Wayne O'Leary

The New Stupid Party

Several months ago, White House aspirant Gov. Bobby Jindal (R, La.) achieved his 15 minutes of fame by labelling his party, the GOP, “the stupid party” for its clownish antics and ridiculous preoccupations, including birtherism, nativism, and climate-change denial. This admirable attempt at candor went for nought as Louisiana’s chief executive sank in subsequent presidential-preference polls. Nevertheless, it highlighted what knowledgeable observers had come to feel about Republicans and their unfitness to rule.

Now, doubts about the other of the two major American political parties have also surfaced. The genesis is different; racial animus, science phobia, and anti-immigrant fervor are thankfully not at issue with the Democrats. In their case, the problem is political correctness run amok, a less virulent affliction, but one based just as much on fundamental ignorance and simplistic thinking.

With the drop in official unemployment and the onset of what presently passes for a recessionary recovery (low-wage hiring and the “gig economy”), many Democratic politicians think they have the excuse they’ve been looking for to focus away from economic populism and toward social liberalism, where they feel much more comfortable. It’s a transition that allows party officials to discuss individual rights rather than economic inequality, which is controversial with the donor class and dangerous to promising political futures.

In this reorientation, Democratic politicians anxious to shift direction (mainly centrists) are being inadvertently assisted by the new civil rights movement called Black Lives Matter, whose confrontational members want 2016 to be exclusively about race, not class or economic issues, as populist Bernie Sanders learned recently to his chagrin.

By initially aiming their anger and frustration over institutional racism and its associated violence at the most successful progressive candidate for president in decades, Black activists were figuratively cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Two other sympathetic Democrats, Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton, have since been targeted as well, joining Sanders as archetypal “white supremacist liberals,” as the vitriolic label has it.

This aggressive extremism, combined with recent headlines about racial strife, has had the predictable effect on the eternally guilt-ridden Democratic party, which is scrambling to appease one of its important constituency groups by endorsing politically correct symbolism and special-interest catering, throwing more broadly beneficial political approaches to the wayside. To her credit, Mrs. Clinton engaged in some sensible push-back against the more unjustified accusations of Black Lives Matter during a private meeting with the group’s representatives. But the fact that she assented to a highly publicized confab on race, while avoiding similar discussions on subjects like environmentalism, Wall Street reform, or middle-class decline, is problematic for Democratic prospects in next year’s election.

Race remains the Achilles heel of Democratic liberalism. Laudable attempts to unite black and white doomed Southern populism and progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and undermined Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in the 1930s. And civil rights advocacy, as Lyndon Johnson famously predicted in the 1960s, cost Democrats any chance of carrying the South for a generation and ushered in the subsequent era of Republican dominance.

The politics of race, if it becomes the exclusive or even primary focus of Democratic attentions going into 2016, will play a similar role once more, cancelling out dreams of collectively addressing the issues raised by the Sanders campaign and risking electoral suicide besides. This is, after all, still a majority-white country.

Nevertheless, Democrats, for good reasons and bad, can’t help themselves when it comes to race. They have evolved into a party of narrowly constituted social interest groups (Blacks, Hispanics, women, gays) that must respond, whether out of real conviction or political calculation, to the individual demands of its component parts at the expense of the whole. Another way of saying this is that the Democratic party has become, in our time, an institution devoted to identity politics.

And so we have the spectacle playing out, in this summer of our discontent, of Democratic state parties around the country falling all over themselves to change the longtime name of their annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, writing the iconic twin founders of their party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the third and seventh presidents, respectively, out of their party’s history. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the Soviet Communists airbrushing repudiated members of the party’s leadership from official photos during the Stalinist era. (If they aren’t there, they never existed.)

And what did Jefferson and Jackson do to warrant this treatment? Putting aside the fact that numerous present-minded, ahistorical Democrats probably don’t remember why they were considered important to begin with, the two presidents owned slaves and (in the case of Jackson) treated Native Americans as obstacles to progress, irredeemable sins in the eyes of the new, radical race activists. Actually, a dozen pre-Civil War presidents, including founding fathers George Washington and James Madison, were slaveholders, and several, Abraham Lincoln included, fought in Indian wars. Yet, there is no corresponding movement in the Republican party to “disappear” Lincoln for his politically incorrect role in the bloody Black Hawk War of the 1830s.

Democrats, however are obsessed - - enough to prompt state parties in Georgia, Connecticut, Missouri, and Iowa to preemptively vote to effectively ban mention of Jefferson and Jackson at their functions; five other state affiliates are contemplating doing the same to show solidarity with minorities. It matters little that party luminaries like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy admired these pioneering Democrats and celebrated their memory, or that core party concepts, such as democracy, equality, economic populism, the rights of labor, and the elevation of the common man, arose from their presidencies. To modern Democrats, as to Henry Ford, history is “bunk.”

The assertive know-nothingism projected by certain of the Democratic state parties is a thoughtless, knee-jerk response to Black Lives Matter intimidation, the turmoil in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the church shooting in Charleston, as well as a cynical attempt to curry favor with minority voters.

Joyce Appleby, prominent past president of the American Historical Association, writing in the New York Times, called this ill-considered effort to deny the past rather than learn from it a form of “historical amnesia.” She’s exactly right. If the contemporary Democratic party is just about what’s been called cultural liberalism, then it’s about nothing at all.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2015


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