By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.
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Photo by Steve Bott | CC BY 2.0
Election Day 2017 went spectacularly well for Democrats. Usually, not much is at stake off-year elections; outside Virginia and New Jersey, the election this year was no exception. But Democrats did win by a landslide. Yippee!
“Yippee,” that is, more in the sense of “so what?” than “hooray.”
The problem is not that the election could have turned out better. It turned out as well as it could have; in almost all cases, the better candidates won. More importantly, Trump lost. He lost because the consensus view within the chattering classes was that the vote, in Virginia especially, was a referendum on him. Saying so made it so.
The danger now is that saying so will also vindicate an idea that might as well be hard-wired into the minds of leading Democrats: that the way forward in 2018 and beyond is to reconstitute the Democratic Party as it was before its 2016 defeat, allowing only for cosmetic changes in the party bureaucracy
With Trump being Trump, it is possible, even likely, that, by going that route, Democrats will do as well next year. They might even do well enough to regain control of the House and Senate, and of many State Houses. If that happens, it will be a victory of sorts; a victory that will warrant a cynical so what?, not a heartfelt hooray.
Genuinely progressive down ticket victories could change the calculus somewhat. At this point, it is difficult to determine how much of that there was last Tuesday. It is clear as can be, however, that as long as the Democratic Party exists in anything like its present state, the chances that progressive insurgencies will be coopted by the “center” are greater than that they will capture the center and move the party in a better direction.
This being so, the task now is damage control. Flipping seats matters, of course; but less for putting better people in office than for constraining Trump and keeping him hamstrung.
It is the same with efforts to remove him from office. They can do a world of good – by keeping him from doing as much harm as he otherwise would. How much good they would do if they were to succeed is another question.
If and when Trump goes, a soporific but bona fide reactionary, Mike Pence, will take his place — effectively demobilizing the groundswell of opposition Trump generates just by being there. Pence is less likely than Trump to do irrevocably awful things with the nuclear codes that accompany presidents wherever they go. But, unlike Trump’s, his “conservatism” is heartfelt. For that reason alone, he is as bad or worse.
Were Pence not less likely than Trump to unleash Armageddon, it would plainly be better to keep the threat of impeachment alive and growing than actually to see it through.
Having made it through the past year, my view still is that, all things considered, going slowly, subjecting the Trump presidency to a painful death by a thousand cuts, would be better than getting rid of him more quickly. There is a case to be made, however, for the other side. It all depends on what one thinks the probabilities are, and on one’s degree of aversion to risk.
If there were thriving social movements demanding political representation or third party or independent electoral forces working to reconfigure the political landscape, the consequences of one or another course of action on these movements and parties would have to be taken into account.
Unfortunately, at the present time, that is not necessary. We do not have a genuine left of any political significance; and, though creating one is, or ought to be, Job Number One, this is not going to happen in time for 2018.
For the time being, therefore, a hamstrung Trump is as good as it gets.
Helping Democrats flip House and Senate seats can sometimes be worth doing. But, with Democrats there is the possibility, even the likelihood, that the cure will be worse, or not much better, than the disease.
The last thing the country needs is a refurbished, but fundamentally unchanged, Democratic Party, back to its old ways — serving Wall Street, stewarding the empire, and maintaining the ruinous perpetual war regime that generations of Democrats have helped to fashion.
Neither do we need Democrats who take from, but give little back, to organized labor; and who, following the lead of the Clintons and Barack Obama, consign the working class — black, brown and white — to the malign neglect of self-righteous do-gooders.
If we must have Democrats, then at least let them only be ones who do not raise questions about which party actually is worse. Being a greater evil than the GOP, or even coming close, is no mean feat. But a revived Democratic Party in the Clinton-Obama mold just might be up to the task. A genuine left opposition would hardly want to encourage that — even to discomfit Trump and the party he leads.
* * *
Even now, it is far from obvious that Democrats are less noxious than their rivals in all pertinent respects.
For one thing, unlike their Democratic counterparts, the House and Senate leaders of the Republican Party are not as stupid or cowardly as they seem. This is far from obvious, however.
Republican honchos despise Donald Trump, just as normal people do; they don’t trust him either. Nobody does, except perhaps his children, the fruit of the poison tree. Who knows but, at this point, maybe even the fashionista entrepreneur is wavering as Robert Mueller’s noose closes in on the father of her children and, please God, on her and her feckless brothers as well.
