Monday, November 10, 2014

Al From and the Way Things Are Now

Matt Stoller has done a rather remarkable exegesis of the changes in the Democratic Party resulting from Al From's party makeovers starting in the 1960s. His argument is basically that from the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement and some of the other liberationist movements of the 1960s and 70s was born today's neoliberalism, anti-New Deal-ism, and the modern Democratic Party apparatus which is deeply anti-Populist and pro-corporate as any political party -- particularly, let's say, the Republican Party -- in history.

I think Stoller is right about certain things. He was there -- or wanted to be there -- through much of it, saw with his own eyes, worked on some of the changes with his own hands and brain. Stoller knows a great deal about what happened, he knows how it happened and he knows something of why.

Yet Stoller seems wedded to ideals and concepts and terminology that is essentially constructed rather than organic, much of it from the Republican playbook, not Democrat, and not even From. (Throughout his essay, it's easy to confuse From's name and the word "from" and so it may take going over a sentence a few times to get things right.) And I think Stoller gets some things very much wrong or inverts cause and effect. Or even inverts whole concepts. It's disorienting.The Bubble seems to be something of a hazard throughout the political world, and it's never more obvious that when dealing with conceptualizers like Al From and the Clintons. The Bubble seems to profoundly afflict Matt Stoller as well.

Sometimes I think the confusion and conflation is deliberate. After a brief intro regarding the recent slaughter of Democratic candidates at the polls -- oh really, I hadn't noticed -- Stoller points out correctly that the subsequent recriminations avoid the question of policy.
Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?
Um. But there's a flaw right off the bat. The Democrats don't run the government. We have had divided government for quite some time. The Republicans have directly controlled the House and indirectly controlled the Senate through the pseudo-filibuster and other means for years. Asking whether Democrats have run the government well under these circumstances is absurd. But it's part of the Bubble to believe that because there is a nominal Democrat in the White House and the Dems have had nominal control of the Senate for a time that the "Democrats run government."

In a sense, the government runs on autopilot. There is a career bureaucracy that makes it go, and the dynamic parts of that career bureaucracy, particularly in the military, make it go hardest. Political influence is arguably less important to policy than we are led to believe by the likes of From and Stoller.

Stoller goes on to opine:
Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. 
A truism, to be sure, but it's just as true of Republican elites. In other words, one could just say "elites basically agree with one another about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance" because they do. One could go farther and say that these elites control the government for their own benefit, and that the higher reaches of the bureaucracy -- which actually runs the government, not the political parties -- agrees with the elites, in fact often is made up of members of the elites, and that there is a revolving door between government elites and private sector elites. There's literally no division between government and the private sector at that level. They are the same people pursuing the same ends, regardless of political party. Political party labels don't mean much and don't much matter among them.

Stoller knows this, or he should, but saying so wouldn't further the arc of his review of From's book and his characterization of the changes in the Democratic Party brought about largely through From's efforts.

Saying so might indicate Stoller knows too much for his own good. Better to play dumb, no?

So Stoller puts the onus on Al From, whose book The New Democrats and the Return to Power, he reviews. The problem is, the Power of which he speaks is a fantasy. The New Democrats may have been the operators of Power -- these days more and more rarely -- but they are not the Power.

The assumption, which is wrong, is that Democrats are running things. And they aren't. The recent election essentially eliminated the notion of "Democrat controlled" anything. There are a few outposts where Democrats hang on by a fraying thread, but once again, as they have been repeatedly during the recent past, Republicans are by far the dominant political party.

Stoller characterizes the central premise of From's memoir thus:
The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.
True enough, but the same could be said for Republicans, no? In other words, the main political parties as we know them today share the same basic ideas, ideals and philosophy. Neither believe that a populist agenda centered on opposition to centralized economic power (ie: corporate dominance) is a good idea. They are so similar as to be indistinguishable -- except for the way they exercise Power, which more and more, is the exclusive purview of the Republican Party.

Dems may from time to time ascend to high office but they rarely exercise Power -- except as permitted to do so by Rs.

Stoller seems to believe that few people alive today have ever heard of Al From, and maybe it's true, but none of us who lived through the Clinton years, especially, can forget him. Al From and his theories about how government should be organized and should operate were on everyone's mind (especially Democrats') in those days, and his name was constantly mentioned,  his work routinely decried as a betrayal of Democratic Party principles. In order not to blame Clinton for his own anti-Populist, and often anti-Democratic policies, From was blamed instead. We see a similar situation now with regard to President Obama. In order not to blame him for his atrocious bank-favoring and war-mongering policies we are urged to blame phantoms and advisors like Rahm Emmanuel.

Well, no. Clinton, like Obama, can make up his own mind. Advisors can be rightly blamed for what they do and don't do, but the policies are those of the presidents they serve. Aren't they?

This would be an interesting question if Stoller were able to ask it, but the present day theories of political economy pretend that policies come out of the ether. They're just there. Leadership and advisors are there to bring forth and implement policies that pre-exist and are universal elements of the zeitgeist. Or something.

