As another midterm election grinds to a close, with campaign spending set to break the $3.6 billion record of 2010, it is difficult to read newspapers such as The Washington Post as anything but farce. Voter turnout is expected to be lower than turnout during the 2006 or 2010 midterms. Evidently hoping to pump up readership among the disaffected, the Post has resorted to trivializing headlines such as “Obama, the pariah president,” “Obama is scaring women” and “Bloomberg Politics deletes Obama chicken photo tweet,” the latter about possible racial overtones involved in publishing a photo of the White House chef’s specially prepared chicken wings.
In addition to an always-present racial subtext with Obama, the central message of this election from media outlets such as the Post is that an ineffectual and unpopular president is taking down the hapless Democrats he putatively leads. Democratic candidates across the land are “running away from Obama” and his record, proclaims Time magazine, for example.
Pollsters universally predict Republicans will maintain a majority in the gerrymandered House and claim a majority in the Senate. Given the lack of suspense, let alone substantive debate, public interest has declined as the election nears, defying historical precedent.
During the 2010 midterms, in which Obama’s party lost control of the House and squandered a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to a former Cosmopolitan centerfold, I wrote an article for Truthout titled, “Why Democrats Should Run as Big Spenders and Tax Raisers.” Although the article’s tone of ironic exaggeration was intentional, the main points are as true today as in 2010:
If US fiscal history were a guide to politics, Democrats would be running in the 2010 midterms on a platform of raising taxes and doubling domestic spending on everything from infrastructure to health care to alternative energy. Instead . . . they are running away from Barack Obama’s modest spending programs and struggling to justify a very manageable budget deficit.
Change the year to 2014, add Ebola and ISIS, raise campaign spending to unprecedented levels, and the Republicans are again having a field day predicting apocalypse if big spending, big government Obama Democrats are left in control. However, Democrats are not losing solely because of Obama. They are losing because from Obama to Hillary to their down ticket herd of clone-like congressional candidates, they have failed to embrace any semblance of what were once core Democratic principles, such as tax equity, financial regulation and robust public spending on education and public infrastructure. The party has gone from the New Deal and Great Society vision of regulating capitalism to mitigate its most corrosive social and economic effects, to an openly market driven-agenda of bipartisan public sector austerity coupled with massive private sector tax cuts for top income brackets.
Ritual national elections now offer a choice between heavily marketed neoliberal political brands rather than competing aspirational visions. Both parties are dependent on massive special interest funding that ensures they represent the financial class over the working class. Faced with a choice between straight neoliberalism (Republicans) and neoliberalism with a human face (Democrats), voters are simply opting out, with 51 million people who are eligible to vote not registering, and 42 percent of registered voters declaring themselves independents.
Yet the public is clearly open to an agenda of real, and possibly radical, change. In January 2014, Pew Research published a State of the Union poll that showed:
a) 67 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way wealth and income are distributed in the United States
b) 73 percent support raising the minimum wage
c) 71 percent support a path to legalization for immigrants
d) 67 percent say there is solid evidence of climate change due to human activity
e) 78 percent say it is more important for the president and Congress to focus on domestic rather than foreign policy
Pew also reported in March 2014 that much-coveted younger voters between the ages of 18 and 29 are the only age bloc in which self-described “liberals” outnumber conservatives. They vote over 60 percent Democratic in national elections.
Demographics notwithstanding, neither Democrats nor Republicans are speaking to public aspirations for change because their campaigns are paid for by a flood of untraceable “dark money.” The New York Times reports that 55 percent of 2014 advertising by outside groups for both parties is funded by super PACs that do not fully disclose their donors. The Times reports that at least 80 percent of Republican ads by outside groups have been paid for by “secret money,” while 75 percent of Democratic ads by non-party groups have been paid for by super PACs. It should not be a surprise when the national post-election political agenda continues to be tailored to the interests of the ultra-wealthy who fund the elections irrespective of the outcome for either party.
In Democratic Wealth: Building a Citizens’ Economy, Joe Guinan, a senior fellow at the Democracy Collaborative, details a decades-long series of compromises with neoliberalism by the political left worldwide that have led electoral politics in the West to this impasse. In a desperate, ongoing attempt by established parties to hold onto the semblance of power at any cost, these compromises have consistently betrayed the public interest. The result is a global crisis of political legitimacy. As Guinan points out, however, there is a paradoxical upside to this scenario, namely that social democracy must radicalize to survive. Per Guinan (p. 29):
For social democracy, it eventually comes down to the need to take sides. Whose side are you on? Now is not the time for timidity, for all the old fears about frightening horses with manifestos for radical change; quite the reverse. The upside of an almost total disenchantment on the part of the electorate with politics-as-usual is that they are now ahead of the politicians in this game. People buy the argument that things are not working any more. They experience directly the growing inequity, the insecurity, the unfairness. They are no longer creatures of a discredited media. Now people want to hear, boldly and clearly, an authentic message about change that will make a difference.
Having been dealt out of the game for so long, the left suddenly has everything to play for again.
As economic inequity continues to grow, and the political legitimacy of neoliberal party politics continues to fade, there are only two paths to the future. One is a path of increasing state coercion and violence in the service of unfettered financial capital.
The other is centered on the kind of social democratic revolt and organizing that relentlessly press demands for economic, social and environmental justice. The impulses powering such citizen-led democratic revolt can claim a pedigree harking back to the founding US revolution, which was intended to be an ongoing process, not an end point. This is a political legacy that should be energetically embraced by the left rather than ceded to billionaire-funded front groups such as the Tea Party or to cynics selling the discounted chicken wing version of politics.