Spank the Donkey Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: a polemical essay

Mike Friedman mikedf at
Tue Nov 26 20:43:16 MST 2002


November 26, 2002

Spank the Donkey

Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: a polemical essay


Another Election Day, another set of blown hopes for Democrats everywhere.
This is mainly an essay about the national Democratic party, which ought
never be confused with real people, but in this one instance what I mean by
Democrats are the real people who continue to place their faith in the
party and to hope it can be made into more than the champion of the status
quo it's become. I mean all those other people, too, who can't bear to call
themselves Democrats (or Republicans) anymore and don't like the way things
are but see no alternative to letting Democrats and Republicans hash it
out. This is a vast number of people we're talking about--between one-fifth
and one-half of the voting public, and beyond them the half of the country
that sees no point in voting. These were the real losers on November 5.

Time to give up on the Democratic party once and for all. How much longer
can we listen to all the plaintive, futile pleadings to "change the system
from within," to make the party wake up and smell the electorate? This is a
wish, not a strategy; it hasn't come true and it won't. That so many people
do still cling to the Democrats is testament to the power of a
myth--several myths, actually, but the one I have in mind is the fiction
that the Democrats turned right because the country turned right. Any good
propagandist knows the most important lie is the big lie that frames all
the others, and this is the Democrats' big lie. Doesn't anyone remember all
the pundit-prattle about Ronald Reagan's "popularity gap," the gaping
disconnect between his personal popularity and that of his policies? Since
the mid-1980s there has been a steady dribble of social issues polls that
have shown the American public standing considerably to the left of its
elected officials. (There are polls that prove the converse, too. Usually
they are the ones that freight their queries with one overriding
presumption: You don't want to pay higher taxes, do you?)

However you parse the polls, there was never any popular mandate for the
Democrats' right turn. If there had been, we would not see so many
defections from an increasingly conservative Democratic party; we would not
hear so much half-hearted apologia from beleaguered Democratic voters
waiting vainly for the day when the party veers the other way again; and
there would not be such a gigantic mass of people reduced to thinking of
Democrats as the perennial "lesser evil"--that is to say, not what we the
people want or need, but a little better than nothing. I am going to argue
that the Democrats are not really a lesser evil, that their turn to
Republican Lite in the past generation has been as cynical as it is
deliberate. But for the moment let's take the lesser evil argument at face
value and suppose that the courts and the human services bureaucracies do
fare a little better (that is, erode more slowly) under Democrats. Is that
"democracy" in any sense? Do you really think so little of your country and
your citizenship as to accept that?

What happened to the Democratic party?

You could say that times changed and the party changed with them, and you
would be right so far as it goes. But it had nothing to do with the
sentiments of the people. The party's right turn was a move conceived from
within and designed to make the Democrats a more appealing vehicle for
major private and corporate donors. This past election notwithstanding, the
strategy has been an enormous success. Cash receipts have grown mightily.
The business wing of the party has generated a president who became the
first Democrat since FDR to win reelection to the White House, and it
missed electing his successor by a handful of votes (one vote, really, in
the Supreme Court). The business Democrats' hold on the national party
apparatus is complete.
The Reagan/Bush/Clinton years worked many changes in the political culture,
and none was more profound than the market revolution. Over the past
generation the American public has been relentlessly conditioned to believe
that whatever is dictated by the market--in more guileless days, it was
simply called the money power--is sensible, reasonable, necessary. Our
values and aspirations as a society are now routinely subjected to the
flummery of cost-benefit analyses in which it's understood that the only
thing that really matters is cost. Democrats, under cover of "realism," are
every bit as complicit in this shift as Republicans.

And where does it leave us? More than ever, the business of America is
business (and its stepchild, war) and the business of Democrats is betrayal.

Why give up on the Democrats now?

