Can the Democratic Party Be Reformed?

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This article is published in Socialist Alternative #24 June 2016 with the companion pieces: How Corporate Interests Maintain Control and What Workers’ Parties Achieved. Both are below the main article.

In recent weeks, Bernie Sanders has spoken more and more sharply about the state of the Democratic Party. In responding to allegations of violence by his supporters at the Nevada Democratic State Convention, Sanders said, “The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change – people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.”

We agree with Bernie’s description of the Democratic establishment but he appears to believe that it is possible to reform the party and make it serve the interests of the 99%. Is this a viable strategy? Can the Democratic Party really be a vehicle for the political revolution against the billionaire class?

Before Bernie decided to run, Socialist Alternative had called on Sanders to run as an independent. We warned that while running in the Democratic Party primary might seem a simpler way forward, the Democratic Party is a corporate party. Despite its progressive appearance, it has consistently betrayed every major social movement by first, attracting them, and then sanitizing them to the needs of its corporate agenda. That is why it has been nick-named “the graveyard of social movements.”

Its historical roots are as a party of the oppressing class. First, as the party of the slave-owning class, then, after the abolition of slavery, as a political party funded and dominated by big business. Beginning in the 1930s it came to be seen as the party most tied to the interests of organized labor, black people, and women. But all the way through the ‘60s it still had a “Dixiecrat” wing that fiercely defended Jim Crow segregation in the South. At every point in its history, on every essential issue whenever the class interests of the corporate elite was at stake, it has taken the side of that class against the interests of the 99%.

In the crucial area of U.S. foreign policy, the Democrats have been loyal spokespersons of corporate interests overseas. The Democrats initiated the U.S. imperialist wars in Vietnam and Korea. They supported Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has continued U.S. involvement in these wars. On May 15, 2016, The New York Times wrote, “President Obama, who ran as an antiwar candidate, has now been at war longer than any other American president.”

At present, Hillary Clinton is relying on fear of Trump to secure the nomination. Sanders and most liberals will argue that the Republicans are the key obstacle to progress. It is absolutely true that the Republican Party since the ‘70s has consistently championed policies to undermine the public sector, make the rich even richer and attack the gains of workers, black people, women and LGBTQ people. However, what is left out of the narrative is that during the bulk of the past forty years there has been division of power in Washington D.C. between the Democrats and Republicans. For most legislation to pass, it needed to be supported by sections of both parties. In other words, Democratic Party votes were needed to pass so-called Republican policies during the last four decades.

How Progressive Was Roosevelt?

It is a widespread view on the liberal left that what is needed is to get the Democratic Party “back to its roots” as an allegedly progressive party. Central to this narrative are the Roosevelt administrations in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the Kennedy/Johnson administrations in the ‘60s.

The liberal view of Roosevelt rests on a whole series of reforms called the “New Deal,” which were enacted during his first administration. These included unemployment benefits, a sizeable jobs program, Social Security, 40-hour-week legislation, and some controls on financial capital including the Glass Steagall Act – subsequently repealed by another Democratic President, Bill Clinton. However, what is missing from this narrative is why these policies were enacted.

Roosevelt was elected in November 1932, four years into the Great Depression – which was caused by the collapse of the financial speculation of the 1920s – as a fiscal conservative. Unrest was growing across the country as tens of millions of unemployed and impoverished workers were close to starvation. Determined demonstrations and strikes – including local general strikes – began to multiply, and growing numbers of workers were starting to criticize the capitalist system that had so wantonly cast them aside.

Roosevelt saw the radicalizing labor movement and the growing influence of socialists as a potential threat to the capitalist system. He abandoned fiscal conservatism, which was only making the conditions of ordinary people worse and preventing economic recovery, and instead adopted policies based on pumping money into the economy to support demand. This approach was most famously advocated by the British economist John Meynard Keynes and such policies are often described as “Keynesian.” Sections of the ruling class opposed Roosevelt’s policies as “socialism” but, as he explained, his intent was to save the system, not undermine it.

While the New Deal policies did manage to give a temporary boost to the U.S. economy and gave hope to tens of millions of workers, Roosevelt was not a friend to working people. As soon as the economy began to show signs of limited recovery, Roosevelt began dismantling the jobs programs, triggering a new slump. Under Roosevelt, the National Guard was used more times against the labor movement than under any other president. The first engagement of U.S. troops in the 1940s was against union members in California – not against Japanese or German troops. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in detention camps.

Roosevelt repressed strike action by workers throughout War War II, and, before his death, attempted to repress a wave of successful powerful strikes in 1945-1946. Once it was clear the new industrial unions could not be defeated by force alone, Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s Democrat Party successor as president, signed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, passed with the support a majority of Democratic Party senators and representatives in Congress. The infamous Taft-Hartley Act made many of the most successful picketing tactics by labor illegal, and further tied labor’s hands with legal restrictions. The leadership of the unions accepted the situation based on other concessions made in the postwar period, including the GI Bill, but also because they were promised “a seat at the table” with big business. The latter, however, was also conditional on the labor movement not forming its own party and remaining in the orbit of the Democratic Party, a fatal mistake.

