Interview with Lance Selfa
Sept. 5, 2012
Everyone–the media commentators, leaders of the two parties, liberal supporters of the Democrats and conservative supporters of the Republicans–are saying that the 2012 presidential election offers a clear choice between two fundamentally different political visions. So why doesn’t it seem that way most of the time? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, explains why in this interview with SocialistWorker.org.
MANY PEOPLE approached the 2008 presidential election with a sense of hope and expectation, but the 2012 election is taking place in a very different atmosphere. Why is that?
ON THE eve of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, a USA Today/Gallup Poll gave him an approval rating of 80 percent. A majority of those surveyed said they were confident Obama could achieve all of his major campaign promises, from doubling energy from alternative sources to passing a major reform of the health care system.
It seems like a century ago, but those were the expectations of millions of people in 2009. Now Obama is fighting not to join Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr. and Herbert Hoover in the ranks of failed one-term presidents.
What happened? One obvious explanation is the worst economic crisis since Hoover was president from 1929 to 1932. However, we know that the recession was more than a year old when Obama took office, and that it ended–at least according to official statistics–only about six month into Obama’s term. That gave way to the worst-ever recovery from a recession.
As a result, median household income has dropped in every year that Obama has been president. Actually, the Sentier Research Group has shown that the income drop has been even more severe during the “recovery” than it was during the recession.
It’s pretty hard to be re-elected with numbers like that. So it’s amazing–or maybe testimony to how few people trust the Republicans–that Obama is even in the race at this point.
The polls show that most people still don’t hold Obama responsible for the recession, but I think that he has lost the benefit of the doubt with large parts of the population. It’s not that they necessarily buy the Republican propaganda that Obama’s policies have made the recession worse, or that the cost of Social Security and Medicare are really driving the economic crisis. But they know that they handed the keys to the White House and Congress to the Democrats in 2008, and they feel today that not much has changed in their lives.
Ten million people who voted for Obama in 2008 were so disillusioned that they didn’t vote in the 2010 midterm elections, when the Republicans took back the House and nearly won the Senate. The electorate that showed up in 2010 was whiter, older and more conservative than the one that elected Obama in 2008–and even more so than the U.S. population as a whole. That’s why the 2010 election produced a Republican landslide.
Let’s not forget just how unpopular the Republicans were in 2008, after eight long years of the Bush administration–and how ready people were for a change. 2008 was one of those moments when the Democrats could have reset politics for a generation, like they did during the New Deal period of the 1930s. Instead, they assumed the role of administrators of the extremely unpopular Wall Street bailout.
So despite all the lofty rhetoric of 2008, Obama proved to be what he always was–a mainstream politician dedicated to restoring the status quo.
Take the housing crisis. The New York Times ran a story in mid-August headlined “Cautious Moves on Foreclosures Haunting Obama.” In it, Binyamin Applebaum shows how, time and again, the administration refused to take action to force the banks to write off homeowners’ mortgage debts or keep people in their homes. Instead, it tried to work with the banks, bribing them with billions to get them to deal fairly with homeowners. And time after time, the banks refused, even after pocketing billions in taxpayer funds.
The bailout program set aside something like $40 billion to help homeowners who were in danger of losing their homes or who owed far more than their homes were worth–all resulting from a Wall Street-fueled housing bubble that crashed the economy in 2008-09. But by the end of 2010, only one-10th of that money had been spent.
And that was totally at the Obama administration’s discretion. They kept hoping the housing market would “heal” on its own. The Treasury Department, in particular, didn’t want to force banks to accept the massive losses that would have resulted from granting real mortgage relief.
So here’s a situation where the Obama administration had many opportunities to do the “right thing”–which, by the way, would have been the “popular” thing, too. But it would have required actually confronting Wall Street. So the administration chose the opposite path–the “unpopular” one.
And now, the New York Times tells us administration officials are “haunted” by this. They’re wondering why people don’t acknowledge the difficulties they faced or expected too much from a president who promised “hope.” But for many more people, Obama represents the status quo that has inflicted misery on millions. To the extent that he is seen as a guardian or protector of that status quo, he can’t expect people will rally to him the way they did in 2008.
I talked about housing, but I think you can make a similar case about a number of other Obama initiatives, from green jobs to the health care law, where the administration tried to placate corporate interests as its first priority. As a result, the policies that emerged were either stillborn or included so many concessions to industry that they undercut any good that came out of them.
