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Progressives urged to leave the Democratic Party

The failure of President Obama and the Democrats to check the fiscally irresponsible and socially heartless behavior of House Republicans in the Debt Ceiling debacle, followed by Standard and Poor’s erroneous but financially devastating downgrading of the U.S. credit rating, has put the Democratic Party in its most precarious position in years. Even before the “deal” was struck last week, and certainly in its immediate wake, articles and declarations appeared in both mainstream and alternative media denouncing Obama and the Democrats as having failed poor and working people, as well as the Party’s progressive base. The question now: Will third parties take advantage of the potential exodous of tens of thousands of Democrats from their party, activists and citizens in search of a movement that truly represents their interests, as well as the economic interests of the majority of humanity?

The Green Party appears to have drawn first blood, taking advantage of the fact that their national meeting was taking place as the economic and political fallout of the deal was just beginning to occur. Green Party candidates, officeholders, leaders, and state delegates meeting at the party’s 2011 Annual National Meeting in Alfred, New York, said that the Budget Control Act of 2011 should be the final straw for many voters, and encouraged Democrats and Republicans angry at their parties to vote Green in the 2012 election. Greens attending the meeting called the budget deal a surrender by Democratic and Republican Party leaders to the most extreme elements of the GOP.  “The budget debate should have been about how to create more jobs and financial stability for Americans suffering through the recession,” said Howie Hawkins, the Greens’ 2010 candidate for Governor of New York. “Greens have promoted the Green New Deal, with a plan to create new Green jobs with public works programs in conservation, new energy technologies, reengineering towns and cities and retrofitting homes and buildings for energy efficiency, and expanding public transportation.” Tamar Yager, co-chair of the Green Party of the United States, added: “The bipartisan deal was a vicious defeat for working people. We encourage voters to learn about the Green New Deal and compare Green Party ideas to the Democrats’ capitulations and the Republicans’ descent into irrationality and fraud. The job-killing austerity program in the debt deal will make future deficits and debts worse, because the stagnant economy caused by the deal will generate smaller tax revenues. The two established parties offer no vision of how they will restore financial economic security for Americans. Let 2012 be the year voters wake up and go Green.”

Anita Rios, Green candidate for City Council in Toledo, Ohio, agreed, expressing special concern over impending Medicare cuts in the second phase of the budget process.  “Medicare is the solution, not the problem,” Rios said. “Medicare for All, with 3% overhead, would save $400 billion a year compared to the current system, in which private health insurance overhead at 31% is one of the major drivers of skyrocketing health care costs. Cutting Medicare is fiscally irresponsible, Medicare For All is fiscally responsible. The Green Party supports Medicare For All. Blacks and Latinos have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn, with loss of jobs and health care that have pushed many of us out of the middle class. The budget deal and attacks on Medicare and other programs have only made the situation worseand enraged many people against President Obama’s readiness to abandon us.”

Popular writer and radio commentator Jim Hightower was particularly critical of Obama in a Facebook note Hightower posted this morning:

In his big battle over the debt ceiling, Barack Obama waved his white hankie of surrender, allowing the loopiest of the tea party extremists in the Republican House to slash some $1 trillion from national programs that ordinary Americans count on. Obama’s bad deal also puts Social Security and Medicare at risk, while promising to make our depressed economy (and even the deficit) worse. And he cravenly conceded to the demand by GOP/tea party extremists that tax-dodging corporations, hedge-fund profiteers and the richest 1 percent of our nation’s plutocratic elite keep every dime of their subsidies, tax breaks and other federal giveaways. Not to worry, though, for Obama now says that stage two of the deficit reduction process will be better. The pampered and privileged few, he insists, will also have to “chip in,” and that he’ll be “fighting for” fundamental principles of fairness. But we’ve all seen again and again that this guy “fights” by backing up and begging for compromise. He talks tough about fighting for fairness “next time.” When will next time be now? I know a bit about fighting, having been a small guy growing up in a small Texas town where confrontations often popped up. I learned early on that you should never hit a man with glasses; you should hit him with something much heavier. The heavy “something” that Obama has at his disposal is the fact that the American people are overwhelmingly on his side in this fight. Rather than playing budgetary patty-cake with Republicans in the backrooms of Washington, negotiating over how much of FDR’s New Deal to throw out the window, he needs to FDR-up, get out of Washington, and rally the majority to go after the greedheads and screwballs with a bold program to get America moving again – moving upward and moving together.

Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect was even more stark when he wrote that the President and the Democrats gave in to politicians who represent the beliefs of no more than 20 to 25 percent of the electorate. “The real story,” Kuttner wrote, “is that Republicans played President Obama like a violin; and that the deal is terrible economics.”

John Atcheson added:

The pieces are in place for the Plutocrats final victory … an industry friendly Supreme Court; a Democratic Party that is either in collusion with the plutocrats, or so cowardly as to be neutered; a press that reports outlandish lies and objective facts as if they were equivalent; and a public that is dazed and confused and convinced the government is their enemy.

