Democratic Deficits, Disillusion, and the Decline of the Democrats

As a number of analysts have observed, and as I argued in my last blog entry, the fundamental values of the US public are remarkably progressive. Even if those values rarely translate into organized, progressive political action, there is a “healthy nucleus” of humane instincts among the public which is evident from dozens of opinion polls in recent decades. Even many members in the “Tea Party” crowd are motivated by an anti-elitism and disaffection with economic injustice and concentrated power that overlap with central concerns of the Left—one reason why we should be taking the Tea Party phenomenon seriously rather than dismissing it.



Revisiting Gramsci and the Concept of Hegemony by inculcating attitudes and values conducive to the continued power of that class, which in modern capitalist societies was the bourgeoisie [2]. Writing in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, Gramsci observed that the rise of industrialization in the late 1800s brought with it unprecedented efforts by the bourgeoisie to “train,” “rationalize,” and otherwise transform the urban worker into a “new type of man” [3].

normal”>are heavily influenced by our surrounding culture, we do behave irrationally at times, and we do hold attitudes and opinions which unwittingly justify or obscure oppression, our own and others’. False consciousness does indeed exist, though recognizing its existence does not necessarily imply that there is any single, “proper” consciousness for the exploited. This phenomenon is not limited to the working- and middle-class Tea Partiers, but they certainly present the most obvious example in today’s United States. Many of the white working-class people who have helped serve corporate interests are among the more oppressed segments of US society: over the last thirty-five years they have seen their real wages plummet, their jobs shipped overseas, and the relative comfort and security of previous decades slowly erode. The rate of union membership has fallen to 12 or 13 percent, less if public-sector workers are excluded. These changes, meanwhile, have been accompanied by both rising economic productivity and profits for the capitalists who employ(ed) them. Increasing poverty and inequality have therefore had much more to do with deliberate corporate and government policies than with invisible “market” forces like globalization. Nonetheless, the health care industry, and corporate interests more generally, have successfully mobilized large numbers of workers to oppose the very policies that would improve the material well-being of the working class. There is perhaps no population in the world to which Gramsci’s concept is more relevant.

normal”>1) mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>    font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>. The trend in recent decades of falling wages and increasing inequality in the US, with its destructive impact on workers and the poor, is indisputable. In the eight years of the Bush administration alone—prior to the current recession—the number of people living in poverty grew by 5.2 million, or 15.4 percent. Those who have experienced downward mobility or whose livelihood is precarious can often be convinced that scapegoats are responsible. The economic roots of this disillusion are hard to deny. As a prominent white supremacist said recently, “I’m petrified whether I’m working the next day or not. And it’s—this is all we got. This is the last thing we got to stand on, man” [6].

    Atomization and depoliticization of the populacenot
necessarily a reactionary force; indeed, under some circumstances, when texts like the New Testament are actually taken seriously, religious faith can be a radically progressive, even revolutionary force—but rarely in the US in recent decades [7].) To the extent that politicization does happen, it tends to occur under the auspices of religious fundamentalism or similarly dogmatic movements. It tends to lack a strong factual grounding and to revolve around scapegoating, blind faith, and conspiracy theories lacking any

normal”>3)    10.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>like racism, sexism, nationalism, and individualism, which can neutralize or counteract more humanistic and compassionate impulses. Republicans, and Democrats to a moderately lesser extent, both promote these values, as do a variety of other institutions, interests, and consumer products and pastimes (sports, video games, movies, etc.). More troublesome, perhaps, is that in most societies these values also emanate from non-elite sectors who may or may not perceive their own interests to be advanced through the promotion of racism, sexism, and similar ugly sentiments. A common example is a white worker who is discontent with his economic plight keeping his distance from poor and working-class blacks whom he perceives as lazy and undeserving. All of these countervailing values fall within the category of what Howard Zinn has called “America’s blinders” [9].

normal”>4)    font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>. Since the “healthy nucleus” cannot be fully eliminated or negated, elites and policymakers must co-opt humane impulses in order to bolster public support for ugly policies. This pattern is perhaps clearest in the realm of foreign policy, where public concern for the safety of family members or the plight of oppressed Muslim women is manipulated to provide support for aggressive military intervention. As prominent hawk Robert Kaplan wrote a few years ago in an article clearly intended for fellow elites, the healthy nucleus requires that “ 10.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The cloaking of aggressive militarism in noble rhetoric about “peace and social welfare”—Hitler’s words—is common to all modern regimes, no matter how monstrous [11]. 10.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;
The control over factual informationscreaming at politicians to “ The powerful anti-government current in right-wing populism is especially important; as the result of well-crafted rhetoric that appeals both to people’s core values and their economic plight, “big government,” labor unions, and other institutions that can potentially curb the power of corporate capital become the very essence of tyranny, oppression, and fiscal waste. They, not private corporate power, tend to be the focus of angry rhetoric from so-called libertarians and conservatives. The declining economic fortune of the working class is acknowledged, but is blamed on the “liberal elites” who want to raise taxes and convert the hard-earned income of honest working people into affirmative action programs and “hand-outs” for welfare queens and drug addicts in the ghetto (this anti-government/anti-liberal rhetoric at least seems to be the predominant pattern, though over the past year there has actually been some right-wing rage directed at Wall Street, too) [12].

Many independent experts have dissected the phenomenon that famed pundit Walter Lippmann praised as “the manufacturing of consent,” so no further discussion is necessary here (except to note that the process operates quite naturally as a result of “free-market” mechanisms in a society dominated by corporate capital and only occasionally through direct government intervention to suppress information) [13].



ZNet Polls demonstrate that most people in this country—many Tea Partiers included—continue to have humane, progressive instincts [16]. With good reason, many working-class whites simply do not see those instincts reflected in the leadership of the Democratic Party, whom they understandably perceive as elitist and unprincipled. While Republicans are even more elitist, and their policies even more harmful to working people, the difference is that they have more successfully painted themselves as populists, in opposition to the “liberal elites” of the Democratic Party; and when the Democrats do so much to favor corporate power at the expense of ordinary people, the epithet is in truth quite appropriate. The Democratic leadership has consistently failed the test of responsiveness to the electorate.

poll released on January 11, 43 percent “think the reforms do not do enough” to rein in private health insurance companies, compared to 18 percent who say the legislation is “about right” in this regard; 26 percent of registered Republicans and 48 percent of Independents agreed that the reforms are inadequate. Only 29 percent approve of Congressional Democrats’ handling of health care, only slightly more than the 24 percent who approve of the Republicans’. People’s trust in Obama on the health care issue has steadily declined in recent months while their trust in Republicans has risen, to the point that as of December 2009 only 46 percent trusted Obama while 39 percent trusted Republicans (the differential six months earlier was 55-27). Obama’s overall approval rating has dropped below 50 percent, mainly because of his handling of health care and the economy [18]. And, just this past week, a centrist, uninspiring, and out-of-touch Democratic candidate in one of the most liberal states in the nation lost a Senate race to a reactionary moralist who once posed nude for Cosmo; just prior to the election, a union leader there noted that

ruling permitting unlimited corporate funding to politicians is significant and deeply disquieting, but hardly constitutes the fundamental power shift that some progressives are claiming; in fact, the public has long recognized our political system to be profoundly undemocratic. According to a 2009 Rasmussen poll, two-thirds think that “big business and b

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