Wave a White Flag: On “Left” Support for the Democratic Party
The midterm elections are over. The right-wing Republicans delivered a massive defeat to the floundering Democrats across the board, regaining control of the US Senate and grabbing governorships and statehouses across the country. Voter turnout was incredibly low at 33.4 percent, with most people choosing to ignore the spectacle of disgusting, corrupt politicians duking it out with each other, making meaningless threats and promises. Few politicians wanted to be associated with President Obama, who used this new electoral drubbing to promptly ask for new authority for his expanding war in Syria and Iraq.
US voters are rightfully disdainful of the electoral process. Disenfranchised Black and Latin@ voters stayed away from the elections in droves, even in places where resurgent racist Jim Crow voting laws didn't prevent them from exercising their rights. While the right-wing movement that the Republicans are spearheading is indeed something we should pay attention to, it's actually a good thing that so many people have turned their backs on the charade of pseudo democracy that the US elections represent. Which is why it's surprising that some leftists are still preaching the worn-out strategy of looking to liberal Democrats as a way of building some kind of popular movement. As Joelle Fishman of the Communist Party said to justify her party's capitulation to the Democrats, “Defeating the extreme right wing in this election comes down to voter turnout. This huge fight to get out the vote can result in a stronger movement going forward.”
“You Can’t Beat The Enemy While Raising His Flag,” is an old revolutionary expression that sums up the basic principles of political action – if you want to develop an independent political movement then you need to advance your own ideas, build your own organizations and not play according to the rules set by your adversary. This is a basic lesson that too many on the left conveniently forget every election season.
Activists are told by liberals, so-called progressives and other pundits to stop what we are doing in terms of developing independent politics and building our organizations, and to “get out the vote” for the candidates of the Democratic Party. “Leftists” who argue that we need to support the Democrats say, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that electing the lesser evil will give us more space to organize and advance our agenda. Yet this “left” cover for the Democrats, under whatever rationale, is not about building an independent revolutionary movement, but it is about switching our flag and hoisting up those of the Democrats. What it really means is surrender.
The Graveyard of Social Movements
Support for the Democrats as some kind of progressive or even “left” alternative rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the party. The Democratic Party is not actually an organization that once represented social movements, or poor and working people, and which later played the role of Judas Iscariot and “betrayed” its true calling by selling out to corporate interests. In order to betray something, you have to believe in it first. In the case of the Democrats, they are not on our side and they never have been. The Democrats were originally founded as a party of southern slave-owners and today they represent one wing of the ruling capitalist class.
It's true that the Democrats play a slightly different role than their Republican counterparts. They don't represent social movements or working class people. Rather, their effectiveness has been in their ability to co-opt movements by delivering small reforms from above which serve to blunt their radical edges and channel those movements back into electoral campaigns and the fold of the Democratic Party. Democratic apologists often point to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal as the great example of the Party representing the interests of the common people during the bleak era of the Great Depression. Yet the true story is the opposite of the mythology.
At the height of the Depression in 1932, unemployment reached at least one quarter of all workers — who were without any social safety net or unions to protect them. These workers did not take their desperate conditions lying down, rather they organized unions, often under radical socialist and communist leadership, to fight for decent wages and working conditions. The famous strikes of 1934 in Minneapolis and San Francisco were practically full-scale insurrections which scared the ruling class.
To stave off a radical challenge and insurgency from below, FDR and his wing of the capitalist class offered reforms in the shape of the New Deal. FDR granted workers the right to organize, implemented major programs such as Social Security and various public works initiatives. Many Republicans and short-sighted capitalists bemoaned FDR's New Deal as leading to the downfall of the free enterprise system. Yet as FDR explained in 1936, he had saved the rich from drowning and they were ungrateful for that to pay a small price for it:
“In the summer of 1933, a nice old gentleman wearing a silk hat fell off the end of a pier. He was unable to swim. A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard and pulled him out; but the silk hat floated off with the tide. After the old gentleman had been revived, he was effusive in his thanks. He praised his friend for saving his life. Today, three years later, the old gentleman is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.”
