So, How’s That Major-Party Election Madness Working for Us?
Paul Street’s column will appear in Truthdig each Sunday through Aug. 12. Its regular schedule will resume when Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges returns from vacation.
The United States is full of personally decent and caring, often highly intelligent people mired in political ignorance and delusion.
A smart and liberally inclined family doctor I know recently expressed concern over her high-income husband’s support for the malignant narcissist and pathological liar currently occupying the White House. “I can understand him being a Republican,” the doctor says, “but I just don’t get him backing Donald Trump.”
The problem here—what the doctor doesn’t get—is that Trump’s malicious persona and politics are darkly consistent with the white-supremacist and arch-reactionary heart and dog-whistling racism of the Republican Party going back five decades. It was just a matter of time until something like Trump happened: a Republican candidate who really meant the racism. Along the way, the Republican Party has become what Noam Chomsky credibly calls “the most dangerous organization in human history” because of its total disregard for livable ecology and its dedication to destruction and dismantlement of any institutions in place to address global warming. The Greenhouse Gassing to Death of Life on Earth is a crime that promises to make even the Nazi Party look like a small-time crime syndicate.
A smart and funny retired mental health professional I know is a proud liberal Democrat. She cites reports and stories showing that Trump is a bully, an authoritarian, a cheater, a parasite and a liar, among other terrible things. She gets it that both Trump and the Republican Party are supremely dangerous enemies of the people.
But she, too, is mired in delusions—mistakes and hallucinations common on the other side of America’s tribal and binary major-party partisan divide. For all her savviness and smarts, she can’t or won’t process the simple fact that the dismal, dollar-drenched Democratic Party put Trump in the White House and handed Congress and most of the nation’s state governments over to Trump and the Republican Party by functioning as a corporate-captive Inauthentic Opposition Party that refuses to fight for working people, the poor, minorities and the causes of peace, social justice and environmental sanity.
Tell her that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were “Wall Street presidents” (an easily and widely documented assertion) and she screws her face up. She doesn’t want to hear it. She wants to believe something that stopped being even remotely true at least four decades ago: that the Democratic Party is the party of the people.
If the Democrats take back Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, all will be well in her political world view: democracy and decency restored. You betcha!
She blames Trump’s presence in the White House on … you guessed it, Russia. Like millions of other MSDNC (sorry, I meant MSNBC) and Rachel Maddow devotees, she has let the obsessive CNN-MSNBC Russia-Trump narrative take over her understanding of current events. The “Russiagate” story has trumped her concern with other things that one might think matter a great deal to self-described liberals: racial oppression, sexism, poverty, low wages, plutocracy and—last but not least—livable ecology.
(She isn’t aware that racist Republican voter suppression at the state level was a big part of how Trump won—certainly a far bigger matter than any real or alleged Russian influence on the election. Isn’t that precisely the kind of thing that liberals are supposed to be angry about?)
But I know plenty of Americans well to her left—people who know very well that Obama and the Clintons and Nancy Pelosi are neoliberal corporate and Wall Street politicos and tools—who cling to their own major-party electoral-political delusions. With Sen. Bernie Sanders as their standard-bearer, they are all about boring from within an organization that Kevin P. Phillips once called “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” Their fallacy is that left progressives can steal the Democratic Party out from under its corporate and imperial masters, turn it to decent and social-democratic purposes and democratically transform America in proper accord with majority-progressive U.S. opinion.
A Newsweek article last fall was titled “Most Americans Desperate for a Third Major Party in the Trump Era.” It cited a Gallup Poll showing that 61 percent, more U.S. citizens than ever, find the Democratic and Republican parties inadequate and think that the U.S. should have a third major political party. Support for a competitive third party had been above 57 percent since at least 2012, but Gallup’s 2017 poll marked a new high. Nobody should be surprised by that finding given the fact that both of the parties have drifted well to the Big Business right of majority public opinion, with the Democrats joining Republicans in the creation of a New Gilded Age so savagely unequal that, as Bernie Sanders, “I”-Vt., said repeatedly (and accurately) in 2016, the top 10th of the upper U.S. 1 percent possesses as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent.
The fake “Independent” Sanders couldn’t care less about the strong majority sentiment on behalf of a third party. He has rejected all calls for him to jump major-party ship and tells progressives to pour their energies into electing candidates within the Democratic Party primary process. “Do what Alexandria did,” Bernie says to young Americans angry about the vicious ecocidal white nationalists in power today. Sanders is referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the inspiring young Sanders-style Democratic Socialists of America member who took down longtime establishment Democratic Party incumbent House member Joe Crowley in a New York City district primary last June.
So, to ask the Dr. Phil question, how’s that working out for “the left”?