AS YOU say, the Republicans ought to be way ahead in this election–but they are so totally in the thrall of the Christian Right and the most conservative wing of big business. Why is that? How did the main party of American capitalism end up with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan?
THE ASCENDENCY of Rep. Paul Ryan to the Republican Party presidential ticket tells us a lot about mainstream politics in this country. Ryan is a hard-line social conservative best known for proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher program. And on most of the key issues, he and Mitt Romney–a supposed Republican moderate–don’t differ by much, if at all.
The Republican Party has moved so far to the right that Richard Nixon would probably be drummed out as a liberal. Then again, the Democrats might well shun him, too, out of fear that Nixon would be too left-of-center to appeal to “swing voters.”
So how has this happened? The stances of both major parties reflect the continued dominance of free-market, “neoliberal” ideas in a political system that more openly than ever reflects the goals and interests of what the Occupy movement has called the “1 percent.” These are the people–corporations and rich individuals–who fund the major parties, provide them with policy advice, and even provide staff for Congress and the administration.
Under this setup, the present-day Democratic Party has basically adopted policy positions that are pretty close to what “moderate” Republicans of previous generation supported. And the GOP is now espousing policies–like privatizing Medicare and Social Security–that would have been considered totally out of bounds only a few decades ago.
Let me say one thing about the Christian Right. A lot of liberals act as if the people who run the Republicans are James Dobson or Tony Perkins or the rest of the Christian Right leadership. That’s not really true. The people who call the shots in the Republican Party are the same big business interests that have always shaped both major parties.
Billionaires may have money to influence politics, but there aren’t enough of them to win elections with their votes alone. For that, you need millions of people casting their ballots.
So the Republicans’ appeal to conservative social issues like opposition to abortion rights and marriage equality, or their coded racial appeals to older whites who fear “losing their country,” help to mobilize a base of electoral support. And while the GOP base tends to be wealthier than the Democratic base, there are plenty of working people who vote Republican, even though Republican economic policies are openly plutocratic.
Most of those conservative positions resonate with only about one-quarter to one-third of the population–in other words, they are actually unpopular.
I think the recent backlash against the heinous comments of Missouri senate candidate Todd Akins–that women who suffer “legitimate” rape won’t conceive, and therefore, their desire to terminate a pregnancy shouldn’t be exempted from a total ban on abortion–illustrates this. Just about every major Republican Party figure has called Akins to drop out of the race.
I think this shows that the Republican establishment only lets the Christian Right run wild when it thinks this will help the GOP win elections. On some level, Republican leaders realize that the Christian Right’s views are anathema to most Americans.
Akins’ problem wasn’t that he holds the views that he does. In fact, Paul Ryan holds identical views, and the Republican platform calls for a total ban on abortion, with no exceptions. Akins’ problem was that he was caught saying these things out loud, drawing attention to the party’s unpopular views. That gets in the way of the Republican strategy of running against Obama’s failures–and delivering the Missouri senate seat to someone who will be a rubber stamp vote for tax cuts for the rich, gutting environmental regulations and the like.
THE DEMOCRATS are using scare tactics about the Republican ticket to drum up support. What should we know about their record?
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS greeted the choice of Paul Ryan to be Romney’s running mate with glee. In their minds, Ryan’s ideas are so toxic that they can’t help but drag down the entire Republican ticket.
They may be right, but they would be wrong to count on it. For one thing, wealthy conservative donors will unleash a torrent of money for the remainder of the election season, which the Democrats are unlikely to match. Second, Republicans have passed changes in state election laws that are designed to suppress the vote of Democratic constituency groups.
But step back from the electoral circus for a second and consider Obama’s record–even in comparison to Ryan.
For example, Obama supporters claim a Romney-Ryan victory in November would “open the door” to attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But that door has been wide open from the day Obama took office.
Even as he pushed through a large economic stimulus law early in his presidency, Obama insisted that he also intended to “reach across the aisle” to negotiate “entitlement reform.” When Congress failed to appoint a commission on deficit reduction with the power to recommend big cuts, Obama did the job himself, appointing as co-chairs right-wing dingbat Alan Simpson and conservative Democrat Erskine Bowles.