The satirical newspaper The Onion chimed in, attributing to Obama the statement that the “Debt Ceiling Deal Required Tough Concessions By Both Democrats And Democrats Alike.” In the meantime, The Greens and other progressive parties are welcoming disaffected Democrats (and Republicans) with open arms. San Francisco Green Party activist Jack Wagner suggests that Greens should mobilize and host meetings “in every major U.S. city.” A new Facebook group, “Declare Your Independence from the Democrats!” already has 1,210 members and is growing quickly. Although the group is mainly facilitating internal debates about exactly where to go (debates featuring longtime third party activists as well as freshly disaffected Democrats), the quick growth of the group suggests that more than a few people are taking a good, hard look at alternative politics. Many of the group’s members appear to be entertaining socialist-oriented ideas, a trend which has been slowly but steadily growing in recent weeks.

Whatever the final destination of progressives, the discontent in the Democratic Party is palpable, and potentially fatal to the Party’s 2012 prospects. On July 30th, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party passed a resolution accusing Obama of “negotiating away Democratic Party principles to extremist Republicans.” The resolution left open the possibility of a challenge to Obama from within the Party, although such challenges rarely succeed, and the current trend seems to be for Democratic progressives to contemplate leaving the Party altogether. Meanwhile, at Black Agenda Report, the voices of furious activists continue to grow, along with predictions consistent with the rest of this article, concerning the eventual downfall of the Democratic Party:

“Black people who invested so much in Obama are being betrayed in a way that they could never have imagined,” said Tony Monteiro, professor of African Studies at Temple University. “On the one side, you have the rightwing bargain made between the Obama White House and Congress that constitutes an assault on the social contract that Americans take for granted,” said the veteran scholar and social activist. “On the other side, you have an economy that could easily go back into recession, and maybe even depression, that could drag most of the world down with it.” If Obama is at the top of the ticket, “it is very probable that he will bring the rest of the Democratic Party down…. This is the political debacle that Obama’s presidency has wrought.”

Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast made this prophetic statement:

To the left’s dismay, President Obama and other mainstream Democrats have shown themselves quite willing to cut Medicare and Social Security, long the Democratic Party’s red lines. But it’s sheer fantasy to imagine Democrats doing that in a major way without some corresponding Republican compromise on taxes. If the Democratic Party agreed to large entitlement cuts without any revenue increases, it would so betray its reason for existence as to make likely its eventual replacement by another party of the left.

Although not every left activist believes the Democratic Party’s “reason for existence” is the protection of the interests of poor and working people (see any one of a number of essays at the World Socialist Web Site, for example), it’s certainly the rhetorical juice that has sustained the Democrats, and that juice is, without a doubt, running dry. In the coming weeks, politicalcontext.org, through our Context2012 project, will highlight left, right, and centrist third parties, all of whom are hoping to take advantage of current dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

To these descriptions, we might add a few speculative remarks. First, although in the past Democratic presidents have been able to respond to public perception of their betrayal of principles by throwing a few scraps of policy to the working class in order to re-mobilize progressives come election time, Team Obama seems either incapable or unwilling to do this. Although the mainstream media attributes this to Obama’s failure of message and vision, it is becoming increasingly clear that the President never had this vision in the first place; the accusations from the right that Obama the campaigner was speaking in meaningless platitutes appears to have been vindicated. And even if he wanted to, Obama could not feasibly push any progressive policy reforms through the House anyway. He will most likely continue to play the Great Compromiser, to the amusement of victorious Republicans and the growing disenchantment of progressives.

Second, if a progressive populist movement takes shape that has numbers and anger similar to that of the Tea Party in 2008-2010, this movement would have power far beyond its numbers, and could very well push the institutional Democratic Party further left, the same way the Teabaggers pushed the GOP to the far right. However, we should remember that the Tea Party phenomenon was, in the first and final analysis, spurred by billionaires rather than ordinary working people; this was responsible for its momentum and influence. A progressive populist movement would have to be truly genuine and grass roots in order to exercise a similar influence. The numbers, intelligence, and passion are all there, to be sure. The question is whether this movement will produce leaders capable of overcoming the corporate colonization of American politics.

Third and finally, in response to Democrats’ fear that defecting progressives will guarantee a sweep for the GOP in 2012, we might read the words of Alexander Cockburn at Counterpunch, who speculates, with good reason, I think, that a McCain victory in 2008 would have been better for progressive politics than the disappointing Obama presidency has been:

Indeed, the best outcome for the left in 2008 would have been a victory for McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent.  McCain! But, you wail, he would have plunged America into new wars, kept Guantanamo open, launched an onslaught on entitlements, surrendered to Wall Street and the banks…
McCain would have tried all these things, but maybe he would have quailed amid a storm of public protest. Under W. Bush’s two terms the spirit of opposition throve; the antiwar movement flourished; the labor movement was active; blacks militant.  Amid a brilliant campaign mounted  by the AFL-CIO, Bush’s hopes to gut social programs were dead within months of the start of his second term  in 2004.  But since 2008 a Democratic president has neutralized all these constituencies.

The many progressives now contemplating walking away from the Democratic Party no longer wish to remain neutralized.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.