The Democrats’ delusions and a strategy for change

by David P. Hamilton, The Rag Blog, June 30, 2014

A central goal of the left in the U.S. should be to create an independent electoral base, a voice from which the left can speak directly to the mainstream.

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Painting by Anthony Freda / AnthonyFreda.com.

Sometimes you might have cause to wonder, but the Democratic Party is indeed better than the Republican Party. That says almost nothing. The economic policies of contemporary Republicans are more right wing than those of Benito Mussolini, the founder of modern fascism. Being better than Mussolini is no great distinction.

During the “Obama recovery” since 2009, 95% of all income gains have gone to the top 1% economic elite, the capitalist ruling class. As their income rose 31%, the other 99% saw their income grow by a meager 0.4%. In the process, inequality increased rapidly. Such are the riches Obama’s economic policies have delivered.

Had there been a Republican in the White House, the comparable figures would have likely been 100% and 0%, but that does not negate the fact that this Democratic Party-led government primarily serves the economic elite, their foremost constituency. These figures indicate that U.S. presidential elections don’t give leftists a choice between good and bad or even bad and worse, but between awful and abominable, and that keeps happening repeatedly every four years.

Bush and Obama: a comparison

The principal goal of the bank bailout initiated by Bush II and carried forward by Obama was to remove “toxic assests” from banks’ balance sheets. After Obama appointed Wall Street insiders to his major economic cabinet posts, $700 billion was allocated for this purpose, mainly directed at the nine largest U.S. banks. Most of those “toxic assets” were bundles of underwater mortgage loans, where rapidly declining real estate values had left home owners with loans far greater than the market value of their homes.

The government aid went overwhelmingly to the banker side of the equation and left the homeowner ​side “over their heads.” No comparable bailout program was initiated to aid these homeowners going broke trying to pay for those “toxic assets” to which they were saddled. For such achievements in the economic policy of this reputedly left-leaning government, we are told we must devote ourselves continually to the perpetuation of rule by the Democratic Party.

The Obama administration took great pride in reviving General Motors.

The Obama administration took great pride in reviving General Motors. In 2009, the U.S. government could have bought a bankrupt GM for under $10 billion. Instead, the Obama administration loaned them $75 billion so that they could continue to make inferior and unnecessary, if not dangerous, cars, now being recalled in record numbers while the company is being sued for fatal mechanical mishaps.

A socialist government could have bought GM for a pittance, rebuilt its factories to make high speed rail components, and retrained the work force for jobs with a future. Such an approach would have stimulated massive growth in U.S. manufacturing by producing something in the U.S. that the U.S. actually needs a lot more of. Once this new high tech industry was well established, the government could privatize some of it — like up to 49%.

But such an approach had no champion among the ruling capitalist elite. Hence, no Democrat dared to suggest that the U.S. go as far as France has gone a dozen times since WWII. This socialist approach was not part of the conversation about GM because there is no consistent socialist perspective allowed in the mainstream media or in the halls of power.

But economic policy isn’t everything. There is no doubt that the Democrats are superior to Republicans in terms of identity politics — gay rights, feminism, racial issues, etc — especially if one is seduced by words and the lack of tangible accomplishments can be explained away by Republican obstreperousness and obstructionism.

That they are better reflects the Democrats being more vulnerable to their principal electoral constituencies, requiring the party leadership to display the appearance of greater receptivity to the widespread progressive beliefs held among those constituencies without actually doing anything substantive.

The response of corporate Democrats typically manifests in the form of soothing words indicating their personal agreement concerning our mutually held beliefs, but with caveats soon forthcoming. Don’t expect leadership from Democratic politicians on any of these issues.

Obama entered office opposed to gay marriage. He opportunistically “evolved” to his present tepid support in lockstep conformity with changes in opinion polls on the subject and with due respect for gay friendly potential funding sources. LBJ should not be considered a hero or even a member of the civil rights movement, regardless of his shepherding civil rights legislation through Congress. He also evolved as polls changed, cities burned, the National Guard was activated, and the Soviet Union crowed effectively to the world’s non-white majority about the racist perversions of U.S. democracy.