They understand too that they would be better off with one of their own in the White House.
They could hardly have failed to notice that someone who fits that description is next in line for the job.
Mike Pence was born without a personality, but it would take a first-rate talent scout to find someone who looks more like a president. No doubt, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would prefer a more formidable personage, but they have him, and he will do.
He is easily as odious as they are, and as retrograde as they come. With Pence in charge, the party leaders’ chances of getting their agendas through would be a lot better than they are with the opportunistic, self-aggrandizing chameleon they are stuck with now.
But when they do the reckoning, they figure that, unless Trump’s legal circumstances change dramatically for the worse, or unless his incompetence and dangerousness become so palpable that even the morons who still stand by him catch on, they are better off keeping him than they would be letting him go.
They fear that the Sturm und Drang that impeachment would bring would benefit Democrats, and they expect, not unreasonably, that Trump may still be able to get them some of what they want.
Inasmuch as it doesn’t faze them that he is gung ho for fossil fuels – after all, they are too – or that he could start a nuclear war in a fit of pique, or that he demeans his office and embarrasses the human race, their calculations make sense. Therefore, as long as the plutocrats they work for can live with the Donald, so can they.
A bleak but inescapable conclusion follows: that, unless Trump “self-impeaches” or has a heart attack or stroke, we are stuck with the man for at least the next year, and maybe until Inauguration Day 2021.
Uncoerced “retirement,” self-impeachment, would make excellent sense for the Donald, but the chances that Trump will go that route are slim. This is not because quitting is beneath him. Quite to the contrary, Trump is an inveterate quitter. Quitting was the cornerstone of his business model in Atlantic City, where he would buy and build hotels and casinos on leveraged credit, milk his properties dry, and then use bankruptcy laws to walk away from them, leaving workers and creditors in the lurch, as he enriched himself.
The presidency is different. Trump’s capacious vanity prevents him from displaying his failures and inadequacies as plainly as he would have to if he bowed out of the presidency before his time. Also, there is the incontrovertible fact that, as his Secretary of State so aptly said, he is a “fucking moron.”
And although he exercises by sitting in a golf cart and his tastes run to fast food which he consumes in copious quantities, his health will probably hold too. God or the gods will see to it that he stays alive and functional; that’s how malevolent they are.
If the menace is to be removed from the scene, it is therefore up to the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others of their ilk to do the job. With our less than (small-d) democratic Constitution, and the House and Senate in Republican hands, there is no other way.
Therefore, for now, Trump is safe. Nervous House and Senate Republicans could still force their leaders to turn against him. But, even after last Tuesday, we are a long way from that, and we are not likely to get much closer soon.
Most House and Senate Republicans no doubt figure, with good reason, that, thanks to gerrymandering, their seats are safe. This may be wishful thinking, but it is how they think.
And even the ones who do fear losing to Democrats, challenges in next year’s primaries from Republicans more odious than themselves scare them more.
House and Senate leaders may also fear that the worst of the worst who crawled out from under the rocks Trump turned over would turn on them, Second Amendment rights in hand, were they to initiate efforts to dump the Orange Menace. There are already plenty of vulnerable communities living in fear of Trump besotted lowlifes and maniacs. The last thing comparatively levelheaded Republicans want is to join their ranks.
Their fears are rational and their calculations make sense. To make the world safe for the vileness they favor, Trump may indeed be the Republicans’ best bet.
This is why it would be fair to say that insofar as prudence and shrewdness are relevant metrics, Republicans are better than Democrats. Their party is the more noxious of the two; there is no doubt about that. But, in the ways that matter in electoral politics, they are not nearly as dumb.
Republicans are less hypocritical too. Hypocrisy flows through the veins of House and Senate Democrats and their media flacks to a degree that Republicans could never hope to match.
Does this make the Democratic Party the greater evil? I would say No, but, by making Democrats worthy of contempt, it does bring them down almost to the Republican level.
See a Republican and despair for the human race. But what William Blake wrote some two and a quarter centuries ago applies more to the Democratic Party than to the GOP: “as the air [is] to a bird and the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.”
* * *
“Insanity,” it is said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This adage has been repeated so many times that it has, by now, become a cliché.
It is widely, but probably incorrectly, attributed to Albert Einstein. If he did indeed say it first, his mind must have been distracted at the time, because it plainly applies less to insanity, in any of that term’s colloquial senses, than to the kind of stupidity that Democrats exhibit as they market their brand by tracking the GOP’s rightward drift, taking care always to remain never more than a tad to their rival’s left.
