The Democrats’ Choice, and Ours

In a recent Z blog, Michael Albert described “Venezuela’s Choice”: essentially, the Chávez government can either back-step and seek to appease the elite opposition to its programs, or it can further radicalize its policies and in the process transfer increased political power and economic resources to workers and the poor, thus building a strong base to help counter elite reaction. Variations notwithstanding, this choice is fundamentally the same one that has confronted all government leaders who sincerely seek progressive social transformation—as Albert puts it, “the road to hell, or the road to solidifying and enlarging revolution.”
Though vastly different from Chávez, Obama and the Democrats face approximately the same choice. Weak and hesitant reformism often angers entrenched power-holders without resulting in sufficient enthusiasm or genuine power for the oppressed—and indeed, hesitancy often increases the anger of the oppressed toward those who promise change but don’t deliver [1]. Elites tend to be highly organized and to react with a vengeance against even the slightest breeze that messes up a few hairs on their heads; the fierce antipathy toward Obama’s extremely corporate-friendly health insurance reform last year is one example. When this reaction occurs, the existence of an empowered and motivated support base is necessary to help neutralize it. Nothing resembling that support base currently exists in the United States. The Democrats’ basic choice is to cultivate that base by implementing a real “change” agenda, or continue to appease and promote elite interests.
Of course, there is very little indication that Obama or those around him sincerely want to transform society. Obama’s background is very different from that of Chávez, Evo Morales, or other left-leaning Latin American leaders, and his current support base is very different. But recent polls suggest that the Democrats’ political survival may depend on their willingness to promote genuine transformation. There is massive discontent around the country, primarily due to the economic crisis, but also because of the inaction and corporate-friendly policies of the President and Democratic Congress. The main reason that the poll numbers of Obama and the Democrats have been dropping is that rather than acting in accord with the public’s progressive values, the president and the Democratic Congress have done almost nothing to satisfy the basic demands of suffering US workers. Republican stonewalling has played a small impeding role, but far more significant is the Democrats’ own utter disdain for people’s suffering and Obama's refusal to take a strong leadership stance in favor of real change. Democrats, with a minority of partial exceptions, have made a choice, and it is the road to hell rather than substantive reform.
Whether the Democrats actually have a “choice” is of course debatable: the party is, like the Republicans, heavily beholden to corporate and financial-sector donors to a far greater extent than, for example, the Chávez government. But even within our money-driven political system, there is some room for maneuvering by leaders, especially the President, and especially when there is a very strong mandate for progressive change among the population. To counter the inevitable loss of corporate support that would accompany genuine progressive reform, Obama and the Democrats could have “radicalized” their agenda—for example, by ending overseas wars, instituting single-payer health care, slashing the Pentagon budget, and reallocating that money to social programs and a robust economic stimulus plan [2]. The resultant outpouring of public enthusiasm would have done much to neutralize and discredit the voices of reaction. Instead, Obama has continued the wars (and greatly escalated in Afghanistan), signed an expensive and corporate-friendly health reform, increased the Pentagon budget to a record high, and issued a stimulus plan that economic experts like Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz said was far too small to fix the unemployment crisis.
The lack of government responsiveness is painfully obvious to the public: according to an August poll by the respected WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO), 81 percent think that the US “is pretty much run by a few big interests” [3]. This percentage is much higher than the number of people who give the same response in most countries of Latin America, and almost twice as high as the percentage in Latin America’s more democratic countries like Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Another poll question found that “83 percent of the general public says that the will of the people should have more influence than it does,” consistent with prior poll results in recent years. These results indicate a very profound crisis of democracy in the United States.
The US public may be systematically misled on many factual issues, but it is not stupid. The country’s enormous democratic deficit (the gap between public desires and government policy) is apparent to most people. Even if mainstream press coverage prevents people from realizing that their progressive values put them in the majority, they feel the dramatic disjunction between their own values and government policy—in their wallets, in their stomachs, in their lack of adequate health care, in the never-ending wars overseas. The only reason the Democrats retain much popularity at all is that most people hate the Republican Party elite even more.
In historical scenarios where no genuine representative political force is available (e.g., 1930s Germany, or 1970s Iran), there is great danger that right-wing demagogues posing as “outsiders” and “mavericks” can gain popularity, as McCain almost succeeding in doing in the 2008 election. Such is the main reason behind the recent rise of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party phenomenon, and particularly its alleged working-class composition, has been greatly overblown and exaggerated by the media; the movement is corporate-funded and its most enthusiastic supporters are found in the wealthiest segments of the population. But the fact remains that a large portion of the white working class (and over half of the total public) say that they “feel sympathy” toward the movement. As the August WPO poll showed, this sympathy does not usually derive from hostility toward “big government,” as commonly contended by Tea Party leaders and mainstream analysts, but far more so from the simple observation that current politicians are “not following the will of the people.” That “will” remains quite progressive, at least on most economic and foreign policy issues. But as the Tea Party’s relative popularity indicates, progressive values, and discontent at their lack of reflection in policy, can translate into any number of partisan affiliations, at least some of which are directly antithetical to the material interests of their adherents.
For the Democrats, the basic choice right now is whether they will continue promoting corporate interests, thus hurting their own popularity, or adopt a strong progressive policy agenda. Of course, they are limited by structural, material, and psychological factors, including their funding sources and their instinctive fear that the mobilized masses might not be obedient servants of the Party [4].
For the rest of us, the choice is whether we take concerted action to construct coherent progressive alternatives to the failed partisan political structure. Whatever specific tactics are employed, education and the promotion of a critical, radical, systemic analysis of social realities need to be at the heart of this effort. We must also be far more willing to confront Obama and the Democrats than most mainstream labor and minority rights groups currently are. Only then will that effort have meaningful and durable consequences. Our failure to do so will mean increased numbers and power for the extreme right, or at best the continued reign of corporate, militarist Democrats who occasionally throw some scraps to those below.
Obama and the Democrats may or may not come to realize that their own political futures could be bolstered by their adoption of a more progressive agenda. But regardless of what choice they make, their dismal performance should serve remind the rest of us that meaningful social change never comes from the ballot box. Instead, it comes through building independent mass movements. Since most of the country continues to share many of the same basic progressive values, the atmosphere is ripe for building such movements. Our task is clear, and urgent.

