Where the Battle Really Is in American Electoral Politics

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For those manning the barricades at DailyKos, fending off the DLC and OFA hordes, it’s been a tough couple of weeks.  Horrible news arrives on a daily basis about the latest betrayal by the Administration, Congressional Democrats or the party apparatus, but discussion of these outrages is blocked or at least blunted by well orchestrated legions of loyalists.

Cassiodorus referred me yesterday to a link about “democratic centralism,” a Leninist, top-down approach to political organization that brooks no dissent once the majority has made a decision.  He noted the mind-numbing consistency of the loyalists’ message:

  1. Praise Obama.

  2. Cite Obama’s big resume.

  3. Denounce all of Obama’s critics.

All this has made me even more skeptical about the value of conventional politics in the United States, and confirmed my view that the Democratic Party is worthless.

What’s interesting is how the same thing is taking place in the Republican Party.  A Naked Capitalism link led me to David Frum’s lament about purges taking place in Republican think tanks.  Frum himself was a victim earlier in the year when he was fired by AEI, but today he’s writing about Cato purges:

The summer’s biggest inside-Washington story was the abrupt and simultaneous departure of co-authors Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson from the Cato Institute.

Lindsey was Cato’s vice president for research; Wilkinson a Cato scholar. They were working together on a book arguing for a new political approach fusing libertarianism and liberalism – a concept that Cato has previously endorsed on issues like drug control, foreign policy, and sexual freedom.

Frum then despairs about the effects of these purges on Republican policy initiatives should they gain the majority in either the House or Senate:

Right-of-center think tanks claim to do objective research that can be trusted by all policy players, regardless of point of view. They boast that they care about ideas, not parties or personalities. They aspire to set a broader agenda for the right, in lieu of the narrow demands of K Street special interests.

These claims look increasingly false. The right-of-center world is poorer for the dessication of the institutions that used to act as the right’s brains.

We are likely soon to have a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, maybe the U.S. Senate too. And what will that majority do? The answer seems to be: They have not a clue. Unlike the Republican House and Senate majorities of 1994, unlike the Republican Senate majority of 1980, these new majorities will arrive with only slogans for a policy agenda. After staging a for-the-record vote against Obamacare, and after re-enacting the Bush tax cuts, it will be policy mission accomplished.

There’s little other policy inventory, because the think tanks have not done their proper work. Without a think tank agenda, the new majority will rapidly decline into a brokerage service for K Street.

What we see are the two major political parties both engaging in an intense effort to purge those interested in policy, those who dissent from party political strategies and those who care more about ideology or principle than loyalty.

The rationale for the purges given by the parties’ leadership and its spokespersons to party members is that a great battle for the future of the nation, if not Western Civilization, lies ahead.  Only if “we” win can the world remain safe for the “middle class” or the “free market,” for LGBTs or Christians, for African Americans or whites, for freedom of religion or a Christian nation.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  The policies of the two parties are indistinguishable because, as Frum points out, the source for policy for both parties is the same: K Street as it symbolizes the international, Capitalist Corporatocracy.  Imagine that you have arrived from Mars and been told a little about the history of the Democratic and Republican parties and the ideologies around which they supposedly coalesce.  Then consider how you would answer if you were asked which of the following enacted programs, foreign policy, military strategies and legislation were supported by which party:

Medicare Part D

2010 Health Insurance Reform

Iraq surge

Afghanistan surge

No Child Left Behind


Telecom Deregulation

Welfare “reform”

It is all but impossible to identify any of these as distinctively Republican or Democratic because the ideological and policy distinctions between the parties, minimal as they were in the pre-Reagan, pre-DLC period, have now shrunk to almost zero.  Note that you were asked only about those things that actually became law or were adopted as policy by the Executive branch, not those things that were advocated by either party but never enacted.  Republicans have benefited from the support of the Christian Right, but what part of the Christian Right’s agenda has ever become law?  At most, they have seen a little tinkering around the edges of abortion restrictions, some of which did not survive court challenges, something fully expected by the Republicans who enacted the bills.  Democrats have made many promises to Labor over the past two decades.  What of it has ever become law?  Immigration issues are treated similarly by both parties.  Each party panders to different interest groups, but the status quo that satisfies elites, is carefully maintained.

Both parties tell their members that absolute party loyalty is required because the effects of losing to “the other side” would be so catastrophic.  Yet it is all but impossible to determine substantive differences between what is enacted by Republicans when they are in power from what Democrats do when they are in control.

