Democrats’ (And Liberals’) Existential Crisis?

In his New York Times column of March 23, 2013, “The G.O.P.’s Bachmann Problem,” Charles M. Blow argues that the Republicans’ open internal squabbling, while it is “too delicious for words,” is not the main show. The main show is that “The Republican Party is experiencing an existential crisis, born of its own misguided incongruity with modern American culture and its insistence on choosing intransigence in a dynamic age of fundamental change.” In the process they are also pushing away voters whom it could otherwise win. Blow then cites political scientist and pollster Andrew Kohut, who compares the low ratings and the Republicans today with the devastation of the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s when supporters of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern were “radicalizing its image and standing in the way of its revitalization.”

But are the Democrats today advancing positive values in this “dynamic age of fundamental change?” Are they opposing the permanent war system and entrenchment of the military-industrial complex? Are they dealing effectively with the severe internal problems this country faces? Gene McCarthy and George McGov- ern were most notable for their opposition to the Vietnam War, a murderous enterprise that the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey Democrats had gotten us into so heavily and that Nixon continued at huge human and financial cost. McGovern was also a strong spokesperson for the welfare state.

So, in fact, he (and McCarthy) stood for the values that any decent liberal would advocate and support (see the classic exposition in L.T. Hobhouse’s 1911 book Liberalism, which includes a strong condemnation of militarism). McCarthy and McGovern were beaten back by seriously regressive forces that included AFL-CIO boss George Meany, business investors in election outcomes, the Democratic political establishment, and the mainstream media. It was actually a low point in modern political history, the triumph of business-as-usual and anti-revitalization. The Democrats’ political image was made to seem radical by political-economic forces that no good liberal today should present as an appropriate arbiter.

Was the Democratic Party revitalized thereafter? Jimmy Carter was a presidential failure and helped set the stage for Reagan’s intensified class warfare, militarization, and global “anti-terrorism” program (notable for its compatibility with warm relations with the Argentine and Guatemalan military dictatorships and apartheid South Africa). In short, Carter didn’t revitalize the Democrats, he kept the party in the familiar political mainstream, setting it up for the advance of right-wing forces with an ideology and program that they believed in and pressed.

The Republicans today and in the recent past have pushed for and implemented a class war on the majority, so that their “intransigence” and aggressive bargaining and union-busting efforts are truly making this a “dynamic age” with “fundamental change,” although in a backwards direction. It is widely recognized that they have pushed the political frontier to the right, the Democrats being the pushees as well as the collaborators.

The far-right Koch brothers and “entitlements”-slashing Pete Peterson are surely pleased with this political drift. The Republicans may have lost recent elections, but they have succeeded in the policy arena—militarism has been strengthened, welfare state encroachments continue, and the Democrats have hardly been able to claim progressive advances on any front but in social changes that were already underway (such as gay rights).

Clearly, the Democrats suffer a severe existential crisis, despite their recent electoral victories—and not solely because of Republican intransigence. The Democrats supported the enormous bailout of the financial institutions directly responsible for the 2008 meltdown and crisis; failed to give anything like parallel help to the victims among the 99 percent who are not “job creators” (and very affluent); failed to prosecute the financial criminals responsible for 2008; failed to reverse the civil liberties retreats of the Bush years and have actually enlarged them and expanded the attack on whistleblowers; and they have enlarged the “war on terror,” widening its global scope and making lavish drone warfare its new centerpiece. They have also bargained poorly with the “intransigent” Republicans and made no serious gains in reducing the growth of inequality and impeding the “Golden Rule,” which Rule helps us understand their own sorry role. Their triumph in the passage of “Obama-care” was muted by its lack of a public option, its complexity, and its loop- holes that the insurance companies can exploit.

So we see in this country not a revitalized Democratic Party working congruently with the needs of this culture and demands of fundamental change, but one so paralyzed by dependence on money and internal divisions that it is unable to mount a credible defense of a sinking welfare state and finds it easier to go after “terrorists” and join in the fight to contain the debt. The intransigent Republicans have been making mincemeat of the far-too-little-intransigent Democrats.  

We should also note that the Democrats have not made fundamental changes in, or revitalized U.S. foreign policy in any way, but instead have, if anything, enlarged the Bush-Cheney “global war on (really war of) terror” and happily allowed Obama’s transformation from agent of hope and change into a permanent war president. Warfare and alleged threat prevention has been more important than peace, civil society repair, and the real threat of climate change. Epitomizing the failure to revitalize in this area was the March 2013 Obama visit to Israel, allegedly intended to get the “peace process” moving again, but ignoring the fact that the “peace process” has long been an Israeli ethnic-cleansing protector rather than an instrument of peace-making. Peace would require abandoning that old fraud and putting serious pressure on Israel, which Obama was clearly not prepared to do, in keeping with Democratic Party (and Republican-supported) policy. So here again “intransigence” (Netanyahu) made Obama and the Democrats look like agents of hopelessness and de facto state terror, infinitely distant from revitalization.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books. His latest book is The Politics of Genocide (with David Petersen).