History is not on the side of the US Democratic Party and not just because Republicans control all branches of government and dominate in legislatures in 32 states and governorships in 33 states. Just as there is not much of a centrist or leftist challenge to bourgeois political parties around the world, the rightwing trend of American politics seems unstoppable as it has been gaining momentum since the Reagan-Thatcher decade in the 1980s. The trend of conservative politics is not confined to the US, but it has become global largely because centrist parties, even those in Europe under the label Socialist have moved to the globalization, neoliberal and austerity camp.
Because a number of European and US conservative positions held just by mainstream conservative parties are also held by neo-Fascists, the liberal center has moved to the right instead of the left as genuine opposition. Partly because of the collapse of Communism and the US-EU war on terror and military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, rightwing populism embracing Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, misogyny, and anti-union and anti-labor sentiment has swept up even centrist political elements.
By embracing a militarist foreign policy and the war on terror, with reverberations on immigration and refugee policy the liberal centrists in Europe and the US have permitted the right to define patriotism as xenophobia, militarism and police state policies. Even worse, the liberal centrists have contributed to the alienation of the masses by embracing globalization, neoliberal policies and austerity measures that have resulted in massive capital concentration. There is something seriously wrong when just eight people own as much wealth as half of the earth’s population or 3.6 billion people. https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world
In the US, the Democrats have chosen to deviate so far from the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the degree that their positions on foreign and defense policies and the economy and labor policy are not so far apart from their Republican counterparts who have moved much more to the right than Dwight D. Eisenhower’s party in the 1950s. Committed to capitalism and expansionism as the Republicans, the Democratic Party underwent some significant changes on its approach both to domestic and foreign policy first under President Woodrow Wilson (1912-1920) committed to the Progressive Era agenda of securing greater regulation of the economy through a stronger central government role and pursuing a multilateral foreign policy outside the Western Hemisphere while maintaining unilateralism in inter-American relations. Building on the Wilsonian legacy, Roosevelt expanded the role of the central government and established the foundations of the welfare state that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson continued after it had been weakened under both presidents Truman and Eisenhower who were more focused on strengthening capital and the military industrial complex at the expense of labor and the civilian economy.
By the 1990s under Bill Clinton, the Democrats were closely allied with Wall Street, especially Goldman Sachs that has a history of ubiquitous influence in policy regardless of who is in office. To placate its middle class base, the Democrats espoused lifestyle/cultural diversity as compensation which hardly made up for chronic downward social mobility with no end in sight. The Clinton neoliberal policies and globalization continued under Obama whose presidency resulted in massive wealth transfer.
In September 2013, Obama admitted that 95% of the income gains since he had taken office went to the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans. In 2016, 620 billionaires owned $2.6 trillion in an economy with a GDP of $18.5 trillion. As the cost of living continued to rise and uneven income distribution became worse, the public perception of the Democrats was that they were elitist liberals. This elitist Wall Street-linked image was exposed by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign of 2016, thus exposing the reality that the “peoples’ party” was really in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans who donated generously to make sure that their privileged role in society remained strong.
Instead of ending the corporate welfare and neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton continued gutting the welfare system and strengthening corporate welfare while pursuing neoliberal policies with greater speed. On the wrong side of history, the Democratic Party decided to take this route because it benefited Wall Street rather than the middle class and workers as it claimed. Obama followed Clinton’s path. In 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton vowed to do the same, betting on identity politics at a time when class politics was the only winning strategy as Trump’s victory to the White House proved.
After losing the election, Democrats remained on the wrong side of history by placing all of their hopes on the investigation of Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election. While they hope that the investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election and President Donald Trump’s recklessness would save them from self-imposed decline in local and national elections, they have deluded themselves into believing that because a large segment of the corporate media and well-paid neoliberal analysts keep repeating what Democrats and Wall Street want them to say that is all they need. Using the “Russia card” is a calculating decision to be on the wrong side of history, essentially stuck in the Cold War neoliberal-corporate welfare past; on the wrong side of their own popular base, which in 2016 demonstrated it wanted a progressive agenda such as the one that Senator Bernie
Sanders was offering when he ran against the Wall Street candidate Hillary Clinton.
