“FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Democratic Party (the party of Jim Crow and the Cold War, as well as the New Deal) shipwrecked itself on the shoals of an unpopular war in Vietnam and a white backlash against racial equality.
The “emerging Republican majority,” as Nixon’s Machiavelli, Kevin Phillips, famously branded it, was always episodic and often paper-thin in national elections, but it was galvanized by impressive ideological and religious fervor, as well as lavishly subsidized by an employer class everywhere on the offensive against New Deal unions and social programs.
Republicans, although more often than not the minority party in Congress, dominated agendas (the New Cold War, the tax revolt, war on drugs and so on) and led the restructuring of government functions (abolition of direct federal aid to cities, deliberate use of debt to forestall social spending and so).
The Democratic response to the Reagan revolution from 1981 was not principled resistance but craven adaptation. The “New Democrats” under Bill Clinton (whose personal model was Richard Nixon) not only institutionalized Nixon-Reagan economic policies, but sometimes surpassed Republicans in their zeal to enforce neoliberal doctrine, as with Clinton’s crusades to “reform” welfare (in fact to create more poverty), reduce the deficit and implement NAFTA without labor rights.
Although the New Deal working-class core continued to supply 60 percent of the Democratic vote, party policy was largely driven by the Clintons’ infatuation with “new economy” elites, entertainment industry moguls, affluent suburbanites, yuppie gentrifiers and, of course, the world according to Goldman Sachs.
Crucial defections by Democratic voters to Bush in 2000 and 2004 had less to due with Republican manipulation of “family values” than with Gore’s and Kerry’s embrace of a globalization that had devastated mill towns and industrial valleys.
This week’s election paradoxically augurs both fundamental realignment and fundamental continuity.
The Republicans now know what 1968 was like for the Democrats. Blue victories in formerly bedrock Red suburbs are stunning invasions of the enemy’s electoral heartland, comparable to George Wallace’s and Richard Nixon’s victories more than a generation ago in Northern ethnic-white, CIO neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the desperate marriage-in-hell of Palin and McCain warns of the imminent divorce of mega-church faithful and the country-club sinners. The Bush coalition built by Karl Rove’s thuggish genius is breaking up.
More importantly, tens of millions of voters have reversed the verdict of 1968: this time choosing economic solidarity over racial division. Indeed, this election has been a virtual plebiscite on the future of class-consciousness in the United States, and the vote–thanks especially to working women–is an extraordinary vindication of progressive hopes.
But not the Democratic candidate, about whom we should not harbor any illusions. Although the economic crisis as well as the particular dynamics of campaigning in industrial swing states finally drove Obama to emphasize jobs, his “socialism” has been far too polite to acknowledge vast public anger about the criminal bailout or even to criticize big oil (as has off-and-on populist McCain).
In policy terms, what would have been the difference if Hillary Clinton had won instead? Perhaps a marginally better health care plan, but otherwise the result is virtually the same. Indeed it might be argued that Obama is more a prisoner of the Clinton legacy than the Clintons themselves.
Waiting in the wings to define his first 100 days is a team of Wall Street statesmen, “humanitarian” imperialists, ice-blooded political operatives and recycled Republican “realists,” which will thrill hearts from the Council on Foreign Relations to the International Monetary Fund. Despite the fantasies of “hope” and “change” projected onto the handsome mask of the new president, his administration will be dominated by well-known, pre-programmed zombies of the center-right. Clinton 2.0.
Confronted with the Great Depression of globalization, of course, the American ship of state, whatever the crew, would probably sail off the edge of the known world.
Only three things, in my opinion, are highly likely:
First, there is no hope whatsoever of the spontaneous generation of a new New Deal (or for that matter, of Rooseveltian liberals) without the combustion of massive social struggles.
Second, after the brief Woodstock of an Obama inauguration, millions of hearts will be broken by the administration’s inability to manage mass bankruptcy and unemployment, as well as end the wars in the Middle East.
Third, the Bushites may be dead, but the hate-spewing nativist Right (particularly the Lou Dobbs wing) is well-positioned for a dramatic revival as neoliberal solutions fail.
The great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment, understanding that our task is not “how to move Obama leftward,” but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself.”