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1984: The Left, The Democrats and the Future | The Nation

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1984: The Left, The Democrats and the Future

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Two of The Nation's top political writers explore the consequences of the Democratic Party's rightward shift and its rejection of Jesse Jackson as a potential nominee.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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With hardly a backward--or forward--look, the bulk of the surviving American left has blithely joined the Democratic Party center, without the will to inflect debate, the influence to inform policy or the leverage to share power. The capitulation of the left--a necessarily catchall word, here covering the spectrum of progressive politics from old socialism to recent radical activism--is almost without precedent. This time out there is no McCarthy of 1968, no McGovern of 1972, no Kennedy of 1980; not even a John Anderson or a Barry Commoner to raise a standard of dissent or develop an alternative vision against a Democratic Party whose project is overwhelmingly conservative in attitude and action. The excuse for submission is easy to discern: Anybody But Reagan. But the consequences are likely to be dire, and they are already taking shape. By accepting the premises and practices of party unity, the left has negated the reasons for its own existence.

In the beginning, of course, there was a certain Somebody within the Democratic fold who was a candidate not only of principle but of opportunity of the left. Jesse Jackson, and the Rainbow Coalition he proposed, represented the historical base, the organized movement and the radical program for which the left has been hunting the last thirty-five years. But...no. Jackson is usually taunted for failing to broaden his coalition, but when he made personal pitches to each likely constituency, the invitees almost invariably declined. Jackson gave an impassioned call for the solidarity of racial and sexual movements last October in the keynote speech at the gay Human Rights Campaign banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria; by March, gays were openly supporting Hart in the New York primary and Mondale in other states. Jackson talks to unionists and women, and last November 12 he addressed marchers who had come to Washington to demonstrate against US intervention in Central America. But sympathy to his overtures rarely led to organized support. Barry Commoner urged the Citizens Party to endorse Jackson--if there was ever a natural white base for Jackson, it was there--but the party is putting up its own candidate, leaving a lonely Commoner to enter the Rainbow unattended.

Long before Louis Farrakhan slouched into the headlines, white leftists had run through every excuse to withhold support from the black candidate. First there was the argument that only a respectable black with a significant white following should be allowed to swim in the Democratic mainstream. Then there was the notion that any black candidacy would provoke a backlash from white voters. Next came charges that Jackson was, in turn, a charlatan, a crook, an anti-Semite, a capitalist roader, a poor administrator, a divisive force. Quickly the dark motif of Campaign '84 changed from Anybody But Reagan to Anybody But Jackson. Once again, racism destroyed the promise of a populist, progressive, internationalist coalition within the Democratic Party.

As had to happen, Anybody became Walter Mondale, and he arrived promoting a platform as immoderate and regressive as any to be found in the Democratic Party archives since John W. Davis's unremembered candidacy of 1924. With substantive objections only from Jackson's underrepresented contingent, the party's pre-convention committees adopted policies and accepted planks that contained the essential elements of Reaganism: continued military expansion, support for Reagan's allies in Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East, further degradation of the welfare system, denial of black demands for equity and unqualified submission to the imperatives of the corporate system.

Complicit in the first formal expression of Mondaleism are those who early and often endorsed Mondale without reservation: leaders of the National Organization for Women, organized teachers, democratic socialists, black officeholders, labor hierarchs, Hispanic leaders. They must now be foot soldiers in a campaign whose captains are implacably antagonistic to the principles and concerns of their constituencies. What can Mondale's tame left flank do, for instance, to rescue poor women, blacks, service workers and the young and old from the ranks of the growing underclass impoverished by economic policies and structures Mondale endorses? How can socialist leaders save socialist politics from the isolation, irrelevance and ultimate extinction or to Democratic Party practices? How can union chieftains get more power for union members when the point of Mondaleism is the expansion of management control? How can black politicians win from Mondale what they have been denied by the party machinery for years on end?

