It’s more than doors between government and the businesses that they supposedly regulate that go round and round. One of the other swinging doors is between the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Perhaps the best known case is when Al Gore ran for president in 2000, he picked Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Then, in 2008, Lieberman showed up at the Republican national convention to endorse John McCain for president. Between those two campaigns, John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was rumored to be leaning to ask Republican John McCain to be his running mate.
Had Al Gore won, Lieberman would most likely have been the subsequent Democratic nominee for president. Had John Kerry won with McCain on the ticket, McCain would have been the heir apparent to the “Democratic Party” crown. Whether Lieberman or McCain, Democrats across the country would have been told to bow in reverence to their party’s red-blue nominee for president.
This was hardly the first time such a switcheroo blossomed in American politics. In 1864, Republican Abraham Lincoln dumped his sitting vice-president to ask Democrat Andrew Johnson to be his running mate. After Lincoln’s murder, US voters, who had selected a Republican to be their president, found him replaced by a Democrat.
Though such examples at the presidential level may be enshrined in history books, they happen all the time at the local level. In 1963, the Texas Young Democrats allowed high school chapters for the first time. I was 15 years old then and organized the state’s first Young Democrats chapter at Lamar High School in Houston. We invited a teacher who had been elected to the Texas Legislature to speak to our chapter on “Why Am I a Democrat?” His answer was simple. He was a Democrat because that was the only way to get elected in Texas of the early 1960s.
The next year, he came out as a Republican. That was the time of the exodus of southern Dixiecrats from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Fast forward half a century and I was the 2016 Green Party nominee for governor of Missouri. I participated in the debate with Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens. Greitens, riding the election on Trump’s wave, has since become internationally infamous for an affair in which he allegedly tied his victim to his basement exercise equipment, hit her, took nude photos of her, threatened to publicize the photos if she ever told anyone what he did, and continued various sex acts without her consent.
During the campaign, both the Democrat and Repubican made TV ads showing themselves with automatic weapons. Besides being partial to gun violence, they had something else in common. Both had switched parties. The Republican Greitens was a former Democrat and the Democrat Koster was a former Republican. Like most others greedy for power, they decided which way the winds were blowing, calculated where they could most effectively hustle votes, and adjusted their public images and party affiliation accordingly. (Greitens resigned as governor in May 2018.)
Flip-flops between the corporate parties are hardly peculiar to Missouri. Evan Jenkins was the runner-up it the May 2018 Republican primary for the West Virginia US senate seat. Jenkins had been elected as a Democrat to the West Virginia legislature, but hopped to the Republican side to win the third district US house seat in 2014. During the 2018 race, the former Democrat boasted a perfect rating from the National Rifle Association as well as a 100% “pro-life” record saying, “I am a West Virginia conservative who is working with President Trump each and every day for our shared conservative values.”
That was nothing new for the state. Its billionaire governor Jim Justice started out as a Republican, became a Democrat in 2015 to win the governor’s race and switched again to the Republicans in 2017 to bask in Trump’s glow. These people are as dedicated to the colors of their party as a chameleon is to staying green when it’s opportune to turn yellow.
Do you remember when the “revolving door” was first noticed? It was due to people like Michael R. Taylor who rotated between regulatory agencies and the corporations they were supposedly regulating. Taylor began as a Monsanto lawyer. Then he became a staff lawyer for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and helped it to hassle Amish farmers for selling whole milk while giving companies like Monsanto the green light to sell genetically contaminated products without labeling them. Then, he cycled back to Monsanto, becoming its Vice President for Public Policy. In 2010, he flipped back to being the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods.
The scenario was quite a bit different for Richard Gephardt, former speaker of the US House and darling child of business unions and anti-NAFTA coalitions in the early 1990s. When I was working with Public Citizen to oppose NAFTA, a friend who had just been to Mexico told me that Gephardt had spoken in Monterrey promising to get NAFTA through the US House. So I spent several afternoons at the Washington University library until I found the Mexican paper Excelsior recording his comments.
I documented Gephardt’s statements in an Op-Ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of June 1, 1993 and reported his two faces during the next Public Citizen conference call. There was stony silence for several seconds. Then Lori Wallach let everyone know “Dick Gephardt is the best ally in Washington that we have.”
