[Marxism] Mike Davis on the Democratic Party

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 18 10:49:50 MST 2004

For my money, the best book ever written on the Democrats is by Mike Davis. 
Although it appeared in 1986 and examined the failure of the Mondale 
candidacy, many of the themes are relevant to today's situation as should 
be obvious from the following excerpt I scanned in. Unfortunately, nothing 
by Davis on the Democratic Party can be found online. I do recommend that 
you track down his book "Prisoners of the American Dream", which is still 
in print.


The Lesser Evil? The Left, The Democrats and 1984

In the summer before the 1984 presidential elections, Michael Harrington 
and Irving Howe, in a widely noted interview in the New York Times 
Magazine, boasted that 'by now practically everyone on the Left agrees that 
the Democratic Party, with all its faults, must be our main political 
arena'. In recent historical context there was a peculiar irony in this 
assertion, with its smug self-limitation of the 'Left'. During the 1960s, 
American social democracy had been debilitated, almost discredited, by its 
advocacy of reform through the Democratic Party. The right wing of the old 
Thomasite Socialist Party, 'Social Democrats, USA', had broken away to 
become courtiers of Scoop Jackson and lobbyists for military victory in 
Vietnam. Meanwhile, a centrist current led by Harrington and Howe formed a 
small circle around Dissent with negligible influence on a burgeoning New 
Left which spurned their faith in the transformability of the Democratic 
Party. Indeed, the key radical organizations of the 1960s, SNCC and SDS, 
understandably regarded the Cold War liberalism incarnated by the 
Humphrey/Jackson wing of the Democratic Party (to which both camps of 
social democrats oriented) as the enemy, primarily responsible for 
genocidal imperialism in Southeast Asia as well as for the repression of 
the Black liberation movement at home.

 From the McGovern candidacy of 1972, however, sections of the former New 
Left, together with a younger cohort of 1970s activists, began to slip back 
into Democratic politics, initially on a local level. At first there was no 
sharp ideological break with the sixties' legacy. The 'New Polities', as it 
was typed, seemed just another front of the anti-war movement or another 
tactical extension of the urban populism espoused by SDS's community 
organizing faction. By 1975, with the sudden end of the Vietnam War, a 
strategic divergence had become more conspicuous. On the one hand, an array 
of self-proclaimed 'cadre' groups, inspired by the heroic mold of 1930s 
radicalism, were sending their ex-student members into the factories in the 
hope of capturing and radicalizing the widespread rank-and-file discontent 
that characterized the end of the postwar boom. On the other hand, another 
network of ex-SDSers and antiwar activists - of whom Tom Hayden was merely 
a belated and media-hyped example - were building local influence within 
the Democratic 'reform movement': the loose collocation of consumer, 
environmental and public-sector groups, supported by a few progressive 
unions, that had survived the McGovern debacle.

Although its significance was only vaguely grasped at the time, this 
increasing polarization between workerism and electoralism coincided with, 
and was immediately conditioned by, the decline of the Black liberation 
movement that had been the chief social motor of postwar radicalism. A 
dismaying, inverse law seemed to prevail between the collapse of grassroots 
mobilization in the ghettoes and the rise of the first wave of Black 
political patronage in the inner cities. While Black revolutionaries and 
nationalists were being decimated by J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program 
of preemptive repression and infiltration, Black community organization was 
being reshaped into a passive clientelism manipulated by the human-services 
bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Although, as we have seen, the civil 
rights movement remained an unfinished revolution with an urgent agenda of 
economic and political demands, its centrality to the project of a popular 
American left was tragically, and irresponsibly, obscured in the late 
1970s. The ranks of the white, ex-student left, preoccupied with academic 
outposts and intellectual celebrities, showed a profound inability to 
understand the strategic implications of the halting of the civil rights 
movement. For all the theoretical white smoke of the 1970s, including the 
endless debates on crisis theory and the nature of the state, the decisive 
problem of the fate of the Second Reconstruction was displaced beyond the 
field of vision. With minimal challenge or debate, leading journals like 
Socialist Review and Dissent tacitly demoted Black liberation - the 
critical democratic issue in American history - to the status of another 
'progressive interest', coeval with sexual freedom or ecology.

The crisis of Black radicalism, and its attendant white incomprehension, 
was soon followed by the disintegration of the workerist left with the 
important but solitary exception of the International Socialists, who 
continue to play a vital role in Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the only 
surviving rank-and-file caucus from the 1970s), none the workplace-oriented 
offshoots of the New Left proved to have the stamina or internal stability 
to weather the decline in union militancy that followed the 1974/75 
recession. The bizarre implosion of the 'new communist movement', as the 
Maoist left moved from the factory floor to frenzied party building and 
street confrontations, reinforced, if only by harrowing negative example, 
the growing claim of the electoralists to represent the sole rational hope 
for a mass American left.

