A talk on the Democratic Party at a socialist conference, almost a year after Bush and the Republican party was buried in the 2008 election.
Remember what it felt like to watch John McCain, Sarah Palin, and the Right-wing Christian-Conservatives—the people that still aren’t sure that they believe in science—go down in flames.
Remember what it was like on election night to be in the streets with hundreds or thousands of people cheering for Obama's victory—the first Black President in a country built on slavery.
To working people, Obama and the Democratic Party—after eight long years of Right-wing Republican rule—represented “Hope for change”. The change he was talking about was change that benefits working people. After all, we had a lot of change under the Bush regime, right? We had lots of change that benefited the corporations, big oil, the Enron's, the Halliburtons. Obama spoke of change for working people. His speeches referenced, and used the language of the 60's—a time of immense change—change for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, for Women's rights and Gay liberation.
I don't know about you. But this sounds pretty good to me. That period of time represents “change I can believe in”. It represents change we need today. People voted for Obama because they want to see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. They want to see abortion rights defended, made safe, legal and accessible. And it is clearer than ever—after the National March for Equality of 200,000 in DC—that people voted for Obama because they want the right to marry their same-sex partners. Just like the civil rights movement of the 60's fought for equality under the law, LGBT people are ready to fight for the same today.
I have to add that people voted for Obama because Wall Street has dragged us into an economic crisis on scale with the Great Depression. And with this economic crisis shedding jobs—as it continues to do at an astounding rate—it was, and continues to be clear that we need a radical change to our health care system.
Liberalism in power
We've now had almost a year since the Democrats took the White House—and remember that they had already taken both the House and the Senate in 2006. We've had a year for these hopes to materialize, at least some of them. And honestly, I think we have to add a new ingredient to describe the mood of workers in addition to “hope”. We have to add a pinch—or maybe a cup or two or three cups of frustration—maybe even anger.
I don't know about you, but I honestly thought that Obama would have at the very least closed down Guantanamo. I thought by now he would have followed through on his promises to repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” (After all, even Colin Powell supports its repeal). I thought he would have put up at least some kind of fight for substantial health care reform, or the Public Option. I surely didn't expect him to let the Right and the Tea Baggers—the same people we all voted to the dustbin of history—define the terms of the health care debate.
So in my talk, I want to talk about change. What makes change actually happen to benefit working people? And what is the relationship of the Democratic Party to this change. I also want to try and explain Obama's contradictions—the gap between what he promises and what he is actually doing. And I want to show that Marxism—that is, looking at Obama historically and with a class analysis is the best way to understand the Democratic Party and its relationship to “change we can believe in”.
Ruling class from birth
Having a “class analysis” of the Democratic Party means taking a step back and thinking about what class makes up the Democratic Party and what class interests it represents. Does it represent the interests of everyday working people—people that make ends-meet by going to work for a wage? Or does it represent the ruling class—the class that owns—that owns the factories, the corporations, the stores—that makes its wealth by exploiting workers.
This is an important question—especially in regards to the Democratic Party—because most people hold the view that the Republican Party is the party of Corporate America, and the Democratic Party is the party that represents the interests of working people.
The real situation though is much different. Viewed historically in fact, the Democratic Party from its very beginning was far from a party of the people.
During and after the civil war, the Democratic Party was actually the party of the Confederacy. They represented the Southern business interests of slavery and later segregation. They were the party of the Jim Crow South, while the Republicans at that time were supported by the Northern industrialists (Remember Lincoln, he was a Republican). The Democrats that did live in the North were not the kind of party we would want to associate, to say the least. Nicknamed “Copperheads”, the made riots that involved lynched ordinary Blacks.
Both major parties involved alliances between different segments of the ruling class. But the ruling class is but a small sliver in size of the working class. Both therefore also needed a way to find support among different segments of the working class. What is true right from the beginning and through all periods is that in these alliances, the capitalist interests supplied the money, candidates, and "expertise" to the parties. The capitalist interests were, and are, therefore in command. The working class is expected to play the passive role as voters. So right from the beginning, both Republicans and Democrats were parties controlled by, and serving the interests (though different interests/sections) of capitalists.
Of course there has been a realignment of the parties today. It's clear from looking at the Bush Administration that the Republicans no longer look anything like Lincoln. They have become the party of big oil, energy and socially conservative values. And the Democrats at this moment look more like a party led by the interests of Wall Street, banking, insurance, and pharmaceuticals.