In return for these reforms, labor unions renounced any effort to build an independent political movement, hitched their star to the Democratic Party and collaboration with big business, and purged their movement of radicals. What happened to the labor movement has been repeated with other social movements — civil rights, women, antiwar, environmentalists, etc — and the end result is always the same: Those movements which enter the Democratic Party to grow, are caught in a parasite's embrace and drained of life. The Democrats are rightfully called the “graveyard of social movements.”
An Abusive Relationship
Despite the proven history of the Democrat Party as a black hole for the left and social movements, there are still many on the left who advocate working within them, entering into an alliance with them,. getting out the vote or offering some version of “critical” support. Before the 2014 elections, the Communist Party argued, that “This election is a fight between the one percent who could care less about the needs of the 99 percent and those who seek a bright future where economic justice and civil and human rights are the rule.”
After all, politics is about getting “our hands dirty” and practicing the “art of the possible.” Somehow, we are told, making these types of compromises by supporting the Democrats will enable leftists to have a seat at the table and advance their own agenda if they just “play it nice.” Let's unpack some of this.
When leftists urge “support” for a Democrat like Barack Obama, saying “progressive” domestic reforms are worth defending (this is being generous since his reforms such as Obamacare serve corporate interests), but ignoring or rationalizing for his killing of children by drone strikes. Some leftists make a slightly better effort, saying that Obama can be pushed in an anti-war direction. Yet a twisted logic follows from this. Left apologists for the Democrats end up counseling revolutionaries to be “patient” and “realistic” while they are busy fostering illusions in the blood-soaked US empire. For these leftists, some of whom disgrace the name of communist by grovelling to the Democrats, domestic concessions ultimately become more important than opposing war abroad. What it comes down to for the Democratic apologists is that those kids on the receiving end of a drone strike should really appreciate that the person pushing the button has a "D" next to their name.
There has never been an alliance between the Democrats and any section of the left that has in anyway advanced a revolutionary agenda. To pretend otherwise is to enter the land of make-believe. The Democratic Party is a vast apparatus and network bought and owned by the ruling class – it serves their interests first, last, and always. Those who think some kind of “inside/outside” strategy is possible are deluding themselves. Who would be leading whom in such a strategy? In fact, again and again the Democratic Party has led attacks on left and social movements: Obama and his Democrats are even now repressing the far left, and the example of the planned, nationwide destruction of the Occupy movement should stand out as a vivid reminder of what self-described “progressives” are capable of.
The hardcore of the far left is small and scattered in comparison to the powerful Democrats. However, as we have seen from experience, when leftists think they are entering into alliance with the Democrats, it is rather that they are being pulled to the right. Radicals entering the fray of the Democrats wind up silencing themselves at a moment when critical voices are so rare. Leftist involvement in the Democratic Party has not stopped a single drone strike, halted one bank bailout or ended police brutality. On the contrary, leftist involvement has led to the creation of a chorus of cheerleaders for the Democrats and their wars for empire. It is a losing strategy.
Many leftists who support the Democrats say that they do so very “critically.” They may agree with the history and analysis that dissects what is wrong with the Democrats, yet the add “but, we need to support them” for any number of rationales. And as a friend of mine said, nothing really counts after you say “but.” And it doesn't. Take this example of Communist Party USA leader John Bachtell in 2009 arguing that the Democrats are some kind of friend to the left:
“On issue after issue, the labor and people's movement has a friend here. The challenge comes when you disagree with a friend, how you handle that disagreement so you don't break the alliance. That's the kind of tactics we need to be discussing. And to paint Obama as an imperialist presidency is not helpful in understanding what we are dealing with and how to develop the tactics necessary to advance the struggle.”
One would like to ask these leftists, “what do the Democrats have to do before you break with them? How many countries do they have to bomb? How many unions do they have to break? How many social programs do they have to slash?” When leftists who claim to know better accept the parameters of “change” as laid out by the Democratic Party or say that we need to treat the Democrats as “a friend you disagree with” while denouncing those who protest their policies, they become an an active roadblock to advancing the struggle. Leftists who think of involvement within the Democratic Party should remember German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning that “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
Well, shouldn't we support the Democrats as the “lesser evil” as opposed to the “ultra-right fascist” Republicans? For apologists who race to wave the Democratic flag every election season, they magnify the differences between the two parties and ignore the fundamental similarities between the two. While it is true that the Republicans draw support for Tea Party racists, religious fundamentalists, and are opposed to any semblance of a social safety net as demonstrated by governors such as Scott Walker, who is a proud union busters; yet the Democrats, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, are more often than not, aside from election season rhetoric, joint partners with the Republicans in pushing neoliberalism and smashing social programs. The Republicans, just like the Democrats, serve capitalist interests and conduct imperialist wars.
