Republicans and Democrats

In a recent posting to, the admirable Glenn Greenwald  considers liberal commentators’ response to recent legislation passed by Congress and approved by President Obama.

Paul Major

Like other actions of the current administration, it is much more in line with Republican ideals and policies than Democratic ones. Greenwald summarizes the picture: “Tax cuts for the rich—budget cuts for the poor—‘reform’ of the Democratic Party’s signature safety net programs—a continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies and a new Middle East war launched without Congressional approval. That’s quite a legacy combination for a Democratic President.”

Why should this be? How does George W. Bush get to become president with supposed narrow majorities (not actually elected either time) and with either narrow Republican control of Congress or none and enact a thoroughly Republican agenda, while Barack Obama gets elected with a healthy majority and control of both chambers of Congress (the latter lost in the midterms) and achieves hardly anything of what Democrats supposedly elected him to do?

Here’s my own summary understanding of the situation.

The Republicans primarily represent the economic interests of the establishment - the very small minority who control the essentials of what happens in the United States, and a larger minority of associates who feed at the same trough. Based on control of the establishment media for a long time, they have successfully propagandized much of the American public into accepting that the basic features of the American economic and political system are the only right way to do things.Not only are communism and socialism successfully demonized (though understood so poorly that Democrats in general and Obama in particular are considered by many to be “socialist”), but also the term “liberal” has negative connotations and European models of government and economy are dismissed without consideration.

Inequality is more extreme in America than in other industrialized democracies, but it is oddly much less considered a problem in the U.S. One reason is that (uniquely) the labor movement has never achieved any direct political representation there, so the basic idea that the effects of capitalistic competition need to be ameliorated by government action have never been legitimated. A recent New Zealand Labour prime minister, David Lange, used to say that one of the functions of government was to make sure that the big kids don’t get all the lollies (candy). American government functions much more to transfer the candy the other way, from the little kids to the big ones.

Americans also hold the fond idea that even if they are poor now, they could be rich in the future, so they tend to be remarkably unenvious of those richer. They hope that they, or perhaps their children, might be rich one day, so they are oriented much more to individual upward mobility than to greater social justice. In fact social mobility is less in the U.S. than in most industrial democracies

, so this faith in a “Horatio Alger

” solution may be misplaced.

In every other long-term democratic country that I know about, a political party formed to represent working class interests in the early twentieth century - Labour parties in the English-speaking ones, some kind of socialist or social democratic party elsewhere. Since these represented the economic interests of a large section of the population, they tended to attract a lot of support, often being opposed by one or more parties representing more traditional values.

That didn’t happen in the U.S., apparently because the North-South polarity dominated it. As I understand it, after the Civil War the Republican Party represented northern and industrial interests and and the Democratic Party represented more southern and rural interests. But neither of them seem to stand for particularly clear principles, so what they represent has been a somewhat moving target.

The Democrats’ identification with the “common people” got a big boost with FDR’s “New Deal”, but the key turning point seems to have been the 1960s, when LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms addressed poverty and racial injustice, and the Republicans led by Richard Nixon made a strategic decision to capitalize on reaction to particularly civil rights for blacks and define the essential modern Republican-Democrat polarity.

The modern Republican Party, to repeat, represents the economic interests of the establishment. But the U.S. functions as some kind of democracy, and people aren’t going to turn out in great numbers to vote for that. So they tie it to social conservatism, because a lot of people, and especially poorer and less educated ones, are identified with more traditional values and are in reaction to things like abortion and secularism and having to relate to blacks and immigrants and gays, and they are easily exercised enough to vote on that basis.

The establishment don’t have those values themselves. They don’t care about the unborn any more than the born. But this is a way they can get people to vote against their economic interests.

The modern Democratic Party doesn’t represent anything at all. They are there just to be a foil for the Republican Party, and to be a vehicle to attract the energy and attention of people who feel polarized against the Republicans. So they therefore tend to attract people who are interested in more egalitarian economics and/or social liberalism.

The social liberalism the establishment doesn’t mind; they don’t care too much one way or another what happens to the unborn or blacks or gays or workers, except insofar as it impacts the bottom line.

The egalitarian economics the establishment does mind; they don’t want that to happen. But they do want the Democratic Party to be seen as the vehicle for that aspiration. They don’t want people involved in any activity that might change the current political and social order, and the Democratic Party is a kind of escape valve that enables people to engage that kind of thing in a harmless way. Mostly nothing happens; occasionally, as in the New Deal or Great Society, something really changes that relieves some pressure that might otherwise have gone on to have had more revolutionary effect.

So the Democrats are there to a) represent the aspirations to economic and political justice of the American people and b) to betray those aspirations. Exactly as we see in the recent activities of the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats.





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