The Kennedy and Johnson Era

The Democratic Party also claims credit for liberal legislation passed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. However, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were no friends of labor, the Civil Rights Movement, or ordinary people around the world. Kennedy began the U.S. military intervention in the Vietnam War, and he organized the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Johnson then escalated the Vietnam War into a full-blown conflict.

It was not the Democrats, but the heroic civil rights movement, and subsequently the anti-war movement, that transformed politics in the 1960s and 1970s as wave after wave of radical struggles swept the country. This transformed the political climate and forced politicians from both parties to enact important reforms, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, like the New Deal, this and other reforms in the ‘60s and ‘70s were meant in part to cut across a deeper radicalization and demands for more profound change.
If ever there was a time for the Democrats to pass the progressive agenda called for by Sanders, it was during the 1960s. The U.S. economy was booming. But, the so-called “war on poverty” and civil rights agenda were very limited. Instead of enacting powerful jobs programs and dismantling structural racism, they were a temporary patchwork of policies designed to placate growing social movements, which were then steadily dismantled in subsequent decades.

Instead, the justly hated Johnson prioritized escalating the Vietnam War, and was forced out of power by the mass antiwar movement. Ironically, it was the under the Republican Nixon administration that the pressure from below led to the largest legislative gains including anti-discrimination measures, workplace safety, and basic environmental protection.

Move to Neoliberalism

The huge economic expansion of U.S. capitalism after World War II came to a halt in the deep recession of 1974-75. This ushered in the beginning of a new crisis of capitalism. The economic policies from 1940 to 1974 had been based on a Keynesian approach with a significant government role in creating infrastructure and basic social benefits. The adoption of Keynesian spending policies was directly related to the desire of capitalist elite to prevent the economy from falling into recession and to keep factories producing goods for export during a period of U.S. world domination.

The ending of the powerful world economic upswing of 1950 to 1974 ushered in the beginning of a new crisis of capitalism. Increased Keynesian spending at a time of a slowing economy resulted in a massive spike in inflation. This forced the corporate ruling elite to change tack and move towards neoliberalism.

Neoliberal policies aim to drive down the share of wealth going to the working class in order to boost the profit rates of big business and help the U.S. corporations compete better against their international rivals. However, with every other country adopting neoliberal policies, this became a race to see who could drive down the living standards of their workers the fastest.

Neoliberal policies in the U.S. resulted in an all-sided assault on wages, health benefits, work rules, safety standards, pensions, and the sanctity of the eight-hour day. To back up these policies, social programs were cut and spending on public housing was reduced. The increase in the unemployed and the homeless was then used as a warning to those workers who were considering going out on strike or standing up to this offensive of big business. Big business revived the policy of immediately hiring scabs to break strikes, and employers, using legislation already on the books, began to permanently replace workers who went out on strike. This was accompanied by a systematic attack on gains won by African-Americans and other oppressed minorities, with the corporate media whipping up racist propaganda to create divisions among workers.

Democrats and Republicans – Both to Blame for the Crisis

Liberals try to blame these neoliberal economic policies on Republicans, and especially Ronald Reagan who was elected president in 1980. However, neo-liberalism has been a bipartisan project from the start. Neoliberal measures were first introduced by President Carter, a Democrat, institutionalized by Reagan and have been continued by all presidents from both parties ever since.
The full-blown consequences of these policies were felt like a sledgehammer during the great recession of 2008. The huge spike in income inequality, the dismantling of social programs, weakening of labor unions, job-cutting free trade agreements and increased policies of repression are all part of the legacy of neoliberalism and the deepening crisis of capitalism.

While both parties have continued to deepen these policies, the main difference between the two parties is that while Republicans have embraced this agenda openly, Democrats conceal their support. Successive Democratic Party presidential candidates have made public promises to change these policies. Despite promises to end “Reaganomics,” Bill Clinton delivered NAFTA, the WTO, repealed welfare programs, escalated the policies of mass incarceration and based his economic policies on boosting profits on Wall Street and the financial sector.

This does not mean that both major parties are the same. Each party rests on support from different constituencies, and make statements that seek to keep their base intact. For example, the “Dixiecrat” wing of the Democrats in the South moved over almost entirely to the Republican Party in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This means that the Democrats now rest more heavily on more progressive-minded workers and young people in the rest of the country. The Democratic Party, while in no way a real defender of the interests of women, black people, immigrants or LGBTQ people, still manages to look progressive on a range of issues because of the out and out reactionary policies advocated by the Republicans.

