by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“Why were there no progressives settling the Old West?”
“Because every time the progressive wagon train was attacked, they put the wagons in a circle and shot inward — at each other.”
— Old saying
In Germany in the early 1930’s, the Left was faced with an existential threat. A Right-wing populist party called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — better known today by its initials, “Nazi” — skillfully exploited Germans’ long-standing racial prejudices and anxieties about the country’s economic collapse to become the largest party in the German legislature. Germany’s two largest Left parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, responded not by joining together to fight the Nazis, but by attacking each other. The Communists even put out propaganda calling the Social Democrats, not the Nazis, “the real enemy.” We all know how this history turned out: the Nazis took power, annihilated the German Left, and ultimately murdered millions of Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Queers and other “undesirables” in the Holocaust as well as launching a campaign to conquer first Europe, then the world, that led to the deaths of millions more in what became known as World War II.
Unfortunately, all too many people on the Left in the U.S. today are not only following in the misbegotten footsteps of their German forebears, they are actually irrationally proud of doing so. U.S. liberals, progressives and radicals alike are faced with an existential threat in the combined forces of the Republican Party and the Tea Party — a movement which already controls the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and if it wins the Presidency and the Senate in this year’s election it will be able to implement a scorched-earth agenda including the final destruction of the U.S. labor movement, the abolition of the welfare state and of Social Security and Medicare as public programs, an adventurous imperialist foreign policy that will require even more swollen military budgets and make the U.S. even more of an international-law scofflaw than we were under the second President Bush, wholesale destruction of the environment and elimination of all regulations and controls on corporations, with the result that the “1 percent” the Occupy movement likes to talk about will control even more than 50 percent of America’s wealth and income.
Under this transformation — which I call the replacement of the USA with TPA, Tea Party America — this country’s workplaces will become hellholes and sweatshops rivaling anything Charles Dickens wrote about in 19th century Britain. The middle class will become a distant memory. So will the minimum wage and any other protections for workers’ rights. Human-caused climate change — which both the Republicans and the Tea Party deny even exists — will accelerate to such a level that, as one long-time environmental activist has put it, it will be “game over for the climate.” Corporations will be “above the law” in a way even beyond what they are now. TPA will be a sort of neo-feudalism in which we will be continually at the mercy of our corporate overlords, who — without any government regulations or labor unions to restrain them — will do what unrestrained capitalists always do: drive down wages to bare subsistence levels and create a society with a tiny handful of super-rich at the top, a huge mass of barely surviving super-poor at the bottom, and almost no one in between.
You don’t have to believe me. If you want to see what TPA will look like, look at the programs Republican governors and legislatures have pushed in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where they’ve had total control of the government and have used that to destroy organized labor, vote huge tax breaks to businesses and run the economy into the ground. They’ve told the people ignorant or crazy or misguided or brainwashed enough to vote for them that slashing wages, public schools and social programs and giving more and more tax breaks to the 1 percent will “trickle down” — oops, I mean “unleash the private sector” — and create jobs. It didn’t in the 1930’s, it didn’t in the 1980’s and it won’t today. Businesses don’t hire people because they get tax breaks from government; they hire when there are people with the money to buy things — and the more Republican and Tea Party governments impoverish the 99 percent, the more corporations will continue to sit on great wads of cash while real live people face ever-lower incomes and ultimately impoverishment and even homelessness.
And what is the U.S. Left — whatever it calls itself, “liberal,” “progressive” or “radical” — doing to stop the total takeover of America and its transformation into TPA? Having the same old destructive battles that destroyed the German Left in the early 1930’s and have rendered the U.S. Left essentially impotent for the last 40 years. While the Right gets ready to use the electoral system to achieve the final triumph in a campaign it’s been waging since the 1930’s — since the current Right-wing revolutionary (misnamed “conservative” when in fact there is nothing conservative about it: far from wanting to preserve existing institutions and traditions — the basis of modern conservative philosophy since Edmund Burke founded it in the late 18th century — it seeks as radical social transformation as the French and Russian revolutionaries, only in the direction of greater inequality) movement began as a reaction to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal — the Left still can’t get its act together. Its members still can’t decide whether to engage with electoral politics at all, or whether to do so within the Democratic Party or chase the will-o’-the-wisp (in the context of this country’s single-member districts and winner-take-all politics) of alternative parties.
