Party Loyalty in an Election Year Gone Mad
By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Loyalty to political parties that stand for something, or that stood for something once upon a time, something worth caring about, would be understandable. But Democrats and Republicans stand for nothing except getting in each other’s way. If they ever stood for anything loftier than that, no one still living remembers.
It would be understandable too were voters to stand by political parties that best serve their pecuniary interests. However, this consideration explains nothing about party loyalties in the United States today because, except at the margins and in trivial ways, Republicans and Democrats serve capitalists’ interests and disserve everyone else’s equally well.
Only the loyalty of party apparatchiks whose careers depend upon the continuation of the status quo is truly understandable.
Slightly less understandable, but still within the intelligible range, are the attitudes of voters who see themselves honoring longstanding family traditions by being loyal to one or the other of our two, highly polarized but likeminded, parties. There used to be more voters like that, but people, these days, are fickle.
Plutocrats are the most fickle of all. They are the true “bipartisans,” going wherever their bottom lines lead them. Donald Trump explains this phenomenon every chance he gets; it is one of the few useful things he does.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course; some plutocrats honor family traditions too. They are a distinct minority, however.
Why then is there as much party loyalty as there is? And why are appeals for it now ringing out?
It is tempting, as the Trump phenomenon unfolds, to give up on trying to explain anything. But if we stop trying to make sense of the senseless, all is lost.
In any case, there is no need to give up: the elements of satisfactory explanations are at hand. The two parties’ respective takes on Hillary Clinton put them in focus.
The Clintons are cocky these days. After South Carolina and Super Tuesday, they have reason to be.
As has been the case since Day One, the Clintons have corporate media in tow. If they cannot ignore the Sanders campaign entirely, they derogate its prospects. Their 24/7 coverage of Trump doesn’t help either. They obsess over him mainly to boost ratings, but they must realize too that the prospect of a Trump presidency scares normal people, causing many of them to fall into the grasp of the devil they know.
The Clintons also have the institutional Democratic Party working overtime on their behalf; Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her coterie of Hillary-boosters is getting the job done.
The African American notables who have been coopted into the Democratic Party establishment are doing the Clintons yeomen service as well. Bill and Hillary have been courting, flattering and cajoling black leaders from time immemorial; and, unlike in 2008, it is paying off for them now.
How much better it would be if the several “civil rights icons” that media pundits make so much of, were just carted off to a museum, while clear headed African American intellectuals and militant black youth carried on the struggle they waged fifty years ago.
Who would have thought that a half- century after those so-called icons became respectable, that the slogan “don’t trust anybody over thirty” would become timely again!
Life under President H. Clinton will surely lift the scales from the eyes of all working class people – black, white and brown. But it is now plain that this won’t happen soon enough for most African American voters to do the right thing for themselves.
Still, all is not well in the Democratic Party’s neoliberal-liberal imperialist world. The Clintonites know that hardly anybody likes their candidate. They realize too that a lot of people are “feeling the Bern.” Perhaps they also understand that there are many of us who would rather swim through vomit than cast a vote for any Clintonite, much less for Hillary.
And so, they are putting out the word: that it will soon be time for all good women (and men) to come to the aid of the party.
This is not exactly an appeal to loyalty for loyalty’s sake. It is just the lesser evil argument that has been sustaining the Democratic Party for as long as anyone can remember, gussied up with some patently false, but widely held, assumptions about that wretched party’s seemingly inevitable standard bearer.
Those assumptions boil down to three: that because she is a “centrist,” she is more electable than Bernie Sanders; that while she may not be as “progressive” as he or as most Democratic voters would like, she is progressive enough; and that, as a “pragmatist,” she knows, better than Sanders or anyone else, how to get things done.
Every one of these assumptions is false, but in an only slightly more rational world, this would hardly matter — because everyone would understand that, thanks to the Donald, neither Trump nor any of his rivals stand a chance of winning the general election in November.
It is always worth reflecting on the dangers of lesser evil thinking, even when the greater evil is no threat at all. And because the conventional wisdom on Hillary Clinton is so deeply entrenched, and because those who promote it are so unrelenting and clever, going back over the case for calling the former Secretary of State inept — and for pointing out the many reasons why she is part of the problem, not part of the solution – is always worthwhile too.
