In the grand scheme of things, the Democrats’ victory last November will likely produce little of significance, and less still that is praiseworthy. The pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, epitomized by the Clintons, along with the socially conservative Blue Dogs, seem to have won the day, while hope for a left of any sort, much less a radical left, remains ethereal. This reflects a long term shift rightward in American politics which can be seen to correspond with a decline in both public and Labor militancy and a rise in corporate political action.
The current situation, where a vocal Democratic opposition has been elected for its very antagonistic stance yet has proceeded to kowtow to whatever edict issues from the White House, does not signal a return to an American leftism (which arguably has been absent since the first glimmers of McCarthyism set progressives into their closets). In contrast, it signals a triumph of ‘centrism’, which in reality will serve the interests of the elite, albeit a different oligarchy than the military and oil men currently having their coffers lined by no-bid contracts. To get a better grip on this impeding ‘centrism’, which will take its shape from the compromises the Democratic elite are making with the retreating GOP, we first need to look at the ends it has in mind; then we need to see how such a ‘centrism’ became politically achievable, how it developed out from the trends of American politics.
It’s important to remember that most of the Democrats who were victors in the 2006 elections did not run positive campaigns. They simply ran against the fiascos and bungles and corruption that have taken place under the Bush administration, promising nothing except that they were not the bastards who got the country into Iraq. But as Mike Davis notes, “the irony of the anti-war vote [is] that it elected Democrats who are under no obligation to actually end the barbarous US occupation” (1). It should come as no surprise, then, that this congress does not possess any concrete goal or even outlined program; rather, it is aiming to ensure the Presidency in 2008: in a word, ‘centrism’. This means several things: that party leadership will be trying to secure funding from business interests — and so not alienating them with any tough legislation — all the while working to underscore the errors that the Republicans have made; that investigations of corruption will not delve too deeply however, since that could alienate potential campaign donors and set nasty precedents that could in turn haunt the Dems (2).
More troubling than the politicking of the newly empowered is the general rightward shift of the entire political spectrum — which, besides having the pleasing result of pushing even slightly progressive politics out from leftist past radical toward lunatic, has made the Democrats less essentially left-wing and at times hardly identifiable as left-of-center at all. This is exemplified by the fact that many of the Dems elected were not progressive in any way shape or form. What may have been a campaign strategy — running conservative-but-blue candidates in socially-conservative districts — has the potential of shattering the Democrats’ potential for achieving anything but ‘centrism.’ The bulk of the socially-conservative Democrats make up a caucus called the Blue Dog Alliance: they are pro-war, anti-welfare, and true-believers. Blue Dogs tend to differ with the Democratic Leadership Counsel in that they oppose free trade (3). Having within the party two large segments that have no interest in ending corporate interference in governance, staving climate change, or controlling pork means that these things are not likely to occur — unless the electorate makes itself felt by mass movement.
The Democrats’ countervailing desires and stances have already been used against them by the Bush administration, which extended an offer to balance the budge across the aisle. The Blue Dogs, fierce supporters of a balanced budget, have taken up the offer, which will leave the Democrats as a whole greatly hindered in pursuing policy goals — at least, those goals which would be counter to the interests of the elite. The leading Dems will jump on securing the goods for their (economically) significant backers:
Nancy, Harry and Hillary do have one domestic crusade whose importance transcends other dogmas and constraints: the promotion of the ‘innovation agenda’ that the Democrats hope will dramatically solidify their support among hi-tech corporations and science-based firms across the country. If you wanted to find the missing urgency and passion that the Democrats should have focused on Katrina and urban poverty, it was evident last year in the rousing speeches that Pelosi and other leading Democrats delivered in tech hubs like Emeryville, Mountain View, Raleigh and Redmond…
The Democrats’ avid interest in patents and innovation was punctually rewarded with a 50 per cent increase (over 2004) in campaign contributions from hi-tech industries to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. At the same time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while in 2000 the Republican share of Silicon Valley political money ‘was 43 per cent, now it’s 4 per cent’. Since the first days of the Clinton administration, seducing the software and biotech sectors and their allied venture capitalists (along with deepening already profound ties to entertainment and media industries) has been the Democrats’ equivalent of the Republicans’ K Street Project. Now, with Al Gore sitting on the boards of Google and Apple, and Pelosi plotting virtual futures with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Millennium has arrived. Indeed with the ascent of Bay Area Democrats to such commanding positions in Congress, New Orleans may continue to moulder in misery, but Silicon Valley and its outliers can now trade pork as equals with the oil men and defence contractors still bunkered inside the White House. (4)
How did it come about that the Democratic party no longer stood for leftism, or the so-called Great Society consensus? One might suggest two factors or valences that worked together — each reinforcing the other — to bring the shift in the Democratic party about. First, the rise and success of neoliberalism at achieving political power in the United States; second, the decline of labor power, in form of unions and their militancy. As Robert Brenner writes,
[a]gainst the background of the Great Depression and Hoover’s initial calamitous response, it was the great upsurge of industrial militancy across manufacturing in the mid-30s that created the transformations in working-class political consciousness and organization that were the basis for the rise and reproduction of American liberal reformism. It was this explosion of mass direct action outside the electoral-legislative arena that constituted the indispensable precondition for the popular gains of the New Deal. Industrial unions were established in the face of determined employer resistance, and under conditions of increasing political radicalization. (5)
The only reason that the American elite took up the social reforms such as the New Deal was that they were under compulsion to do so by throngs of people — namely, the organized and militant labor unions. So long as the threat of a strike was something that could do harm to the interests of the elite, they had to take the interests of union workers seriously. However, being liable to the power of union workers was not something that employers and business interests would have desired. And so, the response of labor militancy was soon absorbed into the political system as such. The union apparatus became corrupted as officials became co-opted or bought off, and working members became alienated from the very organizational decisions meant to further their interests:
Meanwhile, increasingly separated from the daily activity of the shop floor and dependent on the union itself for their livelihood, an emergent cio officialdom reacted to the fall-off in mass struggles by turning to the institutionalization of union–employer relations, through state-sanctioned collective bargaining and regulation. This entailed a full commitment to the electoral road and to the Democratic Party, as a vehicle through which to win further reforms via the legislative process. (6)
This all took place in the postwar boom years of the 40s and 50s, before the economic downturn of the 70s which would require that many of the Great Society programs previously endorsed by the Democratic party to be eliminated. Such elimination was the only way to ensure profitability in the face of increasing overseas competition. Since the power of the labor movement had been greatly reduced, it could not respond.
