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By David Podvin
In 1965, the year following Lyndon Johnson’s campaign declaration that an activist federal government must focus on meeting the needs of the average Democratic voter, Democrats controlled 363 House and Senate seats (57%). By 1976, the party had begun a corporate-financed transition towards the middle, and Democrats had 351 seats (55%). In 1980, near the end of Jimmy Carter’s centrist presidency, Democrats possessed 335 seats (53%). By 1992, after drifting further to the right during the Reagan/Bush era, Democrats held 323 seats (51%). In 2001, following eight years of Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” approach that marginalized liberalism, Democrats were down to 262 seats (41%). And today, with the party so non-ideological that the voting public tells pollsters it stands for nothing, Democrats have a grand total of 246 congressional seats (39%).
There is an overriding reason that the Democratic Party has become the political equivalent of Betamax, and it has nothing to do with the malevolence of the Republicans or the mendacity of the media. When a political party consistently betrays its own loyal followers, especially in circumstances involving life and liberty, the inevitable consequence is an excruciating descent into oblivion.
The problem has recently been highlighted by two tragic events, the first of which involved a flotilla of swarthy corpses wafting through New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina landed and George W. Bush started turning a natural disaster into a fatal nightmare, congressional Democrats embraced their post-LBJ paradigm of inert moderation. During the crucial first days of the tragedy, the party was largely missing in action while GOP indifference towards predominantly black New Orleans was costing Democratic voters their lives.
Bush’s behavior was execrable, but as the leader of this nation’s racist party he did what was expected by anyone who has been paying attention. He let the African Americans die. For years, Bush has reduced funding for urban law enforcement and slashed inner city health care services. Mister Danger has long been killing blacks on the sly as the Democratic Party has refused to defend the citizens who are its most dependable voters. This latest double whammy of victimization and betrayal was just a little more flamboyant than most as it involved human beings drowning on television.
It is easy to condemn Bush for being the amoral son of a most obnoxious bitch, but doing so misses the point. In this representative democracy, he represents the alliance of the soul dead. His allies are the corporatists and theocrats who keep elections close enough to steal. The movement Bush leads is a harmonic convergence of assholes that joyously scolds grieving hurricane victims for being impoverished. Conservatives supported slavery and Jim Crow, so if blacks must depend upon right wingers for help they might as well just lie down and die.
Democratic elected officials are the ones charged with the obligation of protecting African Americans because the party has a moral responsibility to defend society’s most vulnerable members. It is also an obligation born of electoral debt. Without black votes, the Democratic Party cannot compete. Ethically and politically, Democrats are obliged to fight for blacks.
So where were the Democratic politicians? In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when screaming on behalf of imperiled black Democrats would have pressured Karl Rove into having Bush act much sooner, where was the 2008 presidential frontrunner? Where was the Illinois senator who is the “future of the party”? Where was the Senate Minority Leader? Where was the leader of the House Democrats? Not where are they now. These careerists have now adopted high profiles, indignantly calling for commissions and giving eloquent speeches and making other self-serving gestures designed to create the illusion of caring. But where were these champions of the underdog when Democratic lives needed to be saved?
Howard Dean can account for his whereabouts. From the very beginning of the crisis, Dean was condemning Bush for inaction and accusing the former Texas governor of malfeasance. Yet as usual, the chairman was singing solo while his congressional contingent struggled with its chronic case of moral laryngitis.
Al Gore was up to the challenge. America’s elected president took it upon himself to airlift endangered hospital patients to safety.
Sean Penn demonstrated more leadership than all the congressional Democrats combined when the actor rented a boat and sailed off to rescue poor people. The Senate Democratic Caucus could have done the same, which would have been a crushing indictment of the Republicans without a partisan word having to be uttered. Instead, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu spent an entire week profusely thanking Bush for doing such a great job. Later, the senator put her finger to the political wind and decided that it was expedient to threaten physical violence against Bush, which admittedly was an inspiring rhetorical flourish. However, in the clutch – when it really counted – her visceral instinct was to be submissive. That cowardice facilitated the deaths of the people who were most responsible for electing her.
When the plug was belatedly going to be pulled on a brain dead Florida woman, the commitment shown by Republicans to saving her “life” was infinitely greater than the commitment shown by Democrats when their living supporters were disappearing beneath the waves. It is through such perfidy that a party achieves enduring minority status.
