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The Triumph of Mediocrity and the Demise of the Democratic Party

    The question that is now constantly being asked is how did Donald Trump end up in the White House? What was so very apparent during the election campaign has now, after just one year in office, become blatantly obvious with each passing day. Incompetent, untruthful, reckless, cruel, racist, the adjectives could go on forever. So, what then happened in November of last year? Many have written to try to explain this, all with some merit, but few have addressed the issue of the collapse of the Democratic Party as a reason. There certainly has been a great deal of criticism of Hillary Clinton and the character of her campaign, the overconfidence, the disparaging characterization of Trump’s supporters, and the lack of passion or emotion in addressing the concern of Americans with the direction of their nation. Of course, many Democrats, including Clinton herself, have blamed the leaked e mails hacked by Russian intelligence, and the 9th inning reopening of the investigation of Clinton’s emails by the FBI, just days before the election. All of these have some legitimacy but no one, with the exception of Thomas Frank as far as I am aware, have looked to some deeper and longer term issues with what once was the party of Roosevelt. Thomas Frank, and I need to give him credit for confirming aspects of my own thinking, has documented for some time now how the Democratic Party has over the past 40 years transformed itself and that not for the better. I would strongly recommend that anyone with a concern for the future of our nation and the Democratic Party read his books documenting how the party has abandoned its historically traditional constituencies in a race towards the center of American politics. His documentation of the Parties embrace of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are essential in understanding the demise of not just the Democratic Party, but the transformation of the nation, for we find ourselves captive to not just a Trump Presidency but a Republican Party that represents the very outlook that America was founded in opposition to.  

    As I have argued before, we need to understand that Donald Trump was actually the second President elected as a result of the financial and economic crisis of 2008. While many have ignored this reality, Barack Obama would not have been President if not for the crisis of September-October 2008. It was not until the utter incompetence of the policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush and that also of his Republican rival, John McCain, were dramatically demonstrated by this crisis that Obama pulled ahead in the polls and was eventually elected President. Americans voted for him because they wanted change and a different set of policies and style of leadership in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. What I have maintained is that they wanted, and what the country needed, was a leader of the stature and courage of a Roosevelt. Because of his failure in being such, precisely because he was a prisoner of the mediocrity that the Democratic Party, and leadership generally in the U.S., has become the 8 years that followed changed little for most Americans. This is not to denigrate what Barack Obama and his administration did accomplish, but an honest and thorough going assessment of how we got to where we are today requires that we acknowledge the failures of not just Barack Obama's two terms, but the failures of the Democratic Party as well. We ended up with Donald Trump because the Democratic Party failed the American people. This is, I know, hard to hear, but if we have any chance of recovering a real future for our nation it is a set of truths we must confront and change.

    There are an infinite number of facts which can confirm that the vast majority of Americans never really recovered from the crisis of 2008. It is sufficient to say here that the response to this crisis, begun by the Bush Administration, but continued under that of Barack Obama, was the greatest transfer of wealth from average Americans to the 10 or so percent of the wealthiest. A crisis brought on by the financialization of the American economy and the deregulation of the financial markets that occurred over the 28 years preceding the crisis and the resulting irresponsible and criminal investment policies of Wall Street. Rather than a Rooseveltian, dirgist, a truly American, response we rewarded a failed set of economic policies and punished the vast majority of America for the resulting folly. We bailed out Wall Street and its appendages and forgot about Main Street. Is it any wonder then that Trump’s pleas to the ‘forgotten man,’ a characterization ironically stolen from Roosevelt, the constituency of a long vanished Democratic Party, resonated so profoundly with a population that has seen its economic well-being devastated by the crisis. Yes, Barack Obama pulled the nation back from the economic abyss, but in doing so he failed to replace the failed policies of the past, which were the cause of the crisis, with any new ones. The cure was little better than the disease. Since 2008, more than 80 percent of new wealth created in the U.S. has gone to the richest 10 percent, with the average American seeing income stagnate, if not fall, and the vast majority of what equity they possessed, in home equity and 401 K retirement funds, lost in the crisis, vanish forever.

