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Thoughts on Selfa’s “The Democrats: A Critical History”


 I enjoyed this book quite a bit. At first, I was expecting a wholesale dismissal of anything the Dems have ever done or will do (i.e, a staunch Socialist perspective). But, as I went on, I sometimes started expecting a conclusion from Selfa that the Dems can indeed be "moved Leftward" (i.e., that there is still hope). Thus, I was very pleased at the end of the book to find that Selfa’s conclusion rests somewhere firmly in the middle–far more useful than a pure dismissal, far more critical than hopeful. The Democratic Party’s victories in the past should not be wholly discounted, as they did help working class people. But they should also be measured against what was being called for–indeed, demanded–by the ever-growing social movements on the ground at the time (specifically during the Depression and 1960s, arguably the "heydays" of progressive Democrats). Measuring the "populist" nature of the Dems in this way, rather than simply against what Republicans stand for, is especially useful in that it breaks the dichotomous politics that tends to pervade the American psyche (e.g., liberal vs. conservative, pro-this vs. pro-that, etc.). It shows that, contrary to what the Right might be screaming, the true American Left is often left woefully disappointed by what Dems actually do when push comes to shove–and that’s on a good day. On bad days, the Left is absolutely dumbfounded by what Dems do (e.g., escalating the Vietnam and Afghan wars, severely restricting welfare/medicaid services, etc.), often recoiling into fatalistic passivity. The book offers lots of historical examples of the Democratic party’s diabolical nature and successfully shows that the strong-principled, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-civil rights elements of the Democratic party are probably more the exception than the rule. I would recommend this for anyone who considers his or herself "to the left" of George W. Bush, and for anyone wishing to more fully understand the painful status quo of American politics.

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