And so we’re back, dear readers, with another installment of “Explaining American Politics to Non Americans”, in which yours truly attempts to guide you through the strange, savage, and unforgiving terrain of our nation’s government. Today we cover the other side to our two-party system: the Democrats.
Democrats are, like it or not, usually seen as the good guys by plenty of folks out there in the wide world. More diplomatic, less rapaciously capitalistic, more secular, less imperialistic, and so on.
Or so the image goes.
But is that reputation an accurate one?
The answer might surprise you.
No, It’s Not
Okay, I guess that wasn’t really a surprise.
I’ve made no secret of my contempt for the president and my fundamental issues with liberalism in general. But my own irritations aside, the facts must be faced- Democrats aren’t the glorious heroes that the world (or they) imagine them to be.
Let me break it down here.
Democrats Are Still Incredibly Right-Wing
And that’s going to be weird for a lot of the world. Pretty much everywhere else on the planet, there’s a comparatively broad range of political discourse, though even relatively conservative parties still tend to endorse free(ish) healthcare and education. The Democrats seem to get mistaken as being simply an American version of what many beyond our borders take for granted- a center-left party advocating universal healthcare, free education, environmental protection, and championship of the poor and working class.
That’s just not how it is.
First, let’s start with healthcare.
Don’t get me wrong- there are plenty of vocal liberals within the party (we’ll get to them in a second) who advocate the principles I mentioned above, the party has more often than not capitulated to these demands, rather than having fought for ’em.
The Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, as it’s more commonly called, serves an example of this. While it’s absolutely an achievement (credit where credit is due), it’s about as far as possible from the systems used elsewhere in the world.
Now I’m not going to presume to know where you’re coming from, dear readers (Canada and Northern Europe tend to be big hits for us here at CWR), but I’m guessing that wherever it is, you enjoy some degree of universal healthcare. Chances are that you’re healthcare system is subsidized through hefty taxes, if not owned outright by the state. The present state of healthcare in the good ol’ US of A, however, works like so:
Since Obamacare’s legislation, all Americans are simply required to “have” health insurance. While certain points of the law keep insurance companies from preventing people with pre-existing conditions from getting service, these are all still private companies. Some programs exist to assist the extremely poor in getting some assistance in paying for insurance, but most everyone has to pay for it on their own (and it is not cheap, folks).
And that’s it. The hallmark of healthcare reform in this country.
Hardly what you’d call socialistic (though it doesn’t stop Conservatives from trying).
As far as education goes, while Democrats have, at some points, fought for more funding for public schools, this is by no means a byline of the party. In fact, one of the greatest struggles by teacher’s unions was waged against Democratic Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel had been consistently slashing funding to public schools in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, as well as pushing for stringent merit-pay measures. Not at all what one would expect form a left-wing party. And as far as colleges go, “Debt Forgiveness” remains the pipe-dreams of only the most radical elements of the party.
While the environment gets likewise associated with the former-hippies who flooded the party in the 70s, once again, the Democrats aren’t so much a green party as a party with greens in it. One of the best examples is actually an old episode of The West Wing, created by the extremely liberal filmmaker Aaron Sorkin (presently using The Newsroom as his new soapbox).
Now granted, that was back in the 90s, but certainly that just shows how recent of a development concern for the environment is. In spite of Al Gore and the occasional bill bolstering the Environmental Protection Act, green issues aren’t something the party’s centered on. And I could go on all day here, raging about everything from Democrat endorsements of wars, capitalism, torture- you name it. But time’s limited, so we gotta ask-
So how did this all happen?
Well let’s take a look at:
For all the Republican’s praise of tradition and the good ol’ days, it’s actually the Democratic Party which is the older of the two, with their roots leading all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Back then, the Democrats were called Republicans (I know how confusing that can make things), and tended to champion the cause of rural and agrarian Americans, as opposed to the city-dwellers in the more industrialized New England states. In fact, many of the issues now associated with (modern-day) Republicans were actually Democrat principles. State’s rights in particular were a major point for Democrats, and back in the day, that absolutely did include the defense of the institution of slavery. The Democratic party was, for the majority of its history, dominated by White Southerners.
How did we get from proto-Republicans to the party we know today? While there’s still some debate on the subject, most folks will point to the New Deal- a massive bundle of social programs brought in by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Addressing everything from farming to conservation to regulation to healthcare, the New Deal was arguably the greatest shift by Democrats from their deeply traditionalist roots towards the advocates of the welfare state.
Still, it was in the 1960s that the party really began to change, pulled slowly but surely into the civil rights struggle. While plenty of Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats, as they were less-than-affectionately termed) opposed these changes, various civil rights groups managed to force the Kennedy and subsequent Johnson administrations into reluctantly enforcing the end of segregation. Following years would see many of the hippies, reformers, and would-be revolutionaries of the peace-and-love era join the Democrat party, catalyzed by widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. Slowly but surely, these folks helped transform the Democrats into the more inclusive of the two parties, placing further and further emphasis on federal power, and leaving the old party’s principles behind.
