With less than a month to go before the election and Obama’s inauguration a mere three months away, Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History is critical reading for anyone interested in real change we can believe in i.e. not the kind Obama will bring.
For the American working class movement and the organized left, the Democratic Party has been a key stumbling block since the Populist Movement shook the country back in the 1890s. The Democratic Party has managed, contained, controlled, co-opted, rolled back and eventually destroyed every social movement that has arisen since then.
Selfa begins the book by looking at the Obama’s ascension to the throne of the American Empire in the wake of 9/11, eight years of Bush, and the collapse of the Republican Party after three decades of political dominance. In the second chapter, he analyzes the class nature of the Democratic Party, and points out that the Democrats are unlike most other parties in the world in that individual candidates, rather than the party platform, dictate their policies. He argues convincingly that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and cites as evidence where their politicians get money from, which think-tanks they take advice from, who they staff their campaigns with, their record on legislation, and their record on foreign policy. He devotes an entire chapter to explaining how and why the Democrats are just as imperialist as their counterparts across the aisle, and points out that all the major wars of the 20th century were launched by Democratic politicians who claimed to want peace while they prepared for war. The fact that the party that jumped into two world wars, used nuclear weapons, designed the Cold War, and started “small” wars in Korea and Vietnam is seen as being less pro-war than the Republicans is a feat that would impress Karl Rove.
Unlike the Republican party, the Democrats incorporate representatives of the oppressed and exploited (women, blacks, gays, unions) within the party as a subordinate component, to give them a meaningless “seat at the table.” Doing so helps the Democrats maintain the fiction that they are the “party of the people,” or that they’re “friends of labor,” as opposed to the bad big business-backed Republicans. The third chapter is dedicated to looking at the rise of the “New Democrats,” i.e. Bill Clinton and the unapologetically pro-business GOP-lite Democratic Leadership Council that has controlled the party since the 1990s.
In the remaining chapters of the book, Selfa turns his attention from the nature of the party and its current trajectory to focusing on the Democratic Party’s (abusive) relationship with social movements, unions, and the organized left. He starts with the Populist movement that united black and white sharecroppers in the rural West and South(!) against the growing power of the robber barons but which made the fatal mistake of entering into an alliance with the Democrats. Next, he shows how the tremendous working-class rebellion in the 1930s that won Social Security and made the American Dream possible was blocked from creating a European-style Labor Party, the parties that created the universal health care systems that Michael Moore envied in Sicko. Lastly, he looks at the rise and fall of the civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s.
In each case, the Democrats resisted these movements but eventually granted meaningful reforms because these movements became too powerful to crush. These movements ignored pleas by Democratic politicians to moderate their demands, to shut up and wait, and to stop organizing (Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the darling of liberals to this day, told civil rights organizers: “If you stop all this sitting-ins — and concentrate on voter registration, I’ll get you a tax-exemption.”) At the same time, the Democrats worked hard to incorporate and co-opt movement leaders into the machinery of government, to transform organizers into party/government bureaucrats sitting behind desks by offering them jobs.
Sadly, in many cases, the strategy worked. Jesse Jackson, for example, agreed to endorse conservative Democratic loser Michael Dukakis and give him the Rainbow Coalition’s delegates in exchange for putting several Jackson staffers (including Jackson’s son) on the Democratic National Committee. While big business-friendly candidates kept its hands firmly on the wheel of the Democratic Party, progressives and their issues took their seats at the back of the bus. The book is rife with examples of movement leaders that decide a seat at the Democratic table is more important than changing the menu, the portions, or who gets what in this country.
The last few chapters of the book are devoted to whether or not the left can take over or use the party as a vehicle for social change. He uses Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s and today’s Progressive Democrats of America as examples of how activists who set out to change and takeover the Democratic party end up changing, getting co-opted and neutered by the very forces they sought to challenge.
The book closes by examining the missed opportunities to create broad-based third parties free of corporate domination, opportunities which the Democratic party sabotaged, more often than not with help from forces within social movements. The most ugly example is the American Communist Party during the 1930s and 40s. No matter how many strikes the Democrats broke, or how many working-class radicals were victimized by McCarthyism, the CP toed a pro-FDR line even though there was a groundswell of support for a Labor Party independent caused by repeated Democratic betrayals of the working class. To read more about that, check out Sharon Smith’s excellent book on U.S. labor history Subterranean Fire.
Two themes run throughout the book and form Selfa’s conclusion: 1) the Democratic Party is part of the problem, not part of the solution if you want real, meaningful change in this country and 2) change comes from grassroots movements independent of (and in opposition to) the Republican and Democratic parties. The lesser-evil strategy has been and will always be a complete disaster, allowing both parties the freedom to become more and more “evil” as time goes on so long as they don’t become equally “evil.”
The only shortcoming of this book is that Selfa neglects to mention the fact that the Democratic Party is itself a misnomer. Forty percent of the votes that a nominee needs to win at the Democratic Convention are controlled by “super-delegates,” current and former elected officials, who can vote however they want, regardless of how people in their districts or state vote. This system was instituted after George McGovern lost in 1972 to Nixon for the explicit purpose of blocking candidates that were deemed by party bosses as “too left-wing.” This voting bloc exists to put a check on democracy within the party. Furthermore, there’s the fact that the road to the nomination begins in rural conservative states (Iowa, New Hampshire) and continues through a gauntlet of the other 49 states, each of which have different and complicated formulas for awarding delegates, a system whose lunacy was on full display in the Clinton-Obama death march to the nomination that lasted twice as long as the general election. The system is rigged to ensure that only conservative candidates with millions of dollars to burn can win the nomination.
This book is essential reading for any activist who wants to understand how to win change in this country and anyone who thinks we need an alternative to the two party state we live in now.