The world is on fire and the Democrats want you to believe that they are the only ones empowered to extinguish the flames. In a bipolar political structure such as what we Americans have been cursed with there is some legitimacy to the claim that we really only have two viable options. However, the primary problem with this false choice is that it permits both sides to escape accountability for dismissing the needs of the people, whilst serving their own selfish desires. Yes, the Republican Party is rotten to the core, and they absolutely must be defeated for the sake of the Republic and for a prosperous future to be possible. Still, letting the Democratic Party solely fill the vacuum created by outlasting yet another foe would be a terrible injustice to the countless working people it has long betrayed…and consistently so.
I’m not suggesting that defeating the Republican Party isn’t important or that it shouldn’t take precedent. It absolutely should, because the threat increasingly posed by that party to our democracy can not be ignored. Poll after poll consistently shows that the Republican Party represents a shrinking minority of the populace, yet they continue to thrive in electoral politics. On the one hand, this is because the “opposition” is itself divided – and we will get to that later -, and on the other hand the Republicans have mastered their messaging in successfully seducing the working class to abandon their interests in lieu of a perceivable and unquestionable champion in the Democrats.
This, naturally, forces one to ask themselves why the working people of this nation doubt the sincerity of Democrats being their allies in the first place. It can’t simply be because the Republicans have managed to brainwash the masses with wedge issues and effective messaging. No, it isn’t as cut and dried as that. Truth is, while the G.O.P. most certainly planted a seed for distrust, the Democratic Party prepared the proverbial soil for implantation.
We’ve highlighted much of the Democratic Party’s betrayals in recent articles, but those betrayals were made possible by the fact that the Party never really felt a sense of duty to the working class to begin with. In essence, the betrayal was preceded by a grander myth that the Democratic Party was ever really the party of the working class. For us to understand the willingness of these pure partisans to undercut and sell out their so-called base supporters we have to recognize that they have never felt it was important to prioritize the people first. Their ambition for power isn’t as naked and ruthless as that of the Republicans, but they are still seduced by the allure of holding the reins to the point where their purpose is lost in the fog of political war.
From the very beginning of the two party system in America, the Democratic Party – well, as it was originally called: the “Democratic-Republicans” or Jeffersonian “Republicans” – emerged out of a war of egos led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Back then, in the late-1700s and early-1800s, the initial battle between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans had little to nothing to do with the needs of the working class. Instead, it was a feud dealing with the question of the federal government’s power.
Truth be told, it wasn’t until 1828 when Andrew Jackson transformed the Democratic Party – as it was permanently rechristened – and ushered in the popular vote for the presidency that we saw America’s first populist president. Even then, Jackson’s promises were mostly empty as he was a vile, vain, and murderous human being who exploited the fear and angst of the populace for his own gain, led countless Native Americans to their deaths, and left behind the extremely corrupt spoils system (though, this last part may have had good intentions, because the original intent was supposedly to put common citizens in charge of the government).
After Jackson, Democratic Presidents for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century had a similar knack for bloodshed, bigotry, and even betrayal. For example, President Polk’s unnecessary and unprovoked war against Mexico to expand the empire, President Andrew Johnson’s desire to return freed slaves to their former chains, and President Cleveland’s decision to sell out the working class by using the military to break up strikes to appease the robber barons. Those are just a few highlights of the facts about the Democratic Party’s beginnings. To be pro-war, anti-inclusion, and anti-labor is to be incompatible with the notion that you stand for the working class.
In the Twentieth Century, the waters got a bit muddied. Our nation’s first progressive president was a Republican – funny enough -, but Theodore Roosevelt was still very much pro-war and anti-inclusion. His progressive successor, President Wilson, allowed the Democrats to hijack progressivism from that point onward, but Wilson – like Teddy before him – retained the resentment of the people against the “other” as he embraced war and bigotry. Still, through all of this, the working class struggled to get clear representation from either major party even as the Republicans increasingly did the bidding of the oligarchs. With the Democrats, they had flirted with populism in the late-1800s and the first decade of the 1900s as they twice ran William Jennings Bryan to undercut the socialist and populist movements, but they were still uncomfortable fully adopting a working class agenda.
