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. In fact, pre-election Democratic Party unity is unraveling as the war of words has commenced and the fight for party leadership has begun.

This development is not at all surprising. Organizations tend to follow certain predictable patterns of behavior. Groups that are in competition with one another will close ranks and submerge differences to achieve victory. Each group’s members will demonstrate loyalty and conformity, even as the leadership becomes more autocratic. For proof, consider the trajectory of the Democratic primaries, where a snarling Howard Dean morphed into John Kerry’s puppy.

Any organization that suffers a setback or loss tends to turn in on itself to find some one 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? John Kerry personally retains his Senate seat, of course, but what will be the fate of the Democratic Party?

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 progressive movements for social change will come under enormous pressure to put aside political principles for “practical” politics and back the Democratic presidential nominee. It would be the wrong decision.

Whether the Democrats put forward a conservative, moderate, or liberal candidate will make no real difference to the working class. No matter which wing of the Democrats gets the upper hand in the party, the Democrats will never become a champion for the real needs of exploited workers and oppressed people. Despite the misplaced trust many progressives place in the Democrats, this party will continue to be a champion of big business, racism, and war.

The Democratic National Committee will meet in February 2005 to select a new national chairman. This decision, likely to be contentious and bitter, will signal the future direction of the party. No wonder, then, that liberal Democrats describe this vote as a life and death battle for the soul of the party. Democrats, in other words, will soon begin their own sacrifice to the gods in the hope of good harvests for 2006 and 2008.

For Peter Beinart, writing in The New Republic (Nov. 22, 2004), the duel of left versus right has not begun soon enough. Beinart suggests that the fundamental similarities among all Democrats prevent lively ideological debate, but he finds the party worse off for it. 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 abandonment in practice of any liberal foreign policies in favor of conservative ones.  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. He also presided over U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, bombed Sudan and Afghanistan, and kept Iraq under pressure with economic sanctions and military attacks that cost more than a million Iraqi lives over most of a decade.

Many Democrats speak out bluntly for more of a swing to the right. For instance, Dan Gerstein, a consultant and strategist for Senator Joe Lieberman, faulted 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.

What does the future hold in store for the liberal-lefts and progressives? Certainly the Republican social agenda will be disastrous for the working class, minorities, the disenfranchised, women, and the gay community. The cover of the Nov. 22 issue of “The Nation” shows storm clouds covering the sun and the words “Four More Years” spelled out in blood-red letters. Even a New Republic editorial forecasts: “Hard times, brutish times, lie ahead” (Nov. 15, 2004). 

Had Kerry been elected, a movement in opposition to his policies inevitably would have developed. A militant, independent, left-wing sentiment, open to radical and socialist ideas, would have grown substantially. No doubt many activists would have been siphoned off into some campaign for a more liberal Democrat. But some others would have learned from their own experience to reject the Democrats entirely and would have begun looking for an alternative, a more effective means of changing the world for the better.

Now, since Bush’s election, Republican control of the White House and Congress will sustain the mistaken belief in the Democrats as the party, or, as Ralph Nader hopes, the potential party of opposition. (In a press release after the election, Nader urged the Democrats to “become as tough an opposition party as the forthcoming Republican efforts to crush them and stand up for peace and justice at home and abroad”).

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 major party that lost the presidential election in 2004.

The powerful “Anybody-but-Bush” groundswell will reawaken as an “Anybody-but-Republicans” movement. The fear of a third party, reflected in the mere 400,000 votes for the Nader/Camejo campaign of 2004 compared to the three million votes for Nader/LaDuke in 2000, will only intensify and harden. In the name of “realism,” progressives 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 email 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, the Democrats have never, and are not likely now, to seek advice from “The Nation.” And while it may be true that progressive activists form the backbone of the party, these activists do not make the fundamental decisions. 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 a willingness 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, December 20, 2004).

Progressive wishful thinking aside, with little immediate opposition of any consequence, the twin parties of corporations and capitalism are likely to grow even closer, though never melding into one. The Democrats may not regain power, but, despite dire pundit predictions, the Democrats will not commit suicide or disappear. The fighting over differences between Democrats and Republicans is a necessary part of the way the American ruling class airs and resolves its conflicts. 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.”

Socialists understand this reality quite well. More than ninety years ago, the founder of the Bolshevik party outlined the political framework that exists today: “People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. 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.”

Through newspapers, forums, and other means, socialists will participate in all of the social and political struggles to come and will help build the protest movements that are active today. Such efforts will lay the basis for electoral campaigns independent of the twin capitalist parties by building a party of the working class.