Non-Fiction Book 1: The Democrats: A Critical History by Lance Selfa


Lance Selfa. The Democrats: A Critical History. Updated edition. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. 296pp. $16US

Last year I made a list of nonfiction works I wanted to read this year. I just finished my first book from that list.

Lance Selfa details in eight chapters that any hope for American leftists (and he would argue, the average person in the U.S.) does not lie with the Democratic Party. His argument is not against the Democratic base (i.e., African-Americans, women, LGBT, poor, labor), but against its party leaders. Chapter one argues that Democrats are essentially capitalism lite. Chapter two chronicles the shift from Democrats being the “party of slavery” to the “party of the people.” Chapter three summarizes the rise of the “New Democrats,” or those organized after Carter’s fantastic defeat. Chapter four goes through Obama’s promises for change during his first term. Chapter five argues that Democrats, rather than leading progressive change, coopt and corral social movements. Chapter six shows Democrats to be just as beholden to American empire as Republicans, though with humanitarian justification. Chapter seven lists the many failed attempts of progressives to move the Democrats leftward. Selfa finishes chapter eight with an answer to the question of why there is no left alternative to the Democratic Party. Selfa pays primary attention to Democratic failures concerning labor, civil rights, and militarism. Let’s look at the indictments Selfa brings against the party by topic:

Poor (not a whole lot said about the poor or poverty):

  • the Social Security Administration gave retirement benefits to everyone (including the rich who didn’t need it) though workers subsidized it: it came out of payroll tax instead of taxes on wealth (51)
  • Clinton was the first president since the New Deal to cut one of its programs (welfare) (75-76)
  • Clinton didn’t move to raise the minimum wage when he had a Democratic congress (78)
  • Obama extended Bush tax cuts 2 years, even offering to end entitlement spending (107-08)
  • Obama offered a jobs bill in September 2011, long after having a Democratic congress for 2 years (108-09)

Ties to Capital Interests:

  • FDR ran in 1932 on platform of a balanced budget, 25% cut in federal spending, with no mention of unions or labor (126)
  • Carter cut capital gains taxes and boosted the social security tax on paychecks (66)
  • elections take a lot of money. House seats cost $1.3M in 2006 compared to $193K in 1986, and Senate almost $9M in 2006 from $1.4M in 1986. Democratic Party fundraising only saw a quarter of its contributions from labor while the majority from business (24-26). In the most expensive political seat, the presidency, Obama received $0.5M from unions but $42M from Wall Street during the 2008 election (10)
  • despite rhetoric, Obama was tied to big business: he led McCain in 8 out of 11 industrial sectors in the 2008 election (91-92)
  • Obama’s initial stimulus bill didn’t focus on job creation which ended up increasing unemployment (98)

Health care:

  • “Hillarycare” in 1994 sought input from insurance companies and large employers far more than health care advocates (30)
  • the ACA was so compromised, Selfa claims few Dems were happy with it; it was a boon to insurance companies since everyone was required to have insurance (102)
  • industry stakeholders were involved in writing the ACA, not the persons whose health would be affected by it (103)
  • ACA didn’t renegotiate big pharma down (104)
  • Howard Dean said lack of single payer made ACA worthless, though he eventually voted for it (105)

Environment (not much in the book):

  • Clinton used his influence with environmental groups to gain their support for NAFTA, even as the legislation opened up the northwest to logging efforts (34, 73) (Selfa didn’t pay much attention to environment in the book)

Labor:

