Can the Democratic Party be “Reclaimed”?

By Tom Crean & Tony Wilsdon

After losing the rigged Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders launched “Our Revolution,” a campaign to transform the Democratic Party and “reclaim” it as a tool to continue the political revolution. But the whole logic of this project is most clearly revealed in his endorsement and new-found praise for Hillary Clinton’s billionaire-backed campaign.

Before the Democratic National Convention Bernie stated: “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.”

Bernie at that stage was posing a sharp question. By supporting HIllary he unfortunately accepted that status quo structure in the here and now. The question that must be addressed is whether the Democrats can be made to serve working-class interests in the future.

Before Bernie decided to run, Socialist Alternative urged 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’s why the Democrats have been called “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.”

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 Democratic president Bill Clinton as a favor to his Wall Street backers. However, what is missing from this narrative is why these policies were enacted.

Four years into the Great Depression – which was caused by the collapse of the financial speculation of the 1920s – Roosevelt was elected in November 1932 as a fiscal conservative. Unrest was growing across the country as tens of millions of unemployed and impoverished workers faced destitution. 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. Under Roosevelt, the National Guard was used to violently suppress labor strikes and protests more times 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, Roosevelt rounded up all Japanese Americans into detention camps.

Roosevelt further attempted to repress the biggest wave of strikes in U.S. history in 1945-1946. Once it was clear the new industrial unions could not be defeated by force alone, Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s Democratic 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. This infamous act made many of the most successful picketing tactics by labor illegal, and further tied labor’s hands with legal restrictions.

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 approved 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 a 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 anti-war 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, basic environmental protection, and an end to the Vietnam war.

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. 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 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. To restore their profitability, the capitalist class globally eventually abandoned Keynesian  and welfare state policies to embrace a set of policies today referred to as “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. Justified by a free-market orthodoxy, big business demanded the privatization of public services and a repeal of regulations protecting the environment, consumer protections, and public health. Wall Street deregulation created “too big to fail” banks and legalized lending practices that have entrapped millions in endless debt. Taxes on big business and the rich were slashed alongside the social programs they previously paid for.

In practice, this meant a sustained drive to lower wages, benefits, and trade union protections in the workplace, and a dramatic increase in inequality. Neoliberal policies were 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. And with every other country adopting neoliberal policies, a global race ensued to see who could drive down the living standards of their workers the fastest.

Both Parties Caused the Crisis

Liberals try to blame these neoliberal economic policies on Republicans, and especially Ronald Reagan who was elected president in 1980. However, neoliberalism has been a bipartisan project. Neoliberal measures were first introduced by President Carter, a Democrat, then deepened and 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. 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.

This does not mean that both major parties are the same. Each party rests on support from different constituencies, using rhetoric and policies aimed at keeping their voting 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 fiercely reactionary policies advocated by the Republicans.

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. The Democrats’ 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, even when they controlled both Houses of Congress as well as the White House in 2009 and 2010, are telling. The record numbers of deportations and drone bombings on Obama’s watch are also indicative.

In the present period of capitalist crisis, the ruling elite and the Democratic Party establishment have been determined to maintain the interests of their Wall Street and corporate funders. This explains their fierce rejection of Sanders’ progressive agenda. The type of structural Keynesian reforms conceded by capitalists during the massive postwar economic expansion are no longer compatible with capitalism in the neoliberal era. The support and promotion of Clinton by big business reflects their confidence in her to fight for their interests, even against the voting base of her own party.