The corruption of the electoral process in the U.S.

“The goal of elections now is to undermine democracy. They are run by the public relations industry and they’re certainly not trying to create informed voters who’ll make rational choices. They are trying to delude people into making irrational choices.” — Noam Chomsky from On Western Terrorism

The U.S. electoral process will become more corrupted, more quickly in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions. The reign of capitalist domination of U.S. elections continues and expands. Progressives (that is, closeted socialists) might be well advised to put their energies into building independent socialist organizations and toward “the streets” rather than into electoral efforts in favor of already compromised lesser evil candidates. An electoral focus would only be truly worthwhile in situations where the combination of a unique opportunity and a unique candidate emerged to serve as a potential game changer.

From 2000 to 2012, the amount spent in federal elections more than doubled.

From 2000 to 2012, the amount spent in federal elections more than doubled, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. With the recent Supreme Court decisions in the “Citizens United” and “McCutcheon” cases, one can reasonably expect that the cost of elections will accelerate even faster in the future. [See “David P. Hamilton: Citizens’ United and the corruption of American politics.“] This acceleration of campaign cost inflation is no accident. It is a purposeful effort to make all candidates in federal and statewide elections beholden to the corporate capitalist ruling class.

In 2010, only 9% of the contributions to Democratic Party members of the House of Representatives and 14% to Democrats in the Senate came from small contributors, while contributions from large donors and political action committees were 84% and 72% respectively. Respective figures for Republicans and in the presidential race were similar. The trend points toward campaign financing becoming even more distorted toward large donors.

corporations-people-signIn congressional races in 2010, the candidate who spent the most won 85 percent of the House races and 83 percent of the Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s a large percentage, but it’s lower than in past election cycles. In 2008, the biggest spenders won 93 percent of House races and 86 percent of Senate races. In 2006, the top spenders won 94 percent of House races and 73 percent of Senate races. And in 2004, 98 percent of House seats went to candidates who spent the most, as did 88 percent of Senate seats.

The principal implication of the electoral cost inflation is that only those candidates with great financial resources will be able to effectively compete in higher level elections and the simplest way for a candidate to raise a sufficient amount of money to be considered viable is get it from the very rich.

Both Obama and Romney raised and spent over a billion in 2012. The 0.4% of the U.S. population who gave more than $200 provided these candidates with 63.4% of their financing. From here on, you’ll need much more than a billion dollars to be a player in a presidential election.

To raise that kind of money by small donations of $200 or less would require well over 5 million individual contributions, which dwarfs the number of small contributions in past presidential elections. Or it would require just 1,000 contributions of a million each. With people like Sheldon Adelson giving $95 million during one election cycle, the problem of fundraising becomes highly simplified. The 492 U.S. billionaires could handle such campaign financing out of their pocket change. We get to choose from among their choices.

Political power is a limited edition commodity you cannot afford.

Political power is a limited edition commodity you cannot afford. A “historically important study” — “Testing Theories of American Politics” by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, political science professors at Princeton and Northwestern respectively — recently attracted attention. Their conclusion is that “majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts… When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

The obvious implication is that the capitalist ruling class has preponderant influence if not control of who runs and who wins important elections. To be a serious candidate, you must be sponsored by them. This ruling class is not uniformly in agreement. They particularly diverge on social issues such as gay rights. But they are in lockstep conformity regarding issues effecting their profits. This means that elections are rarely fought over class issues, who benefits from the wealth generated by society. Instead, candidates rage over who sleeps with whom and whether or not to overthrow some nonconforming foreign government.

This could all be changed by a constitutional amendment to mandate public financing of elections or at least to put restrictions on campaign spending. But the likelihood of such an amendment is zero. Constitutional amendments require passage by super majorities in both houses of the Congress plus passage by 75% of the state legislatures. That means convincing large majorities of increasingly corrupted politicians to stop accepting funds by their current, very generous patrons. When pigs fly…

Elections can be important organizing venues. But at this point in U.S. history, participation with the expectation that victory will lead to substantive reforms within the existing two party duopoly is delusional. To propagate that possibility lends credence to fraud.