The Republican and Democratic parties have a long history of more policy similarities than differences, especially in post-WWII foreign and defense policy but also trade, monetary, and economic domains. However, the two parties also have some differences after Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the party base to make it more inclusive by bringing into the wide tent not just women and minorities, but labor unions and those on the ideological left at a time that radicalization of the masses had hit a record owing to the Great Depression. FDR strengthened the central government, not weakened it through neoliberal policies variations of which were more closely linked to his predecessors responsible for the Great Depression.
Representing the capitalist system and operating within its institutional confines, both parties have historic ties to the socioeconomic elites that agree on the goals of maintaining the social order but do not always agree ideologically and on the means of achieving those goals. There have always been billionaires ideologically driven on the extreme rightwing advocating harsh treatment toward labor unions, women, and minorities, just as there have been billionaires who have had a more benevolent approach toward the masses. In our time, the Koch brothers are on the extreme right wing ideological side of politics, advocating cutting all social welfare programs including Medicaid and privatizing social security, and threatening not to provide campaign contributions until senators and congressmen voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (OBAMACARE) which would in effect transfer an estimated $800 billion into the pocket of the richest Americans over a ten-year period.
On the liberal-identity politics side, there are a number of prominent billionaires among them George Soros who supports a rationalized capitalist system rather than one that creates shocks and disequilibrium. The massive capital concentration and downward social mobility since the early 1980s has made it very difficult for elites on both sides to maintain the support of the masses, just as it has in Europe. However, it is not difficult to understand workers and middle class people with eroding living standards opting for the billionaire businessman politician – a Silvio Berlusconi type – as the hollow savior of society applying business principles to government only to discover government is not a real estate company.
Given the dominance of Wall Street in politics, both political parties have drifted to the right on economic issues that only hasten downward socioeconomic mobilization. On cultural/lifestyles the Democrats maintain their identity politics approach of catering to the economic elites without addressing underlying living standards issues, thus losing their popular base to apathy and to Republican populists. Republicans have moved even more to right ideologically to the degree that they could easily be confused with a neo-Fascist European party. In fact, it was hardly a surprise that all rightwing European parties applauded the election of Donald Trump as did many authoritarian world leaders.
Remarkably, the Republicans are more effective with their propaganda campaign because they deliver on social/cultural/religious conservatism through Supreme Court nominees, gun rights, more police-state powers, cutting funding from social programs, etc. By managing to identify the rightwing agenda with patriotism and any opposition as un-American, Republicans have taken the country back to the Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s when accusation of treason were made in order to silence all dissent and enforce conformity.
Democrats have been less effective propagandists because their cultural/lifestyle identity politics entails funding certain social welfare programs such as Planned Parenthood, school lunches, healthcare, tolerance and advocacy for gays and lesbians, etc. without addressing a holistic policy from a class perspective that takes care of peoples’ material needs first while promoting social justice. Bernie Sanders was correct when he observed that of the two major presidential candidates in 2016 only Trump framed the debate in class terms while Clinton dismissed it as divisive.
The US economy is not rising as rapidly as it did in the early Cold War as the International Monetary Fund, Federal Reserve Bank and most economists agree that 2% average annual GDP growth is realistic despite low unemployment. Considering that both parties support a defense sector that only adds billions to the public debt and a fiscal system unsustainable owing to 2% annual growth, the American economic pie is becoming too small for all to share given the existing fiscal structure and corporate welfare system. Because both parties depend on campaign contributions from the wealthiest Americans and yield to the influence of powerful corporate lobbies, they make sure that the economic pie is divided unevenly to favor very heavily the top 1% of the wealthy. The Republican proposed health care repeal bill included cutting benefits from 750,000 Medicaid recipients in order to transfer those savings in the form of tax cuts into the pockets of 400 of the wealthiest families. While Democrats oppose such a Draconian measure, they also have a record since the 1990s of supporting income transfer from the bottom up. Even under Reagan, many of them voted for tax cuts to the rich and for corporate welfare measures. https://www.dailykos.com/story/2017/6/22/1674114/-Trumpcare-tax-cuts-to-nation-s-400-wealthiest-families-is-Medicaid-blood-money
Convincing voters to support them means that either politicians must blatantly lie that they will raise living standards and keep unemployment low and living standards high, as did Trump in 2016, or promise to keep the system open so as to integrate socioeconomically a segment of women, minorities, gay and lesbian groups into the mainstream while the rest can enjoy the absence of institutional persecution, as did Clinton and her supporters in congress. Given the choices that the two parties present, voters have the option to vote their ideological leanings and aspirations, to vote against the party they deem a threat to their ideological leanings and lifestyle, or to remain apathetic as is the case with about 40-50% of the voters.
