The Democrats and the Two-Party System

Speaking about the interests of big business, Henry Ford II said: “We must support the Democrats so we can continue to live like Republicans.”

This failure of Obama points to the real nature of the Democratic Party. Despite their public image of standing for working people, women, the environment, and civil rights for all, they are a party funded and controlled by Corporate America.

The Democrats were originally the political party of slave owners. They shifted their power base to big business at the end of the 19th Century. They took the U.S. into World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. They are the only political party in history to drop an atomic bomb. A majority of Democrats voted for the principal anti-union law, the Taft-Hartley Act. In the more recent period, under Carter and Clinton they pushed deregulation of industries, free trade policies, and other corporate policies.

Yet many people say that the Republican Party is worse than the Democrats, and that, therefore, we need to support the Democrats. However, this is falling into the trap that was set by big business with its two-party system.

Corporate Power and the Two-Party System

Consider if big business only had one party – the Republican Party. What would have happened in the 2008 election when Bush was discredited and there was massive anger at banks, insurance companies, drug companies, and corruption in Washington? That anger could have been captured by a radical political party that was committed to putting the interests of the people before profits and that was truly representative of workers and young people, not big business. A major challenge to the power of big business could have developed.

That is why big business funds two political parties, so that when one of their parties is discredited, they have their alternative ready to step in. Both Democrats and Republicans are integral parts of the two-party system. But each plays a slightly different role in that system.

The Republicans have become the party with the most strident capitalist ideology. They brazenly argue that making the rich richer is best for everyone. They court small businesses by demanding small government and low taxes to help them succeed in business. At the same time, they keep in place all the subsidies for big business.

In the last 30 years, the Republicans have also cultivated a base among religious conservatives. Mobilizing this base was an important factor in Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II getting elected, but also led to increasing the influence of the Religious Right. This led to many of the excesses of the Bush Administration and has opened up big divisions between the Religious Right, Tea Partiers, and the big business core of the Republicans. These differences were exposed in the 2012 primaries, which exposed the anti-poor, anti-immigrant right-wing policies that dominate the base of the Republican Party. Romney’s deep pockets and corporate support were needed for him to come out as the eventual winner.

The Democrats have in many ways become the “alternative” big business party. Within the two-party system, their role has been to capture anger at the Republicans. To do that, they developed a more left-wing populist ideology. This led to them building a base of support among labor unions, broad sections of workers and the poor, and those fighting against injustice and discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. As part of this, they courted leaders of the civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

This two-party system of big business has allowed the U.S. ruling elite to maintain political power despite being a tiny minority in society. Today, the top 1% of U.S. society has so much power and wealth, it constitutes a ruling class of this country. In reality, a much smaller elite, a few hundred families, has the dominating share of this 1%.

Due to its ownership of the huge corporations that dominate our society, this tiny elite minority has an agenda separate from the vast majority of the rest of society. In order to maintain its power and control, this tiny minority needs a political system to mask its power and which can effectively build a popular base of support. Until now, this has been achieved effectively by its two alternating political parties.

Does Voting Democrat Win Reforms?

Despite this history of the Democrats siding with Corporate America against the average worker, many leaders of left organizations still say we need to support Democrats as the “lesser of two evils.” They present a number of arguments to support this.

The first argument is that the Democrats are a progressive party that fights for reforms for working people and the poor.

We have already looked at key policies of the Obama Administration. Any similar review of the policies of the Clinton Administration shows a similar pattern.

Under Clinton, the Democrats adopted big business’s free trade agenda, passing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and taking the U.S. into the pro-capitalist World Trade Organization (WTO). They ended the only program that guaranteed a basic income for the poor (welfare), downsized the U.S. government, initiated the present policy of militarization of the Mexican border, and enforced sanctions on Iraq that killed over a million of its people.

Bill Clinton based his economic policies around the corporate goals of boosting Wall Street. He also pushed through the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which led to massive profits for investment bankers and laid the ground for the bank meltdown of 2008.

Under Clinton’s presidency, between 1997 and 2001 the top 10% of U.S. earners received 49% of the growth in aggregate real wages and salaries, while the top 1% received an astonishing 24%. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% received under 13% (Financial Times, 1/2/2010).

The Wall Street Journal, the chief voice of Wall Street, reported on November 22, 1993: “Even though President Clinton has railed against rich people, special interest lobbyists, overpaid executives, and insurance and drug companies, he is now aggressively wooing big business, inviting small groups of top executives – 80 in the past 10 months – to lunch. On issue after issue, Mr. Clinton and his administration come down on the same side as Corporate America.”

While the Democrats at times have offered some small reforms, this has not been because they stand for the interests of working people and the poor, but instead has been because those reforms benefited the capitalist system or were conceded due to a mass movement in the streets.

In many ways, one of the more progressive administrations in U.S. history was the Republican Nixon Administration of the early 1970s. It passed the Environmental Protection Act, advanced legislation on affirmative action, and even proposed a guaranteed annual income to replace the welfare system. Noam Chomsky described Nixon as “in many way the last liberal president.” This was mainly due to the pressure of the powerful social movements of the time.

Once one gets away from the promises and flowery speeches, the record shows that the main body of the Democrats’ policies has been aimed at boosting the interests of Corporate America.

What the Health Care Debate Shows

The next argument of liberal and left-wing supporters of the Democratic Party is that the Democrats intended to pass much better policies but they could not push them through because of Republican obstructionism.

Time and again, liberal Democrats will point to initiatives and bills that more liberal sections of the Democratic Party sponsor or put on the table as proof of the progressive intentions of the Democrats.

At first, this can seem quite impressive. However, appearances are not always a good reflection of reality. The devil as always is in the details. In this case, it is more a question of seeing through a system of smoke and mirrors, where what is offered for public consumption is just that – only for public consumption – while the real deal is made away from the public eye in back-room deals.

