October and November,2017. Kelley Kidd.
THE DEMOCRATIC WING?. In 2004 a Vermonter named Howard Dean electrified a Democratic Party assembly by announcing himself as “the candidate of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party”. Opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was the principle issue that separated Dean from prominent members of the Democratic Party who had endorsed the invasion. The endorsers included Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Dean ran a strong campaign for the nomination of his party for months before being destroyed by televised clips from a rally at which Dean appeared to be screaming hysterically. The microphone used to record him on that occasion was a spike mike that picked up his voice loudly in a room in which hundreds were shouting or screaming. Since the spike mike missed all the others, the television viewer was left with the false impression that Dean was some kind of wing nut. As each of the major networks replayed the misleading recording over and over again the bright prospects for Dean’s candidacy faded. For the first time I could then remember it occurred to me that the major media corporations were clearly tilting towards the more “conservative” elements in the Democratic Party and against those who Dean had called the Democratic wing.
If memory suffices Dean was soon replaced as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination by John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran turned peace activist (in the 60s) turned candidate for what many called the “establishment wing” of the Democratic Party. The replacement also seemed much more to the liking of The New York Times, NBC and CBS, the Associated Press. In short there was a media bias for the more conservative approach to being a Democrat. That same media, as well as Fox and The Good News Network types, had backed Bush totally during the invasion.
Kerry lost badly to “W.”, the president who had led this country into its most obviously imperialistic war since the invasion of Mexico in the 1840s. While Dean had run largely on his record of opposing the war, Kerry—like most of the “liberal” media—had endorsed the war until it had become obvious that the excuses for it were lies. Saddam neither threatened the U.S. with the weapons (WMDs) he turned out to have none of, nor with the support for al Qaeda he never gave. Kerry, like the rest of the establishment wing of the Party, including Hillary Clinton, began to back away from the Invasion of Iraq only when it became humiliatingly obvious that it was a fiasco. Too late. A majority of voters seemed to prefer Bush’s outright imperialism to Kerry’s apparent opportunism.
After Howard Dean’s campaign had failed because of his status as an outlier within the power politics of the Democratic Party, folks like me held their noses and voted more against Bush the war monger than for the Democratic nominee. Many antiwar Democrats may not have voted at all. Kerry had also began the practice of representing the Party as the self-proclaimed champion of only the middle class, which seemed to me to be a continuation of the Clinton platform. “Poor” and “working class” were not in Kerry’s lexicon of people to be represented by Kerry, who sounded and looked patrician to the core. George Bush, son of a President and grandson of a Wall Street tycoon and distant relative of the British royalty, represented the party of privilege and wealth with considerably more of the common touch than the standard bearer of the party of the little man.
Progressives and opponents of war were told we must vote Democratic because we had “no place else to go.” True enough, and not for the first time. Before that we had endured three straight elections in which the Party nominees had been less than enthusiastic supporters of the politics of traditional Democratic progressives.
In retrospect the Democratic Party was largely in the hands of what I now think of as a “neo-liberal establishment wing” long before the 2004 dustup began to make it obvious to slow learners like me. From the end of the summer of 1963, when the March on Washington had given voice to a civil rights movement linked to the old “leftist” labor movement, I had been a usually active member of what I will be calling The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.
THE ASCENT OF THE NEO-LIBERAL DEMOCRATS. From the perspective of the kind of Democrat who despises the power of financial elites, Bill Clinton was never one of us. He usually avoided both the phrases “working class” and “poor people”, and seemed more bent on helping international businesses than easing the burdens of either working people or the poor. He lifted some of the restrictions on investment bankers that had been enacted to protect the savings of folks who neither controlled nor invested in Wall Street stocks and bonds. He sponsored the coalition of Neo-liberal Democrats and Republicans that allowed the comingling of managements involved in the banking of ordinary folks’ accounts and the “banking” of derivatives and speculative stock investment.