But before their eventual marginalization, unions played a major part in electoral politics. Private sector unionization had been as high as 36 percent in the heyday of union power: to ignore the desire of so great a mobilized and informed base would have meant political suicide for any candidate. And so Democratic politicians of necessity toed a progressive line from the 30s to the middle 60s, all through the time that union power became more bureaucratic and disembodied. The social upheavals of the 60s and the civil rights movement contributed also to the continuation of a progressive agenda, but it continued only so long as postwar prosperity, which was the true reason behind continued support of progressive reforms union power having been rendered more or less impotent. Union officials failed to meet the corporate efforts to secure profit and the power of organized labor in America was broken; with its passing, the percentage of the electorate that identified with the labor agenda became increasingly marginal.
At the same time that the economy faltered, the Watergate scandal drove many ‘moderates’ to vote for a Democratic candidate rather than the perceived corruption of the Republican party. This shifted Democrats potential voter base rightward. Coming as it did roughly at the same time as the decline in organized labor’s power, it left the Democrats as more or less a party without a clearly defined agenda: the Great Society had passed from political viability, but nothing yet had replaced it.
It was during this situation that what might be called neoliberalism arose from politically active corporate interests, which were not shy about playing on racist antagonisms of southern whites inflamed by Democratic endorsement of the civil rights movement:
As the North declined industrially, the South rose. Between 1955 and 1975, the share of the thirteen southern states in the national manufacturing labour force leapt by 50 per cent, making the South the home of 30 per cent of manufacturing labour. By the 1990s, the South was as industrialized and urbanized as the North and matched it in virtually every indicator of capitalist advance—except, not accidentally, levels of real wages, taxation, social spending and trade unionization. In other words, it provided the template for the political economy that the Republican right wished to impose on the us as a whole, as well as the first port of call for an unending process of American globalization. The right was thus able to construct its new power base in an already favourable political environment. The South’s reactionary capitalists were among the main forces in the far-right mobilization that ultimately issued in the Goldwater campaign. Its so-called middle-class layers, meaning those from the relatively well-off suburbs, were already extremely conservative and implacably opposed to all aspects of the Great Society settlement, especially welfare ‘hand-outs’. Southern workers were politically atomized, individualized in the extreme, and therefore unusually open—not to say historically prepared—to embrace non-class forms of solidarity: race, the patriarchal family, nationalism-cum-militarism, and Protestant fundamentalism, now linked to Zionist expansionism…
The new Republican right had made its point of departure a dynamic, modernizing South that was already the most right-wing region of the country, possessed of the weakest trade unions and welfare infrastructures. To this core base, it sought to add an analogously right-wing Mountain region, shorn of its once radical miners; suburbs and ex-urbs across the country that had become the new redoubts of white working-class families, in flight from both black or Latino inner cities and increasingly expensive older suburbs. It aimed to appeal especially to white working-class men, suffering long-term economic decline compounded by new threats to patriarchal authority. With these forces, combined with its traditional backers in what remained of small-town America, the Republican right appeared to have the electoral potential to break beyond America’s anaemic version of welfare statism and to launch a new imperial project. (7)
This strategy lead Reagan and his backers to immense success in two elections. It also set the stage for a power shift in the Democratic party that would bring about a structural change in the make-up of American politics.
1. Mike Davis, “The Democrats After November.” New Left Review 43 Jan-Feb 2007. 13.
2. Ibid, 20.
3. Ibid, 24-5.
4. Ibid, 25-6.
5. Robert Brenner, “Structure and Conjuncture.” New Left Review 43 Jan-Feb 2007. 38.
6. Ibid, 38-9.
7. Ibid, 47-8.