Democrats – Party of the 1%

However, the sometimes sharp contrast with the Republicans on social issues does not change the fact that the Democratic Party is a political party of the 1%. President Obama is only the most recent example. Despite the enthusiasm he built up when promising a break from Bush’s policies, his first move was a trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street banks. The main thrust of his policies have been aimed at reviving U.S. capitalism – not providing for the needs of the 99% who are still suffering the effects of 30 years of neoliberal policies. His failure to enact a serious jobs program, provide real relief to homeowners and renters hit by the housing crash, or to dismantle mass incarceration and the drug laws, are telling — as are the record numbers of deportations and drone bombings on his watch.

In the present period of capitalist crisis, the ruling elite and the Democratic Party establishment are determined to reject Sanders’ progressive agenda. The type of structural Keynesian reforms conceded by capitalism during the massive postwar expansion are no longer possible. This is why the elite is determinedly standing by Hillary Clinton who has a long history of serving their interests. The politics of the Democratic Party are deeply wedded to corporate America, not the 99%. Sanders himself points out that real change comes from below. But it will take massive movements centered on the social power of the working class, building a new party of the 99% and ultimately being prepared to go beyond the boundaries of capitalism towards a socialist transformation of society in order to achieve the political revolution.

How Corporate Interests Maintain Control

Corporate interests have a range of powerful tools for maintaining their control over the Democratic Party:
First and foremost there is the billions they pour into the electoral process which ensures that elected officials will heed their demands. No party which receives the bulk of its income from corporate America can ever serve the interests of the 99%. Bernie Sanders campaign’ is on course to raise $250 million from ordinary people and has demonstrated once and for all that viable national campaigns can be built independent of corporate cash. But where is the mechanism to take the corporate money out of the Democratic Party as a whole? This is a “reform” which will never be acceptable to the bulk of the party’s elected officials.

Secondly there is the undemocratic primary process. Millions have had a rapid fire education over the past few months in how the party establishment uses closed primaries, unelected super-delegates, the primary schedule and the corporate media to bear down on insurgent candidates like Sanders.

Sanders is now proposing to fight to change the party platform at the party convention. Yes, Bernie can probably achieve some shifts in the party’s platform. The problem is, the platform has never mattered to either party. It’s there purely for window dressing to appease supporters. There is no mechanism in the Democratic Party to force candidates to comply with the platform. Instead it’s a wish list that is buried immediately after the convention.

How about Sanders call to change the rules in the Democratic Party? As is shown by repeated maneuvering by the DNC against Sanders, and recent violations at the Nevada Democratic Party convention, where last-minute rules changes were pushed through that excluded Sanders delegates, democracy is a sham in the Democratic party. Rules are ignored, and or re-written as necessary.
The Democratic Party not a vessel that can filled with new progressive content. It is a brutal instrument that has been honed by the corporate elite to deliver its policies. The corporate elite, alongside the entrenched Democratic Party leadership, are not about to give up control of a corporate party that served it so well, and if they need to break a few rules that will not deter them. The power given to the unelected super delegates is a clear example of the lengths the leadership will go to when necessary to defend the interests of their corporate sponsors.

If Sanders won the nomination despite all the undemocratic obstacles thrown in his way – which now seems impossible – the question would be sharply posed: to continue the political revolution to the general election and beyond based on his program and without corporate cash would mean all out war with the Democratic Party establishment. While being the Democratic candidate he and his supporters would effectively have had to set out to build the infrastructure of a new party. Since Sanders has been blocked in the Democratic Party primaries, building a new party of the 99% remains the key task for those fighting for a political revolution not a long detour to try to “reform” the Democratic Party.

What Workers’ Parties Achieved

Why does every other advanced capitalist nation besides the U.S. have some form of universal health care? In debates with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders repeatedly asked this question. Part of the answer is that almost all these other countries had some form of independent working-class party. Most famously the National Health Service in Britain was brought in under a Labour government after World War II. It was the Cooperative Commonwealth Party, a social democratic party that brought in the first single-payer universal health care system in North America in the province of Saskatchewan. Many countries also achieved a proper national pension system, fully free higher education, and other reforms as a result of the strength of the workers movement and having parties that at least partly represented their interests. French workers and youth are currently fighting to prevent the scrapping of gains made over the past century which protected workers from arbitrary firing.

The powerful labor movement in this country did force through a number of important reforms in the ‘30s and ‘40s and in many industries won impressive wages and benefits in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But there is little doubt that far more could have been achieved at the federal level if we had our own party. While Bernie is focused on reforming the Democrats, the irony of the question he asks is that it points precisely to the need for independent working class politics.

In the past period, neoliberal policies have been adopted across the world and almost all workers parties – particularly social democratic parties which had pro-capitalist leaderships over a long historical period – have been transformed into out and out pro-capitalist parties.

Winning and holding the types of gains made in the postwar boom will be far more difficult in the current conditions of capitalist decline but working class political independence is more necessary than ever.

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