The Simpson-Bowles commission didn’t get the votes it needed among its 18 members to put its recommendations before Congress for an up-or-down vote on the full package. But its proposal–for some $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, with three-quarters coming through spending and benefits cuts, plus major changes in Social Security and Medicare–are still viewed as goals by the White House.
When the White House and congressional Republicans battled over raising the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Obama offered a “grand bargain” that included massive cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama offered not once, but twice to make a deal with House Speaker John Boehner that would have included cuts of $1.5 trillion from Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade. Obama also agreed to accept the Simpson-Bowles commission scheme to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated. That would have amounted to a multibillion-dollar cut for future beneficiaries–especially younger people, the preservation of whose benefits is supposed to be the reason why we have to deal with “entitlement reform” now.
Don’t think we’ve heard the last of such proposals for “grand bargains.” If Obama wins in November, he’ll try again. As Ryan Lizza reported in the New Yorker, a second term for Obama would likely begin not with any of the programs to help working people that liberals are touting now, but with “major deficit reduction and serious reform of taxes and entitlements.”
As we said at SocialistWorker.org after Ryan was named as Romney’s vice presidential choice:
[M]any people who rightly fear the policies that Paul Ryan stands for will use his selection as their reason for casting a vote for Obama, however disappointed they might be in his record. But the reality is that Ryan’s program is part of the mainstream debate today because the entire political spectrum has lurched to the right–Republicans and Democrats alike.
ARE YOU saying that there are no differences between the two parties?
NO. IT’S almost never the case that the Republicans and Democrats are exactly alike. But the differences are smaller than they’re made out to be–and they’re overshadowed by much larger areas of agreement.
Let’s start with the area where the parties are least different: that’s in the realm of foreign policy. The old truism is that “politics stops at the water’s edge”–which is an expression of the reality that the overarching foreign policy goals of the U.S. government generally don’t change, even when the party occupying the White House changes. So during the Cold War, the foreign policies of Democrats and Republicans alike was shaped by the global competition with the ex-USSR. Today, both parties vie to win the “war on terror.”
Thus, many people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 as a rejection of George Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of the Bush/Cheney assault on civil liberties found that Obama has continued the policies of his predecessor. In fact, on questions like the drone war over Pakistan or the assassination of U.S. citizens by presidential fiat, Obama has outstripped even Bush. Plus, Obama, using the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention,” committed the U.S. to an air war in Libya that helped to topple dictator (and former U.S. ally) Muammar Qaddafi, with almost no protest from liberals.
So we can see from this how many policies that liberals considered beyond the pale when Bush and Cheney were carrying them out, which are now accepted as part of the bipartisan consensus.
Now let’s look at domestic affairs. Obama and Romney aren’t identical candidates–Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The Obama health care reform law relies on expanding the Medicaid health care program for the poor to cover millions of the uninsured. The Romney-Ryan program would gut Medicaid, leaving as many as 27 million more Americans without health care coverage. Obama talks about modest increases in taxes on the rich. Romney and Ryan want to hand the richest Americans almost $5 trillion more in tax breaks.
So Obama and the Democrats are clearly the “lesser evil” in this election. But these policy differences are contested within a bipartisan neoliberal consensus that aims to lower the living standards of U.S. workers so that American business can compete more effectively in the global economy. A key part of that bipartisan consensus is the long-standing drive for “entitlement reform–translation: cutting Social Security and Medicare.
Ryan’s entrance into the race shifted the terms of the debate even more in that direction. If the national debate–such as it is–revolves around how much to cut from Social Security and Medicare, rather than what to do about the acute crisis of inequality and unemployment, the champions of austerity will have won the day, no matter who comes out on top in November.
This shows how the two-party political system has already chosen the outcome of Election 2012, even if by some miracle Obama wins in a landslide. Behind all of the campaign rhetoric and ominous-sounding attack ads lies the reality that both parties plan to continue the austerity drive.
A LOT of people have a very different take on the election. The unions, obviously. But even people who are considered leftists, like Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson, insist that progressives and radicals have to vote for Obama, in spite of his record. What would you say in response to their arguments?