According to the Federal Election Commission data put together by the Center for Responsible Politics, Clinton and Obama ran first and second among all candidates—Democrats and Republicans—in contributions from the following industries: commercial banks, computers/Internet, education health professionals, hedge funds and private equity firms, pharmaceuticals, and television and film. Fifteen million in campaign contributions came from securities and investment firms, $3million from commercial banks, and $6million from other financial institutions.
Obama raised $27million at his inauguration alone through donations. Almost $18million of the total came from fewer than 400 people, who each donated the maximum of $50,000.
Just this Tuesday, Obama flew into Manhattan for a fundraiser where the entry fee was $30,400 per couple—the maximum contribution allowed by law. According to the LA Times, four of the seven co-chairs of the event and about a third of the guests came from big banks and Wall Street.
The reason I am going through all this is because I think it really helps to explain why Democrats speak to working class issues in their campaigns for president, and seem to turn their backs on workers as soon as they are elected. They speak to issues workers care about because they need votes. And as soon as they have those votes, they turn from main-street, to the where the money is.
This is how politics in Washington works. Corporations buy their seat at the table with millions of dollars. And corporations have gotten so used to their seat at the table, that they have become apart of the family. So much so that politicians and CEO's are almost interchangeable.
For example, Robert Rubin was the Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton when Wall Street was being deregulated and is now the head of the infamous Citygroup that received billions of dollars in bailout money. Rubin's minions are apart of the Obama team today.
On health care, Obama is returning the favor to two of his biggest donors—pharmaceuticals and health insurance companies—the biggest lobbyists for Max Baucus who is heading up Obama's health care reform (I like to call him Max Butt-kiss because he kisses the ass of big pharma and the insurance industry).
So how do we compete with the influence that comes with the power and money of Corporate America? How do we ensure that politicians follow through with their promises to the working class? How do we hold their feet to the fire?
How does change happen?
We don't have money to influence politicians. But we do have numbers and social power. The historian Howard Zinn famously wrote, it's not who's sitting in the White House, it's who's sitting in—who's sitting in at the lunch counters, in the universities, and workplaces.
Change has never been handed down on high from worker-friendly politicians. Change happens when people organize, make demands of politicians and refuse to budge until those demands are met.
In fact, I would argue that all of the substantial changes that have taken place throughout history to the benefit of workers have taken place because people have organized, fought and died for them en mass.
I'd like to look at the example of the 1930's and FDR since Obama's presidency and the economic crisis have drawn more than a couple comparisons. This is an important example for two other reasons. First, this is the period of time when the Democrats became known as the “party of the people”. Second, it is a period of time of immense social change—when workers won the right to unionize, social security benefits, and what aspects of the welfare state are still around.
Let's make a deal
In high school, we learn about the New Deal reforms as something that were graciously handed down from on high by FDR, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The story goes that these reforms were borderline "socialist". But the New Deal was not actually a sudden change of heart for the Democrats (Remember, until this time, they were the party of the Southern Confederacy). Rather, it was a calculated plan to save capitalism in a time of crisis, and to save it from revolution organized by an increasingly militant and radical working class.
Following the stock market crash and with unemployment reaching one-quarter of all workers in 1932, FDR enlisted the help of some of the country's most powerful Business CEO's who argued that crisis conditions required state intervention. His campaign was heavily financed by rich bankers and stockbrokers in the 1932 election. Roosevelt himself fit right in as he was from a powerful aristocratic New York family.
So the "New Deal Capitalists" looked to the private sector for inspiration, not the working class. Roosevelt himself was clear on his aims. In campaign speeches in 1936, he proclaimed himself as the savior of "the system of private profit and free enterprise" and "the best friend the profit system ever had".
You may say, “Well isn't that just the cynical socialist talking"? Well, just listen to how FDR exploited popular discontent to win support for his program, even in its own naming. Samuel I. Rosenman recounted how FDR came up with the New Deal in a book called, The Bonus Army: An American Epic. He describes FDR awaiting the Democratic nomination from the governor's mansion in Albany, NY when hundreds of WW1 vets were marching on Washington to demand that Hoover advance the payment of their bonus. Like Hoover though, FDR opposed paying the bonus.