     I have written another piece, The Not so Hidden Roots of Today’s Republican Party Insanity, where I outline how today’s Republicans represent all but a total repudiation of that Party's founding principles. That the anti-big government, free market lunacy that they espouse represents the very anti federalist doctrine that the Founders rejected when they adopted the Constitution in 1787 and created a government based on it. While knowing this history is essential to understanding how we can begin to solve the problems we face today, we also have to recognize that the vacuum created by the Democratic Party’s compromises has allowed this insanity to flourish. By abandoning its own federalist tradition, the Party has become complicit in allowing policies that have been demonstrated by history to be both failures and contrary to the actual path of this country’s march to greatness. Our Founders, and our greatest leaders, all understood that political, social and economic arrangements among individuals were necessary because that as social beings only through positive combination and cooperation can their innate rights and potentials as human beings be actualized. If the Party does not change, restoring the tradition of government as the guardian of the welfare of its people, the ideal, which was that of the Founders, that governments represent an essential and positive good, only then will we avoid the inevitable catastrophe looming ahead. If one thinks Donald Trump and the current policy nexus in Washington today is menacing, a continued hegemony of the ideas of today’s political elites portends a future far, far worse.

    Most view the history of competing political parties throughout the history of the United States as one of a commitment to different policies, as if choosing a political party was similar to choosing between two different brands of a product at the supermarket. The common conceit is that by offering better products, in politics a party’s policies, more people will vote for you. Another common belief, unfortunately, is that policies are merely the commodities used to gain what is the ultimate goal which is obtaining power. This is a residue of the outlook that all human relationships are nothing more than struggles for advantage over the other/others. A slightly, and that only slightly, more principled view is that these commodities, these policies, are representative of a broader agenda and are the means to convince voters to give the party the power to be able to implement that agenda. This is a bit of a simplification of the situation, but there is an element of truth, at least as far as the way people think about “politics.” Certainly differing policies were and are a significant part of party differences, but a far more fundamental and important characteristic lies behind such policy choices. This is the fundamental outlook each, and all, have towards the purpose of the State, the role of government in the lives of its people. This is doubly true in the case of the United States, where its founding was grounded in principle in a way that existed in no other country. Of course, from what I have written here, this, to a large degree, is not really the case anymore. But if one looks at the history of political parties in the United States, there is a universal theme that runs through all of that history. That theme originated in the very founding of the nation in the first place. As much as our Founders argued against faction and party discord, from the very inception of the nation after our break with Great Britain, such a division existed. While few, with the possible exception of academics, seem to know this history, from the very beginning there were two diametrically opposed ideas about the nature of government, and in real terms, of the type of the new government that they wanted to create. Before the Constitutional Republic we now have was created the young, newly independent group of thirteen colonies, created a confederation of these independent States through the Articles of Confederation. This represented a compromise with the ideas of the best of the Founders who favored a centralized Federal system. They also argued that such a decentralized system did not, and could not, fulfil the promise of those principles embodied In the Declaration of Independence, which they saw as the foundation of any government that was to be created. As these proponents of the type of Federal system we now have had warned, the Confederation, which was the initial government of the United States, failed miserably in providing for those needs required by the young nation.  What resulted was the dissolution of the Confederation and the battle for a new Constitution and the establishment of the Constitutional Republic that was the result of the debates and political conflicts from which the Constitution of 1897 emerged. While there were no political parties at this point in the history of our nation there were two factions, with very different ideas about the government that would be created. There were the Federalists, named appropriately after the famous, and brilliant, Federalist Papers of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, written to promote the ratification of the Constitution adopted by the Federal Convention of September 1787[1]. In the Federalist they argued for a strong, centralized Federal government, with far more powers than had existed under the Confederation, and with the individual States being subservient, in all but specific rights, to a central Federal entity, a Federal system making the United States a Constitutional Republic. Their opponents, many absolute opponents of the Federal Constitution, became known as the Anti-Federalists, because of their opposition to a federal system, desiring rather than a Constitutional Republic something more like the Confederation, something along the lines of what one might call a constitutional democracy. That is a somewhat crude and simplified way of putting it, but accurate none the less. The view of the Anti-Federalists was that such a centralized, and powerful Federal Government would lead to tyranny and they argued for less Federal power and greater autonomy and independence for the States. While the Constitution of 1787 was a compromise with some of the views of the Anti-Federalists, notably the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the first Eight Amendments to the Constitution, it was largely the product of the ideas of the Federalists.  They bequeathed us a Constitutional Republic, which seems to be widely misunderstood today, with a centralized federal government empowered to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” All of this in order to form a more perfect union. This preamble embodies the Federalist spirit of what our nation was to be animated by throughout its history.

