What next for the Democrats?

by Joe Auciello


In the coming months the Democrats will battle fiercely over policy, perspectives, and personalities as they try to understand and place blame for their debacle in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.


Any organization that suffers a setback or loss tends to turn in on itself to find someone or some reason to explain the defeat. In 2000 the Democrats were spared this painful process by venting their fury on the convenient target of Ralph Nader and the Greens.


Normally, though, a losing group will fight, factionalize, and fracture. Failure finds blame—or blame follows failure.


This phenomenon unfolds every Thursday night on television’s “The Apprentice.” The losing group backstabs each other until, before 17 million viewers, Donald Trump grandly announces to that week’s scapegoat: “You’re fired!”


But what happens to the Democrats when America itself “fires” the party’s presidential nominee? Past experience says the Democrats will turn inwards. Left, center, and right will battle each other in a dispute as ugly as any family quarrel can be. Ultimately, a victor will emerge from this dogfight; unity will be

proclaimed once more, and in 2007-2008 the dance of the two parties will commence yet again.


And once again, as in 2003-2004, all of the movements for progressive social change will come under enormous pressure to put aside political principles for

“practical” politics and to back the Democratic presidential nominee. It would be the wrong decision.


No matter which wing of the Democrats gets the upper hand in the party, the Democrats will never become a real alternative to the Republicans. Despite the misplaced trust many progressive activists place in the Democrats, this party will continue to be a champion of big business, racism, and war.


A swing to the right?


For Peter Beinart, writing in The New Republic, (Nov. 22, 2004), the duel of left versus right has not begun soon enough. His recommendation? A leap to the right: “The Democrats need an ideological shift on foreign policy akin to the domestic policy shift ushered in by Bill Clinton. When that shift begins, division will replace unity and the bloodletting will begin. It can’t start a moment too soon.”


A favorable reference to Clinton’s “domestic policy shift” is a codeword for the wholesale abandonment of the pretense of fulfilling any of the Democratic

Party’s liberal-sounding past promises to the working class, oppressed minorities, and the poor. Clinton, after all, created a tax policy to favor the wealthy and gave tax hikes to the working class while gutting social programs, including welfare. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported the death penalty, and the anti-labor free trade agreements favored by big business.


Many Democratic politicians speak out bluntly for a swing to the right. Dan Gerstein, a consultant and strategist for Senator Joe Lieberman, faults his

fellow Democrats for “too often kowtowing to the antiwar wing of the party” and “showing unease with the use of [military] force.”


He argues that “Democrats have to break out of our stale political grooves,” which “means declaring our independence from the sclerotic influence of

progress-blocking interest groups like the teachers unions—and being willing, as Bill Clinton was, to challenge outdated party orthodoxies” (The Wall Street

Journal, Nov. 11, 2004).


But exactly what orthodoxies and liberal policies do the Democrats have left to abandon? They support not only the Iraq war but the underlying idea of the “Bush doctrine,” that the United States has the right to intervene militarily anywhere in the world any time the American ruling class demands it. Democrats and Republicans differed only on the most effective means

of mobilizing domestic and foreign support.


“Take back the party”


Had Kerry been elected, a movement in opposition to his policies inevitably would have developed. No doubt many activists would have been siphoned off into some campaign for a more liberal Democrat. But others would have learned from their own experience to reject the Democrats entirely and would have begun looking for an alternative, more effective means of changing the

world for the better.


Now the Democrats will exploit and benefit from the anger and outrage likely to follow in the wake of the Republican victories in Congress and the White House.


The “throw-the-bums-out” sentiment, a hallmark of the two-party shell game, will swing in favor of the party that lost the presidential election in 2004.


In the name of “realism,” many activists will continue to shackle themselves to the Democratic Party. The chains are being forged already. With blustery

rhetoric, MoveOn, described by the Associated Press as a “liberal powerhouse,” is stirring its supporters.


An e-mail from MoveOn’s political action committee said, “For years, the party has been led by elite Washington insiders who are closer to corporate

lobbyists than they are to the Democratic base… But we can’t afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers.” The

message continued, “Now it’s our party: we bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.”


Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, also try to rally the troops for a fresh assault to capture the Democratic Party leadership: “Progressives drive this party now—we provide the energy, the organizers, the ground forces, the ideas and much of the money. We should organize the opposition. … We win by being the party of progress, not by blurring differences with the new

reactionaries” (“Progressives: Get Ready to Fight,” in The Nation, Nov. 29, 2004).


Of course, progressive activists do not make the fundamental decisions in the party. The Democratic Party is not democratic, and its leadership bodies are

not accountable to the members. Party leaders and officeholders are tied to their corporate masters, who donate millions to their chosen candidates’ campaigns and who expect a good return on their investment.


Some third-party formations have already indicated an urge to surrender. The Green Party, whose 2004 candidate, David Cobb, barely registered in the

national elections, will likely focus on local electoral contests and cede the presidential ground to the Democrats. Medea Benjamin, Green party candidate for Senator in California in 2000, explained in a recent interview, “The whole Presidential campaign has been devastating for the Greens. … Presidential elections are not where Greens can have an impact now” (The Progressive, December 2004).


Benjamin does not call for a political break with the Democrats—far from it: “Dems, Greens and other progressives must not only respect one another’s

choices, we must start using these different ‘inside-outside’ strategies to our collective advantage. A strategically placed Green/ progressive pull could conceivably prevent a suicidal Democratic lurch to the right” (The Nation, Dec. 20, 2004).


 A “safety valve” for protest


The Democrats may not regain power, but, despite dire pundit predictions, they will not commit suicide or disappear. The Democrats will continue to function as a “safety valve” for popular protest, a vehicle to absorb and demobilize the mass movements that can be expected to arise in the future. As Malcolm X once pointed out, “the shrewd capitalists, the shrewd

imperialists knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf.”


More than 90 years ago, the founder of Russia’s Bolshevik Party outlined the political framework that exists today: “Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes.


And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of those classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, the forces which can—and, owing to their social position, must—constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new, and to enlighten and organize those forces for the struggle” (V.I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”).


Socialists, then, will continue to raise the real alternative, the class alternative. The future will require no less. The struggle against the Iraq war, a consequence of Republican and Democratic policies, will continue. As their rights are threatened, women and African Americans will look for ways to speak up and fight back. Civil liberties will continue to be threatened—and defended.


As historian Howard Zinn often says, “More important than who sits in the White House is who sits outside it.”


Socialists will help build all of the social and political struggles to come. Such efforts will lay the basis for electoral campaigns independent of the twin

capitalist parties by building a party of the working class. 

*This article first appeared in the January 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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