The Great Depression birthed two patterns that the Democratic Party continues to plague us with: the lesser evilism cycle which Katha Pollitt once decried as “that ever downward spiral” which would one day find “liberals in hell organizing votes for Asmodeus because Beelzebub would be worse,” and its conjoined twin, the dynamic that makes the Democratic party “the graveyard of social movements.”
The second twin is the subject of this article, but the two are difficult to keep entirely separate. They are outcomes of the winner-take-all, two-party system, which makes breaking from the Democrats exceedingly difficult for the left, even as the Dems prove time and again that they don’t work for us.
Since the 1930s, the Democrats have worked to gut or destroy every movement on their left. Labor leaders were co-opted or locked up by Roosevelt, civil rights leaders were co-opted, locked up, or even assassinated by Kennedy and Johnson. And the Democratic Party committed hara-kiri rather than let the anti-war grassroots put McGovern in the White House in 1972. (After the ’72 Democratic Convention, party “Superdelegates” were created to make sure the base never controlled the outcome again.)
Look at 1992 with a little more depth: Clinton’s ascendancy was the ascendancy of the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council), that he (along with Joe Biden) helped found in 1985. Its purpose was to convince big business that the Democratic Party was indeed their ally, despite the presence of groups like the Rainbow Coalition within its fold. And while Clinton made big, bold promises to American workers (like the universal health care which had been dangled out of their reach since WWII), his key deliveries were to his corporate masters.
The labor movement put him in the White House. Clinton left them in the outhouse. After Clinton’s election, trade unionists nationwide made major health care concessions in bargaining, telling their members that it didn’t matter because Clinton was going to be delivering it for them. Then while Bill Clinton and the Democrats controlled both houses of congress (1993-1995), he handed health care off to his wife. Though she’s clearly smarter than he is, Hillary Clinton was not an elected official, and had no formal power. Unsurprisingly, she failed. Where did Bill Clinton put his own time and effort during that crucial period where the Dems had the House, the Senate, and the Oval Office? He spent that time leaning on Democrats to get enough votes for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that Republican administrations had been desperate to push through for twelve years. NAFTA was the nail in the coffin for the last bastions of US unionized manufacturing, and it went on to depress wages across the continent.
The Women’s Movement (through organizations like NOW and NARAL) put Clinton in the White House. In return, he gave them “Safe, legal, and rare.” It might well have been a dog whistle to the right, who jumped at the opportunity to write “rare” into policy. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s time in office marks the steepest decline in abortion access since Roe. What did NOW and NARAL do about this decline? They kept silent for fear of making Clinton look bad.
How does that dynamic play out when the Dems are out of office? Look at the movement against the war in Iraq: the spring of 2003 saw record-setting marches – millions of people in the US and around the world took to the streets. Bush’s popularity plummeted from its dizzying post 9/11 heights and the country began to talk about “Anybody but Bush.” For the Dems, however, ABB meant they could throw their weight behind John Kerry (a pro-war candidate who criticized Bush for not having gone into Iraq hard enough!). Much of the leadership in the anti-war community went silent, for fear of undermining Kerry’s chances in the election, and by the summer of 2004, anti-war marches were lucky if they drew more than a few hundred. And talk about a lesson in co-optation: Kerry, a rock-star spokesman for the movement against the Vietnam War, became a bland purveyor of stock falsehoods in support of the equally immoral war in Iraq.
Much like 2004, with its “Anybody but Bush” leading to the selection of a center right Democrat, the 2020 election with its call for “Any Functioning Adult” has led the Dems to put forward the worst candidate from the field (with the exception of the late-arriving Bloomberg). Look at Biden’s history: he was on the wrong side of Anita Hill in 1991, he was on the wrong side of NAFTA in 1993, he was on the wrong side of Iraq in 2003, he was on the wrong side of the bailouts for the banks in 2009. He’s been on the wrong side of history for his entire political career, pushing policy to the right for his corporate donors since they came to him with cash in hand in the mid-1970s. We’d be fools to expect anything different now.
The horrors of The Donald have been made all too clear, but we should not forget that the lesser evil is still evil. The moment Biden sits in the White House, he’ll want us to go home so he can serve his true masters. In the coming weeks, we may well have to fill the streets to make Trump leave, but we’ll have to stay in the streets to make Biden serve the people.
Social Movements and the Democratic Party