When socialists argue that the Democratic Party is completely corporatized, many working people genuinely object, pointing to liberal Democrats like Russ Feingold or John Conyers who appear to challenge corporate power. If it’s possible to get real progressives like these elected, some say, then it’s possible for ordinary people to “reclaim” the Democratic Party from the corrupted crony capitalists now at the helm.
But this line of argument fails to capture the central role of so-called left Democrats in co-opting social movements heading into collision with their party’s corporate polices, re-orienting popular anger into support for the big business politicians dominating the party. This is the only way to explain Obama’s decision to have Russ Feingold co-chair his re-election campaign.
A former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who lost his seat to a Tea Party Republican in the 2010 elections, Feingold is known as one of the most prominent progressives in the Democratic Party. He opposed the invasion of Iraq, rails against corporate money in politics, and was the only U.S. Senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act. When Obama started taking super PAC money, Feingold accused him of “dancing with the devil.” No wonder many liberal Democrats, enraged at Obama’s broken promises and corporate policies, called on Feingold to challenge Obama in the Democratic primaries.
Now that Feingold has taken the job, however, he’s changing his emphasis. In an interview with Democracy Now! (2/23/12), he mainly fawned over Obama as a “good president” who if re-elected will “be a great president by the time he’s done.” Obama’s achievements according to Feingold include: “healthcare for the first time in 70 years,” “22 months of positive job growth,” and “the best reputation overseas of any president in memory, that has reversed the awful damage of the Bush administration.” Feingold promises that if re-elected, Obama “will help us appoint justices who will overturn Citizens United.”
We have developed extensive material already explaining why these statements are highly deceptive, serving only to give left cover to Obama’s corporate policies. But to summarize Feingold’s omissions:
The healthcare reform bill was written by the insurance companies, with Obama rejecting single-payer from the start despite it having majority support in the U.S. at the time, and then gutting the highly popular “public option” he had previously promised to include.
Real job growth is still pathetically low, and Obama is leading the Democrats in slashing public sector jobs. Their only jobs plan is based on tax incentives for big business to provide unstable low-paying “McJobs.”
Obama’s foreign policy is successful only in that it has improved the ability of U.S. imperialism to justify its policy of mass murder and to more effectively plunder and dominate other nations.
As Amy Goodman raised in the interview, Feingold and other Democrats have already approved Justices like John Roberts, who in fact supported the Citizens United decision.
The Logic of “Lesser-Evilism”
Feingold’s shift into cheerleading for Obama flows inevitably from the logic of a “lesser evil” strategy of backing corporate-sponsored Democrats with the excuse that Republicans are always worse. In selling the lesser evil candidate to the public, their true corporatist agenda must be downplayed, covered up, or blatantly lied about.
This kind of left cover profoundly lowers consciousness, confusing and throwing back social movements. For example, Obama’s continued “war on terrorism” policies and attacks on civil liberties have eclipsed even Bush on many fronts, yet without drawing equivalent opposition. Now fully 77% of self-described liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones and 53% support keeping Guantanamo open – just because it’s Obama doing it instead of Bush (Washington Post-ABC News, 2/4/12).
Feingold says he will continue to oppose Obama on taking super PAC cash and on other issues. But does this show Feingold isn’t a tool of the Obama administration?
Unfortunately not. If he repositioned himself as a complete apologist for Obama, Feingold would only discredit himself. Instead, by maintaining selective criticisms, he can gush all the more convincingly that Obama is right “95 percent of the time” (Talking Points Memo, 2/22/12).
Why would Obama bring in Feingold now? Why not continue to marginalize and ignore voices to the left of his administration, as he has done so far?
Because the Obama administration understands that anger to the left of the Democrats is reaching a boiling point. They fear that like in 2010 millions of workers and youth will simply stay home on Election Day. Even more ominous to them is the prospect of a left split from the Democratic Party. The meteoric rise of the Occupy movement demonstrated the wide-open space for a new left party. The central thing holding this back is the lack of big social movement forces like the unions – or well-known figures like Feingold – who are prepared to boldly launch an independent left challenge to both corporate parties.
This phenomenon isn’t new. After Nader’s sharp challenge in 2000 shook the Democratic Party, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) ran in the 2004 and 2008 primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination on a progressive, anti-war platform. His 2004 campaign culminated, however, with a fundamentally uncritical speech in favor of the war hawk nominee John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention, as delegates were kicked out of the convention for wearing antiwar t-shirts.
The Graveyard of Social Movements
This lesser evil logic, which compels left Democrats to cover up for the crimes of their corporate-controlled party leaders, sabotages the building of strong social movements. Last year, in Feingold’s home state of Wisconsin, the Democrats’ demobilizing role was on full display.
When Governor Scott Walker tried to destroy collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, a mass movement from below stopped his rampage dead in its tracks. With support for a public sector general strike growing, union and Democratic Party leaders, including Feingold, coaxed Wisconsin workers and youth into abandoning their mass protests to focus on the recall election - a form of “protest” which could be controlled from above.
Yet in the recall elections to the legislature last fall, none of the Democrats running would even mention, much less support, a repeal of the anti-union laws and budget cuts. This is because whenever they are in power, the Democratic Party carries out the same corporate policies, although at a slower pace. With the Capitol occupation and mass protests undermined by the Democrats, leaving the movement confused and demoralized, Governor Walker resumed his all-out assault on Wisconsin workers.
Regardless of intentions, workers, youth, the poor, and the oppressed have no consistent allies in the Democratic Party. It’s time for a new kind of party, independent and anti-corporate, focused on building movements in the interests of the 99%. Though tensions within the Democratic Party have occasionally led to individual politicians breaking away as independents, their isolation has subsequently sidelined them from the political process. If a whole section broke and formed a new party, however, even if only adopting a vague left populist program, it could fundamentally transform the U.S. political landscape and open the space for working-class forces and socialists to gain mass support.
For those wishing to challenge the corporate domination of society, recognizing the role of the Democratic Party is a necessary step. Until then, social movements will continue to be derailed. Until we break with the Democrats, they will continue to break us.