In Albany, FDR received a call from Louisiana's populist Governor Huey Long. Long told Roosevelt that he would clinch the nomination if he embraced the bonus marchers. When FDR still refused, Long hung up, telling FDR that he was “a gone goose”. FDR's staff “began to think that Long may have been right.” So they crafted a speech for FDR that, while not openly endorsing the demands of the bonus marchers or of other ordinary people, pledged more vaguely “to a new deal for the American people.”
Fitting right in with this approach, FDR launched the National Recovery Act which attracted support from labor by guaranteeing the right to unionize. But FDR's intentions were for business unions to be formed. Workers became so frustrated with the legislation that it was referred to as the “National Runaround Act.
Because FDR's policies needed to appeal both to the working class and the ruling class, the content of them depended on who was better organized—on who was prepared to fight and win what the content of those policies would look like.
For the working class, this meant enormous union drives and strike waves across the country demanding the right to unionize. There were massive strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in 1934. And there were massive sit-down strikes across the country again in 1936-7.
Roosevelt recognized that working class discontent was reaching the boiling point. He granted reforms in hopes of releasing steam from the kettle to prevent working class rebellion. He summed up his own philosophy this way: "A true conservative corrects injustices to preserve social peace".
The other period of time we think of as a time of change for workers was the 60's and 70's. And again, this is a time-period that people associate change with the Democratic Party—specifically the Kennedy and LBJ Administrations.
But the history of these movements tells a different story.
In 1961, civil rights workers rode buses through the South to force integration. The Freedom Rides faced attacks from racist mobs and responded in greater numbers with the rides. Rather than providing protection for the riders, Robert Kennedy (then attorney general) offered them a deal: stop the Freedom Rides and instead concentrate on voter registration in Mississippi with a guarantee that organizers would be protected by the federal government.
It’s not that the Democrats were strategizing on a more effective way to achieve civil rights. They feared alienating the Southern Dixiecrats who were still viciously in support of segregation, and still a significant section of the Party.
The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was organizing the rides agreed to the offer, received foundation grants and established its headquarters in Mississippi. Soon after, SNCC was met with harassment, violence and arrests. And they received no protection from the federal government as promised. Before the year's end, the police had jailed almost the entire SNCC staff.
It was this process of trying to fight for change through the Democratic Party that laid the groundwork for a radicalization of the movement, and to the conclusion that more militant tactics were needed. This is how a movement can start in the early 60’s with Dr. King asking the Democrats "politely" for voting rights. And by the 70’s, those same activists are calling for Black Power and demonstrating with the Black Panther Party holding M16s.
Activists went through a similar process around the Vietnam anti-war movement. They moved from the streets, put on suits and ties, and spent their time campaigning for Lyndon B. Johnson instead. The slogan was, “Half the way with LBJ”. But after LBJ was elected, he didn’t prove to be any peace candidate at all. In fact, he escalated the war. Just as it did the civil rights movement, it was going through this process of struggle that radicalized the movement.
A certain momentum was built throughout these years of struggle. A certain mood—a mood of confidence and self-worth develops when some of the most oppressed people in society stand up and fight back. Others feel that they too can fight back.
This mood poured into the Women’s Liberation movement that won abortion rights and the Gay Liberation movement. This torrent of struggle—of teach-in’s and marches and rebellions—this is what forced the hand of the government. It wasn't the good-heartedness of the Democratic Party. This is evident when you think about how most of the actual reform was passed not by Kennedy or LBJ, but Nixon—at the end—at the movement’s height.
Gravedigger of social movements
So maybe you’re convinced that it takes struggle to win reforms.
But I want to argue that this is still not the full picture. The Democratic Party is not only a party of big business. It plays a specific role for the ruling class and for capitalism as a whole. The Democratic Party has, and continues to play a historic role in co-opting and demobilizing social movements when the ruling class feels threatened. This is the role of more left-leaning liberals within the Democratic Party—people that social movements tend to see as allies—the Jessie Jacksons, the Dennis Kucinichs. And it’s not a conspiracy. These Left Democrats are quite conscious of this role.
Mississippi Freedom Democrats
One of the best examples I want to give is from the civil rights movement.
To counter Mississippi's racist Democratic Party, activists formed a non-segregated party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The Party signed up 80,000 voters and elected a delegation to the Democratic Party convention. Arguing that it was the only party in Mississippi in which all could vote, the Freedom Democratic Party planned a fight to be seated instead of the segregationist Mississippi delegation.