  • everyday unionists in 1933 wanted a labor party separate from the Democrats and Republicans, especially since their strikes were suppressed by state militias, the majority of which led by Democratic governors (130)
  • FDR was actually anti-union until 1935 (the year before the election)àthe creation of Social Security and the National Labor Rights Act sealed his 1936 win (129)
  • CIO leaders had warned an FDR loss would bring a fascist reign; contrarily, his election did nothing to stem a recession or decline in union power (50)
  • in a 1937 steel strike, strikebreakers with the national guard killed workers and ransacked homes; courts ruled sit down strikes illegal in 1938 (50-51)
  • Smith-Connally Act of 1943 allowed the president to break strikes in war industries (133)
  • Dixiecrats dominated the Democrats even after the New Deal. This is part of why labor could not gain ground: Dixiecrats collaborated with conservative Republicans against labor. Labor never tried to organize the South, even in the 21st century. Northern companies could thus threaten to move their operations to the non-union South (136-38)
  • the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act banned wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts, mass pickets, and legislated anti-communism pledges (54)
  • new union leaders in 1948 election sought to break from Dems/Reps, but Truman pledged to veto Taft-Hartley; unions supported him, forgetting his antiunion record, and on his first year in his second term to break twelve strikes (134-35)
  • real median income peaked in 1973: Democrats controlled congress and most legislatures since 1973 without helping the falling real income of workers afterward (10, 64)
  • 1932-80, Dems held the presidency 32 of 48 years and both chambers of Congress for 46 years with repeal of Taft-Hartley (well, not before its existence in 1947) and national health insurance on platforms: they never passed (57)
  • Senator Hubert Humphrey (VP under Johnson) proposed placing communists in concentration camps in 1954 (57)
  • Communist Control Act of 1954 allowed government to remove union leaders or deny bargaining rights to “communist” unions (138)
  • Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 allowed government to take over unions (138)
  • Carter used Taft-Hartley to force settlements (66)
  • Clinton pursued NAFTA despite outcry from labor and environment (73)
  • Clinton pushed OSHA to partner with (rather than give oversight of) business and only seek voluntary compliance (78)
  • while Obama bailed out banks, he restructured Chrysler and GM (100)
  • Obama attempted to co-opt Occupy rhetoric even as his Department of Homeland Security fought this movement with military police effort (119)
  • CIO has been involved in the main organizing, financing, and electoral support for Democrats since 1948, even though none of their broad aims have been met (138)

Women:

  • activist groups of the 1960s divided along lines of grassroots activists and lobbying, the latter being pulled to the Democrats; the ERA’s failure was partly due to the National Organization of Women’s denial of its radical arm (including banning lesbians and radicals from ERA marches), in favor of lobbying (150, 152)
  • Democrats agreed to remove gender from hate crimes legislation (152)

Civil Rights:

  • civil rights was not carried out at first because of the Democratic need for the Dixiecrat coalition (58-59)
  • Robert Kennedy initially criticized the Freedom Riders as propaganda for America’s Cold War enemies (140)
  • JFK had promised to end housing discrimination by executive order in his campaign, but shelved the idea in office (141)
  • Kennedy brothers worked to make sure the March on Washington didn’t criticize the government too much, including coercing speakers to modify their speeches (142)
  • Johnson’s Great Society was to replace Dixiecrats with blacks while undercutting black militants (60)àwar on poverty empowered middle class black leaders (who hadn’t supported civil rights), thus betraying the rest of the community (61)
  • LBJ supported the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but also supported afterward their segregationist opponents so he could win in 1964. Civil rights leaders created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as a delegation supporting racial integration. LBJ worked to have this group subverted (143-44)
  • Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Control Act saw highest executions in 1999 in four decades and prison increased by 1.3M to 2M inmates between 1994 and 1999 (79)
  • Clinton’s HUD one strike policy evicted whole families if one member was even suspected of drugs (80)
  • Clinton’s administration refused to alter crack laws that discriminated against blacks (81)
  • Obama increased war on drugs and decreased funding for drug treatment (111)
  • Obama increased deportations by 71% over Bush’s final year, increasing border patrol as well (113)

Gay rights:

  • LGBT meetings with Clinton “demonstrated the administration’s symbolic willingness to listen backed by an intransigent refusal to act” (155, referring to a lack of action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”)
  • Kerry himself was publicly against gay marriage, and Democrats actively tried to suppress grassroots activism in the 2004 election (156)
  • Obama could have ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when he had a majority in Congress, but waited until 2011 to mobilize the base (157)

War:

