Critical Reading — The Democrats: A Critical History

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.

Pham Binh is an activist and recent graduate of Hunter College in NYC. His articles have been published at Znet, Asia Times Online, Dissident Voice, and Monthly Review Online. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Pham, or visit Pham's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Erroll said on October 21st, 2008 at 10:47am #

    I am about a third of a way through this powerhouse of a book and entirely agree with Pham Binh that this book amply demonstrates how the Democrats are just as beholden to the corporate interests and the military-industrial complex as are the Republicans. I would also recommend the book Savage Mules by Dennis Perrin which also lays out the case as to why the Democrats are just as militant in their rhetoric as their Republican counterparts.

  2. Max Shields said on October 21st, 2008 at 4:53pm #

    This book, which I will read, from the review, is exactly why the Democratic Party is the biggest inhibitor to real change.

    As the country’s oldest Party it has learned how to hold onto power, remain the “liberal” party, and yet sustain the imperial agenda over the last 2+ hundred years.

    Over the years it has gathered the means to keep a progressive movement off-balance by offering a faux progressive candidate here and there, only to keep the status quo that this party thrives on, completely in tact.

    Obama is a product of this. He was clearly the most conservative of the Dem candidates with the exception f his running mate. Hillary was a close second.

    The upsidedown Alice in Wonderlandishness is told by Obama’s record. While I’m not a huge Sanders fan (though he’s better than many, to be sure), it makes no sense to compare Obama’s Dem Party line votes with Sanders’ occasional un-Dem votes (such as the recent bailout). Under corporate media consideration, that was a “liberal” vote on the part of Obama who vote yea for the bailout and Sanders was not, for voting against it.

    This is the madness created by a duopoly and the complicit media who keeps this non-sensical word game going and the country collapsing all around us.

    McCain/Obama, Obama/McCain – NO DIFFERENCE.

  3. Deadbeat said on October 23rd, 2008 at 10:22am #

    McCain/Obama, Obama/McCain – NO DIFFERENCE.

    This is kind of rhetoric that will continue to alienate the Left from being able to provide any alternatives to the Democrats. This rhetoric is not only hyperbolic but it is also hypocrisy and lacks the nuance needed to communicate and reach out to Obama supporters.

    It was not the Democratic Party that caused the Left to diffuse the anti-war movement four years ago. It was not the Democratic Party that caused Nader to run as an independent in 2004 and 2008. It was not the Democratic Party that weakened the Green Party.

    In addition, the conditions that led Jesse Jackson to run his campaign in 1984 and 1988 are different from the conditions permitting Obama’s run in 2008. Actually I think Jackson’s run did more damage because it helped to usher in Bill Clinton. However in Jackson’s case there was no viable left-wing alternative in the 1980’s.

    The difference with Obama is that the Left via the Green Party did present itself as an alternative but unfortunately it self-destructed. That self-destruction created a void that Obama is taking advantage of. Therefore the Left has unfortunately played an active role in creating the environment whereby Obama now sits. So blaming the Democrats IMO has become a favorite pastime of the Left.

    Also Selfa blames the Democrats for what happened to the Communist Party of the 1930. Unfortunately the Communist Party could have remained independent from the Democrats. No one was twisting their arms. The Socialist Party did not support Roosevelt and remained independent. Also it is important to note that the Communist Party has a large membership of African Americans. The reason is that the Communist Party took a hardline stance against lynching and actively organized African Americans. This just goes to show that it can be done and was done and needs to be done again in order to weaken the Democrats if that is to be the true goal of the Left.

  4. Binh said on October 23rd, 2008 at 12:20pm #

    Deadbeat: It was not the Democratic Party that caused the Left to diffuse the anti-war movement four years ago.

    That’s bull. I have 2 words for you: Howard Dean. Or, if you prefer, Dennis Kucinich. The Dems tried hard and succeeded in co-opting the anti-war movement and its activists.

    Deadbeat: Also Selfa blames the Democrats for what happened to the Communist Party of the 1930. Unfortunately the Communist Party could have remained independent from the Democrats. No one was twisting their arms.

    More bull, but at least these some truth when you sift through this comment a bit. Selfa does not blame the Dems for what happened to the CP. Either you didn’t read the book or you are being willfully ignorant. In either case, you are wrong. Selfa’s book is all about the choices the left and movements in the past made. The Dems actively wooed the Populists, the CIO and the unions, and the 60’s movements, but it was forces within those movements that took the bait and died in the trap.

    And yes, someone was twisting the CP’s arm, a guy by the name of Joe Stalin. You may have heard of him.

    You say “the Democrats has become a favorite pastime of the Left,” but in reality the left’s favorite past-time is blaming the Republicans for any and all evils while apologizing, making excuses for, and voting for Democrats who bear just as much responsibility for the same evils as the GOP.

  5. Max Shields said on October 24th, 2008 at 5:45am #

    Not only did you write an excellent review on what appears to be a must read book, but you’ve slamdunked our “it’s not Obama” it’s the left that started the Iraq war and cozies up to Zionism. This “guy’s” been spouting this nonsense for months.

    400 years of American history with a power elite securely ensconsed throughout, and deadbeat’s got the audacity of blaming some vague notion (however he defines it) of an American Left.

    There is no “left” in American politics. And, Binh, you are completely right. The game is between Dem/Repub volley ball. There are no real arguments, just sides to perform the perfunctory election cycle joke.

    Deadbeat is a Democrat who will no doubt vote for Obama. But what he does here is pretend to be a outside the fray provocateur, while blaming a “left” for just about everything we see today. It would be total idiocy, except that he’s a friggin plant.