But the Democrats, liberal and conservative alike, would have none of it. Lyndon B Johnson feared losing the Southern segregationist Democrats' support. Johnson used Democratic Liberals like Hurbert Humphrey to put pressure on the civil rights activists to give up its demands. When the Freedom Democratic Party refused to budge, finally Johnson offered a compromise. Instead of their sixty-eight delegates being seated as Mississippi's delegation, two Freedom Democrats would be seated at large while the entire segregationist delegation would be seated.
The Freedom Democrats rightfully called the deal a back of the bus compromise.
Here's what the report of the Liberal Americans for Democratic Action had to say about their role in 1964. I like this quote because it shows that there is a consciousness of this function of co-option played by the Left-Democrats.
Quick granting of voting rights will mean quick recruitment by the Democratic Party, which will mean quick scuttling of the Freedom Democratic Parties and SNCC control.
They played this role again shortly after. LBJ proceeded to enact the Great Society Programs to co-opt the social programs being organized by the Black Power movement. Here is how two Black Power activists of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) explained what happened to their group as this took place:
Participation in the War on Poverty was in several respects dysfunctional for CORE as an organization. Leaders who accepted the well-paying positions found it difficult to maintain active connections with their local affiliates, and since they were generally the most experienced chapter members, the loss was substantial...
Thirty years earlier, an organizer for the mine workers union complained in the same way about the role the Democrats were playing:
FDR has been carefully selecting my key lieutenants and appointing them to honorary posts in various of his multitudinous, grandiose commissions. He has his lackeys fawning upon and wining and dining many of my people...In a quiet, confidential way he approaches one of my lieutenants, weans his loyalty away, overpowers him with the dazzling glory of the White House, and appoints him to a federal post under such circumstances that his prime loyalty shall be to the President and only a secondary, residual one to the working class movement form which he came.
Stay independent or die, the movement that is
I think a key aspect of rebuilding a Left today and winning change is building movements that have a consciousness about this role of the Democratic Party. I think this is so crucial because there is a long history not only of the Democrats trying to co-opt and demobilize movements such as with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But there is also a rich history of the movements making a consciousness decision about strategy to fight for change within, or through the Democratic Party.
A New Deal, to destroy the labor movement
As the level of working class struggle grew in the battle over unionization, and the economy began to stabilize, big business began to desert Roosevelt. But the labor movement's rank and file was leaving the Democratic Party too.
There was a serious movement developing to build a real party for the people—a labor party which would reflect the increase in class struggle and create an independent organization. A 1937 Gallup poll showed that at least 21% of the population supported the formation of a national Farmer-Labor Party as an alternative to the ruling class Democrat and Republican parties.
But the Union leadership made a conscious decision to put their lot in with FDR and the Democratic Party. The CIO created Labor's Nonpartisan League which raised $750,000 for Roosevelt. Not only is this money that could have gone to strike funds and more organizing drives. But during the final weeks of the campaign, the CIO actually suspended its organizing drives so that it could devote its full organizational resources to Roosevelt's reelection.
When the 1935 United Auto Workers (UAW) convention voted overwhelming to "actively support and give assistance to the formation of a national Farmer-Labor Party" and voted against supporting Roosevelt for president, top CIO officials simply pulled the UAW aside and explained that either the convention would agree to support Roosevelt or the CIO would revoke all its funding for the UAW. Blackmail.
This strategy of change through the Democratic Party is so dangerous because it not only demobilizes the movement by funneling resources into campaigns. But it also disarms the movement. Strike funds were used for Roosevelt’s campaign. And what did Labor get in return for delivering the election to FDR? FDR turned his back to a desperate appeal by Labor as workers were massacred by police in the Little Steel Strike a year later in 1937.
Unfortunately, this strategy of wedding movements to the Democratic Party continues to dominate. It is a serious reason there is such a gap between where the level of consciousness of workers is at and where the level of organization is at.
The vast majority of workers in this country are against both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the anti-war movement is no where to be found. It must be said that the leadership of the anti-war movement—United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ)—made a decision in 2004 to spend its time and money organizing for John Kerry instead of organizing anti-war mobilizations.
But when the anti-war movement throws its lot in with someone that came to the Democratic Primary saying that he was "reporting for duty", it creates quite a problem. That's a real existential crisis when you have an anti-war movement supporting an openly pro-war candidate for president. To organize an anti-war protest would be to put John Kerry on the spot for his pro-war positions.