To be sure, if everything pertinent to voters’ choices could be laid out unambiguously on a left-right spectrum, Democrats would have a point; there would be a defensible method underwriting their madness or, should we say, their pusillanimity.
Years ago, there were political scientists and economists who would take it upon themselves to spell out the simple-minded, intuitively plausible, but empirically hollow idea behind that method. They would concoct stylized models, replete with mathematical embellishments, purporting to justify the rationality of aiming for the dead center.
It would be misleading, though, to say that any of this trickled down from the Halls of Ivy into the national committees of our political parties. If anything, the causal arrow pointed the other way. For Democrats especially, pusillanimity comes naturally.
A penchant for centrism is unavoidable in officially non-ideological, broad tent political parties, but there can be different degrees of commitment to the ideal. Democrats have always been more ardent centrists than Republicans. It is as if they feel driven to be wherever the center is.
The high (or low?) point came in the mid-nineties, when the Clintons deployed the “triangulation” strategy, contrived by the villainous Dick Morris, to launch a full-scale assault on what remained of the Democratic left. The goal was not just to diffuse opposition to Clintonism (neoliberalism, “humanitarian” imperialism, unflinching deference to the military-industrial complex), but also to insure that a genuine left would never rise again within that wretched party’s ranks.
The party’s leaders are still at it. They must think that, this time around, the same old same old will produce a different result.
Even before the nomination process got underway last year, it was plain that the fix was in; 2016 would be Clinton’s year. Nevertheless, for a few springtime months, it did look like Bernie Sanders had a chance. He was doing much better than expected in the primaries and caucuses, and he was drawing enormous crowds of enthusiastic supporters everywhere he went. In in the end, though, the Clinton juggernaut held its ground; and Sanders, along with many of his supporters, acquiesced in defeat.
A few did strike out on their own, neutering words like “resistance” and “revolution” in the process. This did keep a sliver of hope alive in some circles, but it left the party’s leaders unperturbed. For them, milquetoast opposition from Sanders supporters is nothing more than a tolerable nuisance.
Had Sanders taken the lead in “resisting” the Clintonites last year – either by running on the Green Party ticket, as he could have, or by setting up an independent political organization on his own — events might have taken a different and better course. But Sanders did neither. This came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention.
Someday somebody will write a tell-all book that will clarify what the Sanders campaign was about – not so much to those who were swept up into it, that is already clear, but to Sanders himself and the people closest to him. To what extent, if any, had he been working for Clinton all along?
Thanks to Donna Brazile, we know a little more than we used to about how “rigged” the 2016 primaries and caucuses were. Her book, Hacks, does more than just offer confirmation from an authoritative source of what was already obvious. It also lays out why the rigging was so devastating for down ticket Democrats.
Sanders’ loss and Democratic losses down the line had a common cause; the perfidy of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC and the Clinton campaign with which it colluded. Long before the campaign season got underway, the DNC effectively put itself and its resources at the service of Hillary Clinton. Everything and everybody else be damned.
Thus the Democrats betrayed Sanders and his supporters. I would venture, though, that, their party’s losses in state and local elections will seem, in time, to have been an even more deleterious consequence of the DNC’s shenanigans. By giving their all to Hillary, they deprived voters of opportunities to elect palatable candidates. Had they done otherwise, the Democratic Party would be in a better place than it now is.
There is no reason to think that this is about to change. Quite to the contrary, the DNC has lately gone back to purging itself and the party it leads of an emerging progressive wing comprised of militants who believe, not without reason, that, at least in the short run, they have nowhere else to go.
“Our Revolution” notwithstanding, the ancien régime is once again as firmly in place as it was when the 2016 election season was getting underway.
This will only change when what many voters intuitively understand finally penetrates the thick skulls of Democratic Party bigwigs and their media flacks: that given a choice between two neoliberal, pro-imperialist, war mongering corporate ass-kissers, the mere fact that the one that corporate assholes love less is nicer than the other is not a compelling reason for voters to bother to support it.
* * *
The party’s leaders are too invested in the past to grasp that simple point; being under the sway of Clintonites for so long has made them stupid.
However their stupidity pales in comparison with their hypocrisy – or, rather, their hypocrisy cum chutzpah cum their penchant for concocting silly narratives that they then believe. There is no single word that captures all of it, so “hypocrisy” will have to do.