Not so hot. The preponderant majority of progressive Democrats’ primary victories this year have been won in strongly Republican (“red”) districts, where progressives have not been heavily contested by the Democratic Party establishment. Only a very small number of progressive candidates have won in dependably “blue” (Democratic) districts and are likely to defeat Republicans in the general elections in November.
Crowley is the sole congressional incumbent to have lost a Democratic primary this year. His defeat by Ocasio-Cortez has been over-celebrated on “the left” and over-publicized in the media. She won with incredibly low turnout (13 percent), something that falls quite short of a leftist landslide and reflects local peculiarities in the operation of the New York City Democratic machine.
At the same time, as veteran left urban political strategist, activist and commentator Bruce A. Dixon noted on Black Agenda Report, “Crowley pretty much gave up the seat: After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard.”
Last but not least, the victory of Ocasio-Cortez, of Puerto Rican heritage, reflected a combined demographic (racial and ethnocultural) and party anomaly: the over-long presence of a white Democratic machine politician atop a recently racially and ethnically redistricted and now majority nonwhite and nearly majority Latinx district where the Democratic Party had failed to cultivate a neoliberal candidate of color—the kind of safe Latinx or black politico the nation’s second corporate and imperial party has developed across most of the nation’s urban minority-majority congressional districts. As Danny Haiphong observed in the American Herald Tribune, “New York District 14 is one of the few [urban minority congressional districts] left where neoliberal Black and Brown politicians do not dominate the political landscape. It will be difficult to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s victory across the country because neoliberal, Black [and Latino] politicians in other districts are protected by the politics of representation” (emphasis added).
Other districts like Missouri’s predominantly black 1st Congressional District in St. Louis, where the establishment incumbent Congressman Lacy Clay handily crushed the progressive insurgent Cori Bush five days ago.
Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, and the Democratic Socialists of America—the leading progressive organizations attempting to reform the Democratic Party—have endorsed 60 congressional candidates in states that have held their Democratic primaries through last week. Twenty-three of them have won their races. But 18 of these victors have won in red districts where there are entrenched Republican incumbents.
Only five progressive congressional primary winners—Ro Khanna (California 17th), Jamie Raskin (Maryland 8th), Chuy Garcia (Illinois 4th), Ocasio-Cortez, and the rousing Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib (Michigan 13th)—have won in Democratic districts and are likely to win in November. Two of those five (Khanna and Raskin) were already in office and were uncontested by the Democratic establishment. One of the five (Garcia) cut a corrupt deal with the Chicago Democratic machine and so ran unopposed by the establishment. Nebraska’s Kara Eastman is the one and only single-payer supporter to get nominated for a competitive House race in America’s heartland “breadbasket” this year.
Especially depressing for progressives hoping to reform the Democratic Party was the crushing defeat of Abdul El-Sayed in the Michigan gubernatorial primary. El-Sayed was hoping to ride the coattails of visits and endorsements from the (in the absurd language of the corporate media) “radical leftists” Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
“The Democratic Party,” Politico’s centrist commentator Bill Scher writes, “is more liberal than it was 15 years ago, and there’s no question that shift is partly due to an increasingly vocal, confident, confrontational democratic socialist faction. But,” Scher creepily but accurately crowed, “it is still only a faction. Most Democratic nominees in competitive House races—not to mention incumbent Senate Democrats fighting for their political lives in red states—are not embracing single-payer or calling for the abolishment of ICE. They are mostly calling for improvements of the Affordable Care Act and a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.”
This overall weak performance by left-leaning Sanders-style Democrats reflects elite business and professional-class manipulation within the party to which so many progressives remain attached. As the pro-third-party Movement for a People’s Party (headed by former Sanders staffers) noted two weeks ago:
The DNC [Democratic National Committee] and the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] have systematically cheated and blocked progressive candidates by flooding races with corporate cash, knocking progressives off the ballot, feeding opposition research to the media, forcing candidates to spend three quarters of their fundraising on consultants and ads, changing the rules required to get party support, denying access to crucial voter data, endorsing establishment Democrats, setting party affiliation deadlines months before the primaries, blocking independents from voting, and even giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates. For more than a year after the 2016 election, the Democratic Party denied rigging primary elections against progressives. The party has now abandoned that pretense as it openly rigs midterm primaries across the country and normalizes election rigging. …While the media focuses on a handful of exceptions, the Democratic Party establishment is getting its way in the 2018 midterm primaries.
As the primaries have taken place this year, the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas writes me, “the establishment Dems are stridently going after the progressives. Just watch MSNBC’s coverage of elections. They’re advancing the ‘out of the mainstream’ line, implying that the few progressive-types who won are ruining the party and setting the stage for the Republicans to retain the House in the fall.”
It is true that the progressive Democrat Sanders came tantalizingly close to defeating the ultimate corporate Democrat, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential primaries—an amazing accomplishment for a small-donor candidate who received no funding from the corporate and financial establishment.
