Monday, June 19, 2006

I don't understand why anyone cares about the Democrats: Post #1 in an occasional series

There are a lot of strange things about reading political blogs of another country. But for me the weirdest is that I'll be reading a really interesting new blog that seems to have a reasonable analysis and then, out of nowhere, they'll mention the US Democrat party in vaguely complimentary way. Now I will make clear that I believe that talking about the US Democrat party without swearing is too complimenary. But I don't understand why sensible intelligent people who seem to have some analysis engage with the Democrat party at all.*

So I thought I'd start an occasional series where I talked about how much the Democrats sucked, and put forward reasons why people might still pay them attention (I know the general population doesn't - the general population have realised that the Democrats aren't worth voting for and so generally don't vote - but people on the left).

I'm going to start by looking at a myth I find quite common among any discussion of the Democrats - the myth of the good old days. Apparently there was some time in the past where Democrats were better than they are today, where they stood for something. I just don't buy it, and so I'm going to have a quick jaunt through the history of recent Democrat US Presidents in an effort to find out when this golden age could have occured. Now I'll be clear that I'm no expert in American political history (Carter in particular I don't know much about, but to be fair I don't think a lot of other people do either). Most of what I know about presidents I know because I've read about people protesting against them, but it's a starting point.

Clinton: Now I realise that at the time everyone on the left hated him - and welfare reform would be more than enough reason. Possibly his slogan to go down in history as a good president could be: "I just bombed and starved Iraq." But I won't spend too much time on him, because most people acknowledge how right-wing he is.

Carter: He was the one who signed the Hyde Ammendment into law. American's haven't had any right to abortion since that happened. I believe that if Roe vs. Wade gets over-turned it will not be as big a shift in the abortion landscape as the Hyde Ammendment. When 'women have a right to an abortion' became 'women with money have a right to an abortion', then any further differences such as 'women with money to travel to states where abortion is legal have a right to abortion' are just differences in scale, not a difference in kind.

LBJ: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" and if that didn't instantly disqualify him from being a candidate for a good president, then the fact that he choose the segreationists over the freedom fighters at the 1964 convention should be more than enough.

At the SNCC national headquarters they had a poster that said "There's a town in Mississippi called Freedom, there's a street in Birmingham called Equality, there's a department in Washington called Justice." (well I may have got the towns and the street wrong but you get the idea). They were talking about LBJ's and Bobby Kennedy's justice department.

JFK: Like LBJ only prettier, creating more problems with Cuba, and without the commitment to social justice.

Truman: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

(also a lot of red-baiting and life-ruining was as much the result of Truman's policy as it was McCarthy's personal vendetta).

Roosevelt: I think, generally, Roosevelt is what people are talking about when they idealise the Democrats. But the first thing people must remember that until the 1960s the Democrats were the party of segregation. Roosevelt's party was the party that enforced Jim Crow. Roosevelt's policies - such as the New Deal or desegregating the army were the bare minimum to dampen resistence.

But it's not just the many things he didn't do that make Roosevelt a bad president. He was the man who ordered that Japanese-Americans be rounded up and put into camps.

Bombing the shit out of a number of places, starting a land-war in Asia, making life worse for women, poor people, and those who weren't white, these are not the actions of people we call friends. Those are not actions that can be forgiven. If these were the actions of the good old days of the Democratic party god help us now if we depend on them in any way.

* I'm not talking about voting for them - I take a very calculating approach to voting and can imagine situations where I might think of voting for a Democrat candidate. I mean paying them any attention, and talking about them as if they were part of the left or particular campaigning for them.


  1. Heh. As a Kiwi who lived for many years in the US, I share some of these "outsider" feelings of disgust. It's weird.. I went to see Clinton speaking at my university in 2003, and I was amazed. Amazed and disgusted too. His speech was unbelievably left-wing to the point of socialism (and, dear God, I agreed with most of the points he made!!, and I was like "Dude, why couldn't you have been like this when you were president? Why is it now only OK for you to be a liberal?"

    There's pretty much.. ohh, I'd say about one thing I'm grateful to Clinton for. He shafted pretty much everyone whose side he should have been on while he was president, but at least he didn't do too much damage to abortion rights.

    I lived in LBJ's home state, so I guess I got some fairly biased accounts of his career from Texan "Yellow Dog Democrats", but visiting his presidential library is an interesting experience. I'd always heard him described (by my ultra-lefty, former hippie parents) as an absolute monster, but some of the documents (handwritten letters and so on) in that library show how he agonized over this war he'd inherited rather than started. Not that that's any excuse for some of the things he did, but it's interesting.