People have accepted as “natural” bailing out banks, insurance companies and other sectors such as the automobile or steel industry. However, they object to any funding for school lunches to feed children too poor to afford lunch. Billions for defense, football stadium subsidies, tax breaks and loan guarantees for corporate America, but not a dime for the poor; and all in the name of democracy! This mindset is no different than what prevailed in early 19th century England when Parliament introduced the “Poor Laws” of 1834 (Poor Law Amendment) intended to reduce taxes on the wealthy by cutting money going to sustain the poor which the Industrial Revolution had created. Despite 21st century US policies in the spirit of the English Poor Law of 1834, American politicians of both parties present the US as the democratic “leader” that the rest of the world must emulate, although its record on human rights and social justice is not much different than a Third World country. Of 31 advanced capitalist countries, the US ranks near the bottom, not just under Trump but also Obama. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/27/social-justice_n_1035363.html
In this respect, both political parties share responsibility for choosing to embrace the past, to be on the wrong side of history, even by the admission of Republican Ohio Governor Kasich who argued that neither party cares for the poor. In the century when the transition from American global economic hegemony will be transferring to East Asia, things will only deteriorate for American global economic competitiveness and for the middle class and workers. Throughout the Cold War, there were Democrats who were much more hawkish on foreign policy than Republicans, but held more moderate domestic policy views rooted in watered-down versions of the New Deal, including supporting labor unions. Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party has abandoned its New Deal roots completely and embraced the neoliberal agenda.
Can the Republicans be “out-Republicaned” by Cold War neoliberal Democrats using the Russia threat as rallying cry to win elections while decrying class politics and embracing identity politics as a catalyst to party unification? The widespread perception is that Democrats are elitist hypocrites to the degree that Senator Al Franken proposed that they stop riding around in limousines to end the stereotypical perception the public has of them. If only that were a realistic solution rather than substantive policy changes to improve peoples’ lives! What if FDR had proposed the same thing during the Great Depression instead of pursuing New Deal policies to save capitalism from self-destruction and to save the pluralistic society from lapsing into a Fascist-type state?
The Bankrupt Democratic Party
The US has one of the lowest voting participation rates among developed nations at 55% in 2016, and one of the lowest in the world ranking below 26 other nations including neighboring Mexico and Canada. Only slightly more than half of registered voters participate in elections, a manifestation of widespread apathy and cynicism about the political system especially among young people that do not see it representing them and questioning that it is democratic. The lack of participation and lack of confidence in the political system best serves the wealthy whose campaign contributions through Political Action Committees (PAC), lobbying firms, or direct campaign contributions maintains the status quo catering to the top ten percent of the wealthiest Americans, with a sizeable percentage still aspiring for upward mobility and believing in the system as they believe in God and afterlife.
The majority, however, as Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders have stated have lost faith because they realize the institutional structure does not address their needs. Trump’s election, a billionaire TV reality show as president, with a cabinet made up of billionaires and generals, and policies designed to transfer wealth from the middle class and poor to the pockets of the wealthy speaks volumes of how the system actually works to maintain a powerful wealthy class and imperial policy of militarism on a global scale. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/
As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, what passes for “democracy” comes in the form of criticizing Russia for meddling in the US election in 2016, as though the problem with American democracy does not rest internally but outside the country with an easily identifiable historic enemy needed to justify not just the obsolete NATO whose purpose is militarism and expansionism of the West, but also the strengthening of the defense industries. The Democrats have convinced themselves that blaming domestic institutional problems on a foreign enemy is an effective way to mobilize a segment of the popular base of the Democratic Party under the militarist Cold War wing that also embraces economic policies responsible for massive wealth concentration and the decline of the middle class.
