Spank the Donkey

Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: A Polemical Essay

Another election day, another set of blown hopes for Democrats everywhere. This is mainly an essay about the national Democratic party, which ought never be confused with real people, but in this one instance what I mean by Democrats are the real people who continue to place their faith in the party and to hope it can be made into more than the champion of the status quo it's become. I mean all those other people, too, who can't bear to call themselves Democrats (or Republicans) anymore and don't like the way things are but see no alternative to letting Democrats and Republicans hash it out. This is a vast number of people we're talking about--between one-fifth and one-half of the voting public, and beyond them the half of the country that sees no point in voting. These were the real losers on election day.

Time to give up on the Democratic party once and for all. How much longer can we listen to all the plaintive, futile pleadings to "change the system from within," to make the party wake up and smell the electorate? This is a wish, not a strategy; it hasn't come true and it won't. That so many people do still cling to the Democrats is testament to the power of a myth--several myths, actually, but the one I have in mind is the fiction that the Democratic party turned right because the country turned right. Any good propagandist knows the most important lie is the big lie that frames all the others, and this is the Democrats' big lie. Doesn't anyone remember all the pundit-prattle about Ronald Reagan's "popularity gap," the gaping disconnect between his personal popularity and that of his policies? Since the mid-1980s there has been a steady dribble of social issues polls that have shown the American public standing considerably to the left of its elected officials. (There are polls that prove the converse, too; usually they are the ones that lard their queries with one overriding presumption: You don't want to pay higher taxes, do you?)

However you parse the polls, there was never any popular mandate for the Democrats' right turn. If there had been, we would not see so many defections from an increasingly conservative Democratic party; we would not hear so much half-hearted apologia from beleaguered Democrats waiting vainly for the day when the party veers the other way again; and there would not be such a gigantic mass of people reduced to thinking of Democrats as the perennial "lesser evil"--that is to say, not what we the people want or need, but a little better than nothing. I am going to argue that the Democrats are not really a lesser evil, that their turn to Republican Lite in the past generation has been as cynical as it is deliberate. But for the moment let's take the lesser evil argument at face value and suppose that the courts and the human services bureaucracies do fare a little better (that is, erode more slowly) under Democrats. Is that "democracy" in any sense? Do you really think so little of your country and your citizenship as to accept that?


What happened to the Democratic party?

You could say that times changed and the party changed with them, and you would be right so far as it goes. But it had nothing to do with the sentiments of the people. The party's right turn was a move conceived from within and designed to make the Democrats a more appealing vehicle for major private and corporate donors. This past election notwithstanding, the strategy has been an enormous success. Cash receipts have grown mightily. The business wing of the party has generated a president who became the first Democrat since FDR to win re-election to the White House, and missed electing his successor by a handful of votes (one vote, really, in the Supreme Court). The business Democrats' hold on the national party apparatus is complete.

The Reagan/Bush/Clinton years worked many changes in the political culture, and none was more profound than the market revolution. Over the past generation the American public has been relentlessly conditioned to believe that whatever is dictated by the market--in more guileless days, it was simply called the money power--is sensible, reasonable, necessary. Our values and aspirations as a society are now routinely subjected to the flummery of cost/benefit analyses in which it's understood that the only thing that really matters is cost. Democrats, under cover of "realism," are every bit as complicit in this shift as Republicans.

And where does it leave us? More than ever, the business of America is business (and its stepchild, war) and the business of Democrats is betrayal.


Why give up on the Democrats now?

Here's the first thing you need to understand: Election day may have been a shock and a disappointment to the national Democratic party, but it was not a failure. For all the hits they took, the Democrats held the line where it mattered. They did not let in any genuine political dialogue about the central issues of war abroad or of the economy and managerial lawlessness at home. In this they served their masters very well, and that's really all any political party tries to do in the end.

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