By Greg Godels
July 30, 2023
With nearly sixteen months to go, we are well into the silly season. The campaigning, fund raising, maneuvering, plotting, and mud-slinging have already reached a fever-pitch. We are told that the 2024 Presidential election– like every Presidential election in my lifetime– holds the fate of the country in its grip.
Maybe it does.
But it is almost impossible to see how the existing political machinery– the two-party system, fueled by vast sums of money, and lubricated with the influence of a toadying, sensationalist media– can generate any real answers to these challenges.
The system’s apologists like to write and speak of “our democracy” — in supposed contrast to the shifty authoritarians. But what kind of democracy requires a billion-dollar-or-more war chest to gain access to the state’s highest executive position? Under those terms, only a handful of rich and powerful people could realistically become President of the US by convincing other rich and powerful people to support and sustain their effort. Isn’t this akin to the “democracy” of the Roman Senate?
Of course, on the lower rungs of the political hierarchy, there are elected officials who are able to fund their campaigns for far less– entry level costs are much lower. It is possible to parlay social activism, media exposure, and a popular base into a modest fund-raising apparatus that propels some representative faces into government. But they are quickly seduced and obsessed into building an even greater fund-raising machine and locating themselves in the narrowly defined political space occupied by the two parties. The weight of the system and its conventions soon drains their independence.
It is hard to find optimism under these circumstances.
Faced with a Democratic Party that has inexorably moved to the right from its New Deal roots, many argue for nonetheless uniting behind the Democratic Party to halt the Republican Party’s inexorable movement to the right. It is a strange strategy.
Odd as it may be, it is sold to the left as building a buttress– a united front– against fascism.
It is the word “fascism” that conjures up the notion of a united front across class, across identity, and across political loyalty. For those with some minimal knowledge of twentieth-century history, fascism triggers memories of powerful nationalist movements that arose in response to a potent anti-capitalist workers’ movement and a crisis of capitalist rule, even a challenge to the very existence of capitalism. These were alone or together sufficient conditions for the rise, the threat, or the political success of historical fascism.
The post-World War One economic crisis and the rise of a militant industrial class in Italy and intense class struggle in the Italian countryside gave birth to the first self-described fascist movement in Europe. The Italian ruling class awarded it power when it accepted Mussolini as the decisive barricade against intensifying class struggle.
Similarly, of the many nationalist movements that sprung up in Germany, the Nazi Party was the one best equipped to address the rise of a growing, powerful Communist Party during the economic collapse of the Great Depression. German industrialists showered the Nazis with money, and their representatives expeditiously turned over power to Adolf Hitler.
We may extend the term “fascism” to other 1930s regimes in Europe– Mannerheim, Pilsudski, Antonescu, Admiral Horthy, Franco, Salazar, Petain, etc.– because they were puppets of Naziism or shared the same anti-Communist zeal which was sparked by intense class conflict within their respective countries.
Whether one prefers to confer the terms “quasi-fascist” or “semi-fascist” instead of “fascist” on the military coups– Greece, Chile, Indonesia, etc.– arising from political instability and left insurgency since World War II is a matter of little import. Nonetheless, they all share– perhaps with some nationally specific differences– the conditions that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Significantly, they also all established an “open, terroristic dictatorship” as defined by the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935– a political edifice built on the ashes of the previous structure.
It would take an enormous stretch of the imagination to suggest that the US ruling class is under siege from a revolutionary workers’ movement, that US politics has reached a stage of lethal instability, that the US economy is on the verge of collapse, or that there is a force empowered and dedicated to the elimination of bourgeois democracy.
Confronted with these historical anomalies, it is hard to see the danger of fascism as anything imminent in the US. Certainly, there are fascists in the US, even fascist organizations. Moreover, there are many fascist-minded people and people with fascistic ideas, even in positions of power. But fascism is neither around the corner nor on the near horizon.
Yet the unjustified threat of fascism is a useful tool in uniting the left behind a soulless, gutless Democratic Party– a shell organization built around fundraising and fright-mongering. If there were no fascist bogeyman, or Communist bogeyman, or Russian bogeyman, today’s Democratic Party would have little on which to base a campaign.