Obamacare as a model of Democrats selling out

My liberal friends argue that Obamacare, although flawed, is a step in the right direction, toward a single-payer, universal health care system run by the federal government, aka Medicare for all, establishing health care as a right, a goal to which we mutually aspire. As a leftist contrarian, however, I argue that Obamacare was a political sellout by the corporate controlled leadership of the Democratic Party to the health care industry.

Its principal purpose was to forestall a single-payer system and maintain health care as a commodity.

Its principal purpose was to forestall a single-payer system and maintain health care as a commodity. Obamacare is a step away from a single-payer system, not toward it. If it is a model for anything, it is Exhibit A showing how the Democratic Party ignores and shortchanges its supporters, the vast majority of whom support a single-payer system.

According to a recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development,

The U.S. spent $8,233 on health per person per year as of 2010, the highest cost of any country in the world by a very large margin. Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland are the next highest spenders, but they all spent at least $3,000 less per person per year than in the U.S. The average spending on health care among the other 33 developed OECD countries was $3,268 per person, less than 40% of what we spend in the U.S. The health care sector made up 17.9% of the GDP in the U.S. in 2012 and was growing fast. The next largest system was in the Netherlands where it made up only 12.4% of the GDP.

The obvious conclusion is that the U.S. health care industry is a massively bloated component of the U.S. economy.

Despite costing over 50% more than the next most expensive healthcare system in the world, the U.S. system produces poorer outcomes than publicly owned, i.e. socialist, systems in almost every respect. The CIA estimates that the 2014 infant mortality rate, a primary indicator of the quality of health care, will be 3.31 per 1,000 live births in France and 6.17 in the U.S.

honk-single-payer-cropThat 86% higher rate of infant mortality in the U.S. compared to France is essentially because France’s past socialist governments, backed by workers in the streets, won a universal public health care system in which all pre- and post-natal care in France is absolutely free and parents get a monthly stipend from the government for having children. The U.S. ranked 55th among nations in infant mortality, considerably behind Cuba.

But isn’t Obamacare better than what we had? How could it be worse? The central idea of Obamacare, expanding the private sector pool of insured using mandates and subsidizes, was a Republican idea that originally came out of the right-wing Heritage Foundation in the 1990′s inspired by their fear that the Clintons might expand the public sector further into healthcare.

Health care industry lobbyists assisted in the birth.

Health care industry lobbyists assisted in the birth. It was first put into practice by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, for similar reasons. Only when it was championed by Obama did it become anathema to Republicans. With such a lineage, it is hard to embrace the idea that Obamacare is in any way progressive.

Obamacare is not a much needed reform of the U.S. health care system. It is a reform of the health insurance industry, which requires certain concessions from the industry, such as no disqualification due to a preexisting conditions. However, in return the industry gets the government to oblige the entire populace to buy their defective products or be fined for not doing so.

The industry envisions a tsunami of new clients. Health insurance industry lobbyists were front and center in the drafting of Obamacare and they remain its biggest proponents. Advocates of single-payer plans were not allowed to participate in the negotiations that led to Obamacare, as they were not considered “stakeholders.” Representatives of the health insurance industry are not known to venture into backroom negotiations at the White House in order to design programs that pave the way to socialism and Obamacare is no exception.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that with optimal implementation of Obamacare in 2020 an additional 25 million people will be covered in some way, but that 30 million people will still remain uncovered. And the U.S. will still have the most expensive health care system in the world by a very large margin and U.S. health care will still produce outcomes that are inferior to publicly owned systems elsewhere that are spending half as much per person. Regardless of its limited goals, that Obamacare might actually achieve them is considered by many to be an optimistic scenario.

A Commonwealth Foundation study done in the midst of the debate in Washington, D.C. about Obamacare found that, “More than seven of 10 adults believe the U.S. health system needs fundamental change or complete rebuilding.” This widespread sentiment found no leadership within the Democratic Party. The Obama administration, after giving 2008 campaign lip service to single payer health care, discarded it from consideration at the first opportunity. Yet Democrats will run on Obamacare as the best one could expect given the difficult political climate, beg your continued support, and berate critics on the left for their lack of political realism.