The two parties do differ greatly in how they portray themselves and each other to the general public.  Republicans are consistent in their internal and external messages.  They tell both their membership and the wider electorate that Democrats are traitorous socialists who must be defeated and defeated completely.  The Democrats, however, are completely inconsistent.  They send out internal messages to their own members that Republicans constitute a grave threat to constitutional democracy, peace and the rights of minorities, but they follow a policy of reconciliation and bipartisanship when dealing with the opponents in Congress or in the press.  It’s no wonder that the two parties are often compared to the Globetrotters/Generals “competition” where one team is masterful and always victorious while the other is a perennial weakling and loser.  The only difference is that there are times when the public is so dissatisfied with how things are going that the “loser” party must step up, absorb the “throw-the-bums-out” votes of the majority and assume power for a while.  Once in power, however, they immediately revert to their Generals’ schtick and prove as ineffective and bumbling as ever.

If there is any battle left in electoral policy, any hope for change, it lies either in the emergence of third parties or in the battle for control within the existing major parties.  Inter-party politics, if confined to the Republicans and Democrats, is meaningless.  The behavior of the Obama Administration has confirmed that once and for all for anyone on the Left, just as the behavior of the Bush Administration confirmed it for conservatives like Frum and Bartlett.

The are several questions that Leftists need to ask themselves.  How they answer those questions will determine how they focus their individual energies in the coming hard times.  That Leftists answer these questions in different ways is not a bad thing, however.  There’s nothing wrong with concentrating energies in different venues if we do so in solidarity with one another and with strategies that complement each other’s efforts.

The questions:

1) Do you believe conventional electoral politics at any level offers any opportunities for change in the coming decade?

2) Do you believe conventional politics at the national level offers any opportunities for change in the coming decade?

3) If you answered “yes” to #1 and/or #2, do you believe that third party efforts or a takeover of existing Democratic Party structures offers better opportunities?

Depending on how those questions sort us out, we could find people working for change in a number of different ways:

1) organizing communities to become more humane, green, resilient and self-reliant and eschewing party politics altogether;

2) working to take over the local Democratic Party with the goal of preservingimproving public transportation and education;

3) building a regional third party movement to run a economic populist against a Blue Dog Democrat and a Lunatic Republican in a southern Congressional district;

4) coordinating a national movement to change the Democratic Party rules for nominating a Presidential candidate.

Ironically, even DailyKos can be used a tool in some of these efforts because the FAQs explicitly call for the site to be an “anti-Establishment” force in the Democratic Party.

Any effort to re-build a Left in this country must begin with the acknowledgment that the “competition” between the two major parties has no substance.  It even matters little to the party elites because they benefit as long as they play their designated role.  It is mere distraction, a way to absorb the ever growing dissatisfaction with the American social, economic and political systems.

In my view, there is no definitive answer to those questions posed above.  We can argue about them, but at this point, it may be best just to come up individually with the best answer we can and agree that we can disagree and still be comrades.  If we find that a particular strategy is working, great.  More focus can be placed on it.  If something appears fruitless, it can be abandoned.

One thing is clear.  Continuing to do what most of the Left has been doing is insanity.  


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  1. … if the Left could somehow build a “50 state strategy” the way Howard Dean did.

    And if we could, the number one issue for me would be campaign finance reform.  Until we get that, I think the parties inherently will be in the pockets of the wealthy, be it individuals or corporations.

    Campaign finance reform has NEVER been a top issue for me.  But insofar as political infrasructure, I think it needs to be a top issue, and could, if worked effectively, sway a lot of independents.

    • RiaD on September 4, 2010 at 22:19

    for awhile re: campaign finance reform….

    use the DOLLARSIGN_SOAPBLOX$ in unexpected ways_

    instead of buying ads/airtime/labor/travel

    how about use that $$ to provide things that are necessary to the people in the city/county/district/state

    if there were MANY candidates who took their campaign contributions & say…. built community gardens, started housings projects like the one you outlined, started small community daycares- 24hrs/day so that no matter what shift you work daycare is available.

    of course each area would have its own needs….

    but the thing is I would certainly vote for someone who showed me s/he cared about the community… wouldn’t you? and wouldn’t you tell everdamnbody you knew about this new “class” of politician?

  2. I have considered  a temporary, broad based party of Reform that focuses on eight things things:

      1. Push to enact campaign reform that provides public support to candidates without restricting private donations and requires donations be publicly disclosed by the recipients before the money can be deposited. Providing public money to primary candidates that can gather a reasonable number of signatures and raise a minimal amount of money and provide support to emerging parties that can get a few percent in any state or federal election. The best financed does not always win and this would be legal. If people complain about the cost ask them how it compares to the cost of the existing financing system, which is somewhere between $4 and $14 Trillion and counting. This would be a bridge to the kind of politics that could enact more sensible campaign finance reforms – after dealing with SCOTUS.

