party party party

LI’s post that compared factions in Constantinople with the two parties that now bicker within D.C. court society was picked up and disseminated by Chris Floyd’s Empire Burlesque, for which we’d like to give a big shout out. Floyd is a journalist for the Moscow Times with a bigger readership than LI will ever have. And while certain of LI’s manias – for instance, about Balzac – are really… what’s the word? eccentric, the politics of movements as opposed to the politics of parties is something about which we have something to say that might be less eccentric.

Our point was not that the Democratic party is dead. Our point was, instead, that ideologies and parties are joined contingently, not organically. The Democratic party was much more conservative on social issues than the Republican party in, say, 1904. arguably the Democratic party, under Grover Cleveland, did more to shape the peculiar absence of a real leftist force in the U.S. by breaking a national strike than anything done by Harding, Coolidge or Hoover in the twenties. The Democratic party prolonged Jim Crow in the South for as long as it could. Conversely, the Republican party created anti-trust legislation, and civil service reform, and, under Hoover, greatly expanded the economic aggressiveness of the national government.

Since the sixties, the ideological character of the parties has hardened. Or, I should say, the public persona of the parties has taken on a more definite ideological cast, with Democrats being more or less identified as liberals, and the Republicans as conservatives. For anybody who is liberal, this is incredibly frustrating. Myself, in the nineties, I got into numerous arguments with friends who, about the time of the presidential elections, would be mysteriously moved to a passionate and, I felt, undeserved regard for the Democratic candidate. I would be moved, too, to different positions. In 1996, I truly felt that voting was a waste of time. But I was shamed into registering, and voted, of course, for Nader. In 2000, I felt more excited, and again voted for Nader. But I never really had a grasp of what parties are and what they do. I floundered. I thought, for a long while, that the Green party was going to do… something.

Waiting for the Green party to do something is like waiting for homeopathy to cure lung cancer. It’s going to be a long wait.

Over the last four years of shock at the Bush culture, I’ve tried to re-think, from the most rational point of view, the whole party thing. So far, I’ve come to two conclusions.

One is that passionate like or dislike of a party is the neuroses that is at the bottom of the mysterious passions that seem to move people during presidential election years. One way this plays out, on the liberal side, is a passionate contempt for the Democratic party. However, the odd thing about this contempt is that it is kept unconsciously in the magic circle around the Democratic party. The idea is that the party is conformist, that it is weak, that it accedes to the Republicans, that it isn’t liberal, or liberal enough. That idea is derived from, I think, a false notion of the history of the parties in America, one that the parties have learned to exploit.

Another way it plays out on the liberal side is the stereotypical use of Republican to mean conservative. Again, this ignores a great deal of Republican history. This stereotype is more helpful to conservatives than it is to liberals, since it predetermines the absence of any progressive politicking on the G.O.P. side, and thus makes liberals ever more dependent on Democrats. Conservatives, on the other hand, are not at all averse to politicking on the Democratic side. Astonishingly, they are then lauded by liberals for doing so – hence, the persistence of the meme of moderate Democrat so beloved of TNR, and (come presidential election time) of the Nation, etc. I can’t really remember the Nation, for instance, ever getting excited about a G.O.P. candidate. The very suggestion would, of course, cause bellylaughs at the editorial board, but it shouldn’t. Demonizing the Republicans is just the flip side of ceding a vital political struggle to certain Republicans – those of the Bush stripe. It is a defeat, and we are all paying for the consequences of the destruction of the Eastern liberal line in the Republican party.

The second thing is that neuroses don’t have “solutions.” Rather, one tries to get over them, create an emotional distance from the compulsions that pullulate within them, sublimate them, etc. To my mind, the start of that process begins by viewing the parties as dead machinery. Not as ideologically colored, but as primarily vehicles to achieve political power by politicians. Now, just as we know that goth lead singers are going to be morbid, we know that politicians and those in the inner circle of politics are mostly going to be disgusting. I mean that special level of disgusting, that level on which every act of niceness, of goodness, is actually aimed at some incredibly narrow self-interested end. Politics collects manipulators. Furthermore, it is impossible to view politicians merely in terms of their political careers. In the age of big national governments, politicians long ago learned that this is a very good way to channel upwards and make money – with an elective office merely the junket that prepares one for the bucks of lobbying, corporate board membership, or the thousand and one ways to milk the cow that have developed since 1940 in D.C. Cheney simply puts into starker terms the reality of D.C. politics – it is all about making it in the “private sector,” which is actually as connected to the public sector as the function of the dryer is connected to the function of the washer. For a liberal like me, keeping my eyes on this primary fact – thinking, for instance, that it is as important in the career of Madeleine Albright that she lobbies for the Kuwaiti government as it is that she used to work for the Clinton administration – that the switches, here, are seamless -- is one way to get out of the magic circle cast by the reputation of the Democratic and Republican parties. For more politically important people than myself – people who govern NGOs like the Sierra club, or Moveon, etc. – this is a crucial step, although somehow I doubt they will ever take it. Eventually, they all plug into D.C. court society. But if they did, if just once they freed themselves from viewing the parties as being attitudinally committed to one or another ideology, they would be on the road to figuring out how best to use them. That step, inverting the master/slave relationship between party and political action, is going to be difficult as long as the end result of political action is cast in terms of electing politicians. Something businesses have long known is that political action is about dealing with politicians. Electing them is secondary. Election is actually their vulnerability.

All of this might be self-evident to more sophisticated political operatives. But it has never been self-evident to me. If the last five years have been a disaster, they’ve also been, as kindergarten teachers like to say about particularly incorrigible brats, a learning experience.