When the nation collapsed into the Great Depression and the First Gilded Age came crashing down once and for all, the working class revolted against the established order and demanded that the newly elected president – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – seize the moment to guarantee us some concrete protections against the worst consequences of capitalism. No, Franklin Roosevelt – who was quite wealthy at the time – didn’t take on the corruption in our economic system all on his own volition. His actions were compelled by the masses and he proved to be the first leader in America’s history to be truly receptive to the people’s demands. Unfortunately, despite all of the accomplishments reaped by the working class through their impressive leverage in FDR’s administration, his own openness to bigotry (think about his treatment of African American Olympian Jesse Owens as well as the internment of Japanese Americans) and to war offsets the notion that he was a sincere working class president.
Of course, no president can change the path of America’s history alone. So, FDR absolutely deserves credit for his receptiveness to the needs of working people. In this respect he was a pioneer and remains to this day as a model president in regards to serving the working class at least in terms of social democracy. What’s frustrating, though, is that when FDR ran for a fourth term and knew that his life was fading he wanted to pick a progressive named Henry Wallace as his last Vice President. Yet, the Democratic Party was more conservative than the then-President and was not comfortable with Wallace carrying FDR’s progressive domestic agenda onward when he inevitably died in office. So, they forced him to settle with Truman.
Truman’s legacy with labor was a mixed bag, but it was nowhere near as beneficial as was the case with Roosevelt. He fought – albeit unsuccessfully – the Republican Congress’s effort to weaken unions, and he became the first president to advocate for a universal healthcare program, and ordered the integration of our military, but he also busted striking workers by threatening to use the army against them. Truman was also a giddy participant in becoming the first and only world leader in human history to order the use of nuclear weapons against an enemy nation. Remember, to be pro-war is to be anti-working class, as the primary victims of war are the working class and their domestic policy objectives. None of this can or should be forgotten.
John F. Kennedy was another wealthy Democrat, but his agenda was not a populist one. He hedged on promoting an aggressively progressive agenda to lift the country up from the bowels of Eisenhower’s recession. Yes, he promoted pay equity for women, affirmative action, civil rights (not without pressure), and Medicare, but he was convinced that spending on behalf of the working class like FDR before him would not be politically expedient. Instead, he pressed for tax cuts across the board, including tax cuts for corporations. For him – and I realize this will be a hard pill to swallow for JFK’s many fans -, political calculation took precedent over the needs of working people.
When Kennedy was assassinated, his successor Lyndon Baines Johnson came in promising a “great society”. His agenda was far more progressive and aggressively so and his domestic policies featured such accomplishments as the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, a plethora of safety and environmental achievements, the creation of HUD, expanding Social Security as well as the minimum wage standard, getting rid of immigration racist quotas, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, establishing educational grants, and creating the Head Start program (to name a few of his most well-known accomplishments). Yet, LBJ betrayed organized labor, was an ally of big oil, refused to pursue a jobs program to promote living wage work, and allowed a proposed repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act’s provision allowing states to enact “right to work” – for which he had voted as a member of Congress – to die without even fighting for its passage. So, no, his warmongering and the lies he used to trick us into a needless conflict did not kill the “Great Society” alone, his own willingness to sidestep the working class when it counted did.
In Carter, we had a president who wanted to reform welfare and who deregulated the airline industry as well as a number of other sections of our economy. He was also lukewarm on a pledge to deal with coal miners and their “black lung”. Likewise, Carter exhibited his openness to conservative policies in dealing with inflation and prioritized such over fighting for a weak version of a union-supported bill to guarantee full employment; which is why even the weak version didn’t succeed. Although Carter’s post-presidency has been admirable and consists of a rich history of serving the needy, his presidency signaled the beginning of the end of the working class’s clout – through organized labor – in a Democratic White House.
We’ve previously highlighted the betrayals of the Clinton and Obama presidencies for the working class and we – for the sake of not repeating ourselves here – will not rehash those events entirely here. In retelling this summarized history of the Democratic Party and the working class the objective was to underline that the Party itself was NEVER the party of working people. With few exceptions, it always served its primary purpose of electoral victory. Is that to be expected from a political party? To a degree, but the reality is that the Democratic Party has long exploited the needs of the working class for its own gain.
