Democratic Party Afraid To Emulate Tea Party Success: Move, Or Get Out Of The Way

You might think that a political party which stands accused of one of the most embarrassing and momentous political defeats in American history, one which was almost entirely due to a series of well-aimed large-caliber shotgun blasts at not just one foot, but all bodily appendages, would be prepared to carry out some serious introspection and to check in for an overhaul at the polity’s nearest service station. You would be wrong. Your political instincts and sensibility do not apply to the Democratic Party, which follows a suicidal logic all its own.

The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to inform us that in recent days, as the ‘battle’ for the Chair of the Democratic National Committee has heated up, pitting Keith Ellisona man favored by the ‘Bernie Sander wing’ of the party–against the ‘bank-friendly’ Tom Perez, the favored candidate of the same folks who led the Democratic Party to the 2016 Nineth November Massacree, are determined to turn this nation’s politics into Groundhog Day:

“Is the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party going to push us too far to the left?” asked former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Only if they start going after incumbent moderate Democrats in primaries like the Tea Party did.”

Ah, yes, the Fear of the Land of Too Far Left, brought to you by the DNC Who Cried Wolf. Ah, yes, the Terrible Tea Party, whose ‘takeover’ of the Republican Party now stands revealed as a catastrophic failure: full control of the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and the Oval Office. With misfortunes like this, success does seem less attractive. The wise learn from their foes; the fool merely from himself. The Republican and Tea Party–a composite moniker which seems rather more appropriate given the nature of the entity the Democratic Party confronts–is not possessed of political genius; it merely abides by a crystalline commonsense wholly appropriate to electoral democracies: to govern, to assume power, you need to be voted into office; and to stay there, you must continue to listen to those who put you there. This political axiom is incomprehensible to the Democratic Party, which not content with having dismantled the organized ‘base’ that elected a black man with a Muslim middle name to the White House, intends to continue its ride over the beckoning cliffs. We would be wise to not follow.

The Democratic Party is not a political party; it is a retirement home for the politically incompetent, dedicated to nothing more than servicing the financial fortunes of a motley crew of boring policy wonks, Chelsbillary Clinton sycophants, and your garden variety neoliberal. It shrinks from conflict, the business of politics; it is afraid to govern, to take over the reigns of government. What is it doing, taking up space on the political stage? Perhaps insurance companies and banks and corporate law firms do not pay as much as they do. This trough must be deeper than we thought, bidding the DNC’s snouts to push just a bit further.

The Democratic Party Is Not Your Ally (Won’t Be; Never Has; Etc)

Here are some highlights of the stubborn, block-by-block, street-fighting resistance that the lionhearts in the Democratic Party are putting up in the face of an administration that these same worthies described as dangerous, a threat to American democracy, its values, and indeed, the very existence of this great republic: Senator Elizabeth Warren has voted for the utterly unqualified Ben Carson to be nominated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and fourteen Democrats have voted to support the nomination of pro-torture nominee Mike Pompeo to CIA Director. (We will soon see how other Democratic Senators vote during the Sessions confirmation hearings.)

I am baffled. Donald Trump is the most unpopular American president of all time–three million Americans ensured a little starting handicap in that race; the protests that greeted his inauguration were unprecedented; the activism directed against his presidency is visible and energetic. Why does the Democratic Party not take heed and devise a political strategy of maximum resistance too?

This question is made especially perplexing when we consider that a blueprint for success is staring the Democratic Party in the face: the Republican and Tea Party strategies used against the Obama administration over the past eight years. Now, that was some resistance, the kind that brawling partisans throughout history and all over the world could admire: relentless obstructionism, a refusal to give an inch of political ground, and a steadfast sticking to principles and values.  The scorched earth this tactic left behind ensured a derailing of most major Democratic Party initiatives, including the passage of a fatally compromised healthcare bill, which is now facing repealment. All the Democratic Party needs to do is run out the clock, using any and all parliamentary procedures possible, for the next two years. After that, the next election season will be upon us. (This sounds nihilistic and I’m afraid that on on revisiting this suggestion of mine, I’m inclined to agree. But unfortunately, this is the only strategy that will protect us, and our families, and our environment from the depredations of the Trump Administration. Knives, gun-fights, and all that.)