Though Gephardt gave clear warnings of his true colors, leftists paid to lobby politicians had a devout faith that an ally scheming to stab you in the back is better than no ally at all. A few years later, the left did turn on Gephardt – but only after he publicly displayed his contempt for progressives. In 2005, he abandoned his distinguished career as public servant and formed Gephardt Government Affairs which allowed him to pocket almost $7 million lobbying on behalf of clients such as Goldman Sachs, Boeing, Visa Inc and Waste Management Inc.
Of course, Gephardt was not the typical revolving door guy. Instead of being an agency bureaucrat he was elected to public office. And he did not wait to resign from his governmental post to serve industry because he was apparently working both sides regarding NAFTA at the same time.
This brings us to a third way the door revolves – the way that policies and practices get tossed from one corporate party to the other. When I was a kid, the saying went “The Democrats bring war and the Republicans bring recession.” But no more. With rapacious Wall Street increasing its appetite for expansion as its human host decays, the Democrats and Republicans shadow box to see which can simultaneously be more violent and make the quality of life deteriorate faster.
Perhaps the old saying stemmed from the way Woodrow Wilson won the presidency with the slogan “He kept us out of war” and then proceeded to take the US into WWI. A few decades later Lyndon Johnson ridiculed Barry Goldwater’s threat to bomb Viet Nam back into the stone age. After LBJ won the election, he did his best to carry out Goldwater’s plan.
For about half a century, the Republicans won the reputation of being the most anti-Communist. Yet, it was John and Bobby Kennedy who tried to invade Cuba, went off their chain to pit bull Fidel Castro, and began the very long series of attempts to assassinate him.
Years later, the rapidly anti-Communist Richard Nixon ascended the throne, recognized China, and visited Beijing. In case you missed it, the right-wing Nixon reversed course and realized a progressive idea. It was hardly the only positive event that happened during the reign of one of the most degenerate presidents of all time. The following occurred during his presidency: end to the Viet Nam war, beginning of the Food Stamp Program, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Freedom of Information Act, formal dismantling of the FBI’s COINTEL program, decriminalization of abortion, creation of Earned Income Tax Credits, a format ban on biological weapons, and passage of the Clean Water Act.
One of the crowning achievements during the Nixon era was the April 28, 1971 founding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Shaun Richman describes in The Unionist how OSHA “has the authority to promulgate industry-specific workplace safety rules and to fine companies that violate them. The law also provides for workplace safety inspectors, whistleblower protections for workers who report potentially unsafe conditions and legal protections for workers who go on wildcat strikes to put an end to a dangerous situation.”
Do Democrats in power provide some sort of assurance because they “call for” more environmental protection than do Republicans? During the 1990s, St. Louis environmentalists were trying to block the construction of a dioxin incinerator. There was a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic Governor of Missouri, and a Democratic County Executive. We persuaded the Democratic majority on the County Council to pass an ordinance requiring dioxin incinerators to operate according to EPA standards, which seemed like a victory since no incinerator can meet those standards.
We stopped going to County Council meetings because we thought we had “won.” Then the Council repealed the ordinance we had lobbied for. Bill Clinton got his Missouri dioxin incinerator. When do Democrats stab you in the back? Whenever your back is turned.
In 2018, Donald Trump is justly despised because of his racist hate campaign against people of color, especially his ripping immigrant children apart from their parents and putting them in cages. But let’s not forget the continuity between Obama and Trump. As Tina Vasquez writes in Rewire News,
“When he first announced DACA in 2012, President Obama boasted of ‘putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history.’ Obama sought to ‘centralize border security’ on the pretext of deporting violent criminals and gang members—now Trump’s cause … The anti-immigrant zeal that Trump used to get elected is in many ways closely aligned with the history of America’s immigration system, which gave priority to white immigrants and sought to limit entry by other groups. Every administration, Republican or Democrat, has maintained this system’s injustices.”
A major difference between the two presidents is that press outlets like MSNBC tended to ignore actions by Obama but shrieked in horror when Trump followed suit. Clearly, the outrage against Trump positively lessens the attacks, but it makes one wonder: If a Democrat replaces Trump and commits the same atrocities against immigrant children, will media again muffle its anger?