As Arun Gupta argues in a recent essay, “But it’s time to rethink this notion that Democrats lack principles. They have a clear agenda and are actually more ideological than Republicans. Democrats like Obama are willing to lose power to carry out the neoliberal agenda. Since the Clinton era, Democrats have been the most effective architects of policies that increase the wealth and power of those on the top of the economic pyramid.” The lesson here is that the Democrats are not the lesser evil, but the "more effective evil." Many apologists for the Democrats are willing to overlook and rationalize their crimes, even though they would be screaming to the heavens if the Republicans did them, simply because the party committing them has a "D" next to their name. Where has the liberal antiwar movement been as Obama has made himself the fourth president in a row to launch bombing attacks on Iraq?
Progressives Are Loyal to Capitalism
Still what about all those “progressive” Democrats like Elizabeth Warren that we keep hearing about? After all, Warren has spoken out against banks and for the common people. Surely, we should support people such as Warren and build a left within the Democratic Party to ultimately capture it? It is a proposal that almost sounds sensible, until you realize that it has no basis in reality. For one thing, “progressives” in the Democratic Party are not all that progressive. Take Warren – she has conservative ideas on the role of women, the family, she regularly votes for pro-business legislation and voted for Israel's recent slaughter of Gaza (and refused to answer questions about it). The promotion of Warren and previous “progressives” Democrats such as Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich or Ted Kennedy is just a means to bring the often-disappointed base of the Democrats into supporting the latest election campaign. And even if Warren were actually the progressive she is made out to be, she is not the one who makes and carries out policy within the Democratic Party.
The Democrats and their progressive allies have in fact shown themselves to be on the other side most clearly during the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri. When the people said “enough!” at the racist police murders of black youth, they find that the Democrats are not their allies. It was the Democratic governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon who refused to speak up on police brutality. It has been the Democratic Senator Claire McCashill and State Representative Jeff Roorda who refuse to address white supremacy and police brutality. St. Louis-based rapper, Tef Poe speaks for many who have grown fed-up with the Democrats, saying “In its refusal to act, the Democratic Party supports the ideology of destroying brown families by ripping them apart person by person. It supports black and brown racial profiling because it will not abolish it.” And when people are finally seeing through the illusion of the Democrats and reformist measures, it is not the time to reinforce it. And frankly, US capitalism must be ended, not reformed: Communists must tell this basic truth at every opportunity. The left has been caught in a trap of trying to fix the system rather than smash it.
Raise the Red Flag
So where does that leave us? Is everyone who votes for the Democrats an enemy? No. The people who vote for the Democrats are not our enemies. Many poor and working class people support the Democrats for a variety of reasons: because they are sucked in by their cynical rhetoric, because they fear the base misogyny, homophobia and racism of the right wing, because they think of themselves as defending civil rights, or simply because they see no viable alternative. And it is our job to reach them with patient and no nonsense explanations of Democratic Party betrayals. Our goal should not be to support the “lesser evil” of the Democrats, but to expose, isolate and kick over the rotten structure of all the capitalist parties as we develop an independent revolutionary movement.
And this system clearly shows us that elections are not democracy. As has been proven again and again from FDR to Obama, elections and capitalist politics won't change capitalism. Those leftists who apologize for the Democrats and urge critical support for them are deluding both themselves and the people. They are not building any people's movement by hitching their star to the Democrats. Rather, they are acting as advocates for the “kinder face” of empire and exploitation. Nothing more and nothing less.
It is time to stop supporting the Democrats with their limited vision of what is possible and to put forward our own visions. Another world is actually possible. The Democrats want us to believe that justice will come to society only through gradual process, only through voting for them. This is a self-serving lie. And the “left” who again and again reinforce illusions in progressive Democrats is also telling a lie. Most people in the US are thoroughly disgusted by the electoral process. We need to tell the truth about capitalism and gather together these forces and help them to find their own strength so that we're rid of all this abusive madness once and for all.
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.