The Democrats: and Left Masochism

Ellen Willis

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 31, Summer 2001]

ELLEN WILLIS directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the Department of Journalism at New York University. Her essays on politics and culture have appeared in a variety of publications including The Nation, Dissent, The New York Times and The Village Voice. She has published three books of essays: Beginning To See The Light, No More Nice Girls, and most recently Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial. She is a fellow of the Nation Institute.


I WANT TO FIRST STIPULATE THAT I TOTALLY AGREE with what's been said about Nader's puritanism and his failure to engage with social issues in any way. I do think this is a systemic problem of the left, or rather two related problems: the strong strain of moral and cultural conservatism on the left, and the debilitating division between class politics and cultural politics that is perpetrated from both sides of that gap -- as if it were possible to have an effective left that didn't understand and deal with the relationship between culture and economics. But I want to speak about several other issues that I think transcend the issue of Nader himself and the campaign, and address the larger significance and future significance of this campaign.

The three things I want to talk about are first, the flattening out of political debate in this country; second, the issue of the Democratic Party which I do think is really important to address because the left's relationship with the Democrats, which I called in my recent Dissent article "masochistic," is crucial to whether people can see their way toward another kind of politics. The third issue is the question of third party movements themselves, whether they make sense as a strategy for radical politics and whether anything about the Nader campaign should make us think in new ways about this question, which has been debated on the left for a long time.

It should be obvious that what's permissible in terms of debate, not only during elections but in general in the mainstream media, has been kept within narrower and narrower bounds, particularly on the issues of corporate hegemony, global capitalism, plutocracy, economic policy overall. That is, on social issues like race and feminism and the environment, there is at least an argument going on. On economics, there's a near-total blackout of any real dissent beyond the alternative and the left press. There's more or less total consensus on the proposition that no change beyond the most trivial tinkering is possible or desirable, that any political position to the left of the New Democrats is a throwback to a bygone era, at best irrelevant and at worst pernicious. This argument is promoted by many liberals and even by people who call themselves leftists. Left alternatives are not supported by the American people, so the argument goes, and therefore to even bring them up is anti-democratic. In this context, Nader's huge significance in 2000 was that he was a national figure with visibility and a reputation, whose dissent, or at least so his supporters thought, could not be totally ignored and brushed aside.

Ironically, it turned out that the deterioration of the possibilities for political debate are even worse than we thought, and despite the fact that Nader is who he is, the media nonetheless did a fairly good job of ignoring and marginalizing him, with the shameful collaboration of all of the liberal establishment groups that other speakers have mentioned. And of course the networks were totally complicit in the scandal of the Democrats and Republicans getting together to decide they were going to control the presidential debates and exclude any candidates who were not Republicans or Democrats.

Beyond the observation other speakers have made that the Democrats as a liberal party are tied into the system and always have been tied into the system, the Democratic Party beginning in the 90's specifically, even more than in the past, has been operating according to a seemingly peculiar political contradiction. The Democrats' main constituencies are labor, blacks, women, gays, environmentalists. Without these constituencies and their organizations, the Democrats would never win an election and would have very little money as well. Yet it's become more and more blatant that these constituencies get almost nothing in return for being the backbone of the Party, such as it is.

The Democratic establishment doesn't seem to feel any obligation to its liberal wing even in the time-honored terms of coalition politics -- you give them something, you have a vice presidential candidate who's slightly to the left of your presidential candidate, rather than, as in the case of Joe Lieberman, to the right. Just the fact that it's impossible to imagine Gore being elected and appointing a liberal equivalent of John Ashcroft, or nominating a Supreme Court equivalent of Scalia, tells the story. Republicans, whose agenda is basically corporate, pander rather cynically to the Christian coalition, which delivers votes and also delivers a certain kind of moralism about the work ethic and discipline that's useful to the corporatists. The Democratic leaders refuse to "pander," even in token fashion, to their liberal constituencies. Yet those constituencies continue to support Democrats because the Republicans have become a party run by lunatics. The Democratic Party, however horrible it is, is the party of the non-lunatics.

This situation gives rise to a major double bind: when the Democrats get into power, they compromise with the Right and betray their left supporters; on the other hand, when they're out of power, they completely collapse and surrender to the Right. What you're doing when you're voting for Democrats, and I feel like I've done this myself many times, is voting for a party that you know is going to spit on you because if it's out of power it will be so supine that things will be even worse.

Why this dynamic among Democrats? It's not simply a matter of pragmatism. Democrats argue that the American public is in the middle, they simply have to go to the right to get elected, and so on and so forth. But the real reason, I believe, is that the Democratic power elite on some level feels delegitimized by its working-class, black and female constituencies. What it wants are the "legitimate" votes of suburban, white, middle-class, affluent males. Even liberal voters and organizations tend on some tacit level to accept the idea that they are not the "real" Americans the Democrats must pursue. Furthermore, liberalism itself is about compromise. In the past, liberals have been in the position of compromising with the bad cops of the left, watering down radicalism and substituting liberal reform proposals; now the people to negotiate with are on the right, yet liberals still have the same tropisms about civility and compromise and statesmanship. As a result, while they may succeed in watering down and slowing down the right-wing agenda, they cannot stop, let alone reverse, the rightward drift.

It's important to understand these dynamics on the working, down-to-earth level of party politics, rather than simply on the macro level of the Democrats' ultimate loyalty to corporatism. They help to explain how the Party actually works, and why more liberal voters and organizations don't rebel against the status quo. The Nader campaign challenged this unadmitted dynamic and I believe this is one reason why the anger at Nader has been so vitriolic. By the very fact of being the most serious left third-party candidate in a long time, Nader exposed a set of political tropisms that liberals and supporters of Democrats simply don't want to think about.

THE THIRD ISSUE I PROMISED TO RAISE IS THIRD PARTIES. Now, my basic assumption is that real change, whether inside or outside the government, whether you're talking about moving the Democrats to the left or about a third party, can only come from the pressure of mass social movements. Yet during the Nader campaign I also began to see that the whole Kabuki dance of current mainstream politics between the center right and the far right forces us to consider third party politics in a new light. The lack of contention between the two major parties is having the frightening effect of delegitimizing politics as such to great numbers of people and is validating the idea that nothing can change. I've come to believe more than I have in the past that it's important to intervene in the electoral arena. And once you've accepted that proposition, the next logical step is that electoral reform is crucial -- changing the winner-take-all system to one that's more hospitable to multiple parties, so that a dissident party can at least intervene in the debate, whether it can win or not, and not simply be dismissed as a spoiler. In other words, the left has to start agitating for such measures as proportional representation and runoff elections, as well as fighting the various kinds of disenfranchisement that take place routinely, not just in Florida 2000. In the present situation, one person one vote has become a radical demand.

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Contents of No. 31

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