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Once again on the Democratic Party, the lesser evil, and the working-class Left

Tempest’s Keith Rosenthal argues that, in the context of looming environmental catastrophe and ongoing social crisis, we cannot place our faith in the Democratic Party to advance the interests of the working class and the oppressed.

If nothing else, the scale of the looming environmental catastrophe and ongoing social crisis suggest that we can little afford to keep postponing or subsuming the independent project of contending within the political arena for an emancipatory and socialist agenda. While this article does not explicitly answer the question of who we should vote for in the coming election, it does begin to answer the question of what we should organize for in advance of and beyond the coming election. Keith Rosenthal argues that alternating rule by the Democratic and Republican parties has far more continuity than discontinuity and that we cannot place our faith in the Democrats to advance the interests of the working class and the oppressed.

Could another four years of Democratic Party rule be as disastrous for the Left, oppressed social groups, and the working class generally as a fresh four-year hell of Republican Party rule? I think it is quite possible—for the simple reason that, as a ruling-class political party that lacks the capacity or desire to radically alter the status quo in favor of the less powerful and privileged, the party in power will invariably become the target of mass resentment with the status quo. This resentment may be of a left-wing or right-wing variety; a bourgeois, middle-class, or working-class variety; or a convoluted mix thereof, but it is inevitable.

Perhaps it may have been otherwise during previous moments in the history of U.S. capitalism, when it could be argued that a relatively broad consensus of satisfaction with the status quo existed among a critical mass of the population. But the era of such a cross-class consensus is over, and with it the golden years of an (always ephemeral) alignment of the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class in the Democratic Party. Now, the ship of state of U.S. capitalism is a tottering behemoth, badly in need of repairs and lurching toward global economic imperial decay. The growing inequality between rich and poor (and the super-rich and everyone else), persistent inflation, retrenchment in virtually all state services except repressive apparatuses, the multiplication of social crises from ubiquitous homelessness to civil strife— are all signs of capitalism’s inability to meet our collective needs.

Since neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties have any cure for the ills plaguing the status quo, the rule by either one or the other party means simply the switching of hands upon the clipboard of leadership over a terminal case. Under Democratic Party rule, the Republican Party and the right-wing take the initiative in leading the resistance to the insufferable status quo, not only making gains in terms of partisan support but also benefiting from momentum on a local level to enact a slew of utterly bigoted oppress-and-conquer measures. Under Republican Party rule, the Democratic Party and liberal organizations take up the mantle of the resistance, grow their ranks, and perhaps even stymie the worst excesses of the ruling party’s administration. However, in either case the effect remains the same. It is less the swinging of a pendulum–the switch from the rule of one party to the other is less diametric than is supposed–than it is an alternating current, a form of energy transmission that is both stable and continuous despite undergoing constant reversal.

The point is that the Democratic and Republican parties are not the same, but neither are they wholly separate species. They are respectively funded by different, though overlapping, sectors of capital, after all. Put more accurately, the rule by the Democratic and Republican parties, as distinct from their respective propaganda and social bases, is noteworthy above all else for the exceptional flexibility and constancy with which it has alternated over roughly 150 years of U.S. capitalist history.

True, it could be argued that the Democratic Party is a clear “lesser evil,” a good cop to the Republicans’ bad cop. After all, if we must choose, surely a good cop is preferable to a bad one? This idea is why, for instance, groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the so-called progressive Squad in Congress are active within the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party, even as, according to some, the Democratic Party is little more than a useful mainstream ballot line on which to run insurgent socialist candidacies. Yet, even the most ardent of left-wing defenders of Democratic Party rule will concede that, in the best of circumstances, what we can hope for is the reduction of harm against some global sections of the working class or oppressed social groups. In other words, by taking cover within the embrace of the liberal wing of the ruling capitalist class, we can hope to win a degree of protection from the conservative wing of the ruling capitalist class.

Strictly speaking, the decision to abide further harm and oppression for some is a form of opportunism. Such opportunistic calculations may in fact occasionally be warranted in emergency situations. Yet this is the tactic pursued in perpetuity by those on the Left who have given up on an independent existence outside of or against the Democratic Party. From a tactical capitulation born of momentary exigencies to an undeviating strategy and even ideology, opportunist defeatism of this sort has become unthinking common sense for much of the Left.

Such a strategy forfeits in advance the promotion of a political program based on the uncompromising solidarity and unity of interests of all the oppressed and exploited. Ritualized and normalized bargaining over people’s lives and well being is an inextricable aspect of conducting politics on the terms of the U.S. ruling class–whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise. And the pressure to “engage constructively” as a “fair” party to such bargaining only increases the more one tries to remain a “responsible” voice within one of the two ruling cliques. After all, the lords never give without taking, never grant favor without demanding genuflection, and never empower without corrupting.

To those who say this is an oversimplification, does the Left not find itself in a protracted despondency? Aren’t working-class and oppressed people generally under attack by reactionary forces and economic insecurity? Haven’t the few bright spots been the result of exceptional examples of independent struggle and labor solidarity, and haven’t those examples proven weakest precisely at the points of contact with the Democratic Party?

The last great, truly reconstructive upheaval to shake the U.S. republic–the struggle to abolish slavery–was no less dependent upon the rupturing of a prevailing ruling class binary than what is needed today. At that time it was the Democratic and Whig Parties that shared power, while the upstart Republican Party (and its precursors) played the third-party “spoiler.” Though the nineteenth-century conditions of U.S. slavery and abolitionism may not be exactly analogous to the present, the political contours of an emancipatory struggle against a two-party status quo are certainly homologous.

Every four years, liberal commentators declare this election to be the decisive election in turning back the Republican offensive. But the reality is that the terms of this debate have little changed over the course of 100 years of U.S. history because the political conditions to which the terms of the debate correspond have little changed over that time.

No society can long abide yawning inequality, social division, and political alienation without producing eruption. What we don’t know is which of the many social seams that tenuously bind and differentiate U.S. society will burst asunder at the moment of explosion.

If nothing else, the scale of the looming crises of ecology and human society suggests that we can little afford to keep postponing or subsuming an independent project of contending within the political arena for an emancipatory and socialist agenda. While this does not explicitly answer the question of who we should vote for in the coming election, it does begin to answer the question of what we should organize for in advance of and beyond the coming election.

Our priority ought to be the construction of social movements and organizations that remain emancipated from the dominant parties and structures of the existing capitalist state. Such formations will thereby be better situated to place demands upon all governments, regardless of political persuasion, and hold them accountable for their acquiescence thereto. This will moreover prepare such formations to accumulate the experience, integrity, and resolve necessary to birth working-class, socialist, or radical parties that can truly contend for (the transformation of) political power.

The words of the late People’s Historian Howard Zinn have never been more relevant: “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in; who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Keith Rosenthal View All

Keith Rosenthal is the editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell. He is a graduate student in Disability Studies and History and a member of the Tempest Collective.