IN THEIR recent endorsement of Obama, Davidson and Fletcher–who were founding members of 2008’s Progressives for Obama–went so far as to assert that “Obama’s record is really not what is at stake in this election.” Through a fog of pseudo-left jargon, they call for a vote for Obama as a defensive maneuver against a right wing bent on “white revanchism” and captured by “irrationalism.”
If Obama’s record shouldn’t really be considered in this election, then what’s the point of the left in organizing and fighting for its own demands? If the Democrats know that activists won’t hold them accountable for their record–i.e., what they actually do–they have no incentive to do anything the left might demand.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson that organized labor never seems to learn. No matter how little the Democrats do to advance labor’s agenda (promised legislation that would have made it easier to join unions disappeared without a trace in the first years of the Obama presidency) or how much they attack labor (think, for example, of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attack on the Chicago Teachers Union), national labor leaders always seem to come back to the Democratic fold. And as a result, Democrats deliver less and less to labor.
No doubt Davidson and Fletcher would agree with much of the analysis of Obama that I’m presenting. But they believe a vote for Obama will strike a blow against the right. In this regard, they agree with the liberals who think that re-electing Obama will set back the conservative agenda. Only we’ve seen how Obama and the Democrats have carried out important parts of the conservative, pro-corporate agenda, despite some differences over the details with Republicans.
So the real question is: Are leftists like Fletcher and Davidson pushing back against the right by supporting Obama? Or will their stand serve to give a left endorsement to the bipartisan consensus in which the “lesser evils” carry out similar policies to the “greater evils”?
BUT WHY shouldn’t we vote for the lesser evil? Shouldn’t we just accept that there are two realistic choices and pick the less bad one?
IN HIS seminal essay “Who’s Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?” the socialist Hal Draper addressed this very question. I’d urge everyone to read it and think about how it applies to today. But let me just call attention to two points Draper makes.
First, he notes that in the electoral system under capitalism, there are always lesser and greater evils. If people on the left can always be relied on to vote for the lesser evil Democrats, then the Democrats can spend their time courting more conservative voters instead.
Second, he asks if voting for the lesser evil really does stop the “greater evil.” He illustrates this with the most extreme example of choosing the “lesser evil”–the German social democrats’ call to vote for the extreme conservative general Hindenburg as a “lesser evil” to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1932 presidential election. Surely we can all agree that Hindenburg was the “lesser evil.” But when he won the election, he then turned around and appointed Hitler as chancellor.
Draper’s point was that supporting the lesser evil actually opened the door to the greater evil.
Today, we obviously don’t face such an extreme choice. But Draper also describes another scenario: one where the lesser evils, as “executors of the system,” actually act more and more as the greater evils.
Draper had in mind the 1964 election. Then, “peace” candidate Lyndon Johnson defeated the “warmonger” Barry Goldwater. Only months after being elected in a landslide, Johnson plunged the U.S. into the Vietnam War disaster. Today, a similar dynamic is in play. For example, if Obama defeats Romney, it will be in some part due to his appeal to protect and defend Social Security and Medicare–the same programs he has tried to cut in office, and will try again if re-elected.
SO IS there nothing the left can do on Election Day? What about left third-party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party, or Roseanne Barr, running on the Peace and Freedom ticket?
UNLIKE ANARCHISTS, socialists are not opposed to working in the electoral arena. There will be a number of important referendums or initiatives on ballots across the country that socialists should support or oppose. For example, if I lived in California, I would be sure to vote against Referendum 32, which would cripple unions’ abilities to participate in politics while giving corporations a virtual blank check.
When it comes to candidates, though, I think voting is a secondary consideration this year. If you want to register a protest against the two-party duopoly on Election Day, you could vote for Stein or Barr or a socialist candidate. But these are all shoestring efforts that don’t have much behind them.
They don’t have the “movement” backing that the recent campaigns of Ralph Nader have, especially his 2000 Green Party candidacy. Then, Nader captured the imagination of thousands of activists across the country–many of them newly radicalized through the global justice movement. Socialists were involved in that effort and helped Nader and the Greens to post the highest left-of-center third-party vote since 1948.
Nothing similar exists today. So we need to spend our time building on the lessons of the upsurge of struggle of the last two years–from the Wisconsin uprising to Occupy Wall Street to the anti-racist protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin. We have to figure out how our side can organize to confront the austerity and oppression that will continue to come our way, no matter who wins in November.
Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and SocialistWorker.org.