THE TWO WINGS OF THE CORPORATOCRATIC PARTY
Back in 2000 I was one of those liberals who refused to vote for Al Gore because I could see no real difference between the Democratic and the Republican Parties. Mine was one of the crucial Florida votes that went to Ralph Nader.
This is not a confessional. I don’t regret my decision. Gore didn’t get my vote because he did absolutely nothing to earn it. I saw him at the time as nothing more than a New Democrat corporate shill–Republican Light. If we were going to have a Republican president, I quipped, it might as well be one who actually belonged to the Republican Party. I thought it was worth it to try to build a third party alternative to what was, in my view, a single party with two largely converging wings.
I will, however, admit that this was a mistake. It turned out that George W, under the smokey shadow of 9/11 and the pretext of a war on terror, steered the Republican Party hard toward the right. And, despite the early evidence that his administration would be a disaster, there was no such organizing on the left. We ended up with an equally milquetoast John Kerry, whom I did vote for because now I knew how bad it could get.
It’s not that my reasoning was entirely wrong. Would President Gore have stopped 9/11 from happening? Unlikely. Would he have responded militarily once it did happen? Almost certainly. Would he have have more intensively regulated Wall Street? I doubt it. Would the Great Recession have happened? Yes.
On the other hand, a Gore presidency may have been open to more Keynesian responses to the weak economy of the early oughts. His military response would not have included a morass in Afghanistan let alone an invasion of Iraq that destabilized the whole region. Al Gore would not have initiated a policy of unilateralism. I’d also like to think that his response to the housing collapse would have been more comprehensive than a desperate bank bailout.
“History does not reveal its alternatives.” However, it’s likely that Bush’s election in 2000 caused quantitatively more suffering than would have happened had Gore come out on top. That the Bush Administration was so transformative may have been the result of the happenstance of history. It’s unlikely that Gore would have had the same impact, but the stated transformations were so negative and destructive that standing still would have been a better option.
I can’t be pained over what the clarity of hindsight reveals. I can, however, learn from it. My reasoning was based on a solid premise. During the 80’s and 90’s, under the guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Clinton led New “Reagan” Democrats, the party turned to the right. What was supposed to be the party of the people, of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society and JFK’s New Frontier, turned its back on its progressive creed and embraced corporate patrimony–a process for which the Clintons played a significant role. It was then that even the pretense of a two party system collapsed and became an unabashedly corporatist mechanism.
I wasn’t wrong about this.
The problem was that my reasoning did not go far enough. I did not expand the analysis to account for all of the variables. And I wasn’t the only one. Now we are witnessing the culmination of that error.
The fact is that it would have been more accurate to redefine our party system as being composed of a single party harboring two major coalitions. The party itself, belonging to the corporate elite was dedicated to market strategies, privatization, free trade and deregulation and globalism. The coalitions were mostly sub-parties to the corporate elite called the Democrats and the Republicans.
I had a clear grasp of the elite, corporatocratic nature of this party system. My mistake was in looking no further, not extending my analysis to the internal coalitions. After all, there was, and largely remains, a difference between the Democratic and Republican Coalitions. That difference lies in their approach to controlling those maligned by the corporatocracy, the poor, minorities, dispossessed and exploited.
After all, if power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, the wealth follows, and the life chances for everyone else falls. This might lead the peasants to take up the pitchforks. And that is bad for business.
The first coalition, which ultimately coalesced into what we call the Republican Party, increasingly dedicated itself to constructing a police state and a strictly imposed morality done in the name of law and order. Be wary of those who preach law and order. Law and order is never cultivated, but rather imposed on the marginalized, dispossessed and disempowered. This more conservative approach was antithetical to everything any free people is willing to accept. Great pains were taken to convince the people that they were being oppressed for their own good, to protect them from “those people” who sought to kill them and to rape their women. An ingenious form of Doublespeak was invented in which submission to authority was freedom. Patriotism, born from rebels and dissenters in the eighteenth century, was equated with conformity and militarism two hundred years later. Democracy was tyranny.
