Features » October 26, 2009
A Party With No Punch
Three parables for progressives and the Grand Old (Democratic) Party.
If someone like Paul Volcker is effectively the most powerful voice of the Democratic left in Washington, we should wonder if there even is a Democratic left in Washington.
A parable is defined as “a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.” In a world of fine shading, it is difficult to find the broad strokes that paint such enduring tales. That’s particularly true in politics–many legislative and electoral moves are part of a bigger game, where seeming capitulation could be part of a grander, more complex plan of assault, and where purportedly bold stands are often the first step of a full-scale retreat.
So when potent political parables present themselves as clearly as they recently have, we should take heed. In the last month, three unrelated events revealed the nature of the modern Democratic Party more powerfully than any Ralph Nader treatise, Michael Moore documentary or Saturday Night Live sketch.
#1: Movement Activists Need Not Apply
Van Jones is, by any measure, one of the nation’s leading experts on energy and environmental policies–and their real-world ramifications. A bestselling author and founder of the non-profit Green For All, his appointment to the White House Council on Environmental Quality was arguably a step down for him. Despite the position’s media billing as a “green jobs czar,” it was housed in an advisory corner of the executive branch with none of the policymaking or enforcement power vested in Cabinet departments.
That Jones was quickly vilified by the conservative media is no surprise. A high-profile African American with a background in grassroots movement politics, his White House position–however advisory–was destined to make him a poster-child for a right-wing political lynch mob that has long attempted to paint President Barack Obama as a dangerous black nationalist.
The new and enduring parable that Jones came to personify, however, had almost nothing to do with the conservative movement. The right had long ago delivered a parable about its views on race through the Willie Horton controversy. This time, the “teachable moment’s” central story would be about Democrats.
During the early attacks on Jones, Obama officials remained largely silent, refusing to publicly defend him. When Glenn Beck and others amped up their assault by citing Jones’ signature on a 2002 petition questioning the government’s behavior before 9/11 as proof that he was a national security threat, White House officials went completely silent, even as Jones himself disavowed the petition. After a week of undefended attacks on Jones as a “9/11 truth” conspiracist, the administration showed him the door.
This is, of course, the same administration that aggressively defended Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner after revelations that he had not paid his taxes. It is also the same administration that put Wall Street-linked conservatives in major policy positions, and largely shut movement progressives out of those roles.
In the context of this reality, the Jones firing becomes a parable telling progressives that the Democratic Party that stands by corporate-connected insiders will quickly abandon movement-connected activists the moment their background becomes public or is made controversial by the right. As the Wall Street Journal aptly noted in its editorial about the Jones firing, the right “counts for more at this White House” than the left, and Democrats “will happily employ movement progressives, but only so long as their real views and motivations aren’t widely known.”
#2: Money Trumps Everything Else
The death of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy was a devastating blow to what might be called Traditional Democratic Liberalism–that is, the legacy of robust left-of-center, labor-affiliated advocacy from a generation of U.S. Senate giants who first ascended to power in the 1960s and who comprised the ideological bulwark of the Democratic Party during its 20th-century glory days. With Kennedy gone, 1960s-rooted Traditional Democratic Liberalism is without an heir. (Bernie Sanders, after all, is not a Democrat).
Generational turnover will ultimately relegate Traditional Democratic Liberalism to the annals of history–but what happened after Kennedy’s death shows that passage is the product not just of ticking clock, but also the result of a more structural shift in Democratic priorities.
When the Massachusetts legislature empowered Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to select an interim replacement for Kennedy, he had in Michael Dukakis the closest thing to a perfect candidate for the job. A three-term governor and a one-time Democratic presidential nominee, Dukakis had senior-statesman level experience representing Massachusetts constituents and working at the national level. As the Boston Globe said in an editorial endorsing Dukakis for the appointment, he “is far more likely to deliver tangible returns for Massachusetts residents than a career academic or anyone else who has never held elected office.”
Nonetheless, Patrick passed over Dukakis, a reliable Traditional Democratic Liberal, and selected Paul Kirk–a candidate touted for his friendship with Kennedy and his short stint as chair of the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s, but best known in political circles as a corporate-connected fundraiser.
As the Center for Responsive Politics reported, Kirk has been a registered lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies and has served on the boards of insurance and investment firms. Notably, he has never held any public office.
And therein lies the lesson: When given a choice, the modern Democratic Party will prioritize money, insider connections and corporate power over experience, qualifications and ideological grounding. That’s a truism proven by top-level administration appointments in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and by a Washington Democratic establishment that has often backed inexperienced, self-financing millionaire candidates while working to crush primary challenges from grassroots upstarts.
Now, regardless of how Kirk ends up voting, his appointment over Dukakis is the parable that reveals that larger lesson.
#3: Right Is Now Left
Wall Street “reform” can be hard to conceptualize. The difference between much-promised “real change” and oft-delivered “more of the same” usually comes down to tiny words. Indeed, a change of “shall” to “may” in a 1,000-page bill can turn genuine statutory reform into nothing more than a piece of paper.
Over the last month, oxymoronic signals about the future of financial reform have been everywhere. One week, President Obama is delivering a populist-themed speech on Wall Street that makes him sound like a tough-talking Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The next week, a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Democrats Soften Financial Bill” reports on the party’s efforts to water down its already meager regulatory effort at the behest of banking industry lobbyists.
To get a sense of what is actually going on, it helps to watch the words of someone who has no partisan interest in skewing the news one way or the other.
Enter Paul Volcker.
First nominated to be Federal Reserve Chairman by President Jimmy Carter and re-nominated by President Ronald Reagan, Volcker is known as a right-of-center voice–and more precisely, as a quintessential economic establishmentarian. In elite financial and political circles, this dour 82-year-old is the antonym of the word “radical.”
So when Volcker makes the headlines, it’s a sign something big is happening.
In stunning testimony to the House Financial Services Committee at the end of September, Volcker slammed the Obama administration’s “reform” plan, saying far from preventing the growth of mega-banks into behemoths that are “too big to fail,” the proposal effectively endorses that consolidation.
If the government explicitly backs these “systemically important” financial firms with the implied promise of bailouts, he said, it will encourage even more of the risky speculation. “The danger is the spread of moral hazard could make the next crisis much bigger.”
The message of Volcker’s testimony was as much about financial reform as it was about the structural forces that still dominate Democratic politics. When a Reagan-appointed Federal Reserve chairman becomes the loudest canary in Democratic Washington’s coal mine, it tells the bigger tale of an extraordinarily skewed economic debate.
If there is a moral to this third and final parable, it is that if someone like Volcker is effectively the most powerful voice of the Democratic left in Washington, then we should wonder if there even is a Democratic left in Washington.
In fact, perhaps that is the bigger parable all three of these stories construct. At precisely the moment when the left is realizing FDR’s old “make me do it” principle, we are being taught that our capacity to apply that pressure on a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president is far weaker than ever imagined. Maybe, at least, that parable will wake us up.
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David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.