Of course, this will not happen. To see this, ask yourselves what political costs did Warren envisage incurring if she had voted ‘No’ on Carson’s hearing? The scorn of a political faction which considers her a dangerous enemy of finance and business, and which condones sneering references to her as ‘Pocahontas’? How did this match up–in her political calculus–versus the costs of voting ‘Yes’? (I ask these questions of Warren in particular because she appointed herself as the de-facto leader of a furious rhetorical assault on this incoming administration, and because so much progressive faith has been invested in her.) Perhaps not very substantially. And this is, of course, because of an important difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties: the former is committed to the ‘principles and values’ cited above, while the Democratic Party remains unsure, half-hearted, caught in constant vacillation, always sticking a wet finger in the wind to figure out a course of action. The barrage of phone calls, letters, emails, and social media campaigns that tell them their electorates have their back are simply not enough reassurance for this crew. They need dragging across the line, a burden that should not be taken on by those who have voted for them. They are not allies; they are a burden.

No Happy Endings To This Election Season

Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008. With approximately fifty-three percent of the popular vote and a 365-173 electoral college margin over his rival, John McCain. His party, the Democrats, commanded a 235-278 majority in the US House of Representatives, and a 57-41 majority in the US Senate. Despite this electoral and popular mandate, an obstructionist opposition, the Republican Party, aided by the results of the 2010 elections, soon made it the case that sixty votes in the Senate–a majority immune to the filibuster–became the new standard for passing legislation. From that determined standard for throwing sand in the legislative wheels to the current declaration that no Senate vote will be forthcoming on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a long and sometimes winding, but consistently traveled on, road. (The many actual and threatened shutdowns of the Federal government were particularly well frequented destinations on this Republican-Tea Party activist route.) That journey conveys an ominous warning for what lies ahead, even if a Democratic president were to be elected in the fall of 2016.

First, even if Donald Trump is defeated–in the most optimistic of scenarios, by a landslide of overwhelming proportions–the forces he has unleashed, that particular febrile nativism and populism, which animated by a smoldering resentment over its systematic economic disenfranchisement, targets immigrants (or non-English speakers or Jews or blacks, take your pick), are not going away any time soon. That genie is out of the bottle; it has skipped smartly several steps down the road. The next president has to deal with it; as does the nation. The most charitable view of ‘Trump supporters’ is that they are a group looking for scapegoats, turned out to pasture by policies that have sent jobs overseas and by income inequality that has shrunk their wages.  Even under that presumption, whoever becomes president has to address the populist instincts that make Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump formidable opponents to Hilary Clinton. Failing that, that same discontent will continue to roil the American political landscape, to find the ugly–and increasingly violent–forums for expression that it has during the Trump presidential campaign.

Second, were Hilary Clinton to become president, the opposition she will face will be as fierce as any that Barack Obama had to face in his term. At least in one domain, and for all the wrong reasons–sexism and misogyny being prominent ones–Hilary Clinton is a unifier, not a divider. An electoral loss to Hilary will provoke unprecedented gnashing of teeth, much wailing and rending of garments. The same reaction to her that will animate Republican vitriol during the general election season–we have most certainly not seen the worst of it–will return during a Hilary Clinton administration. It will dog her steps too, just like another version of it did Obama’s–racism in that case, sexism in hers. Without an altered political environment (including a non-gerrymandered House of Representatives), there will be little prospect of substantive legislation during Clinton’s term(s).

This election season is going to have to answer for a great deal.

 

The Republican Party Will Be Just Fine, Thanks Very Much

The supposed collapse of the Republican Party–in the face of an insurgent onslaught led by a motley crew of Tea Partiers, Donald Trump devotees, and Rush Limbaugh fans (which may indeed, be the same demographic)–during this election season is extremely wishful thinking on the part of election pundits and journalistic commentators. What animates these fantasies of an implosion in the Republican Party is, of course, yet another American political fantasy: that one day, there will be more choices on the political landscape besides the ones our current political parties offer. It also makes for entertaining speculation during a never-ending election season and offers more fuel for ‘discussion’ and ‘analysis’ on our twenty-four news channels.