Foreign policy bipartisanship

The contrasting approaches of Bush and Obama in their mutual continuation of the longstanding U.S. goal of achieving world domination, now in the guise of fighting the “war on terror,” is principally one of style and rhetoric.

For decades the central issue in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been Israel-Palestine.

For decades the central issue in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been Israel-Palestine. Bush said U.S. and Israeli policy were the same and did nothing to resolve the conflict in which Israel had the military upper hand and benefited from the status quo. Obama said the U.S. and Israel had the same goals if not necessarily the same tactics and pushed peace talks. This was considered a major schism; light had shown between U.S. and Israeli policy.

But those peace talks never had any chance of success because the Obama administration wasn’t willing to take the tangible steps necessary to pressure Israel to negotiate in good faith. And the Obama administration knew in advance that it would be unwilling to counter Israel intransigence with anything but words. Then the Obama administration looked away as new Zionist-only housing in East Jerusalem was authorized by the Israeli government in the middle of the “peace talks.”

The Palestinians had been persuaded by the U.S. before the talks began to drop their longstanding demand for a complete end to Zionist settlement building on the West Bank as a condition for its participation in negotiations. To no one’s surprise, the talks collapsed, having been stabbed in the back one too many times by Israel.

Obama administration officials expounded at great length about the need to resolve this conflict, but it was window dressing; all talk, no walk, a spectacle arranged so that they could claim having at least tried. As every impartial observer predicted beforehand, the “peace talks” failed. The end result is the same as under Bush — nothing — as Israel continues benefiting from the status quo. Nothing will happen to resolve this crisis as long as the U.S., under both Democratic and Republican administrations alike, continues to subsidize and protect Israel unequivocally.

Bush dragged the U.S. into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan based on lies. To his credit, Obama has extracted the U.S. from Iraq and says he’ll do the same in Afghanistan, however belatedly. The alternate reality is that Obama could have left both Iraq and Afghanistan years ago with no significant difference in the ultimate outcome. Obama’s pointless “surge” in Afghanistan was clearly a device to give temporary cover to his right flank. In both cases, Obama has tried to cajole the respective governments to allow U.S. troops to stay longer. Dragging out the inevitable retreat from defeat in order to save the face of the U.S. military credibility does not justify the several thousand lives lost unnecessarily in the process.

Given that the U.S. military was accomplishing nothing, their military position was increasingly untenable, both wars were increasingly unpopular at home, ridiculously costly and a blight on the U.S.’s international reputation, what would any sane Republican have done differently? A Republican might have hung on longer or become involved in still more wars, but that would have only exacerbated the “tar baby” syndrome, with U.S. adversaries relishing the spectacle of Uncle Sam sinking ever deeper into the morass of military overextension. The Cold War could yet have two losers.

Obama provided the crucial military support necessary to overthrow the Qaddafi government in Libya, but that effort in human rights-justified aggression resulted in chaos throughout that country, with weapons and militarized anti-Western Islamist fundamentalism being exported to several adjacent nations.

Obama is perpetuating U.S. involvement in Libya through CIA funding of a non-Islamist general who fancies himself to be the next dictator to replace the old dictator we overthrew, thus threatening to drag the U.S. into what looks increasingly like a regional war in several adjacent countries in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are newly stationed in several of these African countries to counter this threat that the U.S. largely created. With successes like this, who needs failures?

Obama was restrained from attacking Syria by a massive outpouring of anti-war sentiment.

Obama was restrained from attacking Syria by a massive outpouring of anti-war sentiment, much of it coming from the right, people who reflexively oppose whatever Obama suggests. It also hurt the administration’s case that the alternative to continued rule by Assad was even worse than Assad by any sane measure, such as women’s rights.