But, along with many others, I have been there and done that too many times – most recently here, here, and here. For those who want it spelled out incontrovertibly and in great detail, there is, among other sources, Diana Johnstone’s magisterial Queen of Chaos.
None of this has had much effect, needless to say, but there is going to have to be a lot more of it, if and when the Sanders campaign folds, taking with it whatever promise it offered for fighting back against at least part of the Clintonite, neoliberal agenda.
The Republican Party, “as we know it,” will not survive this electoral season; this is already clear.
It would be nearly as wonderful if the Democratic Party would splinter apart as well.
That probably won’t happen – in part, because Sanders will do his best to keep his supporters from bolting. So will many of the liberal “icons” and organizations that now support him.
There is still a chance, though, that, if Democratic voters, African Americans especially, don’t see the light in time for Hillary to get “schlonged” again, the way she was in New Hampshire, that many pissed off Sanders supporters will bolt nevertheless.
This would be especially likely if, between now and this summer, those cocky Clintons give their nature free rein by showing the contempt they feel for everyone to their left, or if they are conspicuously servile towards their malevolent friends in “the donor class.”
However, this is not likely. Because they know that it’s not over, ‘till it’s over, Team Clinton will do their level best to keep the Clintons in check until their Restoration becomes a done deal.
Count on it, however: once Hillary and Bill move back into the White House, even that generally feckless Clintonite Barack Obama will start to look good.
But, as they say, ever cloud has a silver lining.
The Democratic Party will probably not fall apart the way that the GOP will; at least not yet. But large numbers of Sanders supporters will likely become Jill Stein (Green party) voters this November. This could do for the Greens what they have never been able to do for themselves: it could help make them a factor on the political scene.
A Green Party that is not thoroughly marginalized, would diminish the disabling hold that the Democratic Party exercises over “progressive” politics in the USA. It would help move the political compass a little closer to some semblance of genuine (small-d) democracy.
And it could provide a space in which the energies that the Sanders campaign has unleashed could take root and flourish. For want of an organizational framework, Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movements it spawned vanished without a trace. This must not happen again.
Calls for party loyalty emanating out of Democratic Party leadership circles appeal to false beliefs (about Hillary Clinton) and muddled thinking (about the urgency of lesser evil voting). This is pathetic, but at least the diagnosis is clear.
On the Republican side, the situation is harder to understand.
The one thing that all the splintered factions of the party agree on is the need to defeat Clinton. This makes little sense. It would be much more understandable were those Republican “moderates” who are now having hissy fits over the thought of a Trump – or a Ted Cruz – candidacy would rally around her, rather than against her.
Given what she is about, and in view of the alternatives, they should be waiting in line to join up. And yet, so far at least, party loyalty is keeping them from even broaching the prospect. The GOP’s donors are still on board too, and so are the neocons and the free market ideologues – notwithstanding their almost visceral hatred of the Donald and the ideas, such as they are, that he promotes.
It is wonderful to see so many of those miscreants suffering acute distress as it becomes clear to them that nothing – not billionaire money, not mob connections, not kind words from European fascist leaders, not quotations from Mussolini, not even endorsements from David Duke and other white supremacists — can stop the Donald in his tracks.
The pillars of the Party, and the so-called moderates still in the Republican fold are appalled. Yet they nearly all say that they will support their party’s nominee, even if it is Trump. Party loyalty trumps all.
This could change, of course; but it probably won’t. I would even venture that most of those party stalwarts would remain loyal to the GOP, even were Michael Bloomberg to decide to run as an independent. Bloomberg is one of them, and, by their lights, he would make a fine anti-Trump. But were he to decide to run and mount a vigorous campaign, count on party loyalty to quash any chances he might have of success.
Obviously, the explanation for this state of affairs has very little to do with self-interest. If that were all that mattered, Republican loyalists would be defecting en masse to Clinton — because, unlike Bloomberg, who wouldn’t stand a chance of winning in November, the Democratic nominee is a sure winner already.
As remarked, Clinton does have an ineptitude problem. She has failed at every project she has undertaken — from reforming America’s health care system, as First Lady, to leading American diplomacy in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and nearly everywhere else on the planet, as Obama’s first Secretary of State.
Like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allen Poe story, the facts are hidden in plain sight. But Clinton’s incompetence somehow doesn’t register in the collective consciousness of the American electorate. For this, she has the pundits and pseudo-journalists of the liberal media to thank, along with her own superb team of publicists.