These examples of Democrats and Republicans swapping platforms and policies do not even scratch the surface. Their views are so interchangeable that one could write a 10 volume collection of the way they imitate each other and still barely cover the tip of all the stories out there.
Does this mean that there is no one running for office as a Democrat who sincerely wishes to move in a more progressive direction? Of course not. There are many, many candidates to start out running for local office as a Democrat and stay at the bottom of the Party’s hierarchy because it is structured to keep them there and use them as bait to lure and defang other progressives.
Progressive Democrats at the base level do not script the Party’s major directions, which is as firmly controlled by big business as is the direction of the Republican Party. While they may propose reforms in their communities, they must march in line with candidates for national office if they are to get funding to run at a higher level. Those higher-up Dems are the ones most skilled at collaborating with Repubs, echoing their policies, and even fluttering over to the GOP side if the time is right.
While the Republicans and Democrats are able to twist and turn on any dime lying in the street, there is at least one item for which they have a mind-meld. The top concern of their corporate benefactors is “How do we reverse the gains of the New Deal?” Bosses of both parties seek to undo the New Deal – the biggest difference between them is how to pull it off.
The Dems generally use finesse with a stiletto, carving out gains one-by-one, weeping and sobbing as they do so. The public face of the Repubs screams in delight as it whacks off gains with a meat cleaver. The difference is rhetoric is vastly greater than any difference in the end result. So many politicians can alternate policies and, at times, party affiliation because they see elections as a thermometer measuring if it is the hour for the delicate blade or the butcher knife.
The great virtue of the Democrats is creating hope. The great virtue of the Republicans is being a bit more honest about their long term goals. The perception of vice or virtue in either depends on the mood of the observer.
Do Democrats and Republicans quarrel with each other in front of TV cameras? Obviously yes – but it’s merely a mock lovers’ spat crafted for public consumption. Once the cameras are off, they embrace in excited passion while collapsing onto the bed of cash provided by corporate donations to both parties.
Understanding that the unified goal of both parties is to turn back New Deal gains leads us to ask how those victories were won. It was because of the massive strikes, exploding labor movement, and unprecedented growth of the Socialist and Communist Parties that made a New Deal necessary. Key corporate players decided that it was more discreet to allow some demanded changes than to suppress mushrooming mass movements.
Hop forward to the Nixon years. The many accomplishments won during his term were not because that vicious anti-communist fell on his knees, beheld a shining light, and vowed to tread the path of righteousness. It was due to a strong labor movement, a massive anti-war movement following on the heels of the civil rights movement, and a growing women’s movement demanding reproductive freedom (along with many other more radical movements).
Hop forward again to the depravity of the Trump administration. As humanity faces extermination from increased production of fossil fuels, opposition bubbles up at an equal rate. Even though Republican state legislatures agreed to continue undermining public schools, in Spring 2018 teachers decided that they had had enough.
West Virginia had a Republican governor and a Republican majority in both houses of the legislature. But West Virginia teachers went on strike anyway and were followed by teachers from Oklahoma and other states likewise dominated by anti-labor Republicans. Even though illegal, the strike won because teachers stood together with janitors, bus drivers, food service workers and other state employees.
As Bruce Dixon laid it out in Black Agenda Report, “…successful strikes are possible wherever an overwhelming majority of the workforce is committed to it, whether or not those workers are in a ‘right to work’ state, and whether or not the strike is endorsed by their union if they have a union at all. Neither of West Virginia’s two teachers unions endorsed the strike, and the leaders of both unions initially and repeatedly attempted to ‘settle’ it for far less than the striking workers demanded.”
The three revolving doors are just other ways that big business manages government while pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Corporate flunkies transfer between their bosses and agencies to ensure agencies do their bidding. Professional politicians go back and forth between parties according to their career opportunities. Parties grab policies from each other to see who can hoodwink the most voters.
The Democrats and Republicans are parts of a single gestalt that creates the illusion of meaningful difference when there is none. If you are part of an organization that gets caught up in the revolving door, don’t keep going around in circles – find another way out. In times of the darkest despair, solidarity is still the road to victory.
Don Fitz, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, in which a previous version of the article appeared, and is Outreach Coordinator for the Green Party of St. Louis.