Most people have no problem externalizing internal problems, especially blaming Russia. However, the down side is that this strategy works only with a segment of the Democratic Party’s popular base, but it does nothing for the majority of the voters as the special congressional election results indicated in the first six months of the Trump presidency when Republican candidates defeated their democratic challengers. This reflects largely the reality that Democrats are weak and remain on the wrong side of history, even with a highly unpopular president who constantly dismisses the Russia meddling allegations as a hoax and fake news.
The money trail of the Trump family and cabinet officials’ involvement with major banks like Deutsche Bank is far more significant pointing to corruption than the Russian political investigation that is difficult to prove even if every aspect of it is true. Ideologically and politically acceptable by Wall Street and the defense industry, the Russia-Trump issue remains center stage to the point of ‘crying wolf’ tests the credulity even of the most faithful voters. The issue can never assume full legitimacy because it will always encounter resistance from Republicans who see it as political payback by Democrats.
Pointing to corrupt practices by banks is a legitimate and provable matter but contrary to the neoliberal ideological framework in which both parties operate. The Democratic Party’s goal is to prevent the popular base from veering toward a more progressive leader like Senator Bernie Sanders. The Cold War neoliberal Democrats who lined up behind Clinton and Obama have failed to convince voters that Russian election meddling is the only thing that matters in their lives rather than all other concerns from living standards to the prospects of their children experiencing the real possibility of downward socioeconomic mobility.
The Democratic popular base is sharply divided because the neoliberal-corporate welfare wing is on the wrong side of history, while the grassroots wing wants systemic changes and distancing of politics from Wall Street money. The Cold War neoliberal elites’ agenda that is only slightly less pro-capital anti-labor and anti-middle class than what the Republicans offer is hardly convincing to progressives who would otherwise vote Democrat. The more progressive Keynesian (New Deal) agenda that has a class approach to the social contract rather than identity politics approach has historically worked to mobilize voters into the Democratic Party only to have them deceived by broken promises about higher living standards.
Regardless of domestic policies, the pursuit of economic imperialism backed by aggressive militarism is always at the core of US foreign policy. This complicates matters in the early 21st century when the debt-to-GDP ratio is around 110% and rapidly rising cutting into living standards of the middle class and workers. Keynesian policies are less palatable to the elites that both political parties serve and find it increasingly difficult to balance their role as servants of capital and sustaining the façade of an open pluralistic society based on a strong middle class.
There is a very real possibility that the Democratic Party will prevail over the Republicans either in the congressional elections of 2018 or in the presidential race of 2020. This is not because President Trump and the Republicans will be popular or scandal-free by any means, considering they are already immersed in scandals involving their capitulation to corporate lobbying. Of the 56.7% who voted in 2016, Trump received about 3 million fewer popular votes than Clinton in 2016, thus he represents a small minority of the population, if we just focus on actual numbers rather than the Electoral College. However, because the Democrats are not very different in policy from their opponents in representing Wall Street and militarism, voter apathy will continue and this works against Democrats, especially if the economy remains fairly steady and does not lapse into recession.
Not surprising, most Democrat politicians and analysts believe that the unpopularity of the presidency combined with an incessant media assault on the influence of Russia in the US election of 2016 will translate into electoral successes during the congressional elections of 2018 and presidential election of 2020. This assumes that the majority prefers the Democratic Party with its current identity politics agenda because the Republican president is likely to become weaker as a result of the Russia investigation that would presumably uncover direct or indirect links. The fallacy here is that just because about two-thirds of Americans believe there is something to the Trump-Russian interference story, the majority will vote Democrat instead of Republican or staying home.
While the percentage of registered Democrats is 3-6 points higher than Republicans, the cross-over voters, Independents and people in the apathy category decide election results. What are the chances that Independent, cross-over and apathy voters will cast a ballot on no issue other than the ad-nauseam Trump-Russia investigation assuming the economy remains fairly steady? The assumption that Cold War neoliberal elites represent the majority of the people is even more arrogant and self-deceptive than the assumption that Republicans embrace in courting religious and social conservatives. Clearly, ideology plays a role and Americans have been moving to the right ideologically ever since Truman, but that does not necessarily help Democrats who have had a role in moving the electorate to the right but suffer an image of ‘liberal elitism.’