With competence, as with virtue, appearance is often more important than reality. And indeed Clinton’s ineptitude is not what is keeping Republicans from joining up; they are probably even less cognizant of it than their Democratic counterparts.
But they could hardly fail to have noticed that she is as dedicated a defender of their interests as our political system provides. One would think that this would be enough to turn Trump and Cruz hating Republicans into Clinton boosters; and one would think that capitalists concerned, above all, with their bottom lines would lead the way. Instead, by turning to the likes of a Marco Rubio, they disgrace their class. This is no mean feat, in view of how disgraceful their class is.
And yet, they stand by their party, just as firmly as Hillary stood by her man back in the days when the antics of her horn dog husband were all over the news. Her loyalty seems to have worked out well for her; had she had more self-respect, she would not be running for President now.
But it is hard to see how any of the Republicans in the running for the GOP nomination this year could spell anything but disaster for the plutocrats throwing money their way.
To gain some insight into why Republican elites are not throwing in with Hillary, it can be helpful to reflect on why Trump – and also Cruz – are so unpalatable to them that they have to call on all the party loyalty they can muster just to keep out of her ambit.
In Cruz’s case, the explanation is easy – it can be rendered in the form of a syllogism: everyone who works with Cruz hates his guts, Republican elites have worked with Cruz; therefore, they hate his guts. With Trump the situation is more complicated, and more revealing.
The problem with Trump, for Republican elites, is not that his racism, nativism, and Islamophobia are beyond the pale. They would prefer a less buffoonish, more decorous standard-bearer, of course; but they are fine with the way that Trump taps into the racist, nativist and Islamophobic psyches of so many American voters. This, after all, is what Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy has always been about. Trump is just doing what they have been doing for many years, but doing it a little more forthrightly.
For appearance sake, however, some of them may fault Trump for going a step too far every so often, but their real concern is different: it is that he is not conservative enough.
They are on to something.
Humpty Dumpty famously said: “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” [Through the Looking Glass (chapter 6)]. A lot of political speech observes the Humpty Dumpty principle.
But for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the great traditions of conservative political philosophy or with the theory and practice of conservative politics, the Republican purchase on conservatism is painful to bear.
In some of the latest iterations of his stump speech, the hapless Rubio, still the Great White Hope of GOP plutocrats, describes the standard view well. Conservatives, he says, support free enterprise, limited government, and strong national defense.
“Free enterprise” was a term concocted during the Cold War to mean more of less what “private enterprise” means. The idea, it seems, was to identify private enterprise with the Free (non-Communist, American dominated) World.
“Private enterprise” was a euphemism too – for capitalism. Back in those days, before neoliberalism supplanted the New Deal – Fair Deal consensus, “capitalism” suggested exploitation, alienation, and inequality. “Private enterprise” had different connotations. It suggested voluntary exchange relations among more or less equal parties that leave everybody better off.
This verbal chicanery served a purpose for capitalism’s defenders at a time when the capitalist mode of production was more contested than it has since become. For them, there is no longer any need to avoid the c-word, capitalism. This is one reason why the expression “free enterprise” is nowadays seldom heard.
The fact that Rubio and his handlers are still promoting it in 2016 suggests that the expression didn’t quite wither away; that it survived in that netherworld where rightwing think tanks, talk radio bloviaters, and Fox News pundits set the tone; and where Republican politicians get their ideas.
Considering the source, it is hardly surprising that it is unclear what “free enterprise” means. A good guess is that, for Rubio et. al., it means pretty much what “limited government,” the second term in the Rubio triad of core conservative principles, means; or, rather, what it means to Republicans whose grasp of political ideas is worse than embarrassing.
The state form of political organization invests supreme authority over a given territory into a single institutional nexus, in contrast to the more diffuse forms of authority relations characteristic of feudal societies. In the first states to emerge in early modern Europe, supreme authority was unlimited in principle; no sphere of individuals’ lives or behaviors was immune from state interference.
It was not until the late seventeenth century that notions of limited government, of principled limitations on what states can rightfully do, began to emerge. With all sides having fought to exhaustion during the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation, the idea arose that states ought not to be able to impose doctrinal uniformity upon their citizens. Religious liberty, so understood, led to other principled restrictions on what states could rightfully do.