For me, the strategic conclusion from logic and history is clear: America’s Leftists must unite behind and within the Democratic Party and must do so clearly and resolutely, not because the Democrats are particularly progressive (they aren’t) but because they remain the only organized force standing in the way of the Right’s replacement of the USA with TPA. The Democratic Party in the U.S. today is basically what the Social Democratic Party was in Germany in the early 1930’s: deeply compromised, largely in thrall to powerful business and military interests, but also the only realistic vehicle by which progressive candidates can win public office and progressive organizers working outside the electoral process can have sympathetic, or at least potentially pressurable, politicians in office with whom they can work.
I’ve presented this analysis at several public meetings of groups like Activist San Diego and the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.), whose members and their contributions I have the highest respect for, and in every case I’ve got the same reaction. No one has actually debated me on whether my analysis is correct. No one has used logic or reason to question my analogy between the Nazis in early-1930’s Germany and the Tea Party in the U.S. today. Instead they’ve reacted with a shocked emotionalism and a visceral disgust that anyone within their ranks would dare suggest that they sink so low and compromise so much as actually to support the (ugh!) Democrats. In their rhetoric they call the Democratic Party “the lesser of two evils,” while strategically they act as if they regard the Democrats as the greater evil than the Republicans.
When Frank Gormlie of the O. B. Rag organized a protest against the provisions of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allow the President to declare U.S. citizens “terror suspects” and hold them anywhere in the world without trial and even have them summarily executed, he didn’t target the headquarters of the Republican Party. Instead, he staged his protest at the headquarters of the Democratic Party, even though virtually all the bad stuff in the NDAA was put in by Republicans who forced the Democrats either to accept it or bring the entire U.S. Defense Department to a screeching halt. Blaming the Democrats for what’s wrong with the NDAA is like blaming your partner for being raped.
Just about everyone who has publicly taken me to task for urging that we work with the Democratic Party has done so from so viscerally emotional a level that I’ve come to realize it’s become about more than politics, more than electoral strategy, more than learning from and following previous eras’ models of how you achieve social change. Instead it’s become a way of redefining oneself not only politically but personally, a sort of secular Left equivalent to the Right-wing experience of becoming a “born-again Christian.” For all too many Leftists, what should be matters of political strategy have become moral issues. Plenty of people on the American Left have separated from the two major parties — and in some cases, notably the anarchists within the Occupy movement, from any involvement with electoral politics whatsoever — not caring that that effectively deals them out of any effect on U.S. politics at all. Instead they go forth with a misguided sense of pride in their “moral purity” — while the dedicated grass-roots organizers of the Tea Party and the members of the 1 percent that fund them, if they think about us at all, smile and chuckle that our naïveté is making things so much easier for them.
In my previous editorials I’ve urged the U.S. Left in general and the Occupy movement in particular to move beyond “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or “horizontal” decision-making and realize that, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker, “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment, you have to be a hierarchy.” Now I’m saying that the phrase “lesser of two evils” to describe either of America’s two major political parties should be thrown on the same scrap heap as “consensus decision-making.” A look at the Obama presidency so far confirms that, as much as he and the Democrats in Congress have fallen short of progressive ideals, this country is still better than it would have been had the Republicans had their way.
The economic stimulus package — though too small by half to generate a real recovery — at least saved hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide and prevented the Bush II recession from becoming a full-blown depression. The bailout of the auto industry, which like the stimulus was almost unanimously opposed by the Republican party, salvaged a major sector of the economy and kept hundreds of thousands of people employed. On environmental issues, Net neutrality (if the Republicans have their way the Internet will be turned into as total a transmission belt for only Right-wing ideas as talk radio), women’s rights and Queer rights, Obama hasn’t been a fast friend but he and Congressional Democrats have offered major advances. To take just one example, whereas the Republicans in 2011 held the National Defense Authorization Act hostage in order to slip in provisions to destroy due-process rights for so-called “terror suspects,” the Democrats in 2010 held it hostage to get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military.