Bill Clinton pushed an agenda that I have come to think of as that of a real and well organized establishment within the Democratic Party. The agenda of that establishment previously had been most visibly represented by the “Democratic Forum”. The agenda of that establishment was and is the point of view of the most prominent media institutions that were not avowedly conservative. Fox and the Good News Network of course are among the leading media institutions of the “Conservative Media”. The media I have in mind include the old networks CBS, NBC and ABC The New York Times, Time and Turner , in other words Limbaugh’s much hated “Liberal Media.” Clinton worked with the support of both that establishment and that media for an agenda which was not always labelled conservative, but which prioritized the interests of the professional and business classes over the needs of the poor, including the working poor. And the working poor were growing in size and misery from the Reagan years right up to this moment in time.
In fact President and Mrs. Clinton both worked with some success for an agenda that had been comfortably within the wish list of the most powerful corporate interests on the planet, many of whom would have backed Ronald Reagan if he had been available instead of Bill. This agenda I now think of as Neo-liberal. It certainly has nothing to do with the concerns of old liberals like me. Under its sway the country as well as the Democratic Party has grown steadily away from protecting and fostering the needs of the vast majority of its own people.
The Trump demagoguery in 2016 took advantage of very real deficiencies in American government without of course any real idea of addressing the very real issues it raised. But some of the issues were real, not fictitious. Hillary’s response to Make America Great was that it already was! It was a contest between Trump’s false hopes and outright lies, on one hand, and Hillary’s smug acceptance of an unacceptable status quo. Trump’s demeanor was ugly and often dishonest, but the other choice was an opponent he could easily portray as part of the problem. Because she indeed was a part of the problem! Had been for years.
The Clintons pushed through proposals that Republicans had been unable to get past congressional Democrats for years. Important proposals that put terrible new strains on the power of the poor to get help. Remember his pledge to “end big government and welfare as we know it?” He threw the labor union movement and millions of workers under the bus by NAFTA, a trade agreement to protect international investment by giving employers the power to force unions to concede or take the blame for the loss of jobs to the threat of moving to Mexico. He and his wife pushed new federal legislation that has resulted in the mass incarceration of addicts and you African Americans. He worked to deregulate investment banking. These measures were and remain more than acceptable to the establishment wing of the Party, to its Neo-liberal elite.
The Clinton Administration strongly supported Yeltsin in Russia and encouraged the looting of the collapsed Soviet Union through privatization, which led to horrors for Russians and big money for the oligarchs. (No wonder the Russian hacking of the 2016 concentrated so hard on exposing the Clinton links to big international business.) His only nod to working people was a minor adjustment in income tax rates in their favor. I am not here saying that I don’t believe there was collusion between Trump and Yeltsin, or that Exxon Mobile and Trump aren’t in cahoots with the Russian government over energy. But I am saying that Russian hostility to the Neo-liberals in general and towards Clintons in particular has a history that includes some high ranking Democrats and the establishment wing of the Party. Like the Ukraine dustup—about which more in a later piece—the post cold war history of Russian animosity towards “American interests” goes far beyond the conflict of good democratic U.S. government versus bad Russian dictatorship.
From Bill Clinton we got a balanced budget, a virtue so dear to the hearts of conservatives. We got a slowdown in the growth of militarism without any reversal of the economic and political imperialism it protected. We got a tiny fraction of the tax relief his candidacy had promised. We got diminishment of the national commitment to the poor and a continuation of the economic policies that continued to accelerate the power gap between the super rich and the rest of us. Both liberal media and Democratic establishment seemed pleased. The Neo-liberal agenda largely ran the country in the 90s. It certainly ran the Democratic Party from at least as early as 1990. Labor organizations and Democrats concerned about poor and working people were told to choose between the Neo-liberal agenda and the policies of the Neo-cons and the Bush family. We were to love the Clintons because we had “no place else you can go.” At least the Neo-liberals were opposed to discrimination and to unsuccessful war mongering.