Between Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter there was an uneasy alliance between the working class and influential members of the Democratic Party. For that period of time this alliance was rather productive to an extent. Still, through close examination one finds that the Party seemingly more closely aligned with our collective interests has only been interested in itself all along. Indeed, we compelled the Party to adopt pieces of our agenda at the peak of our influence, but their refusal to acknowledge that these accomplishments were insufficient and that the Party was too close to the powerful interests really holding the reins of power all contributed to the collapse of organized labor and the rise of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism was born under the guidance of President Jimmy Carter, which is depressing to learn for someone who later learned about him from history books and research and grew up admiring the man. Truth is, Carter was not really betraying anyone. He was merely the first Democratic President to act in accordance with how the Party itself truly felt about organized labor and the working class. To them, as well as to their successors in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the working class is not a valued base of supporters. Rather, the men and women who endure daily hard work to build this nation’s economy are nothing more than chess pieces on a political board game.
Bill Clinton promoted NAFTA, China’s permanent normal trade relations, advocated for and passed welfare reform, and signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall because he was thinking about winning. Barack Obama signed weak regulations on Wall Street, championed an economic stimulus with a pitiful excuse for a jobs program, freely offered serious cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and empowered the insurance lobby to write the healthcare law for the same reason. Both men ignored pleas from organized labor to protect and strengthen unions at least by signing the Employee Free Choice Act into law. Neither of them was prioritizing the best interests of the working class because the best interest of the working class is not a priority for the Democratic Party and it NEVER has been.
So, what do we as members of the working class do? Do we start a Populist Party? A Labor Party? A Progressive Party? Do we join the Green Party? Which party do we join?
Here’s where the lessons of history and the depressing political reality clash with our ambitions. As tempting as it is to do one or all of the above, the truth is that our political system is rigged in favor of the two party system. In other words, it is not possible to defeat both the Democratic and the Republican parties in a national election. Yes, it can be done locally and even in some statewide races, but it is virtually impossible nationwide.
For that you can attribute blame to the Constitution, our Founding Fathers, and to the initial war between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. No, there isn’t a single political party mentioned – much less explicitly protected – by our nation’s founding document. Instead, the problem is that the framework established by Madison and the gang was designed to support a nonpartisan electoral system by, of, and for the elites. As you likely know, the Framers strongly distrusted the will of the people for they were students of Hobbes and Machiavelli – neither of whom believed that power should come from the people and both of whom entertained the thought that power concentrated into oppressive hands was preferable -, and they were also witnesses to Napoleon’s rise to power made possible by his own direct popular election in France. This – in addition to their fear of a powerful and detached central government as fueled from their former colonization by the distant British – is why they conceived the Electoral College as a check on central government and presidential power.
Additionally, this nonpartisan intent and distrust of the central government is why allocating and subsequently redrawing Congressional districts – as well as determining the rights of and circumstances for voters – was left to the states. In the 231 years (as of September 17th) since the Constitution was drafted, the emergence of the two party system and the political wars which followed produced uniquely American anomalies of gerrymandering, voter restrictions, closed primaries, and even laws explicitly favoring the Democratic and Republican parties while intentionally making it difficult for third parties to gain traction.
Now, there have been moments in American history wherein “third parties” have been competitive, but each of those moments was only made possible when one of the major parties was fractured. Even so, the ONLY election wherein a third party successfully elected a president was in 1860 when the Republican Party’s nominee won, giving us our first president from that party; Abraham Lincoln. That was made possible by two key factors: 1) the Democratic Party was split in two, and 2) the national coalition which made the Republican Party possible and viable.
Unless a third party succeeds in nominating a radiant personality with a vibrant and bipartisan (or even nonpartisan) base of support in an election wherein both the Democrats and Republicans are fractured there is no pathway to victory for anyone not nominated by those two parties. A formidable coalition must exist for national victory to occur and a party must have a ground-level infrastructure complete with an army of local and state elected officials under the party’s banner. There is no third party with those credentials and – quite honestly – it would take too much time to build this infrastructure in time to save the Republic; which brings me to my closing argument.
Our nation and our democracy are at a serious turning point in history. We face a crucial series of decisions which require swift action if we are to preserve what hope we have left to see the working class finally take hold of the steering wheel. Not only that, but this pivotal moment in the often romanticized American experiment also poses a risk of failure which could well spell the end of our already weak democracy. Basically, we will either utilize and strengthen our democracy beyond what any of our ancestors ever realized or we will lose it forever.
