The protests against Wall Street’s criminal theft of America’s future, to be followed on October 6 by the ‘October 2011′ occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, are cause for optimism. Maybe ‘Arab Spring’ is finally coming to the US. (‘American Autumn’?) The protests, now spreading to other cities, are continuing despite the troops of police ready to club, pepperspray, and corral peaceful protesters into nets for mass arrest.
The biggest impediment to the democracy movement is not Fox News and pundits who believe that the Occupy Wall Street demos are a demand for ‘big government’, as if their entire understanding comes from a GOP talking points memo. It’s not the dismissive tone of journalists from the New York Times and other mainstream papers. It’s not the cable news stations who misreport the goals of the demonstrations or ignore them altogether.
The greatest danger is that many Americans sympathetic to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ grievances, and maybe a small number of the protesters themselves, will soon fall into a familiar habit. In a few months we can expect to hear some of them declare “We must vote to reelect President Obama in 2012, to prevent a Republican victory.”
The Republicans have already won, regardless of who takes the oath of office in January 2013. Endless wars, Wall Street pillage, and the trashing of the US Constitution are no longer the exclusive intellectual property of the GOP.
Barack Obama’s progressive supporters acknowledge that he didn’t quite fulfill their expectations as an agent of change and a bulwark against war and the predatory power of corporations. But the GOP is so much worse, they say, that we have to keep voting Democrat. This is nonsense.
The liberals, progressives, leftists, editors and columnists for The Nation and Daily Kos and other publications who insist we vote Dem in every election cycle are preaching self-defeat.
Apologists for the Democrats will say, “But there are some real differences between the two parties!” That’s true. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would not have been repealed by a Republican administration.
Overall, however, the differences between D and R have grown more and more insubstantial during the past few decades. In many cases, Democratic presidents used their power to fulfill the GOP agenda, often accomplishing what Republican couldn’t by themselves, for example, President Clinton’s passage of NAFTA with help from a Democratic Congress and President Obama’s willingness to carve up Social Security and Medicare.
On nearly every big issue from the wars to Wall Street’s looting of the economy to offshore drilling and oil pipelines, President Obama has shown a smooth continuity from the Bush-Cheney Administration. When he clashed with Republicans in the health care reform debate, the argument was really over which side could best accommodate for-profit insurance companies and other special interests, with Democrats offering mandates that require everyone to purchase private coverage, an idea they pilfered from Republican Congressmembers who introduced it in the 1990s. (See “Whose side are they on? An unexhaustive recent history of bipartisan convergence” below.)
The major newspapers, network and cable news shows, and other media inflate the small differences because they like to make the news as simple-minded as possible, and that means limiting the public debate to D versus R on any big issue. Other points of view, such as the one expressed by the Wall Street protesters, aren’t fit for serious coverage, or sometimes any coverage at all.
Progressives who believe that President Obama “is really one of us” are as deluded as conservatives who believe Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other phony populists and corporate royalists when they call President Obama a socialist, by which they mean he’s a few degrees less rabid in his devotion to corporate rule than they are.
Instead of Democrat versus Republican, we should look at US politics as D and R versus the rest of us. Elections have become a contest between Democrats ready to fulfill GOP agenda and the GOP itself. Whether we elect a Democrat or a Republican to the White House, whether Democrats or Republicans win control of Congress, the center of political gravity remains on the side of the GOP. As George Lakoff has observed in several books and numerous essays, Democrats play according to Republican rules. Even when they’re telling outright lies, Republicans deal in gut-level messages that Democrats find themselves parroting: Support our troops! End big government!
Both of the Titanic parties accept enormous sums of money from corporate PACs to do the bidding of corporate special interest lobbies, but the GOP is far more shameless about its service to corporate elites and its ideology of privatization, deregulation, and concentration of economic power.
Democrats, on the other hand, want to be perceived as the party of the people, but won’t wean themselves off corporate campaign checks. They retreat from their stated principles and traditional constituencies and ignore progressive voices within their own party on the assumption that voters on the left have “nowhere else to turn.”
The retreat of the Democrats, their confused allegiances, and embrace of so much of the GOP agenda have meant a license for Republicans to move to ever greater extremes. Now we have a ‘liberal’ party that has moved to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon and a rightwing party that has descended into irrationality. Every decade, the political paradigm drifts further and further to the right.
If we want to interrupt this drift, we have to think outside of the two-party power bloc. The Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters have no voice in the two-party mainstream of electoral politics. It’s assumed that –if they vote at all — they will line up behind President Obama and a Democratic machine that regards them with contempt.
Time for a Voters’ Revolt
Dropping out of the elections and refusing to vote are not an option. Until we take steps now to break down the rule of the Titanic Parties and replace them in public office, we face decades of more endless wars, more erosion of basic human rights and protections for working people, and dwindling chances of a solution to global climate change.
Activism should not be limited to electoral politics. But the movement for a change in America’s political direction must include a voters’ revolt and the emergence of a strong and permanent alternative party that rejects corporate money and influence.