Where does the left--the white left, that is, which refuses to concede Jackson's validity and hardly acknowledges his existence--stand now? It has given up on class struggle, black liberation, the Third World, even détente. It can hardly remember the nuclear freeze. Its only live demand, settled last week, was the promotion of a woman as the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee: the transubstantiation of politics into symbolism. If she does anything, Geraldine Ferraro will activate the party ticket, but is poorly placed and notoriously disinclined to shift its gravity from dead center. She was, after all, chair of the platform committee which ratified the party's present conservative cast. Those who rejoice at her appointment should remember as well the politics her appointment is being used to ratify. To what degree, therefore, will symbol become sedative?

Is this bleak prospectus the inevitable consequence of what Michael Harrington recently extolled as the necessary strategy for any left in America today: that "the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, must be our main political arena"? Harrington, co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Irving Howe, editor of Dissent and avatar of democraticsocialism as an unhyphenated ideology, chatted at great length recently in The New York Times Magazine, which touted them as "Voices From the Left." The import of their conversation, which ran 8,000 words without one mention of the difficult name Jackson, was the denial of any vital role for the left in current politics.

They are wrong. There is a way to salvage something of the left's presence even this late in the year, to broaden its constituency and sphere of action, to begin building a role for the next decade-and still engage the realities of the two-party system. But the left must first accept the invitation of history.

Heedless of the seismic convulsions in the American economic and social landscape during the last two decades, the left continues to read old history, the chronicles of the New Deal and its successor deals in the postwar boom. In that long time, the Democratic coalition offered industrial workers, the new urban and suburban middle class and white ethnic minorities (overlapping categories, to be sure) a certain measure of economic security, social mobility and political influence in return for their cooperation in the governing strategies of state and business in the American Century. The bargain gave labor wage security in exchange for docile acceptance of management supremacy in all significant economic decisions.

The bargain began to unravel in the early 1960s, when the underclass mutinied. The Democratic response was the War on Poverty, a kind of Federal trust fund for the civil rights revolution. But the war was lost. A few statistics illustrate the size of the rout. In 1965, the poorest 40 percent of the population earned 11 percent of the total US market income; nearly a decade and a half later, that same group's share had shrunk to 8.5 percent. From 1945 to 1983, black male participation in the labor force fell from 80 percent to 60 percent. The poor got poorer and the blacks got unemployed.

In his trenchant resume of postwar American history, Mike Davis, writing in the January-February 1984 New Left Review, stresses that the civil rights revolution

fundamentally failed in its ultimate goals of achieving the mass incorporation of black labor into the high-wage economy, or of surmounting the barriers of de facto segregation in Northern schools and suburbs. A generation after the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, black unemployment remains double that of whites, while black poverty is three times more common. Sixty percent of employed black males (and 50 percent of Hispanics) are concentrated in the spectrum of the lowest-paid jobs.

The number of working women doubled between the Eisenhower and Reagan Administrations, though in the same period their earnings declined to 59 percent of the average wage for men. In 1980, one-third of all full-time women workers earned less than $7,000 a year, as against a white male median of $17,000.

A populist, progressive Democratic Party could have entered the 1970s with a renegotiated social compact, an expanded coalition and a renewed vision. It could have proposed to bring women and blacks into better-paying jobs; to reform tax and spending policies to expand public services and collective consumption; to apply Keynesian theories to a peace-building rather than a war-making economy; to answer increasing demands for better health care, education, recreation and a clean environment. And, indeed, there was a ready-made activist base and an eager constituency for change in the civil rights, black liberation, women's and peace movements of that period.

It was the road not taken. The Democratic Party leaders and their allies--Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, George Meany--were unprepared to accept the necessary conditions for the directional shift. They could not imagine converting to a peace economy when the war economy (and the ideology that rationalized its expansion) had been the foundation of Democratic fortunes since 1939. Labor leaders could not countenance the threat to their power implicit in the demands a militant and unified work force would make for integration, participation in management decisions and conversion. And finally, the party bosses would not allow a broad alliance of disenfranchised blacks, poor people, women and low-wage workers to challenge their hold on the party and its agenda. In short, the Democrats would not accept a transformation of their party.

