Friday, November 16, 2007
The Function of the Democratic Party in the Political System
The Democratic Party plays an indispensable role in society's political machinery. This doesn't mean it has any power, in terms of controlling the state or setting policy. It means that without the existence of the Dem Party, the US could no longer maintain the pretense that it's a "democracy." If the Dem Party disintegrated, the US would be revealed for what it really is -- a one-party state ruled by a narrow alliance of business interests.
In terms of defending the general population against the depredations of this business consortium, the Dem Party gave up the ghost in the mid-1960's. Their threadbare act as the "Party of the People" serves not to defend the well-being of the population, but merely to persuade ordinary citizens that within the official political system's framework, there's at least some faint hope for eventual progressive change. Their focus is not so much being on our side, as convincing us that they're on our side -- without the slightest serious examination of what that might entail.
The party's true function is thus largely theatrical. It doesn't exist to fight for change, but only to pose as a force which one fine distant day might possibly bestir itself to fight for change. Thus the whole magic of the Dem Party -- the essential service it renders to the US power structure -- lies not in what it does, but in its mere existence: by simply existing, and doing nothing, it pretends to be something it's not; and this is enough to relieve despair & to let the system portray itself as a "democracy."
As long as the Dem Party exists, most Americans will believe we have a "democracy" and a "choice" in how we are ruled. They will not despair, and will not revolt, as long as they have this hope for "change within the system." From the system's point of view, this mechanism serves as the ultimate safety valve -- it insures against a despairing populace, thus eliminates the threat of rebellion; yet guarantees that no serious change to the system will be mounted, because the Dems weren't designed to play that role in the first place.
Aren't the Dems The Lesser Evil?
The Democrats are not the "lesser evil;" they are an auxiliary subdivision of the same evil. To understand the political system, one must step back and regard its operation as an integrated whole. The system can't be properly understood if one's study of it begins with an uncritical acceptance of the 2-party system, and the conventional characterizations of the two parties. (Indeed, the fact that society encourages one to view it in this latter way, is perhaps a warning that this perspective should not be trusted.)
Any given piece of reactionary legislation is invariably supported by a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats. Does this show that the Democrats are "less evil?" If one focuses on the noble efforts of the few outspoken dissenters, it's easy to feel that the Democrats are somewhat less evil. But in the larger picture, Democrats invariably submit to what Republicans more ardently promulgate, & the entire range of official opinion thereby shifts to the right. Thus the overall function of Democrats is not so much to fight, as to quasi-passively participate in this ever-rightward-moving process. Just as the Harlem Globetrotters need their Washington Generals to make their basketball games properly entertaining, Republicans need the Democrats for effective staging of the political show.
The Democrats are permitted to exist because their vague hint of eventual progressive change keeps large numbers of people from bolting the political system altogether. Emma Goldman once said, "If voting made a difference, it would be illegal." Similarly, if the Democrats potentially threatened any sort of serious change, they would be banned. The fact that they are fully accepted by the corporations and political establishment tells us at once that their ultimate function must be wholly in line with the interests of those ruling groups.
Doesn't the presence of the Dennis Kuciniches, Cynthia McKinneys, et al "prove" that the Democrats are progressive? No. The Kuciniches and McKinneys are indeed significantly different from the Hillary types -- but there are compelling reasons not to get too excited about them, either. First, they are used by the party as a "Left decoration," simply to keep potential left defectors in tow. Secondly, the party power brokers will NEVER in a million years let the Kucinich-McKinney faction have any real power.
In other words, the very modestly-sized progressive Dem faction is cynically used as a marketing tool by the national party. They are dangled before your eyes to make you think that the Dems are the "lesser evil" (since the Republicans offer no such Left decorations). The existence of a few decent Dems makes no real difference in the overall alignment of the party, and they will never be internally influential. They are a distraction.
Can Progressives "Take Over" the Dem Party?
The argument is often advanced by progressives that they might be able to "take over" the Dem Party just as the Republican Party was supposedly "taken over" by the Religious Right and neoconservatives. This is wishful thinking, and ignores the actual history and character of both parties.
The Republicans were always the party of Wall Street & Northern manufacturing. The Democrats were the party of the Southern slaveocracy. When the national Democrats defied southern racism by passing the Civil Rights Acts in the mid '60's, the southern states bolted, destroying the New Deal coalition. The Republicans profited from this by adapting to southern tastes, values, & religious/cultural conceptions.
But this was in no way out of character for the Republicans. The far right was able to take over the Republican Party because that kind of alliance was always very much in the nature of the Republican Party anyway. It was compatible with, not contradictory to, the big-business nature of the Republican party. Forming an alliance with fascists, racists & religious zealots ADVANCED the big-business agenda.
By contrast, for progressives to take over the Democrats would be an unprecedented departure from the party's character. To understand this, one must first recognize that the sole Dem claim to being progressive is rooted almost entirely in the New Deal, itself a response to a unique crisis in American history. FDR recognized that to avert the very real threat of massive social unrest and instability, significant concessions had to be made to the working class by the ruling class. Government could act to defend the weak, and to some extent to rein in the strong, but this was all in the longterm interests of defending the existing social order.
Before FDR, the Dem Party had no progressive record whatsoever; and after FDR, though the New Deal coalition survived until the mid-1960's, it did so with a record of achievement that was restrained compared to the 1930's. After passing Medicare in 1965 the party reverted to its longterm pattern, and since then, there has again been no progressive record to speak of. The party's progressive social reform was thus concentrated mostly in the 1930's, with some residual momentum lasting until the mid 60's. The party's "progressive period" was thus 1) an exception to the longer term pattern; 2) a response to a unique crisis; and 3) has in any case been dead for over 40 years.
The word "progressive" refers to the commitment of a political party to defend the interests of the working class (aka the overwhelming majority of the population) against the depredations of the ruling elite. Not only is the Democratic Party unable and unwilling to engage in such a fight, it is unwilling even to pronounce the fight's name -- "class warfare." Marx is understandably reviled by capitalists for his annoyingly accurate perception that the capitalist class and the rest of the population have a fundamental conflict of interest. Capital seeks only to maximize its return; return can certainly be enhanced by using the machinery of state to transfer costs and burdens to the weak and vulnerable; thus rule by capital is intrinsically inimical to the basic interests of the majority of the population. There is no escaping this reality.
American public discourse attempts to paper over this vexing truth with fatuous happy talk, such as, "By working together, we can make make things better for everyone!" This is a lie. When capital controls government, government is no more than a tool used by elites to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. This kind of arrangement cannot possibly "make all boats rise" over the long term. Only the yachts will rise. If there is no political mechanism for opposing plutocratic rule, the strong will continue to squeeze additional wealth out of the weak until a) the weak become desperate and rebel, b) the weak are crushed and become permanently enslaved, or c) the strong begin suffering more from guilty consciences, than reaping enjoyment from additional wealth -- and therefore relent. (Very few instances of this last are known in recorded history.)
For the Democratic Party to even begin to serve as a vehicle for opposing the absolute rule of capital, it would at a minimum have to be capable of acknowledging the conflict that exists between the interests of capital and the rest of the population; and of expressing a principled determination to take the side of the population in this conflict.
A party whose controlling elements are millionaires, lobbyists, fund-raisers, careerist apparatchiks, consultants, and corporate lawyers; that has stood by prostrate and helpless (when not actively collaborating) in the face of stolen elections, illegal wars, torture, CIA concentration camps, lies as state policy, and one assault on the Bill of Rights after the next, is not likely to take that position.