But it is unlikely that the transition towards the orbit of the Democratic 
Party could have occurred so rapidly without the intervention and 
coordination undertaken by the Harrington-Howe group, now reorganized as 
the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). The charter concept 
of DSOC, according to a Harrington editorial written in the wake of the 
McGovern defeat, was the belief that 'the left wing of realism' is found 
today in the Democratic Party. It is there that the mass forces for social 
change are assembled; it is there that the possibility exists for creating 
a new first party in America. To pursue this realignment, Harrington and 
Howe proposed a two-story organizational strategy, the DSOC conceived as a 
'party within a party within a party'. It was intended to provide a kind of 
social-democratic inner sanctum within a larger liberal coalition, built 
from the top down through the selective recruitment of 'influentials': 
trade-union fulltimers, local Democratic luminaries and well-known 
academics. These 'influentials', in turn, helped sponsor the Democratic 
Agenda, the 'party within the party', that aimed to coalesce progressive 
forces within the national Democratic Party. In this fashion, the 
Harrington-Howe group contrived to obtain a political leverage 
disproportionate to DSOC's modest membership or its meager contributions to 
day-to-day struggles.

The Democratic Agenda enjoyed a brief heyday during the first half of the 
Carter Administration. It exerted influence at national and regional party 
conferences, as well as providing one of the main rallying points for 
supporters of the labor law reform campaign of the AFL-CIO. However, after 
the 1978 rightward turn of the administration (i.e., the rejection of 
detente, the firing of Andrew Young, the savaging of the domestic budget, 
the abandonment of health reform, the curtailment of urban jobs programs, 
and the defeat of labor law reform), the progressive pole notionally 
represented by the Democratic Agenda readily lost ground in the face of the 
rise of 'neo-liberalism'. Traditional liberals, influenced, as we have 
seen, by business PACs and insurgent middle-class constituents, deserted 
the labor and civil rights organizations in droves, recanting previous 
commitments to the legacy of the Great Society and Keynesian reformism. 
Ironically, it was precisely at this moment of crisis for the 'left wing of 
realism', as the old liberal coalition began to break up, that significant 
additional sectors of the ex-New Left began to gravitate towards DSOC's 
centrist and electoral-jst positions. This convergence was abetted by the 
shift in editorial and theoretical perspectives within the group of 
periodicals, mutually descended from the seminal Studies on the Left of the 
1960s, that bore most of the intellectual mantle of the US New Left: 
Socialist Review (ex-Socialist Revolution), Kapitalstate, and In These 
Times. All three had originally proclaimed the advocacy of 'explicit 
socialist polities' and the building of a 'new American Socialist Party'; 
on the eve of Reaganism, each had retreated to pragmatic endorsements of 
reform Democrats and to the embrace of a pseudo-phenomenal 'New Populism'.

Social Democracy's surprising conquest of the New Left in the teeth of the 
old liberalism's demise culminated in 1982 with the merger of the majority 
of the 2,500 member New American Movement with DSOC to form the Democratic 
Socialists of America (DSA), largely on the basis of political conditions 
(support for Israel, centrality of the Democratic Party, etc.) dictated by 
the DSOC leadership. Any serious, detailed analysis of the rightward 
transformation of the Democratic Party and the new internal power balances 
that it entailed was completely obscured by the rhetorical intoxication 
that became a hallmark of the new organization. 'Unity against Reagan' and 
unqualified support for the AFL-CIO Executive became the twin motivating 
slogans for DSA's headlong rush, first to Edward Kennedy, and then to 
Walter Mondale.

Although the invocation of 'practically everyone on the Left' was a 
sectarian exaggeration, Harrington and Howe could certainly savor their 
success in having brought a considerable fraction of the extant socialist 
left 'home' to the Democrats. Moreover, as other left groups, including 
significant numbers of repentant Maoists, became increasingly involved in 
Democratic politics from the 1982 midterm elections onward, a new orthodoxy 
arose. The principal object-lesson of the militant 1960s, reliance on 
independent mass politics outside of against the national Democratic Party, 
was stood on its head, Participation in bourgeois electoral politics was 
redefined as the admission tick to serious popular politics tout court. Not 
since the meridian of the Popular Front during World War Two, when the 
Browderist Communist Party attempted to dissolve itself into the left wing 
of the New Deal, had the majority of the American left been so fully 
submerged in the Democratic Party.

In 1984, the spectrum of progressive groups who ultimately rallied behind 
the Mondale banner included CISPES and the Nuclear Freeze as well as DSA 
and its 'influentials'. All calculated that entry into the campaign would 
strengthen their grassroots base as well as their influence over liberal 
Democrats. All believed the specter of Reagan's second term was most 
effectively combated through support of the national Democratic candidate. 
All assumed that four years of cutbacks and takebacks had jolted the 
Democratic electorate to the left, creating a new receptivity to 
progressive ideas and providing an incentive for millions of anti-Reagan 
non-voters to enter the rolls. The 1984 elections, therefore, provide a 
decisive test of the political realism of the strategic shift to 
electoralism. At the same time, the election results also offer important, 
if not completely unambiguous, evidence about the changing sociology of the 
electorate and the future of the party system in the post-New Deal era.

Louis Proyect
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