Part of the problem is that the Republican Party has become so doggedly ideological, so thoroughly Right-wing revolutionary, that it’s long since ceased to be an alternative for progressives. That wasn’t always the case. The Republican Party was born in 1856 as a progressive alternative to the Democrats, who then were so closely aligned to the Southern slaveocracy that they literally would not allow the issue of slavery even to be debated in Congress. After the Civil War the Republicans largely took the place of the Federalist and Whig parties as the representative of Northern business interests and the capitalist “robber barons” who were the 1 percent of the 1880’s and 1890’s — but a strong streak of liberalism and even radicalism remained within the GOP. It began to fade, ironically, exactly 100 years ago when it refused to renominate Theodore Roosevelt (a far more progressive candidate than either major party would run today!) for President — but as late as the 1960’s the phrase “liberal Republican” hadn’t yet become the oxymoron it is now. In the early 20th century progressives had an option they don’t now — to play both major U.S. parties against each other for the best deal we could get from either — and now that the Republicans have become so extremely ideologically Right, the Democrats have become the only game in town for progressives and therefore they don’t have to do as much for us as they would if the Republicans were serious competitors for our hearts, minds and votes.
But the main problem is that the American Left has totally forgotten that achieving social change in a representative republic like the U.S. requires a coordinated strategy involving both electoral and non-electoral activism. We used to know that in the 1930’s, when mass movements from the Left — not only organized labor but Huey Long’s Share-the-Wealth campaign for redistributive taxation and Francis Townsend’s for old-age pensions — pushed Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats in Congress much farther Left than they would have wanted to go and created Social Security, the legal recognition of organized labor and massive public employment programs. We still knew it in the 1960’s, when the civil rights movement and the bodies it put in the street pushed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson farther than they wanted to go and led to the end of legally sanctioned racial segregation and equal voting rights for Americans of color. Now it is the Right that understands the connection between electoral and non-electoral politics — between the grass-roots demonstrations of the Tea Party and the corporate-funded campaigns of Republican Congressional candidates — and they are using it to shift American politics and social policies so far to the Right they threaten to undo all the progressive gains of the last 130 years.
From 2013 to 2017 the President of the United States will be either one of two people. Either it will be Barack Obama, whose strengths and weaknesses we have become all too familiar with over the last three years, and who — undoubtedly because he’s felt the kind of pressure from the Occupy movement that grass-roots activists are supposed to put on politicians — tried four times in the last three months to get the U.S. Senate to approve higher taxes on millionaires to fund Social Security payroll tax relief for working people, and got sandbagged by unanimous Republican opposition. Or it will be Mitt Romney, who epitomizes everything the Occupy activists say they hate: a charter member of the 1 percent, a former hedge-fund manager and serial job destroyer who proudly boasts that he enjoys being able to fire people and who has publicly said that “corporations are people” in a tone of voice that shows he can’t conceive of anybody seriously believing that they aren’t. How any reality-based person can possibly still say that there is “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican Parties when faced with a choice like that is simply beyond me.
I’m not saying that we should take the Democratic Party as we find it and accept whatever meager rations it’s willing to dole out to us out of fear that the alternative would be far worse — although the alternative would be far worse. What I’m saying is that we should be seeking to copy the Tea Party by fighting both inside and outside the electoral arena. We should be marching and demonstrating against every abuse of our rights as citizens — every massive environment-destroying boondoggle like the Keystone XL pipeline (which the Republicans want to rush through and Obama wants at least to delay, if not block altogether), every restriction on women’s right to reproductive choice, every attempt to enshrine anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, every attempt at further deregulation of the economy and tax cuts to enrich the 1 percent even more — no matter how much support it has either from Republicans or Right-wing Democrats. Indeed, we should be emulating the Tea Party by running primary challengers against the most egregious pro-corporate, anti-choice, anti-labor, anti-environment Democrats and replacing them with genuine progressives.
What we should not be doing is either abandoning participation in electoral politics altogether or voting for minor-party candidates, which under the U.S. system amounts to the same thing. Just as every progressive German in the early 1930’s who did not vote for the Social Democrats was effectively voting for the Nazis, every progressive American who does not vote for every Democrat over every Republican in the 2012 elections is effectively voting for Tea Party America and its pro-corporate, pro-1 percent, anti-labor, racist, anti-woman, anti-Queer, anti-environment, anti-opportunity, anti-American Dream agenda. It’s time for those in the American Left who see some weird virtue in avoiding what they regard as moral contamination by the Democratic Party to look at things logically and realize that by dropping away from the Democrats, they are hastening the triumph of the Republicans and the Tea Party and digging their own “virtuous” progressive graves.