinker I admire a lot, heads up an institute in Vermont devoted to studying and promoting secession. Bill Kaufman has a book I haven’t yet read introducing many of these movements, some of them frankly racist and atavist, others with better credentials.

But I have in mind something different. It may be possible, as many people I know assume, that we can simply rebuild our society and economy locally on new terms and provide ourselves and our neighbors, at least, with the resilience to survive some coming collapse of the too large societies we are currently enmeshed in. I would put the task in less optimistic and more radical terms.

As David Harvey argues, contemporary capitalism depends vitally on a compound rate of growth to survive, a demand that is, in effect, systematically destroying the planet as habitat for humanity. We can withdraw our support is a variety of ways. Money has to circulate beyond the local to contribute to the logic of capital reproduction. Local exchange takes money out of circulation to the extent it remains local. Similarly, labor has to be exploitable to provide the surplus capital requires. Withdraw from the labor market and you undermine the basis of circulation and reproduction of capital. So localization has a revolutionary logic. How far localization goes, how much it can achieve is another question, and I am currently as skeptical of this path as of the other. But I’m also convinced it has to be considered among the options that those of us who are fed up and can’t take it any more have.

So the book, as far as it goes here, is still a work in progress. Browse if you’re still interested and give me some feedback. There are too few people, even here in Northern California, who are thinking in these terms to bounce off of and learn from. Join the conversation.

Michael Foley, Feb. 26, 2011