Thursday, June 7, 2007

Not Just Bad Strategy

Why, despite a mandate to the contrary, do Democrats still support Bush’s wars – not in words, but in practice (by funding them)? The usual explanation is that it is to position themselves for the 2008 elections. The rejoinder one hears almost as often is that this is a strategic error because, on this issue, the electorate is ahead of the party’s leaders. Those who make this sensible, almost obvious, point do not always go the next step – pointing out that, to stop the war, building a movement is more important than electing Democrats. But the idea is finally sinking in as last winter’s elation gives way to this summer’s disillusion. Increasingly, anti-war voters realize that the efforts they spent unseating overt Bush supporters resulted only in their replacement by functional equivalents.

In a word, voters and some peace activists feel betrayed. This is the sense one gets, for example, from Cindy Sheehan’s much publicized Memorial Day “letter of resignation.” The response is understandable. But is it justified? I think not. I say this not to exonerate Democrats, but in order again to raise the question of the nature of the Democratic Party.

Yes, the leadership of the party and the majority of its House members and Senators are misguided and cowardly; yes, by electing more and better Democrats the situation would likely improve – somewhat. But, in the final analysis, Democrats now, as in the past, are kinder, gentler – and, of late, more competent – Republicans; nothing more. This is why despair now at their pusillanimity and strategic blindness is no more warranted than elation over their electoral victory was a few months ago. The Democrats are just being themselves. We should never expect anything good to come from them; only something less bad (see “Combat Clintonism!” April 27). That’s what we’re getting now – something less bad. If we want better, we need to transform the context in which our politics happens. Electing Democrats has very little to do with that.

No doubt some of what the leadership is now doing really just is “strategic.” Cozying up to the godly is an example (see “Faith-Based Democrats, June 5). This use of the “bully pulpit” is reprehensible on many levels but, in this case, the strategists may be right -- in the short run. Targeting their “message” (that is, their advertisements) to draw in soccer moms and NASCAR dads are examples too. But these are unusual cases because the positions involved have little or nothing to do with the exigencies of fund-raising. Usually, the two are intertwined. This is what explains, for example, the party’s abject servility to the Israel lobby, its “moderate” position(s) on health care and immigration, and its timidity in addressing environmental problems and almost everything else. That the party is in the thrall of its funders is understood and lamented by its “base.” But there is a deeper problem with the lesser evil party that gets overlooked, and that we must urgently confront.

That is that Democrats, like Republicans, are wedded to the regime. Bad strategizing and the need to pander to special interests explains a great deal. But it doesn’t explain why, for example, the party has grown mute and “bipartisan” on trade (John Edwards partly excepted) or why it won’t stop the Iraq War. To understand that, it is necessary to acknowledge, as few today do, that the Democrats’ first obligation is not to their funders, and certainly not to their voters, but to what we’d do well again to call the ruling class as a whole. Where there is a consensus at that level on the general course policy should take, the Democrats, like the Republicans, are there. This is how it has always been, except in a few watershed moments. It is how it is likely to be again in 2008 – even if the nominee is not an out and out Clintonite. [Among the “top tier” candidates, only John Edwards so far has shown any sign of breaking the mold.]

The Democrats’ goal, as much as the Republicans’, is to advance the neo-liberal economic policies at home and abroad that the ruling class wants. To this end, Democrats, no less than Republicans, promote corporate globalization and efforts to keep oil and other economically strategic resources under American control. Because this monumentally unwise and unjust system ultimately rests on force, Democrats, like Republicans, favor an overwhelmingly strong and universally feared military. Most Democrats know by now that the war in Iraq was a grave mistake, even in light of the objectives they and Republicans share. But they remain convinced that defeat in Iraq must be staved off if at all possible, no matter what the human cost. Their position is of a piece with that of their counterparts thirty years ago in the final, bloody stages of the war in Vietnam. Given the mood of the electorate today, candidates for President can hardly act on this conviction, though Joe Biden did. But the Congressional party can – and did, in significant numbers.

Had what passes for a Left in this country been more lucid about the “humanitarian interventions” of the 90s or about Clinton’s wars in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, the unity of the American political class would now be better understood throughout the electorate. Then perhaps the Democrats’ “betrayals” would surprise fewer voters. But, in the Clinton years and thereafter, the Left dropped the ball. It was Bush government ineptitude that brought Congress back under Democratic control, not Democratic strategizing – good or bad. Now perhaps Democratic betrayals will force more people finally to see through the miasma of our political culture -- to a clearer understanding of what needs to be done. The anti-War movement thirty years ago helped force a political class, united in its determination to win “peace with honor,” to accept that, for a while, the game was lost. We can and must do at least that much again.

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