As an alternative to the Republicans, the Democratic Party is in serious trouble regardless of Trump’s reckless conduct, violation of protocol if not the constitution, and unpopular policies like repealing OBAMACARE backed by the Republican Party. It is delusional to believe that a Republican congress will sacrifice its own party by impeaching its leader, even if his popularity dips below 30%. On the contrary, the Republicans are actually more cohesive and unified both as a party and as a popular base than the Democrats who remain as divided as they were when Sanders challenged Clinton in 2016. The Democratic Party’s deep divisions rest with its pro-Wall Street, pro-militarist policies, while catering to the cultural needs of disparate social/cultural/lifestyle groups and maintaining a social integration policy of elites only from all social groups.
Even if congress were to impeach Trump as many Clinton-Obama supporters dream, the Democrat Party on its present course will not capture the majority in the House and the Senate and it will certainly not win the majority of governorships and state legislatures either in 2018 or in 2020. Praying that more revelations about Russia would save the Democrats is just one of the many illusions that afflict them collectively, but hardly the only one considering they are oblivious to the enormous chasm between the elitist nature of the party and the aspirations of people who would otherwise vote for it if it were truly democratic.
According to public opinion polls taken in June 2017, Trump’s popularity ranged from 36 to 41%. Public approval of congressional Democrats was a mere 30%, much lower than Trump’s popularity. These figures, which do not even take into account the apathy voting bloc, illustrate that the people hardly view the Democrats as an alternative to Republicans and Trump’s “billionaires and generals” cabinet. While the majority has serious questions about Trump as a leader who seems to have a casual relationship with the truth about everything from policy to his taxes and inter-personal relations, most people do not believe that the Democrats are the party to represent the average American.
In spite of a massive corporate media blitz focusing on the Trump administration’s possible links to Russian officials, and Trump’s low approval ratings, the Democrats have not benefited and they are unlikely to benefit in 2018 or 2020, especially if the economy does not lapse into recession. The popularity of Democrats dropped from 45% in November 2016 to 40% in May 2017, representing a mere 1% above Republican popularity. The lack of confidence in either party and in the president at levels not seen since the Nixon-Watergate crisis points to a crisis of confidence in the system itself and its failure to address problems of the average American.
Insider Theories on the Problems of the Democrat Party
The “Democratic Brand” is tarnished. Besides the issue of whether this is self-inflicted, the implication is that a political party is no different than marketing a product like laundry detergent. Therefore, a marketing campaign to alter peoples’ perceptions is all that is needed rather than change in a platform that aims to improve peoples’ lives. If only a better marketing campaign were undertaken to promote the “Democratic Brand” so people would buy it whether it is good for them or not then voters would support it!
Conclusion: The Misery Index and Neoliberal Corporate Welfare Politics
In the 1970s, Arthur Okun came up with the misery index to measure unemployment and inflation. In spring 2017, the official unemployment rate was 4.4%, although the real unemployment rate was at 8.6%. Considering that about 20% of the employment rate is attributed to part time workers and that more than one-third of people under the age of 30 have more than one job; and considering that labor hours on a weekly average have not changed while downward pressure on wages against rising cost of housing, education and health, it is not surprising that the misery index in the US is high in comparison to most industrialized nations. To be on the right side of history, the Democrats must address the misery index. Instead of looking for excuses on why they lose elections, they need to examine why two-thirds of the people believe the country is on the wrong track.
For Republicans it is easier to prevail in elections than it is for Democrats because the former use a combination of blaming liberals, minorities, Muslims, Mexicans and above all “big government” for all the ills in society. For Republicans the country is on the wrong track because foreigners, petty criminals, and liberals are to blame. Republicans essentially use the same weapons as the church in the Middle Ages of demanding loyalty and conformity to authority with the knowledge that is the reward for “being an American”.
Democrats have a much more difficult task because they are swimming in an ocean of contradictions, promising to cater to disparate social/cultural groups while delivering the benefits to Wall Street from where their campaign contributions originate. The irreconcilable differences in their “bit tent” identity politics approach combined with a shrinking economy unable to compete globally as it was in the first two decades after WWII presents greater challenges for the Democratic Party. Of course, its neoliberal leadership could opt to embrace a Keynesian model, but that will probably have to wait until the next Great Depression, most likely in the 2030s. If not, then a form of a neo-Fascist state will become a reality.