Most differences between the warring Democratic and Republican tribes are stylistic. Bush flaunted his fealty to the Saudi dictator. Obama avoided publicly holding hands with the misogynist monarch, but he is no less closely allied with the Saudi oil aristocracy in the Syrian misadventure.

Meanwhile, the Saudi’s bought another $50 billion in U.S. arms, held hands under the table with the Israelis, funded jihadis everywhere, undermined Egyptian democracy, threatened Iran and still won’t let women drive, let alone vote. Having such reactionary retrogrades as one’s principal friends in the Arab world should be embarrassing.

Obama did one good thing by stemming Israeli aggression when he entered into negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program. This at least temporarily forestalled nuclear aggression by Israel. However, these negotiations rest on the bogus assumption that Iran has a nuclear weapons program in the first place, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Hypocritically, the U.S. sanctions Iran for just having the technical capability of a nuclear weapons program, but stands firmly opposed to any investigation of Israel’s well known stockpile of illegal nuclear weapons mounted on capable delivery vehicles. Meanwhile, Obama continues to orchestrate the demonization of Iran just in case they fail to knuckle under (“be reasonable”) in the negotiations.

In general, Obama fully accepted and expanded on the Bush Doctrine that the U.S. had the right to attack “terrorism” anywhere in the world. Having a tactic become a nebulous stateless enemy is ideal to sufficiently frighten one’s own domestic population into accepting this bogus justification for expanded “defense” spending into the indefinite future. The Obama addition to the Bush Doctrine was to exponentially increase drone attacks, which have killed the innocent along with the reputedly guilty, including U.S. citizens, and doubtless spawned future terrorists by the hundreds.

I suppose we should be happy that the rate of growth of the U.S. military budget has slowed. But that budget already dwarfs all other military budgets, roughly equaling the military budgets of all the other countries in the world combined. I suppose we should be satisfied that Obama has forestalled approval of the Keystone pipeline until after the midterm elections, that he’s given lip service to reigning in NSA surveillance, that the record number of drug war refugees the Obama administration has deported wasn’t higher still, and that he hasn’t expanded detentions at Guantanamo. So vote for the Democrats!

He has successfully neutered the anti-war movement that had been revitalized during the preceding Bush administration.

There has, indeed, been one significant success of the Obama administration relative to war and peace. He has successfully neutered the anti-war movement that had been revitalized during the preceding Bush administration and was at one point crucial to Obama’s 2008 campaign. The anti-war movement’s one crowning recent achievement was in blocking the escalation of U.S. participation in the Syrian civil war, a war which the US/CIA doubtless helped instigate.

But this popular resistance to war was a coalition between forces on the left and in the peace camp augmented heavily by those who reflexively oppose anything Obama does. Otherwise, there is no active anti-war movement. It lays dormant, wringing its hands, making excuses, clinging to “hope,” and praising the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.

A strategy for change

2016 is shaping up to be a PR debacle in the mainstream where two arcane American dynasties are lining up to go another round. A certain Hollywood mentality calls for sequels to anything that sold well the first time. Thus we may have Clinton vs. Bush redux. Those wanting something new are out of luck. This stale combination, a battle between candidates who don’t fundamentally disagree about very much, might provide a perfect storm opportunity for forcing change from the bottom.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The physics of the U.S. electoral system dictates that there will be a two-party duopoly and that, to have a chance of winning, you must be in control of one of them. Ideally, one party would be to the left and the other to the right.

Instead, we now have a center-right corporate-controlled party with a diverse and progressive base, and a very white, very right-wing party led by the more reactionary elements of the ruling economic elite, but with a somewhat populist base. In this configuration, the socialist left has no voice above the lowest levels in the electoral process and outside the mainstream.

A central goal of the left in the U.S. should be to create an independent electoral base, a voice from which the left can speak directly to the mainstream. The left currently has no such base because the Democrat’s representation of progressive politics is very largely rhetorical and hypocritical. The genuine left supports the kind of programs and policies that would be championed by socialist parties everywhere else. Here, it has no such vehicle. Can the Democratic Party be captured back from its own corporate domination to become that vehicle?