    Of course, there emerged after the adoption of the Constitution party and faction. While the first two administrations of George Washington and John Adams proceeded to shape a government and implement policy from this federalist outlook, the administrations that followed, with the exception of that of John Quincy Adams, took a more anti-federalist tack. Jefferson and Madison, forming what became in opposition to the Federalist Party of Washington, Adams, Hamilton and others the Democratic-Republican Party, sought to move the nation in a more decentralized, populist direction which they dubbed more democratic favoring states’ rights and local control and opposition to a federal concentration of power. Jefferson advocated the principle of nullification, allowing States to invalidate federal laws which they opposed. Jefferson and Madison anonymously wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions declaring that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states. Thus began the erroneous interpretation of what the Founders had created with the Constitution of 1787 and with it the road to disunion. In this sense Jefferson and Madison, Jefferson especially, could be called the fathers of the Confederacy, created sixty some years later, and today’s Republican Party. Ultimately the resolutions were adopted by the legislatures of the States of Virginia and Kentucky. Washington considered the damaging implications of the Resolutions to be so deep and lasting that he told Patrick Henry that if “systematically and pertinaciously pursued the consequences would be the dissolution of the union…” Thus the anti-federalist outlook in American politics responded to the first significant use of Federal police power. Whatever one may think of the context, the Alien and Sedition Acts, which prompted the Resolutions, they were hardly the basis for nullification, and could have been challenged constitutionally. However this didn’t happen and the long tradition of challenging Federal power and the Constitution politically, rather than through the mechanisms created in the Constitution by the Founders, using a co-equal branch of government, the judiciary, was born.

    Ultimately the Federalists would be transformed into the Whig Party and throughout the period leading up to the Civil War the battle over federalist and anti-federalist ideas would continue, with the Democratic-Republican Party becoming more populist in character, exemplified by the movement that elected Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump’s favorite President. After the Nullification Crisis in 1832 even the Whig Party began to espouse these anti-federalist ideas, as the nation divided along the Mason-Dixon Line over the issue of slavery.  Anti-federalism became the main political argument in defense of the institution of slavery by what had become an anti-republican and oligarchical South as a result of its economic and domestic practices. With the founding of the Republican Party and the transformation of the Democratic-Republican Party into merely the Democratic the battle lines once again became clearly defined over these ideas between the two Parties. The Civil War and post-Civil War eras saw a reemergence of federalist ideas and policy with Republicans in control of the federal government, as the Democratic Party became the absolute bastion of resistance to Federal power, in the cause of the Confederacy and in opposition to policies and legislation, including constitutional amendments, which sought to end the injustices of what the nation had become and to insure that something similar to the horror that was the Confederacy and the institution of human slavery (and everything that it entailed) would never rear its head again.