Ever since Clinton and her people decided to blame Vladimir Putin for the shortcomings of her campaign, and ultimately for her ignominious loss to a seventy-something adolescent bully with the skills of a confidence man and the gravitas of a carnival buffoon, they have given themselves over completely to their Jeffersonian side. In his day, opponents of our venerated third president justifiably deemed him “the patron saint of hypocrisy.”
Democratic hypocrisy is in full display in what pundits nowadays call “Russiagate.”
Aided by Republicans of the John McCain variety, Democrats have turned what they would not have deigned even to mention, had Clinton not flubbed so badly, into a tempest in a teapot, distinguished only for its recklessness and for the self-righteousness it has brought out in its proponents.
Before Russiagate, who would have thought that Democrats would outdo Republicans in their support for the institutions of the National Security State!
Republican Russophobia may be milder than the Democrats’ because they are still standing by their man, a man whose Russian connections may ultimately lead to his downfall.
But even if they are doing the right thing for bad reasons, at least they have not entirely thrown common sense and their own sense of proportion aside. That is precisely what DNC propagandists at ostensibly progressive media outlets have done. To hear them tell it, whatever the CIA and the other intelligence agencies tell us is gospel truth.
To anyone who knows anything about the CIA, this is preposterous on its face.
Even so, it doesn’t follow that everything they tell us is wrong. For a long time, they have been saying that Russia interfered with the 2016 election in order to get Donald Trump elected. For most of that time, they offered no evidence. But they repeated the claim so often that it became hard not to think that it must be at least partly true.
Thanks to what journalists and Congressional investigators have learned, it turns out that it is. It seems that some Russians did do some hacking into servers used by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Russians also posted ads on social media sites.
What, if anything, any of this accomplished remains a mystery. But to Democratic propagandists, that hardly matters. If anything, the fact that it all seems harmless only testifies to how fiendishly clever those Russians are.
It also remains unclear what the degree, if any, of involvement of the Russian intelligence services was or what Vladimir Putin, the devil incarnate, had to do with any of it.
What is clear is that when it comes to interfering with the political affairs of other countries, the USA really is Number One. The Russians don’t even come close.
It is also clear that even if interfering in one way or another with American elections has become something of an international pastime, the efforts of foreigners, Russian and otherwise, pale in comparison with our homegrown hucksters.
Democracy in America these days is about marketing candidates and policies to voters. Political campaigns are sales campaigns. The reasoned deliberation and debate that democratic theorists talk about is of little or no consequence.
This, not actual or imagined Russian interference, is the real scandal.
It is scandalous that the public, or rather the manufacturers of public opinion, don’t care when the hucksters are capitalists throwing their money around. Neither do they mind when, for example, “non-adversarial” states — Israel is the most flagrant example, Saudi Arabia is another – join in the fray. Meddling and colluding, it seems, are only problems when those pesky Ruskies do it.
And even then, it only becomes a problem when it suits the purposes of one or another mainstream political party or media outlet to make it one.
When that happens, the hypocrisy (cum chutzpah and silliness) is flagrant enough to defy credulity.
Witness the Democratic Party and its media flacks today! Do they ever bother to mention American meddling in the political affairs of Russia and other former Soviet republics, or how the CIA and the others try never to miss an opportunity to collude with dissidents and otherwise to manipulate public opinion in any way they can?
For that matter, is there anywhere in the world where elections showed any signs of resulting in outcomes disfavored by the stewards of the American empire where American meddlers and colluders have not been johnnys-on-the-spot?
The short answer is: No; not since the end of World War II in Europe and Asia, and in Latin America not since even before that.
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Bipartisan American left that behind long ago.
Even if we stipulate that everything Democratic propagandists are now insinuating is true, how much better off the world would have been, even back in the day when “America First” was nothing more than a slogan of pre-war proto-fascists, had we only done unto others what the Russians last year did unto us.
The elections Democrats won last Tuesday had nothing directly to do with this hypocrisy; in that sense, it played no role in the night’s events. And it looks like at least some of the victors down ticket were Democrats only because there is nothing else they could have been. Charges of hypocrisy therefore do not apply to them.
It is their party that is culpable, their party that merits contempt. Unless and until it changes beyond recognition, there will be no reason to celebrate its victories with more than just a cynical “yippee.”
ANDREW LEVINE is 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).