[1] This pattern is currently evident in Ecuador, where a possible recent coup attempt against Rafael Correa, the “citizen’s president,” was followed by denunciations, but few fiery demonstrations of support, by Correa’s original left base—probably due to both the still-uncertain nature of the alleged coup attempt and Correa’s increasing rift on many economic and political issues with that base. Half-hearted supporters with a deep ambivalence about current policies are not likely to risk their lives defending the current government.
[2] “Radicalized” in big quotation marks, since Obama’s team doesn’t even represent a tepid reformism but rather a continuation of Bush policies in most areas.
[3] Stephen Kull, “Big Government Is Not the Issue,” WorldPublicOpinion.org, 19 August 2010.  See also WorldPublicOpinion.org, “Governments Misspend More Than Half of Our Taxes—Global Poll,” 27 September 2010.
[4] On one hand, I couldn’t care less about the political survival of the Democrats, in the mid-term elections or ever. The two-party political system as well as our faith in elections as the motor of change needs to be supplanted by independent, grassroots mobilization and organizing. And the “support base” must NOT be a partisan support base loyal to the Democrats, as the Democrats would like and as mainstream liberal groups and their leaders—e.g., the NAACP and the AFL-CIO—have sought to cultivate. But although Obama’s wretched performance could potentially have the positive effect of highlighting the need for independent citizen activism and curing us of what Howard Zinn called our “election madness,” it could just as well bolster support for right-wing demagogues, as it seems to be doing currently. In our current political climate the Democrats’ decline could mean a radical right-wing shift, taking us even deeper into hell. This is not an argument for supporting the “lesser of two evils,” but a speculation that the Democrats’ own self-preservation may require their adoption of a genuinely progressive agenda.

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