That is not to deny that the people in the US are in crisis. It is certainly true that there is growing dissatisfaction in the US, as in Europe and other advanced capitalist countries. Opinion polls show a broad, deep distrust in long-established institutions. From the courts to the political parties, citizens have lost confidence in the old ways of doing things (for example, in a Quinnipiac University poll, 47% of respondents indicated that they would vote for a third party in the US, should there be one).
Nor should this argument be taken to mean that there is no threat from the right. In response to the mass dissatisfaction, movements and parties have sprung up, exploiting the thirst for the new, speaking to the neglect of various economic, class, and regional interests, and promising to voice the concerns of the majority against the arrogance of elites. Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Thomas Greven of the Free University of Berlin noted that “A right-wing populist backlash… was inevitable.” A scholar of right-wing populism in the US and Europe, the professor then points to the key reason: “For me, it goes back to the failure of center-left, social democratic parties to manage, in a socially acceptable way, increased global competition.”
The breadth of dissatisfaction is shown by the rise of right-populism in many countries. And, as Professor Greven argues, it is the failure of the center, especially the left center, that allows right-populism to grow. Today, as in the 1930s, the cravenness of social democracy creates a political vacuum. The opportunist right has only to fill it. In the case of the 1930s, the ruling classes saw stark choices between revolutionary socialism and fascism. They too often picked fascism and nursed it into power.
Today, there are no stark choices. In Europe, faddish, rebranded social democratic parties like Podemos, Syriza, The Five Star Movement, or The Greens fall as quickly as they arise. In the US and the UK, Labour and the Democrats don’t bother to rebrand, they simply put “New” in front of “Labour” and “Democrats,” offering their services as the acquaintance that you know as opposed to the other that you should fear.
So, if we are to understand Professor Greven, then it would make no sense to embrace social democracy– including the Democratic Party in the US and Labour in the UK– when the rise of right-wing populism is itself a response to social democracy’s failings! How can clinging to the Democratic Party– the party that betrayed the cause of working people– be the answer to the rise in popularity of its right-wing movement posing as an alternative? Surely, this is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
But once again, as in so many election cycles, leaders of labor, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, and other worthy causes are lining up to support the Democratic Party– regardless of its betrayal of working people.
Those wise enough to recognize the Democratic Party’s many decades of spinelessness propose that the left conspire to infiltrate or take over the party, to operate both outside and inside the Democrat apparatus.
But to what effect?
In its long history, the Democratic Party only embraced working-class interests when pressed by independent forces outside of the Democratic Party who directly threatened the party’s most urgent agenda– to retain or gain power. That is the story of the Democrats’ moments of glory: the New Deal and the Great Society. In both cases, the social movements led and the Democrats followed. Today’s urgency to rally behind the Democrats is foolish– counterproductive foolishness.
Plenty of charlatans and hucksters join with the misinformed and delusional to pressure the left to steer clear of third-party movements and back the Democrats for one more round. Like the serial abuser, they ask the victims to give them one more chance.
Another apologist grants the need for separation, but suggests something called a “dirty break” instead of a divorce. Citing the long, tortured break with the UK Liberal Party that spawned the Labour Party in 1906, he recommends supporting the Democrats until the pain is so great that working people will flee the Democrats and form their own party, a process that may need several decades to ferment. Of course, that is the same Labour Party that recently ambushed its progressive wing and banished its left agenda back to the margin of UK politics.
The same author urged the same patience with the Democrats in 2017, then based on the long transitional “dirty break” that the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party made with the Democrats. The Farmer-Labor Party is long gone, but we will probably hear of the “dirty break” again in 2027.
It is a striking fact that most of our self-described left does not want to have a discussion of a third-party campaign. The mere thought of an alternative to the Democrats is seen as an assault on Enlightenment values, endangering the chances of defeating whatever candidate the Republicans turn up! It is inconceivable to them that pressure from the left might even strengthen their candidates in the distant election. It’s too risky…
For the rest of us, there is no way to begin to break the fatal chokehold that the Democrats have on the left other than supporting an outsider, an independent voice. It must be understood that the process will be long, tortured, and with many setbacks. Yet there will never be a better time when it will not be long, tortured, and with many setbacks.
It is not so important that we have the best standard-bearer or that we agree with every position he or she holds. But a good candidate does exist with good positions on the most important questions: Cornel West!
For a strong case for a third party and Cornel West’s candidacy, I recommend Chris Hedges’ article: Cornel West and the Campaign to End Political Apartheid.