ARE THE REAL DEMS WING NUTS? To return for a moment to 2004, Dean was defeated because of the abuse of a spike mike recording of him cheering at a primary rally. He was portrayed as a wing nut by an establishment media that had bought the neo-liberal philosophy that worshipped “free markets”, supported the invasion of Iraq and never criticized either globalization or the proliferation of 140 plus American military missions that enforced American business interests. Ron Paul called attention to both the bloated military budget and the extent of American muscle in foreign countries. But the establishment media had long since assigned Paul to the same wing nut grave in which they had buried Ralph Nader and Howard Dean. That establishment media I refer to without quotation marks prefers the Clintons over the Bushes, but will take either a Clinton of Bush quickly over any truly progressive or libertarian.
Bernie Sanders is a wing nut to the New York Times and to the Associated Press. But he is not a wing nut to a huge majority of the American people. He is their most popular politician. He did not get that popular because he ran against a woman, upported her when she won with Party help, or because he owns a few guns, waffles on some of the peripheral issues surrounding abortion or does not address AIPAC conventions. He is that popular because there is something very appealing to American about the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.
AFTER 2004 DEMS DID WELL THEN DIDN’T. Since 2004 the Democratic Party has achieved majorities in the House and Senate and won the presidency twice with an African-American candidate. Most of these accomplishments came with the support of that same liberal press and the acquiescence of the establishment wing of the party. In Obama’s victories the pride and joys of African Americans were linked with the hopes of the American working class, hopes for prosperity and hopes for the decline of gross and growing inequality. But those victories have proven to be as evanescent as the campaigns of Howard and Kerry. Republicans now dominate every corner of American politics from Michigan to Mississippi, and from Butte to Beaufort. One of them is the sitting president.
HISTORY OF 2004 REPEATED IN 2016. In 2016 the history of 2004 repeated. Perhaps it is not coincidental that in both 2004 and 2016 the eventual Democratic nominee won the nomination over a Vermont politician who claimed to represent the real democrats against the establishment. Nor is it coincidental that the Democrat who won the nomination (and lost the election) had been an antiwar activist who had become a representative of the establishment. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kerry succeeded each other in managing American foreign policy and as leaders of the Democratic Party. Each got the nomination through the support of those very wealthy people who are the establishment of the Democratic Party while the establishment media derided the Vermont opponent as a leftist wing nut.
Kerry and Clinton have both been U.S. senators from a Northeastern state which usually votes Democratic, both earned a degree from Yale, both opposed the war in Vietnam but supported the resolution that authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq both been Secretary of State under President Obama. Both have been major players in a Democratic regime that invaded Libya, maintained military bases in over 140 countries, backed an extremely aggressive NATO and sold billions of dollars in arms to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both defeated Vermont Democrats who opposed those policies. Both Democratic nominees got huge support from both the “liberal” media and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party.
But these divisions among democrats already had a history before 2004 and that history is still much of the DNA of the divisions within the Party this very hour.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY HAD LONG HISTORY OF DEEP DIVISIONS. The founder of the Democratic Party was Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who wrote immortal words about human equality and the God given rights of every person. The conflicts in Jefferson’s own soul were reflected in a party that swept populist slave owning Andrew Jackson into power in an election that spelled the doom of the Federalists—until they were recently resurrected in name at least as the champions of a brand of rigid neo-conservative constitutionalism.
The stable base of the Democratic Party led the effort of the Deep South to succeed from the union in 1860-61, created the confederacy to protect slavery, and reinstituted white supremacy after the War as the Republican Reconstruction lost its steam under the 1870s era rise of the power within that party of business oligarchs who cared a lot more about profit than about the rights of labor. By 1880 we had two right wing parties based on the exploitation of both black and white labor by the division of the two against each other.
Cracks were showing in the armor of the oligarchs by the late 1880s. Progressive Democrats and Republicans at times worked together to limit the power of the very rich and “the bosses”. The Sherman Antitrust Act aimed at monopolies, progressive legislation on wages and working conditions challenged the totalitarianism of industrial bosses, and left wing labor organizations formed consumer coops, farming collectives and unions. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson vied with each other in 1912 to woo the “little guy” and the worker.