The Republican Party will be just fine. When the smoke clears, after or before its convention, it will have found a way to package this election season’s supposedly ‘new lunacy’ into its platforms and manifestos, which are not too different in content from most of the central positions Donald Trump has adopted in his stump speeches. The Republican Party likes its fascism in the crypto, not the overt, varietal. Very soon–once he has locked up the nomination, if not sooner–Trump will begin to sound like that mythical creature, a ‘moderate Republican,’ and the party will close ranks around him. Just as it did last night, when his opponents at the Republican debate, after spending two hours abusing him as a con man and a fake, said they would still support him in the general elections. Trump’s racism and outright flirtations with white supremacism have not exactly caused a dramatic distancing from him on the part of party operatives and leaders either. Indeed, as many political observers have pointed out, among the Terrible Trio of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump is the least dangerous, precisely because he is the least ideologically committed, which is why he is anathema to Republican leadership, who would prefer someone crazier in the dimensions of their choice. They’d rather eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and polity in their own distinctive style.

Most importantly, as Corey Robin has deftly pointed out, nothing Trump has said–or promised to do–marks him out as a singularity in the pantheon of Republican leadership and political thought over the past half-century.  Lest we forget, the Republican Party has provided us a stolen election in 2000, a president that declared an illegal war and sanctioned torture, and let Sarah Palin run as their vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Let that sink in for a second. This is a political party that was willing to take the chance of letting a person with the intellectual nous of a daffodil take command of a nuclear arsenal had John McCain shuffled off this mortal coil during his presidential term.

A few more floating turds will not radically change the character of this cesspool. A foul bubble or two,  a few roiling waves, and then the sludge will roll back over to conceal the depths below.

Aristophanes’ Sausage-Seller and the Tea Partier

I have just finished writing a draft review of Lee Fang‘s The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (New York: The New Press, 2013); it will appear shortly in The Washington Spectator. As I read Fang’s depressing history of the corporate-funded ‘New Right’ that has derailed the Obama presidency, looked over its rogues gallery of demagogues, racists, and oligarchs, and read samples of their illiterate rhetoric, I was reminded of an ancient and particularly pungent description of the crooked politician; the passage of years have not attenuated any of its biting wit and accuracy.

Here then, without further ado, is an appropriate excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights (Act One), where Demosthenes and Nicias first meet the sausage-seller and introduce him to their intended role for him. Try as I might, on reading these lines I cannot banish from my mind a vision of a Koch Brothers representative talking to a Tea Party candidate, one to be sent to Capitol Hill to peddle bad science, voodoo economics, and racist prejudice. In real life, of course, the Tea Partier would not be so modest, so full of doubt about his mission and his ability to fulfill it; instead, he’d be possessed of a rather disturbing missionary zeal. (My apologies to sausage-sellers everywhere; I realize these analogies with Tea Partiers are insulting in the extreme.)

DEMOSTHENES

According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

DEMOSTHENES

That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

DEMOSTHENES

Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

SAUSAGE-SELLER

By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

DEMOSTHENES

Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

DEMOSTHENES

That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

….

SAUSAGE-SELLER

The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

DEMOSTHENES

Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

The Cade Rebellion and the Republican Party

Jack Cade, the leader of the Cade Rebellion, is an entertaining Shakespearean character (Henry VI, Part 2), well equipped by the Bard with many memorable lines. So are his followers, one of whom utters the oft-quoted, ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ As Stephen Greenblatt noted in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W. W. Norton, New York, 2004, pp. 167-171):

In a sequence of wild scenes [in King Henry VI, Part II], poised between grotesque comedy and nightmare, the young Shakespeare imagined–and invited his audience to imagine–what it would be like to have London controlled by a half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble from the country….Shakespeare was fascinated by the crazed ranting of those who hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.

