The Democrats suffered an electoral massacre on November 5. It should not have happened. In mid-term elections the party out of power has traditionally won seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Even more importantly the concrete conditions favored the Democrats. The economic downturn is deepening, unemployment is rising, and corporate corruption and influence peddling–as illustrated by the resignation of the Bush-appointed head of the Securities and Exchange Commission on the day of the elections–is as pronounced as ever.
Why did this occur? It is because the Democrats have become a party that stands for little or nothing. They have no principles. They of course did try to blame Bush and the Republicans for the economic downturn, but even that debate was carried out in muted terms. There was no stridency in their attacks, let alone any real discussion of the ever-widening class divide that characterizes U.S. society. They ignored what Paul Krugman, an economist, has starkly stated in the pages of the New York Times: “We are now living in a new Gilded Age,” one in which the corporate elite has amassed wealth comparable to the era of the Robber Barons in the late nineteenth century. As Krugman notes, in 1998 the top 0.01 percent, or “the 13,000 richest families in America had almost as much income as the 20 million poorest households.”
Comparable figures at the end of the Reagan administration reveal that then the top 0.01 percent earned only about 40 percent of what they do today. The polarization of the U.S. economy accelerated during the presidencies of George the Father and Bill Clinton because both parties catered to the corporate elites. Under Clinton the Democratic Party tried to compete with the Republicans for corporate soft money by bedding some of the country’s richest corporate executives in the Lincoln room of the White House. This strategy worked when the Democrats had something to sell, namely their control of at least one of the key bastions of political power, be it the Presidency, or one or both Houses of Congress.
As Ralph Nader points out, the Democrats inability to articulate real issues in the 2002 campaign “flows from being largely indentured to the same monied commercial interests as the Republicans.” Now that the Democrats have no control over any of the key branches of the U.S. government, the rich and the powerful will undoubtedly rush to fill Republican campaign coffers while spurning many Democrats. They have little need to curry the favor of Democrats on key Congressional committees because Republicans are now in control.
Perhaps the Democrats should look south of the border, to Brazil, for an example of how to win elections while standing for real values. Nine days prior to the U.S. elections, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva overwhelmingly won the Brazilian presidency with 61 percent of the vote and turned the Workers Party into Brazil’s leading political organization. In the campaign, the Workers Party, like the Democrats in recent years, moved to the center. But the Workers Party did not abandon its core principles. Lula made it clear in the campaign that the party had an alternative economic program that favored workers along with the middle class and national manufacturing interests. Lula said no to neo- liberalism and the financial interests that feed off the Brazilian economy and sap the country’s resources, and yes to the social sectors that are willing to roll up their sleeves and work for a better Brazil.
The day after he won the election Lula’s first act was to establish the Secretariat for Social Services. Its mandate is to eliminate hunger among twenty million Brazilians during the Workers Party’s four-year rule. This goal may or may not be achieved, but it is a goal that enjoys widespread national support. What if the Democratic Party adopted such a bold policy by pledging to eliminate the poverty that afflicts twenty-five percent of America’s children? Wouldn’t it enjoy widespread public support for undertaking such a noble mission?
In fact the few Democrats who did take courageous stands on principles numbered among the few resounding Democratic winners in the November 5 elections. Representative Jim McDermott of Washington state, along with two other Congressmen, went to Iraq in late September and declared that “U.S. war is not a solution.” Republicans tried to tar him as “Bagdad Jim,” and compared his visit to Iraq to Jane Fonda’s trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. But McDermott won reelection with 75 percent of the vote, a bigger margin than that received by any other Congressional representative in the state of Washington. Another Democratic Congressman, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who denounced the impending war against Iraq and may be a presidential candidate in 2004, won with 74 percent of the vote in his district. The Democratic leadership, headed by Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt caved into Bush´s war resolution and what did it gain them? Nothing.
The most poignant legacy of a Democrat who stood on principles is that of Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. After his vote against Bush’s war resolution he surged ahead of his Republican Senatorial opponent. The last poll taken by the Minneapolis Star before he died in a plane crash gave him a lead of 47 to 41 percent. Walter Mondale, his replacement on the ticket who sits on a number of corporate boards such as Cargill-the world´s leading grain trading company and the largest privately owned corporation in the United States–lost the election because the people of Minnesota realized he stood for little more than politics as usual and that he was just a pale reflection of Senator Wellstone.
If the Democrats are to recover, they will have to forge a platform that stands for the disadvantaged, the working class and the troubled middle class. It will have to challenge the oligopolistic domination of the U.S. economy by corporate interests. The Democrats need to promote an alternative economy that develops new technologies and resources to deal with the devastation of the environment while simultaneously ending poverty in the United States and abroad. Such a program would require massive investments that would unleash new technological and productive forces, just as Lula is calling for in Brazil.
The United States and the world need not just a bigger, more productive economy, but a different path, a greener economy, a fairer economy, one that develops the capabilities of the human species, not just that of a favored few. If during the Cold War the U.S. government created jobs and stimulated the economy through massive expenditures on the wasteful military-industrial complex, than there is every reason to believe that a campaign to build an alternative economy that reduced our reliance on fossil fuels and ended human impoverishment would create a sane and humane world.
Special thanks to Dick Walker for his editorial comments.
* Roger Burbach is co-editor, with Ben Clarke, of September 11 and the U.S. War (City Lights, 2002), and author of the forthcoming book The Pinochet Affair: Globalizing Human Rights. He is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, CA.