Here's the first thing you need to understand: Election Day may have been a
shock and a disappointment to the national Democratic party, but it was not
a failure. For all the hits they took, the Democrats held the line where it
mattered. They did not let in any genuine political dialogue about the
central issues of war abroad or of the economy and managerial lawlessness
at home. In this they served their masters very well, and that's really all
any political party tries to do in the end.
And how does the rank and file react? Why don't the Democrats... If only
the Democrats... If the Democrats were smart... Hold on right there. Let's
dispense with the ridiculous, shopworn notion that the Democrats don't get
it, that they are too dim or too timid to do the things that are evident to
the rest of us: tack left, talk populist, stand up to Bush, push hot-button
issues like corporate malfeasance, health care, and campaign finance reform.

They see these things as clearly as the rest of us, and they choose not to
do any of them. Why? Money is the simple, vulgar answer, and the correct
one. The matter of corporate crime, to take one example, is not seen by the
Democrats as an opportunity to capitalize on Republican weakness and seize
an upper hand; it is seen as a problem shared in common with
Republicans--the problem of helping one's cash clients in a tough time.

But illusions die hard, so the refrain persists: Don't the Democrats see
that they could win by going a different way? Of course they do. But this
isn't sports, it's politics, and no one who supposes that the object of
big-time politics is to win every time out will ever understand what a
national political party is or how it operates. The viability of such an
operation--the continued security and power of its chief officers--depends
on two things: a steady stream of money from stable sources, and the
organizational will and means to exclude from the party any persons or
ideas that threaten the servicing of that cash clientele. Parties like to
win but it's not the main thing.

And yes, it's also important to maintain a critical mass of public support
and party patronage; this is exactly the Democrats' current crisis. But the
people are a secondary matter in the minds of party managers, and one they
have sought to address almost entirely with placating rhetoric. This was
the Clinton White House's express strategy from the day chief adviser Dick
Morris first whispered the magic word in Bill's ear. That word,
"triangulation," evoked a world of cynicism and duplicity; Morris's basic
idea was to hew close to Republicans on policy (to please the party's
funders and to avoid getting outflanked on the right with
middle-of-the-road voters) while standing nominally to their left. The
meager differences between the Clintonites and the Republicans were
carefully amplified in Clinton's public rhetoric. In practice this meant
assiduous attention to public relations (we feel your pain--really we do)
and precious little else. The Morris/Clinton stratagem was predicated on
the notion that Democratic voters had nowhere else to go and required only
the barest of scraps to keep them in the fold.

So it's deliciously absurd to see all the Democratic pundits and bloggers
indignantly demanding that Terry McAuliffe fall on his sword for the good
of the party. Not bloody likely: As far as he is concerned, whatever
preserves his regime's power is the good of the party. And there is always
the matter of cash receipts. McAuliffe, a financier by trade and the
longtime principal fundraiser for Bill Clinton, has improved the party's
cash position considerably. If he does wind up falling on his sword (not
for losing the election to Republicans, but for losing the fundraising
battle), his position will be filled with another DLC clone who will vow to
learn from McAuliffe's mistakes and then emulate him in every important

The DLC, if you don't make a habit of following such things, is the
Democratic Leadership Council, a creature hatched in the mid-1980s and
promoted mainly by conservative Southern and Western Democrats--people like
Bruce Babbitt, Charles Robb, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, and the winsome young
governor from Arkansas. To anyone paying attention, it was immediately
clear what they were up to. In 1986 Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers
published a little-noted book called Right Turn: The Decline of the
Democrats and the Future of American Politics that traced the rise of the
business Democrats who would eventually constitute the heart of party

The coterie of big Democratic fundraisers eventually coalesced behind the
banner of the DLC, whose control of the party was ratified by the successes
of Bill Clinton. DLC chieftains defined the game of politics entirely in
terms of money and set out to raise as much as possible, amending the party
platform as necessary and taking care to distance themselves from all their
old constituencies--most conspicuously black people, but more broadly the
whole American working class. Their few gestures toward the white working
class lay mainly in the realm of race-baiting (it was Al Gore, not George
Bush the elder, who first dug up Willie Horton to use against Michael
Dukakis, in the 1988 New York primary) and no-new-tax pledges.