Stoller's approach to From is nearly reverent. His intro to the man is conceptually daunting:
To give you a sense of how sprawling From’s legacy actually is, consider the following. Bill Clinton chaired the From’s organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and used it as a platform to ascend to the Presidency in 1992. His wife Hillary is a DLC proponent. Al Gore and Joe Biden were DLCers. Barack Obama is quietly an adherent to the “New Democrat” philosophy crafted by From, so are most of the people in his cabinet, and the bulk of the Senate Democrats and House Democratic leaders. From 2007–2011, the New Democrats were the swing bloc in the U.S. House of Representatives, authoring legislation on bailouts and financial regulation of derivatives. And given how Democrats still revere Clinton, so are most Democratic voters, at this point. The DLC no longer exists, but has been folded into the Clinton’s mega-foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, a convening point for the world’s global elite that wants to, or purports to want to, do good. In other words, it’s Al From’s Democratic Party, we just live here.
Well, I guess we've been told, then.

The key term which Stoller practically glosses over, is "the world's global elite" -- for they are the ones whose policies are being fostered and implemented.

From had a big hand in transforming the Democratic Party under various leaderships from the Carter administration onwards, delivering what amounted to a triumphant reconception under Clinton. The program he followed was to undermine the foundations of the Democratic Party and to replace one set of principles with another. What he set out to do was not so much anti-New Deal and anti-Populist as it was a version of moderate Republicanism, which was neither.

This was something that was recognized at the time and clearly understood for what it was during the Clintonian Era: Clinton's policies were designed to co-opt and enact moderate Republican policies. Republicans were furious at him for co-opting their policies and promoting/enacting them as his own. Democrats, on the other hand, barely had a seat at the table (ask Robert Reich), were barely heard at all, even though they still had nominal control of the government at the time.

What From was engaged in, with the collaboration and cooperation of so much of the Democratic Party leadership, was the transformation of the Democratic Party into a moderate/conservative Republican political party under the Democrat banner.

And it's largely been successful. The problem is that the success of the transformation doesn't translate into the exercise of Power. The exercise of Power is still the purview of the increasingly radicalized Republicans. Democrats -- no matter how much they model themselves on Republicans -- are at best allowed to watch.

So ultimately Stoller's story of the transformation of the Democratic Party under the guidance of Al From leaves out the key part: Democrats do not exercise Power and have not done so routinely for the past several decades. They are instead observers to the exercise of Power by others, and sometimes they moderate some of the exercise of Power, but they do not do so themselves by and large.

That's From's real legacy. A transformed and impotent Democratic Party which serves as a foil to the dynamic and increasingly radical Republicans.

During the Bush era, I pointed out that the Busheviks were essentially committing revolution -- while Democrats watched or sometimes enabled. The Busheviks were dynamic and determined, they set about on a campaign to transform government top to bottom, and they were largely successful. They had no public mandate. But they didn't care. They had the Power, and with that Power they did what they would, and literally no one dared stand in their way. No one who might have done so within the government at any rate.

Instead, they were constantly being enabled and further empowered.

On the other hand, Democrats have constantly undermined themselves and have repeatedly re-envigorated the Republicans after the People reject them. This was shockingly clear during the early period of the Obama administration, and it would be made manifest during the 2010 and 2014 midterms when Republican gains were startling -- not unexpected, though. But it was as if the Dems were programmed to throw elections.

This is From's legacy. It's the legacy of New Democrats. Furthermore, From's legacy is the legacy of "governing contrary" to the public interest and the public will. In rejecting "populism" From and his acolytes reject the People and dismiss their interests as less important -- or completely unimportant -- compared to the corporate and finance interests of the high and the mighty. Consequently, the Democratic Party has no interest in or room for the public. Republicans, interestingly, have maintained a Populist wing (yclept the Tea Party) which is handed much symbolic power, and is actually allowed to formulate and every now and again implement policies. This is something unheard of in the Democratic Party, which has no room for Populists or Populism at all.

The divorce of government from the People is one of the hallmarks of post-modern governance, and From led the way back in the day. Again, Stoller seems unable to recognized that dynamic. He seems to think that by emulating what From did, the People can somehow take back Power. "Organize, organize, organize." But From didn't organize the People, he rejected them, and he undermined their representation in government. When the People organized against their dismissal and got put further and further away from the centers of Power.

Stoller mischaracterizes the FDR - New Deal Democratic Party as "Populist." It never was. It utilized some populist rhetoric from time to time in order to further elitist goals, but the New Deal was not a Populist program, neither was the Great Society.

Neither one was fully implemented in any case.

From convinced the governing class to reject even the pretense of populism, to reject New Deal policies, to reject the Great Society, and basically to revert to pre-New Dealism, indeed pre-Progressivism -- together with all the cronyism and corruption that was endemic to the period -- and to call it "Progressive." It's the triumph of PR over substance.

From should be held to account for what he did. But what he did could not have happened without the eager and willing cooperation of the governing class and the global elites who saw extreme advantage to themselves by adhering to the principles From advanced.

It's worked out well for them.

So far...

No comments:

Post a Comment