Here’s the dilemma: the Republican Party which was propelled into the mainstream with the election of Lincoln and sold its soul to the oligarchs within four decades after that moment has now devolved – for reasons I will cover in my next entry – into a fascist party hell-bent on destroying democracy so as to secure a permanent grip on power. This drift into authoritarianism occurred gradually over the course of the last century and has been topped off with the rise of their latest president. What I’m saying is that the problem isn’t that Trump was elected, it’s that the Republican Party rolled out the proverbial carpet for oppression long ago. Trump has merely taken the walk down said carpet.
Well, this is where my lengthy outline of the Democratic Party’s summarized history becomes relevant. I’m just going to say it straight: the working class will never have an ally so long as these two parties stand in our way. Nor can we find a workable ally in one of the numerous and ineffective third party options. The only choice we have if we want to survive the immediate threat posed to democracy (and liberty, for that matter) and then to claim the reins of power for the working class is to first unite to defeat the Republican Party and send it to the dust bin of history and then to work towards overtaking the establishment forces subservient to the oligarchs within the Democratic Party.
The goal – in both steps – should involve the working class seizing control of the Party which has long deceived us into thinking that it represents us (and many progressive champions are hard at work in this stage right now). Basically, this would require us to make the party earn its “democratic” name. In the end, it would be best for the Republic if the working class swiftly disbanded the Democratic Party after disposing of the Republican Party therewith, thus erecting the nonpartisan system envisioned by the Framers. Over time, we should also strive for a series of Constitutional reforms to strengthen our democracy; such as abolishing the Electoral College, making all redistricting nonpartisan, overturning Citizens United and mandating public financing for all elections, as well as considering further pro-democratic measures.
Tragically, there is a heightened risk of systemic failure. What I mean by this is that the system’s archaic design meant to shield the nation and its people from the threat of a dictatorship will collapse due to the Framers’ lack of anticipation for the role that partisanship would play in preventing a genuine check on political power. Their first design flaw came about when the aspiring despot managed to manipulate the Electoral College to circumvent the will of the majority and ascend to power despite the fact that inhibiting such a rise was the SINGULAR purpose for the Electoral College’s existence. In their next design flaw, the system of redistricting as corrupted by partisanship in the form of gerrymandering and the existence of the U.S. Senate which over-represents the voice of low populated states further distorted the will of the majority by placing control of Congress in the hands of a loud minority; which effectively empowers the same party to which the aforementioned man yearning to be king belongs. Still, there is yet another design flaw: the Supreme Court, with its Justices supposedly appointed with no political intent and afforded lifetime tenure and which is poised to have a new member overtly appointed with the goal of molding a right-wing Court for a generation.
The final piece of this puzzle in the risk of failure is the electorate itself. Disenchanted by decades of let-downs and being convinced that the whole system is corrupt no matter what we do, disoriented by the persistent bombardment by a party actively working to dismantle our democracy, and disillusioned by the so-called “opposition” party and its propensity for only coming to us when they need our electoral support, the people of this great nation are in grave danger of not uniting to stop this nightmare. As has been the case with the success of fascist uprisings throughout history, the opposition to such has been fractured to the point of confusion long enough for the invasion of autocracy to be completed. Those who would like to prevent the Republican Party’s antidemocratic agenda are having a difficult time consolidating behind the only viable – again, by design – means to thwart as much.
It is no doubt unappealing to keep feeding the deceptive Democratic Party’s machine. The leadership thereof is convinced that the working class will come “home” and that Trump will be the death of the Republican Party. Their arrogance will facilitate our collective plunge into an abyss from which we will not easily escape, if we allow it. My challenge to you – difficult as it may be – is to work now as one to defeat this fascist threat and then to set your sights on deposing the established order which made this threat possible to begin with.
We can not have a progressive revolution in the ashes of democracy. If we fail to defeat the Republican Party now and then in 2020 everything for which we fight and have fought will be lost. Escaping the clutches of authoritarianism is not easy once we have ceded control thereto. Please, fellow Progressive Revolutionaries, let’s stave off the tide of horror which is approaching our shores and prepare to make right the wrongs of those who’ve exploited us from the beginning.