    With the end of the Civil War, and the collapse of Reconstruction, with the compromise of principle that was the so called “national reconciliation,” the principle of federalism as an active Party policy died. While a few Republicans would yet advocate for policies that were of federalist character up until the turn of the century, such clear cut advocacy of such a federalist defense of the powers of the Government in Washington all but disappeared. For thirty plus years they would lay dormant until another crisis, of almost the same magnitude as the Civil War period, erupted. As I also outline in my piece on the influence of anti-federalist and anti-constitutional ideas within the modern Republican Party, the Great Depression and World War II demonstrated the necessity of a return to a policy outlook that was fundamentally federalist in spirit and form. While Roosevelt would not have called himself a Federalist, being elected President as a Democrat, the measures he understood as necessary to preserve the nation required an enormous use of Federal power. As with the Articles of Confederation, which demonstrated to the original Federalists among our Founders that a strong and powerful central government was absolutely necessary, the same was the case with the crisis of the 1930’s and 40’s. This was a crisis so massive and complex, not just national but global in character, that no individual State government could deal with it. Just as with the ill-fated Articles, such small and local governments proved impotent in the face of the realities of what the nation confronted. While many of those Roosevelt haters at the time, and of today, argue that the years of Roosevelt’s Presidency marked an alarming drift towards, if not an actual, totalitarianism, such people do not understand either the nature of what that period threatened the United States with, or the genius of the Founders of our nation in creating a Constitution that supplied the capacity of confronting such national danger. They also forget that the United States under Roosevelt both became the 'arsenal of democracy', defeating fascism worldwide, and that the American economy was transformed so that the U.S. emerged from the crisis as the greatest economic power on the planet. Our Constitution, understood in the context of history, and the production of a leader not shackled by mediocrity, the mediocrity produced by small mindedness resulting from a failure to understand history, gave our Nation the ability, just like Lincoln and the founders of the original Republican Party during the Civil War, of not only insuring the defeat of fascism in Europe and Asia, but of rescuing us from the same fate produced by the fear, terror and discontent in facing the worst economic crisis in modern history. I truly believe that if Barack Obama, or any other leader within the Democratic Party today, had been President in place of Roosevelt, despite Mr. Obama’s good intentions, we as a nation would not have been so fortunate.

    The example of President Roosevelt changed the nation, and also changed the Democratic Party, as the years following the war and depression demonstrated. The terms of two Democratic Presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, produced even greater change in America as both used the Federal power that the Constitution provides to guarantee the General Welfare by eradicating the injustice and suffering that were the ugly vestiges of the racial and economic policies of the antebellum South that lingered into the 20th century. Prodded in this endeavor by Martin Luther King Jr., probably the only figure since who actually was a principled leader of the stature and wisdom of Roosevelt[2], both Kennedy and Johnson used the Federal power to reshape the nation and prepare it to enter the 21st century[3]. In the face of arguments for states’ rights and state sovereignty, and actual nullification in resisting this change[4], they both laid the basis for insuring equal protection, treatment, and opportunity for all Americans. And so that that promise was not an empty one they implemented massive Federal programs to give the nation the economic and technological foundation that would insure the future.