The party traditionalists counterattacked. Labor leaders forced blacks out of training programs, bucked affirmative action and literally assaulted those who protested the war system. In 1972, Democratic hierarchs and their labor lieutenants decided to defect--from the campaign of their party's candidate--standard-bearer of the popular alliance at its strongest hour--rather than permit a new politics to develop. On that scorched earth was built the political architecture of the next period.

With its crumbling coalition and its old commanders, the Democratic Party now faces an entirely changed landscape. The road the country did take as the postwar boom ended led to the famous split-level economy, with its vast low-wage ghetto (containing a third of the labor force), its newly employed and scandalously underpaid female component and its powerful echelons of the new rich. Consider the expanding service economy and its fastest growing sectors.

§ Health: A half-million highly paid doctors and dentists sit atop a slag heap of 3 million clerical and blue-collar medical workers, the largest single segment of low-wage labor in the United States.

§ Business services, particularly banking and real estate: High-priced lawyers set their meters at $250 an hour, while legions of bank tellers, secretaries and clerks sitting next to them are lucky to make $5 in the same amount of time.

§ Fast food: At the apex of the arches are the franchise burgermeisters, and at the bottom the young, black and now old counter jockeys, whose average wage is below that of farm laborers.

To sustain and expand their privilege, the new rich have mounted one of the most successful campaigns in American political and economic history. From the tax revolts of California to the tax programs of the Republican Administration and the Democratic Ways and Means Committee, the large upper class has devised schemes to make a better living for itself at the expense of the even larger underclass. Despite spasms of opposition to one or another policy or piece of legislation in the assault, the Democrats are incapable of challenging the basic corporate campaign. For it is an attack in which those who beat back the new politics in 1972 have a large stake. They cannot meet the enemy; they are it.

The Democratic weakness is much more structural than spiritual. For instance, the present phase of military expansion, from 1977 to (at least) 1986, is the longest in US history. Amid long-term stagnation, it is the engine of what vigor remains in the economy. To cut back on such spending in any substantial way would be to assail steel, machine tools, aerospace, shipbuilding--all of which are, in labor terms alone, core parts of the Mondale coalition. Mondale could no more allow antimilitarist sentiment to threaten the war industry than he could let insurgency threaten Third World regimes in hock to the American banking system.

Mondale pretends to include members of the newly expanded underclass in his old coalition, but the programs he espouses leave no place for them except as voters on election day. Gary Hart could have undercut Mondale by embracing the popular alliance that the old Democrats ignored. Instead, he chose to clothe his neoliberalism--the politics of lowered expectations--in bogus generational rhetoric. In the end, his only issue was the difference between Mondale's birthdate and his own, whatever that may be.

So, in control are the Democratic "pragmatists," as the pollsters and pundits call them, the ones who argue for party unity at the expense of movement and who propose that the way to beat Reaganism is to denounce its excesses while accepting its premises. The pathos of their opportunism lies in its shortsightedness. As every tactician attests, the key to defeating Reagan is turnout. But turnout has political content and context. People will not simply vote for Anybody But Reagan; they want somebody who speaks to their interests, who promises them more than they've got and who offers them hope.

The enormous nonvoting constituency of today is located in the lower precincts of the split-level economy. Its participation in the election is by no means assured. But it is there that the left must look for its opportunities and discharge its responsibilities in the next period.

The only way the left can work within the Democratic Party is to act without it. That is, the future of the party will be determined by the development of forces operating on its margins or beyond its boundaries (just as the developing American political economy- "late capitalism" faces its most serious challenge at the hands of the Third World, both within and outside the national frontier). The constituency that formed in response to Jackson's campaign is a prime example. Its votes are absolutely necessary to defeat Reagan, but its priorities set it directly against the power and position of the Democratic mainstream. The pragmatists who want the votes will soon see that those votes don't come free and that without a significant reordering of the Democratic agenda, the new voters will not stream to the polls.

