What’s the Matter With the Democrats? Post-Massachusetts Reflections on Popular Resentment, the Liberal-Left Vacuum, and Right Comeback

The e-mails are coming in from frightened Europeans.  They are shocked by the previously unknown right-wing Republican state senator Scott Brown’s stunning victory over the establishment Democrat Marcia Coakley in the open seat election for the critical U.S. Senate post formerly held by leading liberal Democrat Teddy Kennedy in “liberal” Massachusetts. The remarkable Brown “upset” costs the Democrats their filibuster proof “super majority: (60 to 40) in the U.S. Senate, endangering the legislative viability Obama’s “health reform” – if that’s what we really want to call it (see below) – as currently constructed.


The Europeans have questions.  “Is the right already having a come back in the United States?”


“Could the Republicans really return to power?”


“What’s wrong with the American people – why are they so fickle?”


“What makes Americans so stupid and reactionary? The Republicans advanced the free market ideology that caused the economic meltdown. The Republicans championed the unpopular invasion of Iraq and cling to a religious zealotry that works against rational policy and the interests of ordinary Americans. Why would they be having a comeback? Is it racism?”


Similar things are being asked and said in elite liberal circles here in the U.S. The arrogant “tsk tsk”-ing about “stupid” and “reactionary” ordinary Americans is quite audible from privileged academic Democrats in my current home town, an upscale university-based liberal stronghold.




Yes, worried liberals and Europeans, the Republican comeback is real.  Scott Brown’s triumph is only the latest sign of the right’s return. Last August, highly organized right wing Republicans successfully disrupted town hall meetings on health care across dozens of U.S. congressional districts. On September 12, 2009, “conservatives” put perhaps as many as 100,000 angry Republicans and rightists in the streets of Washington D.C. to protest and “take our country back” from Barack Obama and the Democrats’ supposed “radical leftist” agenda.


Last November 3rd, the Republicans took all of the top elected offices in Virginia’s off-year election.  The GOP expelled Democratic governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey.  It repealed a gay marriage law in Maine.


And through it all the ratings of hard-right “paranoid-style”[1] radio and television personalities like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other demagogues of the FOX News variety have been sky high.  The vapid and vicious proto-fascistic former Alaska governor Sarah Palin retains a fierce and stubborn base of support among millions of Americans who believe that Obama is advancing a “secret” socialist agenda and that the corporate media is owned and run by (of all things) “the left.”


Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League reports that the number of right-wing paramilitary militias operating in the U.S. rose from 50 to 200 between 2007 and 2010.[2]


MSNBC talk show hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann might portray the American right as a marginal collection of goofy tea-party kooks whose main role is to provide laughs for all-knowing liberals, but there is something much more significant going on. 





How did this happen? How could the seemingly discredited and even laughable right get so rejuvenated so quickly in the first year of the “liberal” Obama presidency?


There is deep and widespread anger and resentment across the land, There’s nothing mysterious about the material basis of what the establishment media arrogantly dismisses as “populist rage.” The official U.S. unemployment measure is over 10 percent, terrible enough though the real joblessness rate (including involuntarily part-time workers and the many millions of workers who have given up on the quest for employment) is over 17 percent.[3]  One in four U.S. children now relies on Food Stamps. The foreclosure crisis continues, feeding mass homelessness. 


There’s nowhere to make an honest, family-supporting living for millions of U.S. (ex-) workers, stuck in a former manufacturing superpower whose corporate overlords have moved the lion’s share of production offshore.(To give just one example among many: U.S. luggage producers account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. market, yet nearly every U.S. resident owns luggage[4]). 


The top 1 percent of the U.S. population owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s total net worth and closer to two thirds of its financial assets.


At least 92 million people – close to a third of the U.S. population – lives at less than 200 percent of the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level (currently $21,834 for a family of four).


Forty-five thousand Americans die each year in connection with their inability to obtain health insurance [5]– a curious commentary on life and death in “the world’s greatest democracy,” the only “modern” industrial-service economy state not to guarantee health care to its broad populace.