And here’s where the problems begin…
The Good Guys Aren’t So Good
While both Republicans and Democrats have tried to cite themselves as being the heroic rescuers of American Democracy, recent years have seen the Democrats generally do a better job of it. 31% of Americans are registered as Democrats (a staunch lead of the 25% who’re registered Republicans). With the public view shifting more and more in favor of more liberal policies, such as gay rights and marijuana legalization, as well record-high numbers of Americans dependent on welfare, many have suggested that liberals have actually won the culture wars. In spite of their sordid past, Democrats have hailed themselves as the party of the people, consistently drawing hefty support from female, black, and Hispanic demographics.
Which begs the question- “why does everyone hate ’em?”
Time and time again, the Democrats have been routed by their much smaller Republican opponents. While some might praise the Republican’s better organization or decry their support from major donors (which, by the way, Democrats also enjoy), there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between who the Democrats claim to be and who they actually are. And it has a lot to do with-
A Legacy Hijacked
Democrats have trouble reconciling their image as an inclusive, modern, progressive party with the general inefficacy of their policies. Liberals rally to the cry of equality and liberty and promptly charge in the opposite direction, and find themselves bewildered when their programs and policies just don’t work. They keep trying to reverse engineer these things, thinking “Dammit- I just don’t get it. We did this before.”
Ah, but they didn’t- just look at Kennedy.
While plenty of people hail Kennedy as some kind of second-coming, the reality of the situation is that the shamelessly womanizing JFK (and his brother, Robert) had to be dragged into the civil rights fight kicking and screaming. Now Democratic Congressman John Lewis, in his memoir Walking With The Wind, recounts how the Kennedy administration consistently dragged their feet in defending racial equality and attempted to water down rhetoric from even the most moderate of campaigners, MLK Jr. For ****’s sake, George Wallace- Alabama governor who declared “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” was a Democrat.
In fact, plenty of the victories Democrats claim as their own were won by anarchists, socialists, and radical dissidents even contemporary liberals would shy from. Unions and fair labor laws? Thank the socialists for that. Women’s rights? Championed by anarchists like Emma Goldman and communists like Helen Keller. Gay rights? Peaceful protest? Unrepentant Marxist Bayard Rustin.
Now again, these are all accomplishments the overwhelming number of Democrats, both pleb and politician alike, believe are right and good. That is not the issue. The issue is, again, in application, with Democrats trying in vain to reverse-engineer someone else’s accomplishments. As a result, we have such ridiculous stunts like the “Parents Music Resource Center” or “PMRC”.
Back in 1985, The PMRC was founded by a certain Mrs. Tipper Gore, aided with the enthusiastic support of her then-husband, Democratic Senator Al Gore. Back then, the PMRC held a series of McCarthy-esque witch hunts against music with “questionable content”, relying on that age-old excuse:
While the PMRC’s shoddy attempt at censorship was beautifully smashed by the eloquent arguments of Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, the overall issue remains. “Censorship” was the solution arrived at by the self-proclaimed defenders of individual freedoms, and lest anyone accuse me of being too selective, let me offer a more recent example.
take a look at this:
What are we looking at here?
Unrest in Ukraine? The aftermath of a protest in the Middle East?
Nope, that’s Scott Olsen, US military veteran nearly killed in 2011, during the brutal crackdown on the Occupy Oakland protests.
Which of the two parties was running Oakland? Here’s a hint- it wasn’t Republicans. While plenty of Democrats have latched onto terms like “occupy” and “the 99%”, it was actually a Democrat Mayor (Jean Quan, for thankfully is no longer in power) who conducted the most brutal suppression of the movement. And again, it’s not because I think Jean Quan saw the things the protestors were after as being fundamentally opposed to either her or her party’s platform, I just think that she, like so many Democrats, just doesn’t get it.
Which brings us to the really scary stuff…
The New Normalcy?
As Republicans struggle to find their bearings in a post-soviet world, the Democrats may very well resume their old role. As the old saying goes “Every revolutionary becomes a conservative the day after the revolution. Now that the world has shifted slowly but surely to the vision of many Democrats, it may perhaps be plausible for them to become, in some sense, more conservative- more interested in maintaining their present status than achieving for new initiatives. While progressives continue to howl for more “extreme” candidates like Elizabeth Warren to run, currently the only major candidate to receive the broad support of the party is Hilary Clinton. And in spite of the enthusiastic applause of her followers, Clinton is certainly no liberal messiah.
Clinton has consistently and unabashedly pronounced more hawkish rhetoric than the already trigger-happy Obama, and lest anyone accuse me of being uncharitable, Clinton continues to support her vote in favor of the Iraq War, as well as touting a hardline policy with Iran. She’s been consistently pro-Israel, she opposed independence for Scotland, and in spite of her hockey attempts to appeal to the poor and working class, is herself estimated to be a multimillionaire. For ****’s sake, Frank Underwood would be a more liberal politician.
Beyond that, what exactly is Clinton bringing to the table? Democrats have typically appealed to the American publicly, rightly or wrongly, on the basis that they’re bringing in the old legacy of sweeping social reforms. FDR had the New Deal, JFK had the Civil Rights, Obama had Obamacare, and so on.
But what’s being offered here?
It’s early in the race folks, but it just seems like more of the same.