Unlike the bloc bosses who rushed to endorse Mondale before they made a deal, the blacks of the Jackson campaign were savvy from the start. Ironically, they may have learned a lesson from the strategy Jewish leaders have employed since 1968: that it is at least as important to assert power in a coalition as to submerge it, and to withhold support from a candidate as to endorse him. Good alliances imply clear threats: Gary, Indiana, Mayor Richard Hatcher, chairman of the Jackson campaign, was recently quoted as saying, "Better four more years of Reagan than four more years of disrespect from the Democratic leadership."

The same holds true for the constituency of women voters which, like Jackson's somewhat attenuated Rainbow, poses a major obstacle to Reagan's re-election. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in a recent article in In These Times: "[The] gender gap has more to do with the proletarianization of women than it does with feminist ideology. It is poor women, and most strikingly, poor, single, working women, who account for much of the aggregate gap." Ehrenreich makes the essential point that it is economic issues and not traditional feminist issues like the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion that account for the gender gap.

To address the concerns and accommodate the needs of the female proletarians, a political party and the political economy itself would have to undergo change considerably greater than the existential frisson engendered by the nomination of a woman as Vice President. Because NOW asked only for that gift, there is no reason for Mondale to move toward the changes that could materially improve the lives of the mass of women whose votes he expects.

The left has a history of attachment to a political logic that admits two equally unacceptable alternatives: isolation in purist parties (activists and intellectuals doomed to life on the margins of social practice) or total immersion in the belly of the Democratic beast. Once the left sees that party as the only possible vehicle, it is trapped in the lesser-of-two evils paradox and ends up as a cheering section for the most reactionary elements in it.

To see a way around the paradox, and escape the logic, the left need look no further than the Jackson campaign's project to form a popular coalition of people who need change most and can be counted on to fight for it hardest. Rainbowism is certainly the most interesting news in this political season, and potentially the most wrenching historical development since the labor struggles of the 1930s. It offers an example of how an alliance of the disenfranchised can approach the Democratic Party, use it when necessary and work at some remove when that seems propitious. Symbolic of that complex relationship, Jackson's trips to Syria, Cuba and Nicaragua stand out in high relief against the kind of foreign policy pronouncements other candidates have made. Jackson posed himself squarely against the cold war policies and imperial attitudes that the Democrats have maintained for years. To take a domestic example of the achievements of Rainbowism, Lloyd Doggett would not now be facing Phil Gramm in a momentous Senate race in Texas had it not been for the efforts of the Jackson coalition in the primary campaigns in that state.

But there are other opportunities as well. An election campaign, it should be stressed, is only one avenue of action in the process of empowerment. The methods developed by Ralph Nader, which organize coalitions of consumers at the point of consumption, aggrieved citizens at the point of their grievance and workers in the context of their workplace, make enormous sense for leftist activism. Parties are important but they are not all-important. The Democratic Party is a vehicle, not the only vehicle. It can be used for its power and commanding position in the society.

The first test for the left is upon us. The Democratic National Convention is in large part prepackaged in the rules, methods of delegate selection, platform resolutions and kindred politics of the primary season. But the Jackson delegation, together with wild cards in other candidates' hands, can still insure that radical demands about race, economics, militarism and gender are heard in San Francisco. They can do that in the Moscone Center, perhaps, but more imaginatively in anterooms and hotel suites.

As the fall campaign begins, the left should remember that there's more to politics than is suggested by that self-deprecating formulation of Realpolitik: hold one's nose and vote for Mondale. Barbarism with a human face is still preferable to barbarism with a barbaric one, but there are hundreds of other campaigns, scores of local coalitions in formation and numerous activist projects which carry greater weight in an electoral year. Voting for Mondale, the old in-out on November 6, does not necessitate giving up on all those activities.

The Democratic call for unity is a guilt trip when party whips-the ones in the press as well as in power--use it to extinguish all signs of life on the left side of the universe. It is not the left's business to shore up the party and cheer on its candidate every four years. There is a bigger job to do in creating radical alternatives to dead-center politics-and that means regarding the Democratic Party without sentiment or illusion.

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