A good example of this was the health care debate. In the primaries, both Hillary Clinton and Obama promised universal health care. In a speech to the AFL-CIO in 2003, Obama declared, “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program.”

The argument by many liberals that the administration’s plans for health care were wrecked by conservative Democrats and Republicans in the Senate does not hold water. The evidence shows that the Obama Administration made a deal with hospital, drug, and health insurance companies before the bill was even released into the Senate.

A New York Times article on August 12, 2009 spelled this out well: “Hospital industry lobbyists, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the White House, say they negotiated their $155 billion in concessions with Mr. Baucus and the administration in tandem.” The article explains how the Obama Administration also promised not to overturn legislation drafted by the Bush Administration in collaboration with the drug companies that prevented Medicare from using its muscle to negotiate below-market rates for medication (

However, while this was going on, more liberal Democrats were still talking about universal health care. Central to this was the promise of a substantial “public option” to provide health care for tens of millions outside the private sector. The promise of the public option was used to mobilize the labor movement and other progressive movements behind Obama’s policies. An important part of this was to prevent those movements demanding something that people really wanted – a single-payer system.

Having marginalized those demanding that the Democrats deliver on a single-payer system, the Democratic Party leaders began to water down the public option. During the health care debate, the scope of this “public option” shrank from representing tens of millions to just a few million. Then finally it was dropped altogether. In its place, they introduced a tax on quality health care plans, which affects union members the most. This sparked anger among workers at the health care sell-out.

Countless opinion polls showed broad support for a comprehensive, free health care system among the public. On the few occasions that Democrats did try to create some public pressure on health care, they found that their rallies were captured by supporters of a single-payer system, not by supporters of their pro-corporate version of health care.

The 2009 health care debate would have been a perfect chance for the labor leaders and leaders of other progressive organizations to build a movement around a single-payer system to provide universal health care for all.

The majority of unions and union members support single payer. But based on the “carrot” of a public option dangled by progressive Democrats, labor leaders muzzled single-payer supporters and spread illusions that the Democratic Party plan was some kind of radical health care reform. In the end, the Democrats did their deals, and workers were left with a miserly corporate bill that would tax their own so-called Cadillac plans.

By spreading illusions that the Democratic Party plan would deliver radical health care reform, the chance to build a real, broad social movement that could have then become a platform for further struggles was lost. Instead, ground was ceded to the Tea Party’s campaign of misinformation.

The health care debate also shows how the Democratic Party leadership completely ignores the more liberal wing of its party. Despite the promise by a number of liberal House Democrats not to vote for a bill that did not include the “public option,” the leaders correctly banked on their eventual capitulation when the pressure was put on them to back the party program. The fact that almost every liberal Democrat, including Dennis Kucinich, eventually voted for the Obama health care bill speaks volumes about the futility of the idea that liberal forces can reclaim the Democratic Party.

At the same time, the Democrats highlight the more extreme positions of the right wing of the Republican Party as an indicator of future Republican Party intentions. In this way, the focus is moved away from the reforms the Democrats failed to provide. To achieve this, the Democrats mobilize a whole slew of left-wing blogs and websites to enhance the progressive character of the Democratic Party in comparison to the Republican Party.

The Myth of the Filibuster

This brings us to the next argument used by liberal-left supporters of the Democrats. They argue that Democrats could not get their policies enacted because the Republicans stop them. They point specifically to the need for Democrats to have a filibuster-proof majority to get legislation passed.

However, this time around it does not apply. In Obama’s first year in office, the Democrats and their allies had a filibuster-proof majority (i.e., 60 votes) in the Senate. They also had a large majority in the House and the presidency. Yet the Democrats failed to use that majority to pass one piece of major radical legislation. Instead, they prioritized bailing out banks, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and producing a thoroughly corporate health care bill. No wonder they lost support.

The same pattern existed during the first two years of the Clinton Administration; they had a similar majority. They could have passed any legislation they wanted, including promised sweeping health care reform and legislation to ban permanent replacement of workers during strikes. Instead, they corralled enough Democrats to pass NAFTA and the WTO, leaning on Republican votes to bypass more progressive Democrats.

“Obstructionist” activities by Republicans and the need for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate are not sufficient arguments to explain why Democrats do not deliver on their promises. The filibuster is not part of the constitution; rather it is a Senate “rule.” If Democrats were determined to pass their legislation, they could remove the filibuster by a simple majority vote. A recent Wall Street Journal article showed a majority of the public supporting exactly this.

If the Democrats really wanted to pass progressive legislation, they could break a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Obama had a mandate to pass groundbreaking legislation to clip the wings of Corporation America. Republicans were on the ropes. He could have introduced the popular single-payer health care system and then gone to the media and toured the country exposing how the insurance companies were backing a Republican filibuster, linked to mobilizing for ongoing protests all across the country. That would have shattered the filibuster.

Compare this to the Bush Administration, which passed the majority of its agenda without ever having a filibuster-proof majority. In George W. Bush’s first term in office, when the majority of Bush’s most regressive bills were passed, Republicans never had more than 51 seats in the Senate.

This points to the fact that, even as an opposition party, the Democrat are totally ineffective. Without their support, none of Bush’s polices could have been passed. Not once was the filibuster even seriously threatened on any significant Republican legislation. In other words, the Democrats may have argued against Bush’s policies verbally, but they rolled over to allow his agenda to pass. Policies like the invasion of Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, No Child Left Behind, and the Patriot Act all got sizeable Democratic Party votes. This shows how the filibuster is an excuse used by the Democrats to hide their refusal to deliver on their promises, and how they systematically manipulate the trust of their supporters.