The rise of the pro-business Democrats was less a coup than a summation of
moves the party had been making since the unruly events of 1968 and 1972, a
period marked by a "crisis of democracy" in the infamous phrase of Samuel
P. Huntington, meaning there was too damn much of the stuff and it was
proving unwieldy. After those tumultuous years, the party promoted a number
of changes designed to ensure that no upstart could sway the party from the
will of its national machine. Thus we got super-delegates at the national
convention, an army of party regulars who could be counted on to back the
right horse in the event of a close race, and electoral tricks like Super
Tuesday, a carefully juggled slate of early primaries that skewed heavily
toward conservative Southern states--both of them steps designed to prevent
any left-liberal insurgent from building a prohibitive lead in the race for
the Democratic presidential nomination. This is why the people who
protested that Jesse Jackson had no legitimate shot in 1988 were ultimately

With the country's spurious right turn as their warrant, the business
Democrats spent the second half of the 1980s and all of the 1990s crafting
themselves into the party of tough love--young, freshly galvanized
"centrists" who would cut away the cumbersome old entanglements and put
fiscal responsibility at the top of the Democratic agenda. Think JFK and
his New Frontiersmen, except that where Kennedy's boys were hot to fight
the Cold War abroad, Clinton's people were out to facilitate one at home.

What they practiced wasn't centrism by any recognizable standard. It always
leaned carefully but emphatically to the right. Bill Clinton set the tone
for his first administration by provoking a public fight with a relatively
obscure female rapper in order to distance himself and the party from the
great mass of black America, a gesture he spent the next eight years
underscoring with all the right kinds of coded talk about poverty,
pathology, and responsibility. (This was a winning proposition on more than
one level: A lot of upwardly mobile blacks loved him for it.)
The Clinton years saw unprecedented rollbacks in numerous areas, all
undertaken in the name of realism and staying one step ahead of the
dastardly Republicans. Environmental protections? Clinton/Gore tipped the
scales more decisively than ever toward the preferences of business. In the
words of Jeffrey St. Clair, the coeditor of CounterPunch and a veteran
environmental writer and activist, "Reviewing the environment during
Clinton time is like watching a preview of the Bush administration. Indeed,
many of Bush's worst ideas for the planet germinated with Clinton. It
started early and didn't let up. At the behest of his friends in the
chemical industry, Clinton moved to excise the Delaney Clause, a valuable
law which had been around since the days of Rachel Carson that set zero
tolerance for the presence of known carcinogens in processed foods. With
Delaney gone, the chemical industry had smooth sailing for the approval of
a host of new pesticides. This also set a bad precedent for other issues:
Regulative prohibitions were going to be shoved aside in favor of 'risk
assessments' and cost-benefit analysis. This approach was soon applied to
air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste. But it saw its most malign
and far-reaching application with the Endangered Species Act, which was
essentially eviscerated under the guidance of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

"Midway through Clinton's first term, he signed what has been called the
'worst environmental law of the 20th century'--the Salvage Logging Rider,
which allowed timber to be clear-cut on national forests across the country
without compliance with any environmental laws and shielded from any kind
of citizen challenge or lawsuits. In a 1996 op-ed the great environmental
radical David Brower wrote that 'Clinton and Gore have done more harm to
the environment in four years than Reagan and Bush did in 12.' And one very
mainstream voice--Jay Hair, the former head of the National Wildlife
Federation, who died recently--compared the experience of working with
Clinton/Gore to date rape."

Business regulation? In everything from food inspections to workplace
safety, Clinton broadened the system of voluntary compliance, a polite way
of saying federal inspectors packed up and went home and businesses were
free to do as they pleased as long as they didn't draw themselves into
public scandal. Civil liberties? After the Oklahoma City bombing, he
outflanked Republicans to the right with a domestic anti-terrorism bill
that could have been crafted by the Ashcroft Justice Department.