Abortion rights movement
Around the same time, I demonstrated with a million in DC in the March For Women's Lives to defend abortion rights. Talk about an opportunity. What could have happened if the march organizers called on every person to go back into their community, organize teach-ins and clinic defenses? If every one of those demonstrators convinced one of their friends, we could have a movement of 2 million instead of 1 million.
Instead, leaders of NOW, NARAL and the Democratic Party got up—one after another—to argue that the most important thing we can do as activists is to get a Democrat into office. For me, the most memorable was when Hillary Clinton got up and said that when her husband—Bill Clinton—was in office, we did not have to get into the streets and protest.
Ironically, and tragically, Bill Clinton played a key role in whittling down abortion rights law by law placing restriction after restriction on a woman's right to choose—so much so, that now, over 80% of counties across the US do not provide needed abortion services.
And who remembers the equal marriage demonstrations?
In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court historically decided in favor of legalizing gay marriage. In San Francisco, more than 2,500 gay and lesbian couples lined up to receive marriage licenses after which the Mayor announced the city would begin issuing the licenses in defiance of the state. In cities large and small local officials began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. And in cities across the country, gay rights supporters organized protests to demand marriage rights. In a matter of weeks, there was finally a platform for people to express their outrage at Bush's attacks on gay rights and a momentum to confidently demand full and equal rights for gay marriage.
Shamefully, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank—the best-known openly gay member of Congress—publicly opposed the thousands of gay marriages in San Francisco, claiming that the time "wasn't right." The time wasn't right for the Democrats because it was February of a presidential election year. Leaders of the Democratic Party weren't happy that a polarizing issue had grabbed the spotlight, so they urged moderation and compromise. Some of the national figures most associated with the issue warned that "going too far" could set off a backlash. And the movement followed suit.
Perspectives for today
So where do we go today?
Today, Obama is telling us to organize to hold him accountable. I think we should listen to him.
How many of you were at the National March for Equality in DC?....Well, I think in a lot of ways it represents where we need to be going. It's not a done deal, but there are a whole bunch of indicators.
First, this movement was built from the ground up. The traditional organizations of LGBT rights that have for years now been focused on lobbying the Democrats, would not endorse the march. In fact, groups like Human Rights Campaign tried to use their weight to keep a national march from taking place. The idea is that we need to “give Obama time”.
But activists across the country built the march from the ground up with hardly any money or resources. Everyday people went into their communities and onto their campus and found ways to get hundreds of people to DC.
And it was only when it became clear that the march was developing some serious traction that the organizations focused on the Democratic Party got behind it.
Second, the Democrats tried to play their traditional role of sucking the wind out of the sails of the movement. Obama gave a speech the night before the march to a fancy wine-em and dine-em HRC dinner where he made the same promises (again) to the movement. He promised to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, but gave no timetable.
And then of course there is Barney Frank—essentially saying the same thing he did in 2004—that we have to give Obama time, and that protesting doesn't do anything.
But activists didn't buy it. They continued to march anyway. And one of the chants at the march ended up being “Barney Frank, Fuck You!”
This doesn't mean that marchers have made a conscious decision that the movement must remain independent from the Democratic Party. In fact, the sentiment of most marchers I talked to was that Obama is still our “ally” in the White House. But marchers were frustrated and angry with Obama and are willing to organize to hold his feet to the fire.
This is what it means to build independent movements. It means that we organize the strongest movements possible regardless of who is in office. We organize and fight until we get what we demand, and then we fight for some more.
Lastly, I want to say that one lesson I have drawn from the march is that the question of what we do, what our politics are, what our strategies are, and how organized we are to implement them actually does matter.
It wasn’t automatic that this march would take place. It was a real debate between those with a grassroots strategy and those oriented on the Democratic Party. This is why we need to continue to build organization—especially Socialist organization to actually fight for political strategies and a set of politics that can win.
I’m not into looking back and saying “what if…what if…what if…”. But what I do know is that we have to build the kind of organization that can compete with the labor bureaucracy of the 1930’s that sabotaged the movement on behalf of the Democrats. We have to build the kind of organization that could point a way forward when the civil rights leaders took paid positions in LBJ’s poverty programs.
I think the ISO is building this kind of organization. That’s why I joined years back. And if you think you are interested in this project too, you should join as well.
UPDATES TO THE SPEECH:
1. "NARAL and Planned Parenthood: Ineffectiveness Anti-Choice Democrats Can Rely On" by Jane Hamsher