      2. Vigorously prosecute fraud in the financial sector. Appoint Bill Black to lead a Financial Sector Fraud Unit and fund it at $200 million/year for four years. Simultaneously use regulatory powers to force the TBTFs to take back all the crap that has been dumped on the Fed’s Maiden Lane SIVs and on Fanny and Freddy and mark to market all assets. Attempt to coordinate with other governments to minimize the fall out, but if this is not quickly forthcoming, let the chips fall where they may.

      3. Do a public audit of the Fed and a public assay of what ever precious metal reserves the US Government may still have, preparatory to revising the legislation governing the Fed and with referrals for prosecution as indicated. Not only do we need to know what they have been doing, but this will pull in the libertarians and paleocons.

      4. Support energy independence and economic growth through renewable energy and upgraded domestic electric infrastructure. Fund this with Bruce McF’s 10c/gal (or greater) tax on imported oil. Provide federal financing for publicly owned high capacity lines from existing grid tie-ins to the Texas panhandle and the entire front range of the Rockies. This would significantly protect the dollar from increases in oil prices.(T. Boone Pickins, check. Stake through Dick Cheney – check.)

      5. Enact significant corporate taxes on foreign labor content of manufactures. Revise all tax codes to eliminate any tax benefits to “outsourcing” and to mergers and acquistions. (Paul Craig Roberts — check)

      6. Repeal the Keep America Safe Act and all other such legislative infringements on civil liberties. Brand this act as being, in fact, The Turn America Into a Police State Act. (Civil libertarians of all persuasions – check.)

      7. Withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan and, at a minimum, reduce our troop levels in Korea, Japan and Germany. Cut the size of the US military by half and reduce the Pentagon budget by half. Even the  Secretary of Defense says reductions are needed. (Paleocons and assorted progressives – check.)

      8. Agree on a four year standstill on social issues, broadly defined. In the kind of economic environment into which we are headed, absent this kind of reform, the changes in social legislation are likely to be reactionary anyway. (Gotta hold this sucker together long enough to do something effective.)

    The eight points would be the platform for the Reform Coalition. But this should be done in conjunction with building a ground up progressive organization or organizations, both on a local, state and national level that can both be effective, elect enough legislators to be a factor and attract legislators from existing parties. Let this or these progressive organizations be the ones that develop effective proof of concept social programs.    

    • RUKind on September 5, 2010 at 04:02

    Liberals and conservatives are just Establishment by any other name. I admire the Tea Party Patriots for their ability to organize and actually toss out some Establishment Republicans. If we can toss some Establishment Dems then we’ll be on the right path – or the left path, if you will. 😉

    • David R on September 5, 2010 at 04:51

    I didn’t become really interested in politics until the 2000 Presidential Election.  And I guess I’ve always been kind of contrarian, anyway.  Hell, in 1992 I voted for Ross Perot, even after he’d made an ass of himself with the whole “I’m running, wait, no, I’m not running, oh yes, I’m running again!” thing.

    So, in 2000, I was definitely leaning toward Gore, although I didn’t really think much of the Clinton Presidency.  Frankly, if his campaign hadn’t been so horribly mis-managed, I might have voted for him.  But, I was really listening to the message that both candidates were pretty much the same, that Republican or Democrat didn’t make a difference, and we needed someone from outside to shake things up.  So, I voted for Nader.  

    Now, some people claim that statistically, Nader’s candidacy didn’t affect the results of the vote, that Gore would still have won by that shadow of a thread of a margin (and probably the Supremes would still have thrown the seat to Bush).  But I know that his presence in the race made a difference to my vote.  More to the point, though, I wonder if the message made a difference, that there was no real difference between Dems and Repubs.

    Then of course, we had the Bush years.  Ugh.  And I have to believe that Gore would have been miles better than Bush.  So the whole ‘no difference’ thing?  I sad ‘bah’ to that.  Phooey, even.  Clearly, the Republicans were far worse than Democrats.  Thus, Nader wound up on my shitlist.  Further, as a mostly Pennsylvanian, when the Pennsylvania Green Party got in bed with the Republicans, I crossed the Green Party off my Christmas list as well.  I actually even toyed with the idea that the ‘no difference’ meme was a Republican ploy to sow dissent among liberals, expecting their own base to vote Republican no matter what.

    But now, we’ve got Obama.  Keeping in mind that voted for Edwards in the primary, but voted for Obama in the election, hoping that he was lying about a lot of stuff to make himself appear to be a centrist Democrat while really (I was hoping) hiding the heart of a liberal inside… okay, I got no end for that sentence.  Anyway, the events of the nearly two years past have made me reconsider my stance.  I am now quite convinced that Nader was right to begin with.  We’re living in a plutocracy, and apparently one of those really depressing ones where the heads of the plutocracy are inbred morons, yet surprisingly capable of convincing otherwise reasonably intelligent and competent people to serve them through some combination of wealth, power, and sheer social inertia.