Without such an insurgence in 2012, the following topics will be missing from the election season debate after April or May: the plundering of the US economy by the financial industry; multi-trillion-dollar bailouts for Wall Street; the assault on public sector unions; universal health care (Medicare For All); ending the endless wars; the death penalty (Troy Davis will be forgotten); the dangers of the Tar Sands pipeline, offshore drilling, nuclear power, mountaintop removal mining, warrantless spying on US citizens, torture, and other gross abuses of power. Neither incumbent Obama nor the GOP nominee will mention these things.
Despite the best intentions of progressives like Dennis Kucinich, John Conyers, and others, the Democratic Party will not be rehabilitated. A progressive challenge to President Obama in the primaries, as recently encouraged by Ralph Nader and others, will keep some of the complaints and ideals of the Wall Street protesters alive for a few months. By late spring, the challenger will be defeated by the Obama campaign juggernaut and the challenger’s supporters will find themselves muzzled, with the expectation that they’ll vote Dem anyway. That’s what happens in every presidential election.
The usual objection to voting third-party is that the candidate might ‘spoil’ by subtracting votes from a Democrat and enabling a Republican victory, with the role played by Green presidential nominee Ralph Nader in 2000 as the classical example. There are numerous problems with this accusation — it ignores manipulation and voter obstruction by GOP officials in Florida, a patently biased Supreme Court ruling that canceled vote recounts and delivered the White House to George W. Bush, and Al Gore’s own feeble campaign, which lost double-digit points in polls during the final months of the race (while Mr. Nader’s percentage never rose above a few percentage points) and failed to take even Tennessee, Mr. Gore’s home state. In Florida, the number of registered Dems who voted for Mr. Bush was four times the number who voted for Mr. Nader. Why don’t Democratic apologists ever apply the spoiler label to Republicans?
The assertion that Mr. Nader siphoned votes away from Mr. Gore assumes that Democratic candidates have some kind of prior claim to our votes. The subtext of the spoiler accusation, when leveled by pundits and politicians who’ve made no effort to promote reforms like Instant Runoff Voting that would eliminate the alleged spoiler effect, is that two-party rule must never face interference from alternative parties and independent candidates. It’s a notion of democracy only one step removed from single-party states like China and the Soviet Union.
The only fair and democratic elections are multi-party elections, in which every voter has the right to see more than a choice between Big Mac and Whopper on the ballot, the right to know which candidate best represents his or her own interests and ideals, and the right to vote for that candidate.
Imagine that multi-party democracy existed in the US. The election of a half-dozen noncorporate alternative-party candidates to Congress would alter the political landscape, with Ds and Rs no longer each others’ sole competition.
If such a candidate participated in the presidential debates, he or she would raise ideas that no Democratic or Republican nominee would ever touch, like Medicare For All and rapid withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is owned and run by the Democratic and Republican parties, who took control over it in order to bar other parties’ candidates. D and R politicians in many states have conspired to rig the ballot access rules of many states to block third-party and independent candidates from running for office. The two Titanic parties have been corrupted by their own exclusive power as much as by corporate money and clout.
These obstacles are all surmountable, but only through a concerted mass effort led by a broad alliance of those critical of the two-party status quo, the bureaucratic and political power of major corporations, and the expanding power of government. The Occupy Wall Street protests, which have drawn progressives, Greens, anarchists, libertarians, nonvoters, frustrated Democrats and Republicans, and many others, are a model for such an alliance.
Alternatives like the Green Party are waiting for their moment — the moment of mass epiphany when Americans recognize them as an imperative comparable to the anti-slavery Republican Party in the mid 19th century. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are the abolitionists of the 21st century, demanding an end to the predatory power of Wall Street and other corporate elites over our political system, our jobs, our homes, our savings, our health, nearly aspect of our lives.
Until we recognize that Democrats are as dangerous to America’s future as Republicans, until we spark a national voters’ revolt, we’ll continue to commit political suicide every Election Day.
The Occupy Wall Street participants want to push the country in a different direction, away from corporate oligarchy, military aggression, and environmental depredation. Protests and direct action must continue as the election season unfolds, especially during next year’s national Democratic and Republican conventions. We must find, build, and promote noncorporate ways to live our lives and expand participatory democracy (see Ben Manski’s essay “The Protest Wave: Why the Political Class Can’t Understand Our Demands”).
And if we want these things to have a lasting effect, the “99 percent” movement that inspired the current demonstrations must move to the next level, which must include independent electoral action in 2012 and beyond.
Sidebar: Whose side are they on? An unexhaustive recent history of bipartisan convergence
• Is President Obama a “warrior for the middle class”?
In 2008, Mr. Obama became the highest recipient of Wall Street campaign contributions in history. After he was elected, he followed in the footsteps of Republican presidents by stacking his staff with Wall Street insiders and operators — Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, economics advisor Larry Summers, Chief of Staff Bill Daley — whose deregulatory policies made the 2008 economic meltdown inevitable.
With bipartisan support in Congress, the Obama Administration bailed out the Wall Street firms that were responsible for the meltdown, while offering minimal aid to Americans facing unemployment and home foreclosures because of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis that these firms created. The White House and Congress have taken no steps to restore the Glass-Steagall Act or enact other reforms to curtail Wall Street power and prevent the next crisis.