The Democratic Party’s forsaking of its black New Orleans constituency has been quickly followed by still another betrayal that will have appalling consequences. Senate Democrats are giving John Roberts a free pass onto the Supreme Court despite the fact that the judge has confirmed critics’ darkest suspicions by hiding his paper trail. The Judiciary Committee was denied access to memos that Roberts authored as Principal Deputy Solicitor General during the George H.W. Bush administration. Had these memos confirmed that Roberts is the benign figure conservatives falsely claim him to be, the documents would have been quickly released and well publicized. In fact, Roberts is a reactionary who was a protégé of Kenneth Starr and a political operative of Karl Rove. He was groomed to be stealthily confirmable, i.e., to hew the right wing line without generating any incriminating evidence.
But even when engaging in subterfuge, Roberts could be confirmed only if the opposition party were so weak that it agreed to invert the process. Job interviewers are never required to prove that the candidate is unworthy of the position. The burden always rests upon the applicant to demonstrate his merit, and when the applicant refuses to provide all relevant information he is invariably denied the job. This is a common workplace concept that the voting public fully understands, so it would have provided a plausible basis for filibustering Roberts.
Yet in lieu of demanding accountability, the Senate Democrats have capitulated. They have done so based on one of their many phony premises, this one being that obstructing judicial nominations leads to certain electoral disaster. The Republicans so relentlessly obstructed the preceding administration’s judicial nominations that President Clinton was compelled to consult Orrin Hatch when making Supreme Court appointments. The obstructionism directly preceded the GOP gaining a monopoly on the federal government, but Democratic senators rarely let facts disrupt a good pretext for unconditional surrender.
The result is that a bigot will now become the next Chief Justice of the United States. This description will aggrieve moderate Democrats who astutely observed that when Roberts appeared at his confirmation hearing he was not garbed in Klan regalia. However, during the Florida recount Roberts advised Bush on how to disallow ballots that were cast in black districts, thereby depriving African Americans of their hard-earned franchise. His confirmation perpetuates the loop in which political racists gain the executive branch with the help of judicial racists, and then appoint more racists to the judiciary for the purpose of strengthening the cycle. By failing to intervene, the Senate Democrats are complicit in this subversion of democracy.
African Americans are hardly alone in experiencing political betrayal. Congressional Democrats routinely disregard the interests of working people, women, gays, environmentalists, and anyone else trusting enough to vote for them. These manipulators feel free to abuse their supporters, secure in the knowledge that the many citizens who justifiably fear conservatives have no viable alternative to voting Democratic.
The template for ending this disgrace is provided by the bad guys. Congressional Republicans languished in the minority until their campaign contributors finally demanded that passive leaders had to be replaced with attack dogs. Centrists were stripped of decision-making authority because conservatives figured out that moderates want all the benefits of party membership with none of the responsibilities. In 1993, the GOP renounced bipartisanship to advocate the interests of its reactionary base, even when doing so conflicted with public opinion. The next year, Republicans took control of Congress and have not relinquished it.
Americans haven’t embraced the GOP agenda, but they have rejected Democrats in favor of leaders who are more resolute. The electorate has done so despite polls showing that voters usually agree with liberals. The Democratic Party is out of power because people think it is weak, and nothing projects weakness quite like betraying your friends. Contrary evidence notwithstanding, congressional Democrats persist in believing that it is tactically shrewd to treat their supporters like shit. Putting aside the immorality of the approach, it is a strategy that neither motivates the faithful nor inspires others to join the cause, and that has left the party in a decades-long down trend.
The goal of patriots must be nothing less than a return to the glory days when the Democratic Party dominated the political landscape with an activist social agenda that aided the common citizen. History verifies that Democrats gain control of Congress when they behave as partisan liberals, a designation that merely connotes representing their voters’ interests. For many years, red states like Idaho and Indiana re-elected liberal senators who vigilantly defended constituents from predatory conservatives. In 1980, these Democratic stalwarts became collateral damage when the ever-so-moderate Carter was repudiated for being too weak. Not too liberal. Too weak. Nevertheless, the party establishment subsequently concluded that backstabbing its progressive base was essential for survival, and as a result Democrats are now at their lowest congressional ebb in more than a century.
The winning will resume when the treachery ends, but the treachery will not end until the traitors have been intimidated into fidelity. Recent events verify that the unprincipled Senate Democrats are impervious to the pain of the people who elect them. These cowards are motivated by fear, and they currently fear provoking conservatives more than they fear betraying liberals. That must change. Once a disloyal Democratic senator has suffered retribution in a primary, the others will yield to the will of the rank and file just as they have long yielded to the right wing. Until then, all Democratic voters will lose their liberty and some will lose their lives because the people they have elected to defend them have no intention of doing so.
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