     In the proceeding paragraphs I have used the examples of Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. because both exemplify the type of leadership the Democratic Party should and must provide the nation in the current period of crisis. With the Republican Party’s turn toward race and culture as the weapons of political combat in the 1970’s, and with the growing influence of anti-federalist ideas, albeit in a new guise, Democrats responded by coopting many of these free market, neo liberal ideas believing if they moved towards the center they could reverse the loses of the Nixon, and later the, Reagan years. Rather than realize that the battle for the direction the country would take was one of fundamental ideas they opted for pragmatic politics. In a changing economy and with it the changing character of the population the party changed its message and the constituencies it targeted for support, failing to realize that these very changes were the product of successive Democratic Administrations who represented the very outlook they were in the process of rejecting. What Democratic leaders fail to understand today is that the leadership of individuals like Roosevelt and King were not based on pragmatism. The party of Roosevelt was not just about the constituencies that made it up. Neither was the Civil Rights Movement that King led. Both were based on principle, and a universal, uplifting message, the message of the promise of America’s creation. Not mere slogans or campaign platitudes, but an objective that required organizing the population to understand this and thus join them. Roosevelt was confronted by a crisis that produced totalitarian, cruel and vicious regimes in other parts of the world. These regimes came to power and retained that power with the support of a majority of their populations, the forces of progress, justice and the dignity of man either absent or ceding the battle to such forces of darkness. The United States was not somehow blessed to have avoided this battle, the same forces of darkness existed here, demagogues preying on the fears, pettiness and baser qualities of people confronted with an existential crisis; those forces did not succeed because America (and the Democratic Party) produced a leader who gave them another path. The same was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr., who met in his fight for justice and equality for African-Americans in this country, the hostility of the majority of white Americans. Let us not be naïve and try to paint a picture of America as a bastion of the noblest beliefs and say that is why the Civil Rights Movement won the battles it won. Dr. King and his collaborators waged a fight to arouse the conscience of a nation, by making his fight universal, by reminding America of its reason for being, fulfilling its promise to all Americans, not just people of color. He also reminded the nation of the power it possessed to eradicate injustice, both racial and economic, and in doing so making the nation a better, stronger one than it was when it had abandoned its historical mission. In the process he pulled the Democratic Party and a vast movement of all Americans with him. This is leadership, telling people the truth, not massaging their prejudices, whether good or bad. The Democratic Party of Roosevelt was a party of organizers, just as was the Civil Rights Movement, a lesson that Democrats today have lost sight of; this is not to say the Democratic Party is not made of fighters and organizers, it is just that they have surrendered the weapons needed to win, adapting ones, pragmatic and therefore impotent, grounded in the same outlook of our nations enemies.

    Today, both parties advocate policies counter to one another to convince citizens to put them in office. Unfortunately, their pleas are in the most general and banal form, more platitudes than actual policy: being against higher taxes, cutting them to stimulate economic growth, against big government and therefore for freedom and individual choice, for tougher laws on immigration and the list goes on. Such slogans and the actual policies that follow from them are opposed but go unexamined and being unexamined the fundamental outlook about the character of the nation and kind of government that reflects that remain largely a mystery to most of the population. Of course, they can also be camouflage for policies of more sinister character. Today, Republicans openly call for the dismantling of what they call “big government” but what they actually mean is the destruction of the instrument, the Constitution, that provided for such government, all while arguing that they do it in the name of a commitment to the Constitution and America’s founding principles. Democrats counter with positions, and thus run from both either calling out this outlook as the anti-federalist, unconstitutional hypocrisy that it is, and with that, proudly espousing the principled tradition of not just the Democratic Party of old, the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and King, but also making clear that this tradition is also that of the Founders of our great nation. It is time to organize and educate, for our opponents count on fear and ignorance. That is what a truly deserving opposition looks like.


[1] In Federalist #1, they expressed their understanding of the profundity of their mission: “It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” Governments like the first we had under the Articles of Confederation and what Republicans today would give us are nothing but subject to the whims of accident and force.

[2] King, like Frederick Douglass before him, had a far greater understanding of the true spirit of the nation’s founding documents, and the purpose and power of the Constitution and Declaration in insuring what was the true promise of the United States of America. King’s vision was grounded in a profound understanding of history and the struggles throughout this nations own history which informed his passion for justice.

[3] I have described in a bit more detail this transformation based on the policies of Kennedy and Johnson in my paper The Not So Hidden Roots of Today’s Republican Party Insanity.

[4] Remember the images of Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama, in defiance of a Federal Court Order ending segregation, blocking African-Americans who wished to enroll. This not to mention the rise to of the KKK and yet another insurrection against the second effort to rid the South of the curses of the Confederacy.

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