Over at Pierrot’s Folly (aka Scratchings) they’ve been having a lively discussion about the numerous sins of the Democratic party and what to do about it from a lefty perspective. Is it time to found a new party? Go to the Greens? What?
Ever since LI was a little wet behind the ears protestor in the Reagan era (my eyes were firmly directed to America’s support for mass murder in Central America, and not the major disaster, Afghanistan being cooked up by Reagan’s busy little paramilitary rightists), I’ve heard the cries of outrage, and uttered many a cry myself.
Lately, however, in the light of the cold rage lit in my belly by the election of 2004, I’ve been rethinking the terms of that outrage. At the time, I was struck by the free rider paradox that seemed, to me, to explain the election. My perspective since then has broadened, but along the same lines. At some future time, we will mount a defense of deficit spending and an analysis of how progressives became the curious inheritors of the ghost of Herbert Hoover – a fatal legacy, we think, in the 2004 election, which turned on the ability of the electorate to afford to vote on its vilest prejudices instead of considering the index of its absolute impoverishment, at least as a share of the national wealth.
In any case, we believe the real issue is the difference between a movement and a party.
Between the thirties and the eighties, the left in the U.S. did a very interesting thing: it invented a number of movements. From labor movements in the 30s to the Gay rights movements in the seventies, these movements originated political change. They had a galvanizing effect on the Democratic party. In 1900, there was nothing particularly progressive about the Democratic party, but in 1960, there was. However, the party itself didn’t originate progressive politics – it rather responded to an exterior pressure. Anybody who looks at how, say, the Kennedys dealt with the civil rights movement sees this. The gun was in the hand of the movements.
On the philosophical plane, the sixties philosophers who broadcast a distaste for representation (Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) were, in some manner, reflecting the revolt against the party as a political unit. This was obviously inflected by the Communist party. But in the U.S., the same thing was happening on a less philosophical, more pragmatic plane. The Black Panther/Civil Rights duo, for instance, destroyed the remnants of Democratic party machines in Chicago, Detroit, and Newark. In general, the perspective at the time was that the party exists as a vehicle for the movement; that the relationship between party and movement is purely tactical. The party never represents the movement. It never represents anything but itself. It is a vehicle. You don't ask your car where it wants you to go. You simply drive it, or fix it, or junk it.
The counter-attack came in the eighties. Movements were relabeled ‘special interests” by party intelligentsia. The New Republic played its one historic card during this era by actually generating writers and a vocabulary to crush movement politics, and to reverse the power relationship between movements and party. However, what was really important was the absorption of movements into various D.C. centered institutions. and the dispersion of movement figures into various institutions, academic and political. In the eighties, the Democratic party came to monopolize opposition in America, with fatal results for the Opposition.
What this means, to LI, is that it is a mug’s game to beat up on the Democrats. The party is structurally in contradiction with itself – its leadership is from a different social niche – overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy – than its membership. That niche has used its position to discipline the membership – to crush the possibility of movement politics – and the answer to that is not to fight back by “saving” the party, but simply establishing a non-fetishistic relationship with it. The Republican party, ironically, doesn’t have this problem because the Republican party resembles a movement. The extra-party element – corporations and businesses and religious organizations – have a firm independent existence outside of the party. Thus, they can ignore that directive niche that occasionally tries to impose the same kind of discipline on movements as the Dem leadership does. The Doles that call out the far right evangelicals, for instance, simply get stomped. Whereas every Dem leader longs to display his racism in a sister soulja moment, to send the message that white rule is still at the heart of the Dem party.
So – who cares? Use the Dems in some things, don’t use them in other. Skip em, fuck em, and work on the movement rather than the party level. I guess that is LI’s position.