The Democrats: A Critical History

Reviewed by Chris

Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2008).

With the historic election of Barack Obama, people throughout the world have been inspired by the notion that change is on the horizon. With the Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress, a new context has emerged for socialists and progressives. Lance Selfa’s book, written from a Marxist perspective, fills an ever increasing gap in the need for critical analysis of the Democratic Party. His conclusion is that we will likely see more of the same: if not in relation to specific Bush policies, at least in the broader trajectory of American capitalism, imperialism, and inequality.

The Democrats went to print in the summer of 2008, just as Barack Obama had solidified his position as the presidential nominee. Consequently, there is nearly equal treatment of Clinton (Hillary) and Obama. This however makes the book more relevant and strengthens the analysis. One of the key points Selfa makes, following Hal Draper, is that when we vote for “the lesser of two evils,” we often get both. This is exactly what happened to many progressive Democrats (and socialists for that matter) who voted for Obama over Clinton in the primaries because of her hawkish foreign policy stances, only to have her appointed to Secretary of State, along with other appointments that could just as easily have come from a McCain administration.

Too often, our criticisms of social, foreign, and economic policy are directed at Republican assaults on the working class coming from the right, while largely ignoring the assaults that come from the center-left. Many of these assaults and betrayals are vivid in our recent memory, such as the Bill Clinton’s elimination of "welfare as we know it," the Defense of Marriage Act, and his failure to deliver healthcare reform. Selfa argues that these betrayals are not exceptions but are rooted in the Democratic Party -- “the inevitable outcome of a political institution that socialists have long described as a capitalist party that only pretends to be a friend of working people” (9).

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is on the Democrats’ role in US foreign policy. Selfa shows them as pursuing an essentially unbroken pattern of support for US global hegemony. The most troubling aspect of their complicity in imperialism is that they always seem to say they will do the opposite, in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson's campaign promise in 1916 to keep the US out of World War I. The deeper interventionist thrust would become a repeated theme, as in FDR's efforts to essentially provoke a Japanese attack in order to justify US intervention in World War II, and in Truman's order to drop two atomic bombs on Japan despite evidence that such action was militarily unnecessary.

The list of Truman's reactionary policies goes far beyond these war crimes. Selfa argues that Democrats were the architects of some of the cold war's most destructive policies. These include the founding of the CIA, the introduction of loyalty oaths, and the formation of the Green Berets to put down third-world guerrilla movements. Also fascinating is Lyndon B. Johnson’s running as a peace candidate in 1964 despite having said to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Just let me get elected and then you can have your war." Military spending was later massively increased under Jimmy Carter. The clearest example of bipartisan warmaking, however, is the continuation of the war on Iraq which in reality will be waged by its fourth president if we include George H.W. Bush’s air assault, Clinton's sanctions and constant bombings, George W. Bush's invasion and occupation, and Barack Obama's continued occupation or at least military presence.

I found the book lacking in its structural explanation of why an individual who is, relatively speaking, an outsider to the party establishment would be constrained by that very structure. The ability of the ruling class to affect the candidate-selection process, funding of elections, and access to debates are well documented. But what if that fails to prevent populist Democrats from acting in accordance with their values? More discussion is needed of the mechanisms by which the Democratic Party fills the same role as other institutions involved in reproducing capitalist society. Such discussion would go beyond a debate on the Democrats’ capacity to enact progressive change; it would raise the question of the need to replace the existing state apparatus.

A welcome addition to the book is Hal Draper's classic essay “Who's Going to be the Lesser Evil in '68?” which is printed as an appendix. Draper offers a thoughtful assessment of the way the left often frames electoral politics: either "tweedledum-tweedledee" or "Lesser Evil" conceptions. He says that the first conception is an oversimplification and that there often are significant differences. The lesser-evil strategy, on the other hand, can give you both and “undercuts the possibility of really fighting the right” (202).

Most interesting in Draper's article, especially in the context of increased state intervention in the economy, is an assessment of the difference between liberalism and conservatism in the context of contemporary capitalism:

Under the pressure of bureaucratic-statified capitalism, liberalism and conservatism converge. That does not mean they are identical, or are becoming identical, they merely increasingly tend to act in the same way in essential respects, where fundamental needs of the system are concerned. And just as the conservatives are forced to conserve and expand the statified elements of the system, so the liberals are forced to make use of the repressive measures which the conservatives advocate: because the maintenance of the system demands it. (204)

The United States is at a point where state intervention can no longer be equated with a turn away from capitalism. What is often perceived as liberal social and economic policy can more accurately be described as a survival strategy for the capitalist class.

Selfa argues for the establishment of an independent labor party that can fight for reforms without needing to reassure the ruling class that the status quo will be left intact. Within the context of military stalemate and financial collapse, saving capitalism from itself has been always on the Democratic Party’s agenda:

The "party of the people" will pursue policies that may produce some minimal reforms for workers and the oppressed, but only as a by-product of its historic role to save the capitalist system from its own excesses in order to preserve the status quo. (190)

The current economic crisis has already sounded the death knell of the Neo-Liberal era. The above excerpt will undoubtedly ring true during the Obama presidency and beyond.

Selfa deserves credit for his ambitious attempt to focus on the Democratic Party within a Marxist framework. But the relevance of his critique extends beyond the Democratic Party to a more general analysis of liberalism, reformism, and opportunism. Citing Marx and Engels, he argues in pragmatic terms that the starting point of a socialist movement in the United States is to break away from the confines of the two-party system and form a genuinely independent left.

Reviewed by Chris Hardnack University of Oregon