The federal government plans to begin selling off the massive portfolio of foreclosed homes now owned by HUD, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac to private investment conglomerates (“vulture funds”), possibly the “largest transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector” in history.
Such actions were predictable by September 2008, before Mr. Obama’s election victory, when he undercut his pledge of “change we can believe in” with an endorsement of the first Wall Street bailout, in harmony with the Bush White House and his GOP competition, John McCain.
After promising to do so during his campaign, President Obama has refused to renegotiate NAFTA and other international trade pacts. These agreements, which tend to favor corporate power and profit over the rights and well-being of working people and the health of the environment, were authorized by President Clinton, who had initially opposed NAFTA while running for the White House in 1992.
Democrats have refused to repeal Taft-Hartley restrictions on union organizing. When Republican Gov. Walker want on the warpath against the organizing rights and benefits for public sector workers in Wisconsin in early 2011, Democratic Gov. Cuomo launched a similar assault against public sector workers in New York.
• Are Democrats the party of health care reform and Social Security?
The Democratic Party discarded its platform promise, since 1948, of a national health program while Bill Clinton was president. In 2009, Democratic leaders declared that universal health care (single-payer, also called Medicare For All) would be “off the table” — Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus’s words when he organized the health care reform round tables.
President Obama’s health care bill imposes mandates that function as a direct public subsidy to the health insurance cartel, an idea that Republicans proposed during the 1990s. Whether Democrats passed Obamacare in 2010 or the Republicans prevailed in blocking it, the insurance industry, Big Pharma, and other corporate lobbies would be the real winners.
Contrary to the current belief that the President recently compromised on Social Security and Medicare, he made his intention to slash them clear in 2010 when he appointed his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (“Catfood Commission”) and stacked it with politicians, economists, and company heads hostile to both programs. Rather than alleviating the skyrocketing costs of health care, the highest cause of personal bankruptcies, Obama policies further threaten middle- and low-income Americans and burden retirees.
• Are Democrats the party of social justice?
President Obama has remained silent about record US incarceration rates — the world’s highest, surpassing repressive countries like China and Iran — and the fact that most of those behind bars are young, poor, and mostly black or brown. Since President Clinton, Democratic leaders have supported the growth of the private prison industry, which profits by filling up cells with more inmates.
Both Democrats and Republicans support the War on Drugs, which has ruined lives and caused endless devastation in poor neighborhoods, and the death penalty, despite racial disparities and a growing list of exonerations and errors. President Obama refused to comment on the fate of Troy Davis, who was executed by the state of Georgia despite significant doubts about his guilt (seven out of nine witnesses changed their testimony, some of them claiming police coercion).
• The environment and global warming?
President Obama has authorized more offshore oil drilling (despite the lessons of the disastrous BP spill in the Gulf); endorsed new nuclear power plants that will make money for energy companies while taxpayers assume the high cost and high liability (despite the example of Fukushima); allowed mountaintop removal mining to continue to obliterate and poison the West Virginia landscape; remained silent about the extremely dangerous technique called hydrofracking for natural gas in New York and Pennsylvania; endorsed the myth of clean coal; and is on the verge of approving the dangerous Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands.
On September 2, 2011, President Obama killed proposed national air-quality standards for smog, overriding a plan by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce air pollution. His administration, and Democrats in general, have supported greenhouse gas emissions trading schemes (“cap and trade”) that will allow polluting companies to trade and collect licenses to continue polluting. US obstruction remains the greatest impediment to the Kyoto Protocols.
Democrats pretended to be the antiwar party in recent elections, but in 2006 they boosted funding for the wars after gaining control of Congress. President Obama escalated the war on Afghanistan and expanded it into Pakistan, and launched a new invasion (Libya) without the consent of Congress. While ordering the withdrawal of some troops from Iraq, he is implementing Donald Rumsfeld’s plan to replace US armed forces, which are directly accountable to Congress, with private “mercenary” security firms, which aren’t.
In October 2002, the Democratic leadership voted for President Bush’s request for an extra-constitutional transfer of war power from Congress to the White House, effectively endorsing his plan to invade Iraq on fraudulent claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, nuclear weapons acquisition, and collusion with al-Qaeda. Under the Obama Administration, Democrats have adopted the neocon doctrine of unilateral aggression and the use of military force against countries at peace with the US. There has been virtually no difference between the Bush and Obama policies on the Middle East. The Obama Administration, which continues to arm Israel, had no objection to the Israel’s invasion of Gaza and massacre of civilians and strenuously objected to Palestine’s bid for UN recognition.
• The US Constitution and international law?
The Obama Justice Department has refused to investigate Bush-Cheney officials for torture and other gross abuses of power, constitutional violations, and war crimes. The administration has continued many of the same policies: warrantless surveillance of US citizens, denial of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, maintenance of “black sites,” harassment and legal action against whistleblowers. President Obama has surpassed the last administration in his intention to assassinate US citizens suspected of terrorism without any semblance of due process, as in the recent case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric killed in Yemen, whose name was on a secret “hit list” of people the President has targeted for summary execution.