The standard name for the kinds of political theories that gave expression to these ideas is liberalism.
The rise of modern liberalism was coincident with, and related to, the emerging capitalist organization of Europe. Therefore, before long, some philosophers and polemicists added the economic liberties associated with laissez-faire economic policies to the areas of individuals’ lives and behaviors that liberals sought to insulate from state interference.
These became the liberties dearest to the hearts of “conservative” Republicans. In whichever other ways they want state power limited, they want to restrict its ability to intrude upon “free enterprise.”
In our Humpty Dumpty world, words mean what their users want them to mean, but, even so, it is hard to see what is conservative in free enterprise and limited government.
These defining principles of GOP-style conservatism have little to do with maintaining order, respecting tradition, upholding styles of governance based on deference and respect, or with any other standard understanding of what conservative theory prescribes.
They have everything to do, however, with classical liberalism – with the anti-absolutist (limited government) theories of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century liberal political philosophers.
Then, as now, conservatism, in its various forms, and liberalism were rival ideologies. Only in the minds of Republicans are the two one and the same.
“National defense,” the third of Rubio’s core valuational commitments, stands apart from free enterprise and limited government because it is not an inherent conviction of either conservatism or liberalism or of any other venerable philosophical tradition.
It is worth noting, however, that, before World War II, self-declared conservatives in the Republican Party were generally less friendly than Democrats to standing armies and bloated “defense” budgets. It was only in the Nixon years and in their aftermath that the Republican Party became the principal champion of what President Eisenhower, a moderate Republican if ever there was one, famously warned against: the rising influence of the military-industrial complex.
In short, Republican conservatism is a muddle of ideas that Republicans don’t quite understand.
However, from a practical political point of view, its rationale is plain: the idea behind it is to do what is good for the people who bankroll the GOP – to lower their taxes, deregulate their businesses, and subsidize their (free) enterprises with massive state spending for “national security” and perpetual war.
Among all the awful things Trump has said, he has, to his credit, made remarks that indicate a lack of sympathy with the conservatism Rubio and others of his ilk say that they prize. How could a rightwing populist – or a self-aggrandizing mountebank playing his marks by pretending to be a rightwing populist – do otherwise?
And, how could Republican grandees not take umbrage when a narcissistic blowhard steals their thunder by exposing the fatuity of their self-serving ideas.
But why is he, despite his faults (as they see them), nevertheless acceptable, albeit it barely, while Hillary Clinton is not?
Thanks to the Sanders campaign, Clinton is currently downplaying her neoliberal and neoconservative, war mongering side.
The Hillary that wanted (and, no doubt, still wants) to throw Edward Snowden in prison forever, and to silence Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange for longer than that, is now channeling the 1960s Youngbloods’ song, “Get Together,” as she did after Super Tuesday, when she proclaimed that the time has come for us all to come together and love one another —- blah, blah, blah; a none too subtle attempt to draw a contrast between her purported goodness and the hateful and hate-ridden Donald Trump.
It is welcome news that Hillary now finds it expedient to distance herself from the Dark Side, but beneath the (always changing) surface of the Clinton persona, all is not sweetness and light. Liberals who will be calling on Sanders supporters to remain loyal to the Democratic Party may not realize it, but it is far from obvious that her politics really is less “conservative,” in the GOP-Rubio sense, than Trump’s.
As has been noted many times, on many issues — including trade policies, overseas interventions, health care reform and according Israeli ethnocrats carte blanche support –Trump may actually be the less retrograde of the two. He is certainly less inclined to coddle Wall Street and to accord its criminal sector de facto immunity from prosecution.
Republican “conservatives” should be able to understand this well enough, even if liberal lesser evilists are in denial.
They must realize too that Trump is bound to lose in November, and that, unless the gods intervene on Sanders’ behalf, Clinton is going to win.
Then why are Republicans who cannot abide Trump even bothering to agonize over whether to join forces with him, just because there is no Republican who is less noxious in their eyes that the Republican base will support?
After all, they do have an alternative at the ready; one who is willing and able to do them service. Why, then, are they struggling to remain loyal to the party of their past when they could do so much better for themselves by switching sides?
It would seem that the only way to make sense of this strange state of affairs is to take to heart Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
The little minds hypothesis explains a lot – for Democrats and Republicans alike.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).