Usually it is the Democratic Party that is most adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This year is very different. The Republicans have beat the Democrats in setting up a circular firing squad by ceasing to be a political party, or rather by morphing into a party in name only – a hostile in-gathering of Christian hyper-fundamentalists, plutocrats, Tea Partiers, libertarians, and Trump supporters who are doing their level best to confirm every false stereotype about the white blue-collar working class being irredeemably racist, xenophobic, and authoritarian. It is the Democrats’ election to lose, both up- and down-ticket. But give them time: they may well figure out a way to do just that.
The Democratic circular firing squad started to come together last week, when Paul Krugman (whose analyses of the neoliberal “very serious people” and their disastrous, inequality-deepening policies I had come to respect) began to depict Hillary Clinton as the “realistic” and “pragmatic” alternative to a hopelessly idealistic and curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders. Sanders supporters justifiably ramped up the vitriol, and the Clinton camp responded in kind. This reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy routines they used to call “reciprocal destruction”, where Stan might begin by meekly ripping the sleeve of Ollie’s coat, whereupon Ollie cuts Stan’s tie, and the whole thing escalates and degenerates into a riot of destruction that involves the whole town. And after a while, the town is in tatters, after the original source of the conflict has been forgotten.
The Democrats are quite capable of this slapstick mayhem: it has happened before. Circular firing squads can be very effective. But the stakes are, I think, too high this time to take this in stride, and not just because of the horrifying possibility of a Trump or Cruz victory. It signals the rapid decay of the American body politic, which we need to address before we have a stinking corpse on our hands.
Full disclosure: on the immediate issue, I am squarely in the Sanders camp. Krugman truly dropped the ball on this one, and his economic colleague Robert Reich has, I think, assembled a convincing rebuttal to those who, like Krugman, think Sanders is “unrealistic” or “inflexible.” There is always time for compromise in politics, but that time is not now, when citizens try to determine what course of action is best, and float a slate of candidates to implement it. Sometimes only “insurgencies” actually “get things done.”
The rise of Trump on the right is such an insurgency. It indicates a realization on the part of a swath of the Republican “base” that its “elites” are blind to the ways in which “incremental change” has become unworkable and un-pragmatic, and that a thorough overhaul of policy is needed. Unfortunately, the overhaul proposed is precisely in the wrong direction: away from democratic participation, away from inclusivity, away from a skepticism about moneyed interests (as long as the billionaire of the moment says soothing things to the white working and middle classes), away from thoughtfulness and toward a kind of jingoistic nationalism that is more than a little reminiscent of the rise of fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany.
(This is not to say that I think Trump actually is a fascist, although his rhetoric is solidly grounded in the nationalism and racism that is fascism’s fuel. For Trump to actually be a fascist, he would have to have convictions, something I think the man is incapable of. Trump cares about three things, in ascending order: getting more money, getting more power, and getting more attention. He obtains the latter by telling the crowd what it wants to hear. The fact that the crowd actually does want to hear this kind of bluster is far scarier than Trump himself.)
Krugman and his allies are worrying about a possibility – a Trump or Cruz victory in November, or an ineffective government under a Sanders administration – far too prematurely. They are thinking strategically rather than democratically. As I argued in an earlier post to Public Seminar, participating in primaries is an opportunity to express your convictions as an equal citizen of the polity. Your democratic virtue binds your conscience to support those candidates, and those policies, which you judge to promote the common good. To do otherwise is to jump the gun – to think about strategic means before you are clear about your ends. And as far as this citizen goes, Clinton’s antipathy toward restoring Glass-Steagall, her refusal to take a single-payer option seriously, her knee-jerk foreign policy hawkishness, her dismissal of free public college education, and her general indifference to the injustices of neoliberal economic policy, tells me that her ends, and not just her means, are not any I could wholeheartedly or even halfheartedly endorse.
In other words, I would exhort Democrats to calm down, to act like citizens, and vote their convictions. After the primary dust settles, there will be plenty of time to strategize.
But this brings us to the elephants in the room, which, in the recently fiery debates among those on the left-of-center axis, tend to be overlooked. Namely: the inextricable presence of money commandeering the political process, and the inherently antidemocratic fixtures that dominate the contemporary American political process itself.
The short-lived campaign of Lawrence Lessig was, like most one-issue campaigns, doomed to fizzle out. But his issue was a pivotal one. Since Citizens United, money has come to not only colonize every aspect of politics, on national, state, and local levels, but to do so with constitutional protection. This permanently damages the isonomy — the political equality of citizens – that is essential to a functioning, actual democracy.
As Lessig in a recent New Yorker piece makes clear, this issue has not been the centerpiece of today’s campaigns, even that of Bernie Sanders, who has been focusing, laser-like, on economic inequality. Sanders’ own means of campaign finance through small donations may count as a successful end-run around the ubiquity of “big money”. But in this Sanders is the exception rather than the rule, and as Sanders himself has said, the “political revolution” he is trying to bring about will not begin and end with his election.
Therein lies the problem. Congress is the key to “getting things done”, and a President Sanders no less than a President Clinton will be subject to its whims. If Congress remains bought by and sold to the highest bidder, if policy is held hostage to those K-streeters who control the purse strings of never-ending campaigns, the revolution will remain a cosmetic one, Sanders’s intentions to the contrary. The problem is first one of democratic process, and secondarily of sound policy, which is the product dependent on this process. There is a connection between procedural and policy revolutions: the former is a constraint on, perhaps even a necessary condition for, the latter. But the mechanics of American government are themselves broken, not just merely that which the mechanism produces.
I think it is fair to say the neoliberal policies of the Obama administration, and before that, of the Clinton administration, amounted to feeble blows against the pressures of Oligarchy, when they were not outright capitulations to them. But I will take feeble blows over none at all, if they would have some effect on the problems that plague the country. But I would also expect the Executive and Legislative branches to work together to govern, compromising when necessary and standing firm when necessary, yet always letting the democratic process hold sway.
This is called “governing”, and has clearly not happened in the past 8 years. The Republican Party, an extreme right-wing outlier in itself, has been held hostage by its own even-more-extreme right wing, unable to control or integrate it into something like “the loyal opposition.” It is all opposition, opposition as an end in itself, and loyalty has nothing to do with it. This opposition has been permanently institutionalized by gerrymandering at the state and local level. This will not be reversed unless, and until, government itself is at every level overhauled (e.g., the elimination of the current staggered system of primaries which distorts democratic deliberation, the institution of “instant runoff” voting so as to give third parties a chance, the dissolution of gerrymandering through genuinely proportional representation, the elimination of the Electoral College, etc.) So America’s democracy deficit is not just a matter of the Republican Party turning perfidiously crazy, which it has. It is a matter of the mechanics of government utterly breaking down.
To speak of change, radical change, revolutionary change, without acknowledging this breakdown, and that fixing it requires a drastic mutation in the nature of American government, not to mention the advent of a true and intense notion of citizenship, is to substitute a touchingly naïve hope for serious analysis and genuine resolve. Recall the Monty Python sketch: a man walks into a pet shop with a parrot motionless on the bottom of its cage: something is clearly wrong. The shop owner insists that the parrot is just homesick; the customer, banging the bird’s corpse on the counter, goes through a litany of synonyms for “dead”: the parrot has ceased to be, has gone to meet its maker, is pushing up the daisies, is an ex-parrot. All this to no avail as the shop owner is not listening. The American liberal democratic republic is a dead parrot, and not simply pinin’ for the fjords. How many times must this be brought to attention before it finally sinks in?