  2. (I lived in Texas too, Sonya. Weird.)

    LBJ undermined the Solid South to pass the Voting and Civil Rights Acts (possibly because he wanted a new solid voter-block in African-Americans). He was also, as a child of the Depression, a driving force behind the War on Poverty, which no one ever talks about because of Vietnam. I personally think that he gets a bad rap, mainly because people are so intent on lionising JFK. His presidency was really complex. Way more complex than 'how many kids did you kill today?'

    I too have read Piven and Cloward (the 'give the people a little so they won't start a revolution' sociologists/historians), and I find that theory a little problematic. Do you seriously think that FDR started all those WPA projects just so the poor wouldn't violently overthrow him? I don't buy it.

  3. I still beileve that Truman made the right call on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't doubt how horrible it all was, and the peace museum in Hiroshima is the first museum where I've been moved to tears.

    However the further damage of a prolonged war would have been greater than the damage inflicted due to the bombings.

  4. Don't forget Americans have a peculiar way of voting for split governments in recent years too. Clinton from 1994 had a solid Republican House and Senate from then until the end of his terms. Bush Senior had the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress as well.

    Of course both parties are very broad churches, and both have been burnt from radical agendas in the recent past. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern both got slaughtered at the Presidential elections in favour of Johnson and Nixon (both ugh in my book).

  5. I think a lot of the pro-Dem sentiment is impatience. There's always some (slim) chance that the current Democratic party could win the next election, whereas putting together a genuinely progressive party (from scratch or by reforming the Dems), or successfully working for change outside the electoral system, is a much longer-term project. I know my desire to actually see something good happen in politics for a change often leads me to pro-Dem thoughts.

  6. I'm sure LBJ's presidency was a lot more complicated than escalating the war on Vietnam, but he still escalated the war on Vietnam.

    1964 was the Mississippi summer project - a whole bunch of people went to Mississippi. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered, the FBI (which Johnson was in charge of) did nothing to protect those working for civil rights, and nothing to find the killers. Part of that summer was setting up an alternative to the Democratic party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that (among other things) challenged the segregationist democratic party at the convention in 1964. People had been murdered for participating in this project. 90,000 people accross Mississippi had voted in non-segregationist primaries. When they got to Atlanta what did LBJ do? He kept the segregationists, and even when the segregationists walked out they wouldn't seat the delegates from the MFDP. He also told Hoover to put the delegation under surveillance.

    Those were the two big political issues of his presidency - I say he failed both of them.

    You can defend him as a person, I'm not judging him as a person. But what I'm arguing is that Democratic presidents have always done truly awful things, from the perspective of someone who is actually left-wing.

    Danielle - I actually don't think politicians (even well meaning ones) ever do anything good unless there's an organised movement pushing them to do it. That's been my person experience as well as what I've read. But even if you disagree, Roosevelt still ordered that Japanese Americans be rounded up and put in camps. I don't see how anyone could romantacise a president who did that.

    Thanks for the ideas Stetnor, I'm going to be looking at those sorts of ideas when I continue this series. One of the things I find interesting is that there does seem to be more left-wing people who have some interest in the Democrats, than there are people in New Zealand who have an interest in the labour party, despite the fact that the Democrats suck considerably more than the Labour party. I want to look at some of the other factors, and I think at least part of it is that the Labour party has been in power for six years. It's a lot easier to have illusions about your politicians if they're in power.

  7. Who's romanticising FDR? The internment camps were bad, bad, bad, no question. But the WPA's myriad projects? The Slave Narrative tapes, without which we would have no first-person oral histories of African-American lives in the antebellum period? The Rural Electrification Administration?

    You know, I think it's OK to say that historical figures did both good *and* bad things, and that their reasons for doing those things were both well-meaning *and* evilly-motiviated. That's not romanticising them. That's *assessing* them.

  8. *motivated. Bah. I hate typos.

    (Incidentally, I don't believe Truman made the right call on Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The estimates of lives lost in conventional warfare are far, *far* less than those lost in the bombings.)

  9. But this post wasn't supposed to evaluate the presidents. It was to figure out if there was ever a day when a democratic president met even the most basic left-wing standards.

    I say they never have, and good old days are a myth

  10. But the US has never had a real labour movement, and its political system forces all parties to move towards the centre (although the current craziness of the Republicans has meant that both major parties are now right-wing). You're arguing that a party which was never truly left-wing... was never truly left-wing. Isn't that sort of obvious?