And while economic destitution and its terrible consequences (rising crime, incarceration, suicide, family dissolution and more) stalk the “homeland” even as television pundits speak positively of a Wall Street “recovery,” the leading financial firms that caused the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 have benefited from massive federal bailouts to the degree that they have resumed giant, multi-billion dollar bonus packages.  The federal government offers relatively little to ordinary working people but has recently passed the largest Pentagon budget (funded at more than $ 1 trillion per year) – a giant subsidy to the high tech corporate sector – in history and is presiding over an expensive five-front terror war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. In December, the nation’s commander- in-chief announced (sounding amazingly Bush-like in West Point) that he will be deepening the country’s massive and apparently endless investment in the unpopular “Af-Pak” quagmire.  His “homeland” economic team is quarterbacked by the arrogant and authoritarian arch-neoliberal Larry Summers, a Goldman Sachs veteran and former Harvard president who callously privileges global finance capital’s bottom line over and above job creation and manufacturing within the U.S.[6]  Noam Chomsky rightly sees this as a confirmation of the 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s warning that “the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others.” “And they are the architects of policy,” Chomsky ads. “Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector.”[7]




All of this is grossly contrary to the policy and social preferences of the majority of U.S. citizens, identical with the U.S. government in quaint democratic theory. The American people are nowhere nearly as reactionary as many middle class liberals I know insist. For what its worth (not all that much in America’s corporate managed dollar democracy), popular U.S. attitudes on key policies and values have long stood well to the left of both of the two dominant U.S. political parties, the investor class, and the nation’s “mainstream” (corporate) media. Contrary to pundits’ routine description of the U.S. as a "center-right nation:”


* 71 percent of Americans think that taxes on corporations are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007), 66 percent of Americans think taxes on upper-income people are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007) and 62 percent believe corporations make too much profit (Pew Survey 2004).


* 77 percent of Americans think there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies (Pew Survey 2004), 84 percent think that big companies have too much power in Washington (Harris Poll 2007), and two-thirds think that “big business and big government work together against the people’s interests” (Rasmussen Reports, 2009).


*A majority of American voters think that the United States’ "most urgent moral question" is either “greed and materialism" (33 percent) or "poverty and economic injustice" (31 percent). Just 16 percent identify abortion and 12 percent pick gay marriage as the nation’s "most urgent moral question" (Zogby, 2004). Thus, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the population think that injustice and inequality are the nation’s leading "moral issues” (Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority [Paradigm, 2008], p.72).


* Just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on "defense."  By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations [hereafter "CCFR”], "Global Views,"2004).


* 69 percent of Americans think it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all U.S. citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006) and 67 percent “think it’s a good idea [for government] to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27 percent dissenting” (Business Week, 2005).


* 59 percent of Americans support a single-payer health insurance system (CBS/New York Times poll, January 2009) and 65 percent of Americans respond affirmatively to the following question: “Would you favor the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?” (CBS-New York Times, September 23, 2009)


From the polling data I’ve seen and from numerous heartland “voter contacts” and conversations I’ve had with “ordinary Americans” over the last few years.  I suspect that a majority – or very close to it – of U.S. citizens would significantly agree with much of what Iraq occupation veteran Mike Prsyner recently said in a remarkable speech to Iraq Veterans Against the War:


“I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify.  The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home.  If we organize with our sisters and brothers we can stop this war. We can stop this government. And we can create a better world.” [8]


A significant number and percentage of American would support a third left-wing social-democratic and even socialist party of the working class majority.  They would, that is, if such a party – currently prohibited by the nation’s big money, big media and “winner-take all” elections and party systems and political culture – were allowed to exist in the U.S. 


Of course, the nation’s majority progressive views are (like electoral reform to permit viable left parties) “off the table” of serious policy consideration in the U.S. This reflects the nation’s much-bemoaned “democracy deficit,” a consequence of its “unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a permanent behind-the-scenes veto power over those who seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime” [9] – a dictatorship whose grip has recently been deepened by a Supreme Court decision that permits corporate managers to buy elections directly instead of only by indirect methods.




Of course, it’s one thing to express isolated progressive opinions to a pollster over the phone in the privacy of one’s living room.  It’s another thing to see those opinions as part of a broader progressive identity and to join with others to pursue them collectively in an organized and effective fashion.


But where are ordinary American supposed to turn to act on their progressive opinions and on their current "populist" resentment?


The Real Beneficiaries of Democratic Policies: Large Banks and Wall Street Investment Companies


Not the Democratic Party, an institution that has set new records in transferring federal funds to Wall Street and in funding the Pentagon while abandoning workers and the poor and  escalating imperial violence in South Asia. As the campaign finance data and more shows, the Democratic Party is the leading conservative establishment party doing the bidding of the nation’s ruling class right now. Everyday citizens know this very well. As Lance Selfa notes in SocialistWorker:


“The idea that Obama was even pursuing a liberal agenda will come as news to millions of his supporters who have become increasingly demoralized with an administration that seems more interested in helping out Wall Street bankers than ‘Main Street’ Americans losing their jobs and houses.”


“A September 2009 Economic Policy Institute poll asked a national sample of registered voters to say who they thought had ‘been helped a lot or some’ from the policies the administration enacted. The result: 13 percent said the ‘average working person,’ 64 percent identified ‘large banks,’ and 54 percent said ‘Wall Street investment companies.’" [10]