These ‘wild scenes’ include the following, where the Baron Saye and Sele is brought before Cade:

MESSENGER: My lord, a prize, a prize! here’s the Lord Say, which sold the towns in France; he that made us pay one and twenty fifteens, and one shilling to the pound, the last subsidy.

CADE: Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times. Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord! now art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal. What canst thou answer to my majesty for giving up of Normandy unto Mounsieur Basimecu, the dauphin of France? Be it known unto thee by these presence, even the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art. Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?

SAY: What of that?

CADE: Marry, thou oughtest not to let thy horse wear a cloak, when honester men than thou go in their hose and doublets.

DICK: And work in their shirt too; as myself, for example, that am a butcher.

SAY: You men of Kent,–

DICK: What say you of Kent?

SAY: Nothing but this; ’tis ‘bona terra, mala gens.’

CADE: Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.

As Greenblatt notes, Cade is too,

[P]rotesting an actual feature of the law…if an accused felon could demonstrate that he was literate–usually by reading a verse from the Psalms–he could claim ‘benefit of clergy’; that is, for legal purposes, be classified by virtue of literacy as a clergyman and therefore be officially subject to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, which did not have the death penalty.

The Cade Rebellion’s modern counterpart–in one dimension–certainly seems to be the Republican Party: a ‘half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble’ that ‘hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.’ Pity they don’t have Cade’s wit or his principled critique of the law. All their imagining themselves as rebels and radicals won’t fix that.

Groundhog Day: The US Government Shutdown Version

One of the most bizarrely naïve expressions of hope in the aftermath of the 2013 US Government Shutdown Fiasco has been a variant of ‘perhaps the Republican Party’s extremist faction will learn from this crushing public relations defeat–as evinced by opinion polls and the public statements of their fellow party members–and not engage in similar brinkmanship again.’

This is naive because as the 81-18 and 288-144 vote margins in the Senate and House of Representatives reveal, eighteen Senators–supposedly the Wise Old Men of the American Polity[tm]–and, count ’em, one hundred and forty-four Congressfolks, not the supposed Gang of Forty, did not think, even on October 16th, two weeks deep into a cripplingly expensive shutdown of the federal government, that the Senate bill to resolve the standoff was worth signing.

To be sure, they might not have thought their votes were actually going to derail the passing of the bill, and were instead intended as signals to their constituencies that they intend to continue fighting the good fight, but that fact does not provide any reassurance. If their constituents need such mollifying even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their representatives in Washington had engaged in catastrophically irresponsible behavior damaging to the US economy and the practice of legislative politics,  then there is good reason to believe they will need similar coddling the next time budgetary negotiations take place. Which is not a year or even six months away, but right around the corner in the new year.

What seems to have forgotten in the rush to castigate the Gang of Forty and John Boehner–who seems to be early frontrunner for the title of the Most Incompetent and Cowardly Speaker of the Twenty First Century–as reckless extremists is that these folks are merely doing the bidding of those ballot box battlers who believe a Muslim lives in the White House, who consider federal employees parasites, who regard every branch of the government as a force of active oppression, and some of whose members who, at their most ‘intellectual’ moments, proudly proclaim themselves to be infected by an incoherent political philosophy which I will term ‘American libertarianism’. (This ahistorical and intellectually vapid brand of political hogwash, which possesses no discernibly meaningful conception of power as far as I can see, is alarmingly popular in many reaches of American life.)

Such an electoral constituency will have learned no lessons from the disaster that has been temporarily halted last night. Instead, I presume, a fresh batch of half-baked conspiracy theories will be making the rounds, explaining the capitulation by the Republican Party as a strategic and tactical regrouping, an opportunity for the mustering of forces, just in time for the next assaults. Like hostage-takers everywhere, their elected representatives will have appreciated the extensive media coverage and the attention paid to their pathetic rodomontade.

They are, I can assure you, already looking forward to the next showdown, prepared to dig in even deeper, eagerly awaiting that drive off the cliff edge so that they can proceed–and take us all with them–to their version of the inhabited-by-seventy-two-houris-paradise that they think awaits them.