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Beyond Protest: What Are We in Favor Of?

How the Democratic Party has become "a show about nothing"

John Atcheson

George Costanza of Seinfeld famously tried to sell a show about nothing to NBC executives. It didn’t go too well.

When you get right down to it, that’s what the Democrats have been doing for decades now; it’s why they lost in 2016 to the most disliked, most distrusted candidate in the history of polling.

But Trump’s victory – appalling as it is – is just a symptom of a larger problem.  A virulent symptom, to be sure.  A gut-wrenching, hugging-the porcelain-goddess, dry-heaves-inducing, symptom.  But a symptom nonetheless. And while it’s good to see progressives out in the streets; filling town hall meetings; firing off cards, letters, faxes and phone calls to every elected official at every level challenging Trump and his cabinet of oligarchs, none of it will matter if progressives don’t take over the Democratic Party and save it from itself.

And yeah, it would be nice to have a viable Third Party, but until progressives seize control of the national agenda, that’s about as likely as a Republican climate scientist.

With the DNC preparing to pick the Party's leader, the time for action is now, because the alternative is to keep running neoliberal DLC candidates who stand for nothing and keep losing.

And lose they have.

In 1960, 50% of eligible American voters were registered as Democrats; today, 29% are.

Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, Democrats dominated state politics in both legislative and gubernatorial races.  Since 2010, Republicans have dominated at both the State and federal level. Today, Republicans control both legislative branches and the governorship in 25 states, while Democrats have total control of just 6 states.

David Daley has documented the role of the Republican’s project REDMAP and the gerrymandering that resulted after the 2010 election in the Republican’s national victories in his book, Ratf**ked.  But the dominance at the state level tells us something else is also going on.

What is that “something else?” How were conservatives able to win so convincingly at the state level?  Because, to paraphrase George Costanza, Democrats were trying to put on a show about nothing.  Why? Because they’d abandoned the New Deal and adopted the raw deal.  And you can’t run on a platform that says, "We still love you and all, but we kinda support the Oligarchy too."

As a result, Democrats have abandoned values for tactics and identity politics. Their candidates regularly "triangulate"—regurgitating the latest poll-tested phrases, carefully spun to offend no one, couched in language that is so over-rehearsed it sounds like the backdrop to a Kabuki dance.

In truth, Democrats left themselves no choice.  Since Bill Clinton, the DLC/neoliberal arm of the party has capitulated to the politics of money and power, and embraced the Oligarchy. But since Reagan, Republicans have cornered the market on the "values" of free-market ideology, so the Dems had no recourse but to retreat to tactics.

As a result, the Democratic Party has been steering by their hood ornament, while Republicans have been navigating using a Pole Star—a destructive one, a deceptive one, to be sure—but it gives them the illusion of moral constancy and it has enabled them to build a "brand."

 As Kevin Drum put it an article for Mother Jones:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too ... Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for, because the conservative leadership has spent four decades nurturing a consistent brand identity for themselves.

OK, now try to come up with a description of what it means to be a progressive, or a liberal for that matter (humming the Jeopardy tune … still humming … time’s winding down … buzzer sounds).  Oh, I’m sorry … we do have a lovely parting gift for you…

The chances are, even if you consider yourself a liberal, you couldn’t come up with a quick and easy summary—worse, it’s likely that some conservative memes crept into your head as you considered this question.

At best, you might have listed some policies couched in logic with detailed examples of legislation that supported the policies. Snooze alert. No one cares about your issue papers.

"If you don’t stand for something, you won’t win anything."

They care about values.  They want candidates who tell them what they stand for, not someone who regurgitates the latest poll-tested catch-phrase back at them.  And they don’t want someone who’s main spiel is simply about how bad the other guy is—even when that guy is President comb-over.

The lesson from 2016—and the decades leading up to this debacle—is that if you don’t stand for something, you won’t win anything.

In my forthcoming book, WTF America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track, I describe how this dynamic is the result of a de facto "coup" four decades in the making.  It was launched by the Oligarchy with the distribution of the Powell Memo in 1971.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about some shadowy conspiracy featuring clandestine meetings, passwords, secret handshakes, James Bond super-villains, Freemasons or … gasp … even the Tri-Lateral Commission. This coup was more like a flock of vultures moving in tandem only because they were pursuing a shared vision of their own self-interest—which was to relentlessly rob us to feather their own foul nests. But if it wasn’t a coherent junta, it was fueled by money.  Lots and lots of money. As we know, they succeeded.  Government answers to them; the press is owned by them; and they have a larger share of America’s wealth than at any time since the Great Depression.

With DLC/neoliberal elites controlling the Party since Bill Clinton, Democrats have succumbed to the Oligarchy’s coup.

And here’s the thing—it’s hard to preach New Deal values championing a society based on equity, justice, and a celebration of government’s role in constraining capitalism when your real values are all about giving the private sector the primary role in managing and structuring the economy and favoring privatization, deregulation, small government for its own sake, and free trade.

Right now, there’s a war on for the soul of the Democratic Party, with progressives battling against the status quo neoliberal's who control it now.

The irony is, poll after poll shows that a large majority of Americans hold progressive views on an issue-by-issue basis. But there is no one representing progressivism in our political spectrum, except “outsiders.”  The fact that the Democratic Party perceives people like Warren or Sanders – who essentially espouse New Deal policies that dominated the party until the late 70’s—as outside the political mainstream tells us how far right Democrats have drifted.

And it also tells us why they’re losing.

Campaigns like Hillary’s have become the norm for Democrats. Heavily scripted; poll-tested; PAC funded; driven by tactics; vague on values. In short, campaigns about nothing. Or as close to nothing as they can make them.

These are perilous times.  For the first time in the history of homo-sapiens sapiens—man the double wise—we have the capacity to destroy our world.  Irreversible and cataclysmic climate change is much closer than even the pessimists believe, and with Trump at the helm, nukes are once again in the national dialogue.

The nation can’t afford the Seinfeld version of the Democratic Party—and more to the point, neither can the Democratic Party.  Four decades ago, the Oligarchy launched a de facto coup.  It’s time for progressives to do the same.  Write your state’s party chair and tell him or her that it’s time for the Democrat’s to stop being Republican lite.  Tell him or her to vote for a real progressive like Kieth Ellison to head up the DNC. If they don’t listen, it’s time to consider alternatives.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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