Spank the Donkey

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

Tell you what. If Al Gore secures the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 campaigning for single-payer, and writes into the party platform a radical overhaul of the health care system, I will declare myself a Democrat and shut up about all these things.

It won't happen.


What about the Paul Wellstones of the world? Don't they prove there's room in the party for liberals and wild cards?

In the past couple of weeks I have been accused of all manner of attacks on Paul Wellstone's memory. One letter writer called me a "grave stomper." This for pointing out that, in my view, Wellstone erred in keeping such a low profile and aligning himself with the national Democratic leadership. The criticisms of what I wrote all come down to this: How nice that you're so ideologically pure, friend, but those of us living in the real world don't have that luxury.

This is ironic. In the past generation all manner of people have left the Democratic party, or gotten pushed out of it, or simply stopped caring about it, over all manner of issues. It's the party itself that's burdened by an untenable ideological purity: It means to remain programmatically compatible with its financiers and large donors at any cost, even though that cost is an increasing and now perilous level of defection by traditional Democratic voters who have no stake in sticking with the party. But again, the Democrats are not in this position because they're out of touch. This is where they have chosen to stand. They would be happy for your help--in fact, they are positively desperate for it, because a party can lose only so much ground before the patronage that keeps it functioning at ground level begins drying up--but come what may, they mean to stick with the people who pay their bills, thank you very much.

As for Wellstone, one last time: I believe he was a good and honest and well-meaning man, and I mourn his passing far more than you may imagine. His work was not all for nothing; Wellstone partisans like to point out how hard he worked at playing defense, toning down some of the more noxious provisions of the legislation he encountered every day. And I have no doubt that this is true, or that it made the circumstances of some people a little better. But the decision to work within the party and concentrate on legislative minutiae also kept Wellstone from using his position to elicit public pressure on select issues and expand the terms of debate within the party. By his own account, he set out in the beginning to fight for radical reform in key areas such as health care and campaign finance, principally by using his grassroots organizing experience to bring outside pressure to bear on Washington. I know this because he said so to me and to any number of other reporters.

But once he reached Washington, he soon succumbed to the blandishments of the Democratic leadership. He bought into then-majority leader George Mitchell's swap of plum committee assignments for adherence to the party line. He acquiesced to Hillary Clinton and pulled his single-payer health care proposal off the table at a time when, as either of them should have seen, it was most needed to provide cover on the left for the Clintons' more conservative plan. Paul Wellstone started as an insurgent and wound up a proud if sometimes balky Democrat. If you are cognizant of the goals with which he entered the Senate, and honest about what became of them, it pretty much dispels the notion that "working inside the system" will do a damn thing to change the Democratic party.


So what, we shouldn't vote at all?

That's not what I'm saying. Local and state races frequently offer more distinct choices than national ones, both in the major parties (which are more ideologically porous at this level, since campaigns for smaller offices require less money and are less determined by the wishes of large donors) and in smaller parties like the Greens and the Independents. Those races are worth watching and often worth participating in. And there's nothing wrong with the occasional judicious vote for a national Democratic candidate when the Republican opponent is especially noxious. I voted for Fritz Mondale on that basis myself; or rather, I voted against someone I personally despised in Norm Coleman. Play the lesser evil game if you want--selectively, lest you keep legitimizing the whole corrupt Democratic edifice--but bear in mind the larger truth of the matter: A system that always puts you in the position of choosing a (barely) lesser evil is a mockery of your right to representation.



Start talking to people and building things. Recognize that the most consequential work you can do has little immediate connection to electoral politics. The civil rights movement, to cite the greatest uprising of American citizens in this century, was not built on voting for pro-civil rights politicians; no such creature even existed when it began. It was based on relentless public pressure over a period of years. Today there are any number of major issues to organize around: health care, corporate crime, international trade policy, the environment, labor rights and economic justice, civil liberties. The political establishment and major media will steadfastly ignore you for as long as they can, but there are still countervailing opportunities for outreach and collective action. The mass WTO protests in Seattle a few years ago, and elsewhere around the globe since then, were mainly organized on the Internet, a medium ripe with possibilities for connecting like-minded people.

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