That would require that the Democratic Party reverse the more “centrist” orientation of the party initiated by the Clintons and carried on by the Democratic Leadership Council. It must instead be transformed into a genuine party of the left, espousing socialist policies that have majority support among the American electorate.

Examples of those popular policies would include single-payer universal healthcare, more steeply progressive taxation and closing tax loopholes for the rich, expanded public works, emphasis on improving public education, environmental sustainability, reducing the size and scope of the military, greater regulation of finance capital, and public funding of elections.

Like the Tea Party’s influence pulling Republicans to the right, a leftist insurgency could pull the Democrats back to the left.

Like the Tea Party’s influence pulling Republicans to the right, a leftist insurgency could pull the Democrats back to the left. The most powerful force that such an insurgency could generate would be to threaten to leave the fold, at least temporarily, if the corporate wing of the party nominates someone whose politics are unacceptable to progressives. A third party becomes the vehicle for this threat.

Were this threat carried out, the DP would be forced to adapt in such a way as to incorporate the demands of the insurgents. The ultimate goal is to be co-opted back into the major party on your own terms. Those terms in this case being a historic move to the left on the part of the DP, with the new DP endorsing policies that grow the public sector and would be considered socialist anywhere else.

To accomplish this takeover of the Democratic Party from its current corporate rulers, it must be split and the corporate types neutered, if not purged. The first step in this process is denying corporate Democrats your progressive vote in 2016; particularly, self-consciously voting against Hillary Clinton. Ideally, she will lose as the purposeful act of progressives refusing to support her.

Our corrupted electoral system remains the only state-sanctioned game in town. One is part of that game, even if one chooses not to play. Although nothing beats winning, there are other potential accomplishments that can be achieved in utilizing the electoral system as an organizing venue, for example, building independent socialist organizations and transforming a major party.

The Democratic Party would move to the left to win back those they lost by nominating another corporate crony candidate. But for this to be the case one must actually leave the fold. The Democratic Party will only be transformed as it reformulates in order to recapture the progressive constituencies who abandoned it, causing it to lose when it could have won.

The spectacle of another Bush vs. Clinton contest symbolizes the stagnant and moribund nature of American democracy. Vegas bookies currently say Hillary Clinton would beat Jeb Bush handily unless some unforeseen development occurs.

Such an occurrence might be Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent Jewish socialist, running in the general election either as an independent or with the Green Party nomination. Note that the GP is now on the ballot in almost 50 states. Sanders has an established track record that places him distinctly to the left of the Democratic Party. He is not afraid to be called a socialist. He has demonstrated the ability to get votes from all over the political spectrum, from progressives and populists alike.

As a senior U.S. Senator and long time member of Congress with a nationwide following, he could be very difficult for the corporate media and the mainstream parties to ignore. Revulsion at the Clinton/Bush retread would be wind in his sails. His presence would fundamentally change the nature of the debate in that a left perspective would have to be dealt with. I relish seeing a three-way debate on health care where Sanders would have the great pleasure to assert the single-payer option against defenders of Obamacare and its right-wing critics.

A very significant portion of Sanders voters would not vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstance.

A very significant portion of Sanders voters would not vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstance. But insofar as Sanders takes votes from one of the major parties, he would take them primarily from Democrats. This could indeed cause Clinton to lose and that would be a good thing. It would teach the Democratic Party that it cannot live without its progressive supporters and it has to earn that support. Whereas corporate Democrats might be alarmed by a left challenge that simply gives them a scare, only losing what they could have won would compel them to change.

At the same time, Senator Sanders could bring to the polls millions who would not have shown up were he not on the ballot. Besides voting for Sanders, these voters would vote for progressive Democrats. The ideal and likely result would be a weak Republican president who won with well less than 50% support saddled with an congress controlled by increasingly progressive Democrats.

This would produce a hobbled and divided government, perhaps the best we might reasonably expect at this point in history. The most positive result of such a scenario would be a chastened Democratic Party that would have no option but to move left.

[David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government, was an activist in 1960s-’70s Austin and was a contributor to the original Rag. David and wife Sally spend part of every year in France. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.]