    (Oh, and re LBJ: the *only* federal laws passed in favour of civil rights *since the Civil War* were passed by LBJ. Under his direct guidance. He was pushing those laws since 1958 in the Senate. That must and does count for something. I also think you've got a few facts wrong about those Freedom Riders events, but I'm not very good at remembering those things myself, and I'll pass on researching it. These are comments, after all!)

  11. But the point of my post was, despite this history there are still a ridiculous number of people who beileve that there were good old days for the Democrats, and I don't think they existed.

    I'm not wrong about the history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (which is different from the Freedom riders - the freedom riders were 1961 or 1962 - the MDFP was 1964 - although COFO, which organised the Mississippi summer project was set up during the freedom rides).

    If you want more information I'd suggest as a starting point

  12. Yeesh. You'll note that within the wikipedia article you link, Johnson's actions can be seen as part of a wider context of political maneuvring. Do you see that he was immensely unpopular within his own party for being pro-civil rights? He could easily have lost the election altogether because Goldwater was polling strongly in the south. Then where's your Voting Rights Act? It doesn't get passed because Goldwater is president.

    Johnson's actions weren't right. I agree with you. But *even within the article you link*, there are ways to analyse these issues more broadly, with more nuance.

    (Nitpickingly, Atlanta and Atlantic City are rather different places. There's one fact you got wrong.)

    The Democratic Party *was*, in many ways since FDR, a party which made things better for poor people and minorities. I'm not saying 'good old days', I'm not saying 'truly leftist' - but you ignore vast swathes of presidential policies and the differences they made in order to serve your argument.

    (Full disclosure: I was a US history tutor at two universities in the States for three years. Historians like complexity and fence-sitting. Dull, I know. And not very 'right-on!', either.)

  13. I'm sure people who are interested in presidencies make more nuanced argument. I've also tutored history, but I'm not particularly interested in those with power, except in what they do.

    There may be all sorts of reasons for what Johnson did - but that doesn't matter to me. What matters is that he did it. That's what mattered to Fannie Lou Hamer, that's what mattered to those who had worked so hard.

    I am deliberately ignoring the positive stuff these presidents may have done, because - to me - it's not some kind of ledger book. So many new deal programs don't cancel out rounding people up and putting them in camps. So it's perfectly legitimate to only look at the actions you disagree with.

    Argue that I'm factually wrong about what these presidents done, or argue that it doesn't matter, or even argue that you're not interested in evaluating presidents in this way, but I think it's a perfectly legitimate way of looking at presidencies.

  14. "There may be all sorts of reasons for what Johnson did - but that doesn't matter to me. What matters is that he did it.... I am deliberately ignoring the positive stuff these presidents may have done, because - to me - it's not some kind of ledger book.... So it's perfectly legitimate to only look at the actions you disagree with."

    Wow. I find that quite disturbing, and I could not disagree with you more. That way lies propaganda, not history.

  15. No it just means that there's more than one way to study history. Just like peopel who study presidencies can study the effect of a protest movement on a presidency without ever looking at the protest movement itself and why it happened the way it did. People who study protest movements can look at the effect a president had without looking at why it happened the way it did.

    If you disagree with me make the argument.

  16. But you aren't studying a protest movement. Your post is about weighing up Democratic presidents. If you want to make this a study of protest movements (I believe the term you're looking for is 'history from the bottom up'; see earlier work by Genovese et al from the Marxist historical movement of the late 60s/early 70s), then do it. But don't use one incident from a protest movement as the definitive explanation for an entire presidency. Sorry, but that's just silly.

    Additionally, using one source, one viewpoint, and acknowledging that you are wilfully ignoring other viewpoints and other sources isn't 'a different way of studying history'. It's a flat-out bad way of studying history, and it's a bad way of writing history too. It's propagandist rhetoric. It undermines your points more thoroughly than I ever could.

    (By the way, I'm not a political historian - I'm a social historian. I think studying the 'everyperson' is way more interesting than studying 'great men'. And I'm a leftist, for that matter. But I really really disagree with you on this.)

  17. I think that if someone rounds up people and puts them in camps, if they bomb civilians anywhere, if they severly restrict women's access abortions, and if the best they can do is two damn seats, then it doesn't matter what else they do, it doesn't matter why they did it, it doesn't matter how much realpolitik limited their choices.

    That's my judgement as a person and a human being. I use historical facts for that judgement. But I don't have to look at things from their point of view.

  18. And never the twain shall meet!