The second coalition, not averse to force, took an overall softer approach, however. They were willing to sign on to the law and order platform of their conservative brethren, but they also recognized that the rabble would have to be given…something. This coalition, the Democrats, dedicated itself to preserving a minimal, bare sustenance, safety net–the atrophied remains of what was once their legacy. Of course, Medicare and Social Security would be preserved as they benefited a voting constituency. Means tested programs for the nation’s struggling was subject to cutting and compromise, but would be defended. They would never be expanded in any meaningful way. The Democrats were dedicated to preserving what was, and remains, a system of dependency and control. No real redistribution of wealth would be tolerated, no meaningful class ladder erected, no standard of economic and environmental rights established. The masses had to have something to sustain them. Structures that might help them thrive, however, would be asking too much from the wealth hoarders among the elite.
This arrangement is, quite possibly, the end of the American experiment in Democracy. Between the militantly corporatist Republicans and the soft corporatist Democrats, all progress in the interest of human freedom and democracy came to halt. The Great Society was the last aching gasp in this tradition. Since the successful rise of the conservative coalition culminating in the Reagan Revolution, true democratic progress has been put on a back burner.
The consequences are clear. The marginalized have grown even more desperate. The working class has seen their prospects virtually disappear with offshoring , downsizing and automation. What was once a vibrant and healthy middle class thanks to unions and progressive policies, has become anemic and frail, suffering from stagnant wages and remaining just a single, insecure paycheck away from crisis.
In all, those who make up the base of each coalition, the law and order crowd and the social safety cushion crowd have nothing to show for their participation. This is an ironic, but inescapable outcome of the paradigms used by each coalition. The law and order coalition, in order to justify their patrimony to the elite, must continue to whip up fear and anger over “those people.” Eventually, however, the base must wonder just exactly when will “those people” be suppressed so the rest of us can prosper. It’s been thirty-five years now and “those people” are still taking my hard earned tax money and buying Cadillacs and lobster dinners.¹
In the meantime, the progressive base is stuck voting against candidates who are a threat to what’s left of the policies they hold dear. You must vote for GoreKerryObamaClinton or Youknowwho will take everything away from you. You can’t expect to get the progress you want until we defeat Youknowwho. But then there’s always a Youknowwho and we never make the progress we know we should have.
If this election has done nothing else, it has revealed that this elitist, coalition style system has reached its limit. The Democratic coalition is ripe for a left wing resurgence. What we identify as the Democratic Party seems to know this. Having been caught off guard by the popularity of a self described socialist who emerged from outside of the party to become a real threat to the anointed status quo standard bearer, the Democrats appear to be taking the progressive wing seriously for the first time since said standard bearer was First Lady. It’s not a stretch to see a progressive primary challenge in 2020 and a truly progressive candidate in 2024. The social safety net party appears poised to make some necessary changes. Whether or not they will do just that remains in our hands.
The law and order party, however, seems to be facing an existential crisis. For about two generations, conservatives have been feeding red meat to their voracious base of nationalists, bigots and Ayn Rand devotees, what I’ve referred to as Dr. Moreau’s Monsters. It was just a matter of time before the beasts would breach their cages, and now they’ve nominated the hand that feeds them to lead the coalition. Can the coalition survive this? Can the feral conservative base, now that they’ve tasted blood, be re-domesticated to serve elite corporate interests without demanding more of that red meat they crave? Will they ultimately eat their own? It seems clear that only a defeat this election can save the Republican Party.
The political system established by the New Right and the Democratic Leadership Council has been exceptionally lucrative to its corporate benefactors. Good for them. The gig is over, however. Thirty years of virtually unrestrained largess is no small accomplishment, but it’s now time to calibrate the system in the interests of social and economic justice. To continue on as we have is simply unsustainable. We are dangerously close to handing over what’s left of our republic to a demagogue. If the American experiment is to continue, the left had better build on the progress that it has made in the last year, offer a real alternative, and cultivate enough strength to make it happen.
Hillary is not the person who will, on her own, make the necessary changes. She will, however, chase the political winds. It is incumbent upon us to make sure the winds are blowing in our direction.
And let’s not forget that one of “those people” actually became President and causing all the batshit crazy to come to a head!