But imagine if Sanders had sneaked past Clinton in the primary race. Could he have defeated the billionaire and right-wing billionaire-backed Trump in the general election? There’s no way to know. Sanders consistently outperformed Clinton in one-on-one matchup polls vis-à-vis Trump during the primary season, but much of the big money (and corporate media) that backed Clinton would probably have gone over to Trump had the supposedly “radical” Sanders been the Democratic nominee.
Even if Sanders had been elected president, moreover, Noam Chomsky is certainly correct in his judgment that a President Sanders “couldn’t have done a thing” because he would have had “nobody [on his side] in Congress, no governors, no legislatures, none of the big economic powers, which have an enormous effect on policy. All opposed to him. In order for him to do anything,” Chomsky adds, “he would have [needed] a substantial, functioning party apparatus, which would have to grow from the grass roots. It would have to be locally organized, it would have to operate at local levels, state levels, Congress, the bureaucracy—you have to build the whole system from the bottom.” None of those things would be remotely forthcoming from the Inauthentic Opposition Party.
It might well have been worse than not being able to “do anything,” actually. Even as he loaded his administration with corporate and imperial centrists—as he certainly would have been compelled to do to mollify the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire—a President Sanders would have been faced with a capital strike: with severe “market instability” and “declining business confidence” raising the specter of a financial meltdown.
“With little prospect of the economic tumult subsiding during his 11-week transition period,” the political scientists William Grover and Joseph Peschek wrote in the summer of 2015, a Sanders presidency:
… would face enormous pressure to calm the fears of the market by announcing the appointment of moderates to hold Cabinet positions—non-confrontational, non-ideological people who would be “acceptable” to political and economic power holders. No radicals for the Treasury Department, no thoughts of Ben and Jerry as Co-Secretaries of Commerce, no union firebrand to head the Labor Department, no Bill McKibben leading the Interior Department. Only nice, “safe” choices would suffice—personnel decisions that would undermine the progressive vision of his campaign. In short, the economics of “capital strike” would threaten to trump the verdict of democracy.
A President Sanders would also have been compelled to engage in an aggressively imperial foreign policy. He would have faced what Bruce Dixon calls “immense pressure to demonstrate his unwavering hostility toward the Russians and his fealty to empire”—pressure to which “Bernie the Bomber” would certainly have caved. (Dixon adds that “he’s notoriously squishy on empire as it is … as are pretty much all the Berniecrats.”)
Meanwhile, many of the Dems’ corporate and professional class “elites” would have attributed Sanders’ victory to “Russian interference” while joining hands with ruling-class Republican brothers in undermining Sanders’ supposedly “far left” (mildly progressive) agenda—and his political viability in 2020. The nation’s paranoid, white Christian and proto-fascistic right would have gone ballistic, its underlying anti-Semitism on appalling display with an ethnoculturally Jewish “democratic socialist” (and purported atheist) from Brooklyn in the White House.
Sanders’ oligarchy-imposed “failures” would have been great fodder for the right-wing and neoliberal disparagement and smearing of progressive, left-leaning and majority-backed policy change. “See,” the reigning plutocratic media and politics culture would have said, “we tried all that and it was a disaster!” It might well have been a real train wreck for everything and anything progressive.
None of which is to mean that third-party politics hold the keys to progressive change. Its status as corporate media notwithstanding, Newsweek isn’t lying when it notes that “the structure of America’s electoral system—especially campaign finance regulations”—makes it “extremely hard for third party candidates to run and win.”
It’s not just about campaign finance. It’s also about winner-take-all, “first-past-the-post” elections and the absence of proportional-representation rules that would allot representation in accord with vote shares for parties that can’t yet field candidates capable of winning pluralities in contests with the long-established major parties’ contenders.
It goes way back. Theodore Roosevelt is the only third-party candidate who ever came remotely close to winning a presidential election. In 1912, he came in second with 27 percent of the vote atop the Progressive Party.
The biggest political delusion of all is in the U.S. electoral politics itself—the “Election Madness” that tells us that (in the sardonic words of the late radical historian Howard Zinn) “the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the [small number of ] mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” Real progressive change requires popular organization and great social movements beneath and beyond the empty promises of the nation’s ruthlessly time-staggered major-party, major-media, big-money-candidate-centered ballot box extravaganzas (please see Chomsky’s classic 2004 essay on “The Disconnect in U.S. Democracy”). The people’s movements we desperately need to form—perhaps it is my delusion that rank-and-file citizens can and will ever do so—should include in their list of demands the creation of a party and elections system that deserves passionate citizen engagement. The oligarchic system (beyond mere plutocracy) now in place in the U.S. is worthy of no such thing.