But even Wilson’s relative progressivism on some economic issues was contaminated by the outright white supremacy policies of his administration. The Democratic Party remained a party controlled by wealthy racists until the New Deal idealism of the 30s, often leveraged by socialists and other leftists, turned at least northern and eastern sections of the Democratic Party into a “party of the people.”
ROOSEVELT REVOLUTION CREATES THE DEMOCRATIC WING OF DEMOCRATIC PARTY
Insert a paragraph or two about New Deal and the party that supported it
Beginning in the late 1960s there appeared
another sharp division within the Democratic Party. We then called it the difference between the “Old Left” and the “New Left”. The former had generally focused on representing the little man, the worker, the employee, the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed. Labor unions and liberal Christian organization, socialists and left wingers and radicals and discontents—all were “Old Left”, the backbone of the party of Roosevelt and Truman and Adlai Stevenson. The “New Left” was focused on “The War”, meaning Vietnam. Many of its members cared more about the lifestyle of a counterculture than about either the problems of the poor or the rise of the proletariat. Of course there were many who belonged to both lefts. But large numbers of blue collar workers were not sympathetic to war protesters they derided as “flag burners and draft dodgers”! And many anti-war protesters could have cared less about union dues or rural white folks in financial difficulties.
The civil rights era during the same era led to a strong alliance between some of the most radical members of the old left and some of the leadership of the civil rights movement. Sometimes they were even the same people. Martin Luther King Jr. was the spiritual leader of all three of the great liberal movements of the time—against war and poverty and for equal rights for all Americans.
The Democratic Party That Fought the Civil War. But some of the old Democratic coalition were lukewarm on all three. Southern democrats in particular tended to use the party for agendas that supported the power of the autocrats, the beneficiaries of racial division and intersectional hostilities. Political demagogues exploited racial resentment and fueled it. The Solid South was the political establishment created by the slaveocracy of the old south, established and maintained to protect and foster slavery and those who profited from it. The Democratic establishment I grew up with in rural Georgia thrived on white nationalism. It screwed white working class people and its descendants still do.
Frequently the Southern ones presented themselves as the protectors of Southern white racial pride against an imagined world of meddling Yankees and outside agitators. Sometimes other Democrats and liberals played into this narrative by countering with contempt for white Southerners in general.
I digress to illustrate the ease with which Democrats who think of themselves as liberals can arrogate to themselves an air of behavioral superiority which they lack in fact. In 1963 I went to Harvard for a summer quarter where I found lots of young white liberals who were quick to condemn the South and reluctant to notice that at Harvard there were neither Black faculty nor students. I also encountered as much contempt for Jews in Boston as I had ever witnessed in Atlanta. In 1965 I entered a small law school freshman class at Emory in Atlanta. That little Southern law school’s freshman class had two more African American students than Harvard College had in 1963, which was none at all. I spent many hours listening to liberal whites at Harvard berate Southerners and their schools in 1963 for race discrimination. The point is not that we did not deserve criticism, but that the critics did not seem to ever see “the log in their own eyes.”
While Jim Crow laws were uniformly enforced in most Southern environments I found very little real integration or tolerance among Yankees. The foundation of the Civil Rights Movement was the Black church, not the Democratic Party. That began to change only as the Movement put pressure on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through nonviolent community action. Lest it be forgotten, the leaders and most of the foot soldiers of that nonviolent movement were Black southerners, not Eastern intellectuals.
Did the Labor Movement Abandon the Party of Peace and Justice. Archie Bunker was a blue collar worker who appreciated none of the movements Dr. King led. His character became the most famous presentation of the white male conservative blue collar worker who was to vote for Reagan and had already voted for Nixon. The show first aired in 1969. He was from Queens New York, not Birmingham Alabama.