Then there is Clinton's crowning achievement, welfare reform. It was his
most famous "compromise" with the evil Republicans, and you miss his real
genius if you suppose it was any compromise at all. Go back and recall the
circumstances that attended Clinton's 1996 signing of the welfare bill. He
was running for reelection that fall against a stiff, cranky septuagenarian
whose next job would be hawking Viagra--a race Clinton was already assured
of winning handily. The Gingrich class of Republicans and their Contract
with America were on the run, excoriated in poll after poll. Prospects for
Democratic gains in Congress were good. It's a bald lie to say that
Clinton's hand was forced by political exigency; he had plenty of room to

And what did he do? In short order he signed the welfare bill, and he
denied a request to release a portion of his campaign war chest for use in
close congressional races. The latter suggests that when push came to
shove, Clinton was not really interested in chasing a Democratic majority;
it better suited his purposes to be able to claim he was getting pushed and
shoved by Republicans. Publicly the Democrats would have you believe that
Clinton's legacy was a matter of doing his best under adverse
circumstances. It would be closer to the mark to say he built exactly the
record he desired, give or take his planned second-term overhaul of the
Social Security trust fund. (Thank you, Monica Lewinsky--you saved Social
Security!) Next to Clinton, the Nixon administration was one long orgy of
fuzzy-headed liberalism.

Okay, but what about Congress?

Say what you will of presidential politics; aren't the people we choose to
represent us in House and Senate races the product of more homespun,
democratic deliberations? No. Here again the national party has the final
say. The mechanism is simple enough. In races for national office these
days, you are nothing without soft money, and the flow of these dollars to
would-be Democratic contenders is controlled by the party's national
campaign organizations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
(DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). The
committees are happy to welcome all candidates at first, since they are all
prospective fundraisers for the party, but that doesn't mean the party will
return the favor to just anybody.

Listen to Bill Hillsman, the man who masterminded the spectacularly
successful long-shot campaigns of Paul Wellstone in 1990 and Jesse Ventura
in 1998. If any consultant in the whole country should be besieged by a
Democratic party interested in winning, it's Hillsman. But in fact the
national Democratic machine despises him and actively discourages
candidates from working with him. "The party wields a tremendous amount of
power," he told me not long ago. (The interview is featured in the October
issue of The Rake.) "I was on a phone call once with a pollster and a DSCC
official and [U.S. Senate primary candidate] Mike Ciresi. First off they
wanted him to raise a lot of soft money for the party. I told him, don't be
fooled--they're not going to put any of that money back into your race
unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.

"I've seen them do this with lots of congressional candidates," said
Hillsman. "They say in effect, go raise money, and later they tell you to
get in line with the party platform or get left out in the cold. Ben
Nighthorse-Campbell's situation in Colorado was interesting to watch for
that reason. He got himself elected despite the Democratic party and then
switched to the Republicans shortly after the election because he was so
disgusted by the Democrats' behavior."

Hey, wait a minute...

All right, you might say: If you're going to be cynical about it, then
haven't moneyed interests always controlled, or at least constrained, every
major party in American history? Yes. But a couple of important things have
changed in the past generation. Put simply, big money has not held all the
cards in quite this way since the Gilded Age of robber barons like Morgan
and Rockefeller. And in their day there was nothing approaching the
staggering concentrations of media that exist now, which is to say there
was not the opportunity to exclude so many voices and interests from public
dialogue. Fully half the country (the half that does not vote, and has
watched helplessly as its fortunes declined over the last generation) is
practically invisible in media except when it commits lurid crimes. Stop
and ask yourself how this can be so--in the age of information, in the
wealthiest industrial democracy the world has ever seen.

It didn't happen overnight. An interesting footnote on the American economy
and the political economy of the Democrats: In retrospect it's clear that
the long post-WWII boom in the economy and in real working class wages
ended around 1973. After an oil recession and several years of stagnation,
the economy began growing again, but the rising tide no longer lifted all
boats. Instead the gains came to be more and more concentrated in the top
income percentiles; after the top 20 to 25 percent there were scarcely any
gains at all, and more often losses. As the majority of the country's
citizens began sliding backward in economic standing, they started fading
from the radar of the Democrats too. The party's modern accommodation to
the culture and goals of big business began in earnest during the Carter
years. It was Carter who made a point of getting Business Roundtable
denizens more involved in his administration; Carter who touched off the
wave of business deregulation--in trucking, the airlines, and
elsewhere--that most people associate with Ronald Reagan; Carter who
oversaw the end of a long if erratic era of growing working class
enfranchisement won mainly by the labor and civil rights movements.

