With the presidential election season in full swing, everywhere we–especially folks involved in any kind of left or progressive work–turn we are reminded of the necessity of voting for Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama. We’re told that this is “an historic election” and that the stakes are too high to say anything critical about his campaign–which really offers relatively little beyond vague statements about “hope” and “change.” To be sure, there are some interesting things happening this year–the nomination (and likely election) of the first African-American for president by a major party and a lot of rumblings about a campaign that is more “movement” than “campaign.”
However, there is reason to be skeptical of all this talk according to author Lance Selfa. In his new book The Democrats: A Critical History, Selfa reviews the history of the Democratic Party and concludes that the Democrats are anything but a progressive or left party.
While it should be obvious to many Mediamouse.org readers, Selfa reminds readers that the Democratic Party is a capitalist institution. He argues that because of its place as one of two ruling parties in the US, its allegiance is to the business/corporate class, not oppressed peoples. Selfa says that this contradicts the “party of the people” message and shows the limits of the Democrats. He persuasively argues that the Democrats play a critical role in maintaining the social hierarchy in the United States, asserting that the Democrats act as a sort of “buffer” that offers occasional reforms–or absorbs social movements–in order to keep the underlying structures of society intact. Selfa also draws heavily on the history of the New Deal to argue that the Democrats prevented a revolutionary left challenge from taking arising out of the economic situation.
Throughout the book, Selfa looks back into history to show how the Democrats have consistently absorbed social movements by taking up portions of their agenda and diverting energy into electoral means. As mentioned above, he discusses the New Deal, but also the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and the labor movement over the past fifty years. He also looks at what has came from the Democrats politically since their founding and spends a considerable amount of time on the Democrats in the post-Carter to argue that the Democrats rarely serve as an effective opposition party. In the 1980s, the Democrats offered little opposition to the Reagan agenda, instead they set about establishing a more pro-business orientation. Selfa points to the creation of the DLC to promote more corporate politics within the Party and the support that it got from major corporations. One of the early DLC founders was former president Bill Clinton, who was elected amidst great hope amongst progressives. However, Selfa outlines numerous issues on which Clinton broke campaign promises and ignored the left–NAFTA, welfare reform, healthcare reform, expanded prisons, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and the Defense of America Act. Far from enacting a progressive agenda, Clinton took the Party further to the right. He was able to do this because progressives felt they had nowhere else to turn.
Selfa also examines the various efforts undertaken to “transform” the Democratic Party from within. Because progressives often feel as though there is nowhere to turn, there have been various efforts to shift the Party to the left. Selfa examines Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the Progressive Democrats of America, and the Democratic Socialists of America as three recent efforts aimed at making this transformation. While the particulars of the efforts are different, in all cases the strategy failed. The insights are important and the history is worth knowing for anyone advocating such an effort.
The Democrats: A Critical History is worthy reading for anyone who is interested in social change. It’s a realistic assessment of the Democratic Party and the prospects for change within it, as well as a reminder that change comes from social movements, not from the Democratic Party.
Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History, (Haymarket Books, 2008).