Book Review: Selfa’s “The Democrats”

Published online 16 February 2011.

MinistryOfTruth’s recent reclisted diary over at Kos suggests a list of things that a “Democratic Party” ought to offer. The question this begs, though, is one of whether or not MinistryOfTruth’s expectations of the Democratic Party (“A party that TAXES the richest among us who can most easily afford it/ A party that OPPOSES wars we can NOT win/ A party that PROTECTS consumers and workers over corporate profit”) are things we seriously ought to expect the Democratic Party to do.

Lance Selfa, in his somewhat recent (2008) history of the Democratic Party (“The Democrats: A Critical History”), argues the “no” answer to this question. In his book, Selfa hoped to “show that the renewed and more confident Democratic Party of 2008 is the latest incarnation of an institution that appeals to ‘the people’ while looking out for the interests of corporations.” (pp. 8-9) Selfa’s history, then, is a history of betrayals, assuming that the interests of “the people” and the corporations are in conflict. But the point for our author is not merely to decry this conflict within the Democratic Party, but to expose its dynamic within capitalist society:

The contention of this book is that these Democratic “betrayals” are not primarily the result of unscrupulous politicians or office holders who “sell out” — although there are plenty of each of those in the Democratic Party. Rather they are the inevitable outcome of a political institution that socialists have long described as a capitalist party that only pretends to be a friend of working people. (p. 9)

(Also available at Docudharma !)


Selfa’s book starts by (to a certain extent) minimizing the historical period in which the Democratic Party was committed to real “reform”: “this history of Democratic reform on behalf of ‘the people’ spans only about thirty of the nearly 150 years since the Civil War era.’ (p. 12) Selfa is referring to the period from World War II to the mid-1970s. Selfa characterizes the Democratic Party as a “caucus-cadre” party of “notables” (p. 14) in which an elite of “notables” hires “cadres” of career political workers — thus the Democratic Party is a “party of the bosses,” an object of investment for big business.

Having declared the Democratic Party to be such a thing, Selfa then proceeds to characterize the history of the Party as a succession of endorsements of business-motivated policy. The thing is, however, that even though this characterization may be true, business-motivated policy is different things in different eras of capitalist history. Business-motivated policy was one thing in the era of the New Deal; it is another thing in the current era of neoliberalism. Since this is the main confusion of folks like MinistryOfTruth (“why can’t the current Democratic Party be the party of FDR?”), it’s worthy of note that Selfa glosses over this difference.

An explanation would have helped this book — I typically argue, following Kees van der Pijl , that while the capitalist system was using “big government” to establish the consumer society, the expansion of welfare programs from the New Deal to the Great Society was deemed necessary through ideologies which accepted the then-dominant position of Keynesian macroeconomics as economic orthodoxy; as John F. Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats .” As the rich got richer off the new consumer society in that historical period, then, so to a certain extent did everybody else. But once the consumer society project had saturated its target population, capitalism reverts in form to what it was in the 19th century — a means for the rich to buy the services of government, and keep the working people in their places. Selfa is nevertheless correct to note (in that regard) that the Democratic Party is, and was, a vehicle for big business interests from beginning to end. Thus folks like MinistryOfTruth are in fact insurgents into this formation rather than being “the mainstream.”

The bulk of this book then goes on to describe two things, with reference to Democratic Party history: 1) how big business gets (and got) its way with the Democratic Party, especially as regards “defense spending” (which receives a chapter of its own), and 2) how the Democratic Party has “provided the bulk of political space where certain ‘out’ groups in society — such as Blacks or labor unions — have been accepted into the political mainstream” (p. 34) without really doing much in the way of power-sharing with the elites who make the decisions. As regards 1), Chapter 3 of this book details the rise of the “New Democrats,” with emphasis upon the Democratic Leadership Council; as regards 2), Selfa uses chapter 4 to detail the history of interaction between the Democratic Party and various social movements (esp. the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s).

Selfa’s histories here are short, controversial, and engaging. His discussion of the Democratic Party’s adoption of “business” economic strategies (what Antonio Gramsci would have called the “passive revolution” of the elites) focuses upon the Clinton administration; the author cites Ronald Brownstein’s “Clintonism” (a piece in US News and World Report):

Four core ideas embodied Clintonism, according to journalist Ronald Brownstein, an open admirer of the “New Democrat” project: “opportunity and responsibility,” “economic globalism,” “fiscal discipline,” and “government-as-catalyst.” Clinton-and-Gore-defined “opportunity and responsibility” embraced what Brownstein characterized as the “idea that government should both help those willing to help themselves and enforce common standards of behavior.” Clinton put it most crudely in describing his plans to force welfare recipients to work for their benefits: “We will do with you. We will not do for you.” (p. 73-74)

The Democratic Party is offered as a “graveyard of social movements” because it ostensibly provides small concessions to social groups while keeping things largely the same. He argues, for instance, that “between 1964 and 1986, the number of Black elected US officials grew from 103 to 6,424. But at the same time, conditions for the mass of the Black population — workers and the poor — grew increasingly desperate. In fact by the 1980s, a range of indices suggested that living conditions, job opportunities, and poverty levels for Black America were worse than they were before the civil rights movement.” (p. 115)

Histories like this are doubtless easy to argue, one way or another, because other historical details can be marshaled both for and against the author’s explanation. Selfa ends his book with two questions: “Can the Left take over the Democratic Party”? (Chapter 6) and “Why is there no alternative?” (Chapter 7) His answer to the first question is a definitive “no”:

The many efforts at the inside-outside strategy, from the Rainbow Coalition to the PDA, have not pushed the Democratic Party in a liberal direction. All liberal intra-party challengers, from Jackson’s to Kucinich’s, ended with their leaders delivering their supporters over to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place. Indeed, for politicians committed to Democrats like Jackson and Kucinich, this was the effective aim of their campaigns. Although they may at times flirt with the rhetoric of breaking with the Democrats, their clear commitment is to bring into , or back into, the Democratic orbit people who are disenchanted with the Democratic Party and have moved to the left. (p. 176)

The answer to the second question, as Selfa points out in a too-brief discussion of recent left history, varies from era to era. The co-optation of the left in 1984 occurred for different political reasons than the co-optation of the left in 2004: the former was a split between Mondale, Hart, and Jackson, the latter was a general roping-in of different tendencies to the Kerry campaign. The point, though, is that there is no left resistance to the rule of the bosses because the Democratic Party has destroyed, and is destroying, it.

Selfa’s recommendation, in light of his analysis, is utterly predictable: the left needs to organize a socialist alternative to the Democratic Party (p. 198). Such a suggestion isn’t likely to catch on, I know, on a board dedicated to electing “more and better Democrats.” Of course, it needs to be added here that the rope-’em-in faction of the Democratic Party is running on empty as far as real appeals are concerned. The organizations which elect “more and better Democrats” are likely to run on the Elmer Fudd Theory of Electoral Victory next year, just like they did last year. And since the Democratic Party is likely to crush left resistance next year again, the frustrati have nothing, either.

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