Aren't you paying attention? The Democrats aremoving left.

It's true the Democrats have been making progressive noises since their
losses on November 5--hardly a surprise, given the mounting and perfectly
legitimate criticism of their me-too policies. But note the pedigrees of
their two liberal luminaries of the hour, Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore.

Pelosi, the new House minority leader--a position vacated by Dick Gephardt
not because the party needed new blood but because Dick Gephardt needed
personal distance from the party's troubles in preparing his own 2004
presidential bid--is best known on Capitol Hill for being pliable and none
too bright. Her liberal bona fides stem entirely from having represented
one of the most left-leaning congressional districts in the country, but
Pelosi herself is the quintessential team player. If ever there were a time
for a Democratic party serious about winning to roll the dice on more
inclusive, less conventional measures, this is it. Quite to the contrary,
Pelosi launched her tenure as minority leader by promising not to push the
party in new directions and (stop me if you've heard this one) to work with
the Bush administration and congressional Republicans in a spirit of
"bipartisanship." Now here is a truly hateful word, a conservative
Democratic shibboleth that ought to send liberals and lefties fleeing for
cover, since it's really nothing more than a pledge to offer up more of the
same. But talk to any of these poor abandoned Democratic liberals and they
will eventually start burbling about the necessity of bipartisan
cooperation--as if the bogeyman falsely held up as its only alternative
(complete gridlock) would not be preferable to the governance we're getting

Al Gore's latest reinvention, this time as the avatar of a single-payer
national health care system, is a similarly cynical affair. Surely you
remember Gore the environmentalist, author of a bold and even apocalyptic
treatise on global warming; Gore's green awakening didn't stop him and his
merry band from brokering the many environmental betrayals of the Clinton
years. Gore was not interested in pursuing environmental reforms, even the
petty ones he could have won in the near term. When Carol Browner, Al's own
former chief of staff, tried to push through some modestly tightened EPA
smog regulations in 1998, big Democratic contributors balked and the
administration hung her out to dry.

Tell you what. If Al Gore secures the Democratic presidential nomination in
2004 campaigning for single-payer, and writes into the party platform a
radical overhaul of the health care system, I will declare myself a
Democrat and shut up about all these things.
It won't happen.

What about the Paul Wellstones of the world? Don't they prove there's room
in the party for liberals and wild cards?

In the past couple of weeks I have been accused of all manner of attacks on
Paul Wellstone's memory. One letter writer called me a grave stomper. This
for pointing out that, in my view, Wellstone erred in keeping such a low
profile and aligning himself with the national Democratic leadership. The
criticisms of what I wrote all come down to this: How nice that you're so
ideologically pure, friend, but those of us living in the real world don't
have that luxury.

This is ironic. In the past generation countless people have left the
Democratic party, or gotten pushed out of it, or simply stopped caring
about it, over all sorts of issues. It's the party itself that's burdened
by an untenable ideological purity: It means to remain programmatically
compatible with its financiers and large donors at any cost, even though
that cost is an increasing and now perilous level of defection by
traditional Democratic voters who have no stake in sticking with the party.
But again, the Democrats are not in this position because they're out of
touch. This is where they have chosen to stand. They would be happy for
your help--in fact, they are positively desperate for it, because a party
can lose only so much ground before the patronage that keeps it functioning
at ground level begins drying up--but come what may, they mean to stick
with the people who pay their bills, thank you very much.

As for Wellstone, one last time: I believe he was a good and honest and
well-meaning man, and I mourn his passing far more than you may imagine.
His work was not all for nothing; Wellstone partisans like to point out how
hard he worked at playing defense, toning down some of the more noxious
provisions of the legislation he encountered every day.

And I have no doubt that this is true, or that it made the circumstances of
some people a little better. But the decision to work within the party and
concentrate on legislative minutiae also kept Wellstone from using his
position to elicit public pressure on select issues and expand the terms of
debate within the party. By his own account, he set out in the beginning to
fight for radical reform in key areas such as health care and campaign
finance, principally by using his grassroots organizing experience to bring
outside pressure to bear on Washington. I know this because he said so to
me and to any number of other reporters.