  • every major military conflict in the 20th century was begun by Democratic presidents (162)
  • Wilson deployed troops in “Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala.” He deployed troops in Haiti in 1914 that stayed until 1934, but leaving behind a U.S. trained military that ruled Haiti for the rest of the century (166)
  • Wilson ran in 1916 on an antiwar platform only to enter the war a year later (167)
  • German submarine attacks on U.S. ships was due in part to Morgan House bank loans to the Allies. Wilson admitted the U.S. would have gone to war with Germany even without the sub attacks (167-68)
  • Russia, as part of the Allies, underwent a revolution in 1917. Wilson supplied the counterrevolutionary White Armies in 1918-20 and sent in an invasion force in 1918 (168)
  • unlike before WW2, the U.S. didn’t demobilize the military; Truman’s administration oversaw the creation of the Defense Department and the CIA (53)
  • the post-war economy was fueled (up to 50% of the federal budget) by defense contracts that created, and made possible, the American dream (53-54)
  • Truman sought to intervene anywhere he saw “communism” (162)
  • FDR’s “freedom” rhetoric during WWII was at odds with his domestic policy, including Japanese internment and racial segregation in the military (172)
  • FDR’s claim of fighting Germany over anti-Semitism was at odds with the coast guard turning away literal boat loads of Jews (172)
  • FDR’s brother considered halving the Japanese population acceptable, and Truman dropped the atomic bomb, something Eisenhower didn’t see as necessary for Japanese surrender (173)
  • George Kennan called NATO the insurance “against an attack no one was planning” (174)
  • JFK, while creating the Peace Corps, also created the Green Berets (165)
  • JFK’s actions did not diminish the U.S. role in Vietnam since he increased military presence from 800 at his inauguration to 16.7K two years later (178)
  • running on a peace platform, Johnson sent 25K troops in 1965 almost immediately after his inauguration; there were 540K troops by 1969 (178)
  • money spent on Johnson’s broken promise of deescalating Vietnam couldn’t be spent on the Great Society (224)
  • Carter initiated war policies furthered by Reagan- increased military budget, reinstitution of the draft, the Rapid Deployment Force for the Middle East, and a “strike first” nuke policy (67)
  • U.S. anticommunist interventions in Asia was to give a demilitarized Japan viable trading partners to prevent the loss of Japan were countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia fall like dominos to communism, outside the U.S. sphere of influence (177)
  • Carter reinstituted the draft, built up the military that Reagan would run with, and developed a first strike policy for a limited nuclear engagement (179)
  • Carter’s interventionism took place on the rhetoric of humanitarianism, while supporting the dictators of Iran and Romania (179-80)
  • Carter’s CENTCOM was an occupying force in friendly states in the Gulf to hold things together until a full U.S. force could show up; it worked in Desert Storm (181)
  • after the fall of the Soviet Union, Clinton inherited a military with no superpower opposition; instead of decreasing military spending and spending it on social programs, Clinton boosted the military budget (182)
  • a Reagan era Pentagon official defended Clinton against George W. Bush’s attacks, stating that Clinton’s military budget was 40% higher per uniform than ever under his father (182)
  • Clinton dispatched troops worldwide 46 times, compared to 26 times for Ford, Carter, Reagan, and H. W. Bush combined (182)
  • Clinton invaded Somalia and Haiti, and bombed Serbia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq throughout his administration (182)
  • 2006 saw Democrats retake congress with a mandate to get out of Iraq: 71% of Americans wanted U.S. out in a year. However, Democrats approved more war spending in 2007 than Bush even asked for (14)
  • Obama’s “change” showed itself as mere rhetoric when he reappointed Bush’s defense secretary Robert Gates (193)
  • Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo, only to reverse course and claim its policies as his own roughly half a year later because of hard opposition including the Democrats (194)
  • though Obama critiqued Bush on the use of torture, he refused to try any of those involved in torturing (194)
  • Obama’s use of drone strikes denied Americans due process; these strikes also went into allied territory (195)
  • amid the Arab Spring, Selfa contends that the U.S. maintained support of those such as Mubarak until almost the end (196)
  • Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 still left the world’s largest U.S. embassy there with tens of thousands of mercenaries (unrestrained by Geneva Conventions), but also essentially redeployed forces to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to keep presence in the region (197)

Cooptation:

  • Populists formed the People’s Party in 1892 with platform of progressive income tax, public railroads/utilities, and labor organizing support. Democrats changed their rhetoric in response and coopted the Populist platforms (123-24)
  • Democrats pushed for voting rights to quell radical civil rights activists and get them in their camp (144)
  • LBJ’s War on Poverty and Great Society were copycats of the Black Panthers program, in order to divert their power, taking these leaders and plugging them in to the federal program (144-45)
  • The Progressive Democrats of America in 2004 claimed that if they could take over the party, they could institute progressive change (199)
  • for PDA’s grassroots rhetoric, it was completely organized and spearheaded by Dem leaders within the Dem party (202)
  • PDA had an inside/outside strategy: work inside, but also outside by lobbying, press conferences, rallies, and alliances with leftists, particularly the Green Party (202-03). However, “None of PDA’s leading ‘election reformers’ denounced the Democrat-funded campaign to force Nader-Camejo off 2004 ballots” (205)
  • progressives had a chance to do something progressive in the 2006 and 2008 elections when everyone was fed up with Iraq and Bush: in 2007, Democrats gave Bush $120B to continue Afghanistan and Iraq (207-08)
  • inside/outside strategists argue that it is more efficient to effect social change through the ballot (since it only takes a few seconds), though I agree with Selfa that change comes from a populace invested in change for themselves (218). Democrats use leftist groups like the Green Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, and labor for get out the vote work, but then give nothing to these groups (219, 222)

Selfa’s aim is not to critique Democrats as if the solution is to follow after Republican leaders. He goes off the assumption that the Republican Party is a no go; this work assesses whether the Democratic Party is a viable left alternative. I share with him that it is not as leftist as it seems, though it moved more in that direction post-1965 (the shifting of Dixiecrats to the Republican Party). I also agree that the American people need to develop viable third parties (particularly leftist ones), but agree with Michelle Goldberg that this will not happen until our voting system changes: the two-party system is essentially guaranteed by the 12th Amendment.

To be fair, the ACA did get more people insurance. This is indisputable. He was right, though, in that it hasn’t helped as much as it could. Is possessing insurance itself the solution to ridiculous medical and pharmaceutical pricing? That’s not so much an insurance problem as much as a capitalism-run-wild problem.

I think more needs to be said about the non-voting bloc of the U.S. While Clinton won the popular vote, she only won among those who voted. Voter turnout was roughly 55.3%, meaning roughly 44.7% of the voting public didn’t vote. So out of the total eligible voting public, Clinton garnered 26.65% of the total voting population (48.2% of 55.3) and Trump 25.49% (46.1% of 55.3). Discussion of the electoral college vs. popular vote aside, neither can be said to have a mandate at that abysmal of a rate. Selfa cited Walter Dean Burnham who argued that the non-voter bloc dwarfs Democratic and Republican voting blocs, and if they had a labor/people’s party to choose from, it would have a good chance of winning (36). Selfa also cited that the U.S. “regularly leads among advanced Western countries in rates of voter abstention” (221). Take the numbers into account: 44.7% of non-voters far outweighs Clinton’s 26.65% or Trump’s 25.49%. Think of the potential turnout if we had more representative parties.

I am curious to see if Selfa revises this work again after the 2016 election. A lot happened since 2012. Gay rights, which he barely mentions in his work, won a huge victory in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges. He also hardly mentions the environment—he doesn’t even mention climate change—and doesn’t talk much about women. He doesn’t mention that the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 occurred under Clinton’s watch. It does read as a one-sided smack down of the Democratic Party. I do not think, however, that the strides gained under the New Deal and Great Society should be used as smokescreens for real injustices perpetrated under the Democrats. Change needs to happen; lasting change comes from below, when the people are invested.

I would like some real engagement on this. As you can see, I come at this book with a sympathetic ear to Marxism, but recognize that the vast majority of my friends and family do not share this view. I want to hear your thoughts on what I presented here. Are there shortcomings you see in some of the charges Selfa brings? Do you think he left anything out? Do you wish we had more than a two-party system in the United States?

 

Next I will be reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I have found recently that talks of morals and ethics tend to reference faith domains too much with not enough attention paid to what I guess I would call a public ethic, or a public forum. I am under no illusion that a neutral ethic exists. However, I wonder if there are other wells to draw from if we are to live in a multicultural state that is ostensibly secular (i.e., the Constitution is the highest law in the land, not one group’s sacred text) that would not benefit one group too much at the expense of others.

I’ve also started a video project with Sarah Neau Harris called 7M Connect on YouTube. Come check that out here. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahneauharris or me at @MonteHarrisSMO.

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