I do not gently contemplate the possibility of an evangelical proto-fascistic dolt like Texas Governor Rick Perry walking into the White House. That is not a pretty prospect for anyone with hopes for the future. Ditto for Michelle Bachman and others in the Republican presidential field. As the Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted three years ago, well before the rise of the much ballyhooed Tea Party phenomenon: “The character of the Republican Party reflects a profound change: radicalism has shifted its location and meaning. Formerly it was associated with the Left [but now it is] the property of those who, quaintly, call themselves ‘conservatives’ and are called such by media commentators….It is hard to imagine any power more radical in its determination to undo the social gains of the past century.” 1
1. Dismal Democrats Empower the Right
Still, as I look across the ever more right-tilting landscape of America’s one-and-a-half party system, I can’t escape four basic thoughts that are certain to strike many “liberal” Democrats as unforgivable heresy. My first thought, hardly original, is that the Democrats have opened the door to the ever more right wing Republicans with their own excessive tepid corporatism and related class elitism. Given the closeness of the 2004 race and the unpopularity of the heavily plutocratic George W. Bush administration by the summer of 2004, the spectacularly wealthy Democratic presidential candidate John Forbes “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry (the quote comes from a comment he made at a posh Manhattan fundraiser during the 2004 campaign) would likely have won the election if he’d run further to the populist left after achieving the Democratic nomination. (With all due respect for the roles played by Republican shenanigans in Florida and a preposterous and partisan vote in the U.S. Supreme Court in the installation of George W. Bush, the same is probably true of Al Gore’s centrist campaign in 2000).
His failure to do so followed in accord with Thomas Frank’s reflections on why many working class Americans vote Republican in Frank’s widely read book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Released just before Bush defeated Kerry with no small help from working class whites, Frank’s book has generally been taken to have argued that plutocratic Republicans have cleverly conjured working class whites away from their own supposed “pocketbook interests” in the Democratic Party with “cultural wedge issues” like abortion, gun rights, religion, and gay marriage. At the end of his book, however, Frank blamed the shift of the post-New Deal Democratic Party to the corporate right and away from honest discussion of – and opposition to – economic and class inequality for much of whatever success the GOP achieved in winning white working class voters.
“‘New Democrats'…rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans….The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns.”3
Contrary to Frank, the Democrats’ difficulty is not so much the loss of working class votes to the racist, homophobic, and sexist “rancid populism” (William Greider’s excellent phrase) of the right as it is about shutting down and depressing a critical mass of the Democrats’ support base. The problem continues even when the Republicans screw up badly enough to lose control of both the White House and (briefly) Congress. As predicted in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987), the dismal dollar Democrats’ demobilization of the working class, minority, and progressive forces (such as they are) deepened a dangerous anger and activism vacuum on the left and has played itself out with standard rightward consequences that are all too chillingly reminiscent of pre-Nazi Germany. As I documented in my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power(www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410) and in my 2011 book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=280225), the in-power Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats steered to the business-friendly center-right, savagely betraying their “progressive base” on numerous issues of economic and social justice and war (not to mention civil liberties and ecology), thereby opening the door for an epic “conservative” victory in the 2010 mid-term elections. The Democrats suffered from significant declines in voter participation on the part of segments of the electorate that played key roles in their triumphs in the 2006 (Congressional) and 2008 (Congressional and presidential) elections – union households; young voters, black voters. By contrast, voters who identified themselves as “conservative” increased their share of the active electorate significantly from 2006 and 2010. This was all it took for the right to clean up in a mid-term, when turnout is considerably smaller than during a race that includes a presidential contest.
Wolin easily foretold this Democratic performance in his chilling 2008 book Democracy Incorporated:
“The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anti-corporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive, if not a coherent, opposition force.”
Obama’s liberal apologists complain about how their supposedly progressive President is now checked at every turn by terrible Republicans. As the Associated Press reported two weeks ago, “liberal angst has surfaced repeatedly over the past year as Obama has faced the reality of divided government in the aftermath of the 2010 congressional elections, in which Republicans won the House.” But it is questionable how blocked Obama feels, since he appears to be something of a Republican in his own right. And Obama and other top Democrats bear no small burden of responsibility for the exaggerated power of the right in the U.S. What did they deliver to their purported popular constituency in 2009 and 2010, prior to the onset of “divided government,” when they held not just the White House but also a significant, filibuster-proof majority in the Congress? With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewards capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of less advertised promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” the 2009-10 Obama presidency and Democratic Congress starkly demonstrated the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.” As the left liberal author Bill Greider noted in a Washington Post column titled “Obama told Us to Speak but Is He Listening?” in early 2009: “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, as the “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed record-setting “defense” (Empire) budgets, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, and aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras. “Liberal angst” is coming rather late in the game if it surfacing just this year.
Though the Republican Party remains highly unpopular and is having difficulty finding a serious presidential candidate, it is hardly guaranteed that cringing corporate centrism will not cost the Democrats the “big prize” – the White House – in 2012. Most of the “progressives” and liberal activists who express “disappointment” and “surprise” at “our black president’s” predictable (and predicted) center-right policy record can be counted on to vote for him again out of fear and hatred of the terrible Tea.O.P. But some, perhaps many, angry and disenchanted liberals will refuse to volunteer to make phone calls or knock on doors and to make modest campaign contributions (I have spoken with a number of such liberals in recent weeks). Working class, minority, and youth turnout for Obama and the Democrats will be considerably lower and “grassroots” get-out-the-vote energies will be slighter, thanks to Obama’s “New Democrat” approach. The New York Times’ political reporter Jackie Calmes asked the leading liberal activist Robert Borosage (co-director of Campaign for America’s Future) what price the Democrats might pay in the next election for the fact that the president “has adopted the Republicans’ language and in some cases their policies.” Borasage noted that “the activist liberal base will support Obama because they’re terrified of the right wing” but added that “the voting base of the Democratic Party — young people, single women, African-Americans, Latinos — are going to be so discouraged by this economy and so dismayed unless the president starts to champion a jobs program and take on the Republican Congress that the ability of labor to turn out its vote, the ability of activists to mobilize that vote, is going to be dramatically reduced.” That’s a big “unless” – one that Obama is unlikely to overcome in his forthcoming Labor Day jobs speech.
2. The Moral and Practical Price of Lesser Evil-ism
My second heretical thought is that liberals and leftists only encourage this kind of deadly nonsense by announcing in advance they will vote for Democrats to block Republicans. The great left intellectual Noam Chomsky has long advised (with no particular strong emphasis or enthusiasm, it should be noted) leftists to vote tactically for Democrats in contested American elections since the winner-take-all and narrow “two party” nature of U.S. elections means that a third party vote can swing a contested race to the right and because even small differences between the two reigning business parties can carry big consequences for millions of disadvantaged people in a system of vastly concentrated power and wealth like that one the prevails in the U.S. It’s an important moral point to keep in mind if and as one enters that venerable “coffin of class consciousness” (to quote the late radical historian Alan Dawley) known as the American ballot box in an election where the two viable candidates are in a closely matched battle. But we must also weigh the moral and practical price of telling the Democrats in advance that they – and not the only other party that can actually defeat them under the rules of the U.S. elections system – can count on our votes no matter how far right they drift, Listen to the following remark from Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, who spoke to the New York Times four weeks ago about Democratic voters will line up with Obama no matter how far right he drifts because of how bad the G.O.P is: “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates. So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.” Progressives’ less-evil-ism is at least partly to blame for Mellman’s smugness, which nicely captures elite Democrats’ basic attitude towards those beneath and to the left of their party&r