But once he reached Washington, he soon succumbed to the blandishments of
the Democratic leadership. He bought into then-majority leader George
Mitchell's swap of plum committee assignments for adherence to the party
line. He acquiesced to Hillary Clinton and pulled his single-payer health
care proposal off the table at a time when, as either of them should have
seen, it was most needed to provide cover on the left for the Clintons'
more conservative plan. Paul Wellstone started as an insurgent and wound up
a proud if sometimes balky Democrat. If you are cognizant of the goals with
which he entered the Senate, and honest about what became of them, it
pretty much dispels the notion that "working inside the system" will do a
damn thing to change the Democrats.

So what, we shouldn't vote at all?

That's not what I'm saying. Local and state races frequently offer more
distinct choices than national ones, both in the major parties (which are
more ideologically porous at this level, since campaigns for smaller
offices require less money and are less determined by the wishes of large
donors) and in smaller parties like the Greens and the Independents. Those
races are worth watching and often worth participating in. And there's
nothing wrong with the occasional judicious vote for a national Democratic
candidate when the Republican opponent is especially noxious. I voted for
Fritz Mondale on that basis myself; or rather, I voted against someone I
personally despised in Norm Coleman. Play the lesser evil game if you
want--sparingly, lest you keep legitimizing the whole corrupt Democratic
edifice--but bear in mind the larger truth of the matter: A system that
always puts you in the position of choosing a (barely) lesser evil is a
mockery of your right to representation.
So what to do?

Start talking to people and building things. Recognize that the most
consequential work you can do has little immediate connection to electoral
politics. The civil rights movement, to cite the greatest uprising of
American citizens in the last 100 years, was not built on voting for
pro-civil rights politicians; no such creature even existed when it began.
It was based on relentless public pressure over a period of years. Today
there are any number of major issues to organize around: health care,
corporate crime, international trade policy, the environment, labor rights
and economic justice, civil rights and civil liberties. The political
establishment and major media will steadfastly ignore you for as long as
they can, but there are still countervailing opportunities for outreach and
collective action. The mass WTO protests in Seattle a few years ago, and
elsewhere around the globe since then, were mainly organized on the
Internet, a medium ripe with possibilities for connecting like-minded people.

Stop fearing what will happen if you give up on the Democrats. Your fear of
what will ensue if they wither away is really all they have left at this
point. It's time to look for higher ground.What will happen if the
Democrats collapse, after all? The plutocrats will take over? The right
will launch an assault on our most essential liberties? The forces of
empire will pursue a global jihad against anything that stands in the way
of our continuing shaky hegemony over most of the planet's vital resources?
Look around you: It's already happening, every bit of it, and not because
"the Republicans have too much power." It happened under Carter, under
Clinton, under Democratic control of Congress. There is only one party now,
the Republicrats, or if you prefer, the Property Party. And at this late
date they are constrained in their ruthlessness not by opposition parties
or checks and balances but by the prospect of public revolt.

Stop defining "citizenship" by the mere act of voting. That only makes you
a consumer and a spectator, which is all that either major party wants you
to be. Where electoral politics is concerned, make a point of learning more
about the small parties active in your area, and help them in any way you
can to get on the ballot and to get a fair hearing. In some states,
Minnesota included, a relatively small percentage of votes is enough to
garner these parties a share of government campaign funds. If they can
begin winning races for local office and lesser state posts (for example,
secretary of state or state auditor), it's one more crack in the
Republicrat wall.

Stop pretending the system isn't broken. Unless you like sham democracy and
one-party politics, I mean.

Stop pretending the Democratic party is interested in fixing it. Or in
other words, stop trying to fix the Democratic party--because, by the
lights of "real" Democrats, the ones who own and operate it, it isn't
broken. And quit all the moaning about the stupid Democrats blowing
chances. The Democrats are not stupid. But if you are still bedding down
with them and expecting something to change, you have every reason to
wonder about yourself.

Steve Perry, long time CounterPunch contributer, is the new editor of the
Minneapolis/St. Paul alternative weekly City Pages. Email him directly at
sperry at

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