    The point of this diatribe being:

    I don’t want to lead.  I’m not cut out for leadership, I don’t want that kind of heat or attention.

    I don’t want to donate.  I don’t have any disposable income anymore, and I have trust issues to boot.

    I will give of the sweat of my brow, to anyone with a good plan up to and including seceding from the union.

    So, you know, somebody come up with a plan, and step on it!

    • banger on September 5, 2010 at 13:46

    If you want to create political change lobby the MSM. It acts like a virtual Ministry of Truth and the left has allowed the oligarchs to dominate it completely. Thus no change is possible as long as people accept the current frames. Now most people are smart enough to distrust the MSM but they have a very strong need for frameworks/narratives and thus they’ll pick one out that’s out there since our educational system has done little to encourage critical thinking skills.

    Right now the official narrative is probably the furtherest from any possible definition of reality than it has been in my memory. Almost all the accepted ideas that the left and right accept as a common narrative are utterly false. For example, that Obama is a force on the left. Objectively, if you look at what he has actually said and done he is a center-right politician. There is no evidence that I see that he has ever had any interest in a leftist analysis. Take Lyndon Johnson for example. He was a center-left politician. He was left on social issues and right on international affairs (like Obama he was terrified of the right even then as his WH tapes indicate). Obama is on the right in international issues and is vaguely centrist on domestic issues though he seems more on the right even there. Take the HCR “debate” as a stunning example of a “no-truth” campaign by the MSM. There was little exposure of the actual facts, statistics or studies on what the problem with HC was or what possible solutions were out there. There was a lot of mythologizing, no fact-checking of Republican or Democratic opinions on the matter and a creation of the utter fiction that the conflict was between a government-run HC program (Democrats) and a private system (Republicans). In fact the Republicans had no plan and the Democrats had a Republican plan and called it Democratic!

    The left should concentrate all its energy and power on the MSM and media in general to get its narrative up. That narrative (or almost any narrateive) is closer to the truth than the web of fantasies currently being eaten up by the vast majority of Americans.

    If the people have some exposure to the facts outside of the propaganda fantasies that resemble Pravda stories only less well-written then our system (assuming the honest counting of votes) will right itself with stunning speed. The only real reforms we need are 1) a return to Constitutional rule; and 2) the dissolution of the Empire. Having done that all else will fall nicely into place. But that can only come from either breaking the power of the MSM or forcing (by any means necessary) to begin to drift towards the truth. I think those that work in the trenches would be willing to help.  

  3. here. It’s easier to think, concentrate, dream out of the war zone of dkos. I said yes to #1, because states and local, are the only place you can have an effect. No to #2. This country is so huge and diverse culturally that each region reacts to national politics in a different way. The established parties then proclaim that conservadems or blue dogs are the norm and that lefties are like the teabaggers, out of the mythical center they cook up. There does seem to be a national consensus however that the feds are FUBAR. The one party corporate state uses this and we get the cooked up culture war which is now being revised in a huge way to keep the dissatisfaction diverted away from culprits.

    The left wing of the Democratic party is ineffective. They operate on the assumption that they are fringe and must moderate their stances and messaging. I think the time is ripe if painful for local, state and regional politics to develop outside the prearranged Punch and Judy show we get from DC. In and out of the framework of the Democratic party is necessary. Battling the insane false narrative the MSM pumps out is a losing proposition. however on a positive note a Pew poll came out that says 70% of us think the media is full of shit.

    Things will get worse because these crooks from both parties are on a rampage of destruction for fun and profit. As they do I think the only choice people have is to build on a local level. the yuppie sensibility where everybody was going to be rich and die with the most toy’s is no longer feasible or even a dream.  In my state the reaction to the meltdown and national politics is already building. We have a ballot measure, an initiative, in November for state level public funding of campaign’s. We passed on last year? to tax corporations and individuals who make over 250,000$ a year.

    Even in rural areas I’m seeing people shed the lines of D and R. Wind farms are bringing money in eastern OR to the farmers. The wars are as unpopular in the Dalles as in Portland. The fishermen are freaked. Survival is local at this point and all of are on our own as far as establishing a new way to live, new ways of community. I feel strangely positive about the fact that people other then the dead enders and loyalists seem to be fully aware that the situation is not going to be fixed via the electoral system that after all this only offers, as Togue said, Coke with a Pepsi label slapped on it. Their arrogance is once again showing, and the cast of villains is by-partisan.                            

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