In an earlier thread, fish made a comment in defense of the rhetoric that “there’s no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans”. In what follows, sections in italics come from that comment (and the addendum that follows it).
fish’s comment begins:
I know what you are saying about the “no difference” meme. I have held the position for a long time, but I think recent changes in the political climate are forcing me to soften that stance. There are a few points to make though that justifies that position more than I think you allow.
And later he notes, “the statement ‘there is no difference between the parties’ was more true pre Bush43.”
Given these retreats from a strong position, some of what follows may seem a bit of an over-reaction. However, this meme is a pet peeve of mine, and I hope fish will forgive me for jumping up and down on it a bit.
* * * * *
First, I don’t think the current administration can be used as representative of Republican ideology or representative of even conservatism through US history, at least if that word has any meaning anymore. The Bush43 administration is more of an outgroup of profound stupidity, greed, and incompetence.
I don’t think the current administration is representative of any historical conservatism, but I do think it’s the endpoint of a trajectory that can be traced from Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan to Gingrich to DeLay to CheneyBush — in other words, what has called itself the “conservative movement” (however much of a misnomer that became). In this context, it is Bush41 that is the anomaly. (Also: despite the movement being generated out of his supporters, Goldwater himself seems to have become relatively estranged from the movement as such fairly early on.)
The various arms of the “conservative movement” — the politicians, media organs, propaganda houses, and fundie hives — have etched the mantra that “government is always the problem” into their bones and, whether they really intended to or not, turned the GOP into a machine that destroys government. Not “shrinks”, “curbs”, or “limits”, but “destroys” in the sense of “perverts to the point where it becomes useless for it’s original function”. It is not at all clear how the GOP can get from where it is now to being a functional conservative party under any rational meaning of “conservative”.
The most pervasive and reflexive tool they use to enact their agenda is brand differentiation: if a Democrat says it first, it’s wrong; if a Democrat takes a position, the opposite position must be taken (unless it’s a position they want, in which case the Democrat can be patted on the head for being “bipartisan” — cue David Broder, swooning); and if one of their own takes a position favored by Democrats, or otherwise deviates from the movement image, that person is now either a liberal (if that’s useful and a “D” can be stuck after their name on Fox News, e.g. Mark Foley) or a traitor (e.g. Chuck Hagel, who it is impossible to argue is liberal). This principle has been applied to, notably, torture; one of its purest expressions is Jonah Goldberg’s magnum opus. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” and one aspect of that reality is that liberals are always wrong.
In saying this, I’m not really trying to demonize Republicans as individuals or to say that all (or perhaps even a majority of) conservatives are aligned with that GOP machine. Sure there are a lot of real nuts, but even among the politicians I imagine there are many just caught up in the system who don’t see any other options (and others like Arlen Specter, who can be fooled every time). There’s no other model of conservatism in the US right now with any real political weight (pace Ron Paul supporters).
In order to say “there’s no difference between the parties”, it seems to me it is necessary to ignore what the GOP has become, and the degree to which it’s current form has become self-perpetuating and monolithic. And while the Bush43 years have illustrated all this more dramatically than in the past, I think enough of this was obvious in 2000, that it wasn’t a tenable formulation then either.
I’d be really happy to be wrong about all this, but this is what the evidence is telling me.
If you compare Bush41 and Clinton for example, I can’t think of a single policy that was substantively different.
Universal health care? Just because Clinton failed to achieve it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a policy that was substantively different. And he and Hillary did succeed in getting SCHIP passed. And, of course, he overturned the abortion gag rule when he entered office — in direct opposition to Bush41.
The simple fact that Democrats actually believe in government means that agencies under Democrat appointed leadership are more likely to actually function, see e.g. FEMA under Clinton, as opposed to either Bush.
Clarence Thomas. Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. (Yeah, it’s a low blow.)
After the universal health care bus went into the ditch, the Clinton years were, I suppose, marked mostly by fairly modest, often unglamorous, but not entirely insignificant victories along the lines of SCHIP and the Family and Medical Leave act. These were often disfigured by compromises forced on the administration by the GOP Congress, notably in the case of welfare reform — though, of course, these compromises were arguably made too easily in the name of “triangulation”. This record of incremental scrabbling was punctuated by the stunningly deluded corporate pandering of NAFTA and the other trade pacts, and misguided idiocy like the “Defense [sic] of Marriage Act”.
A friend of mine insists that the legislation desired by Clinton’s administration was, as a rule, vastly better than the scarred bills that eventually emerged from Gingrich’s chop shop, and that a great number of their legislative initiatives were just ignored or otherwise procedurally killed. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find this information online in any form that would allow me to make that argument myself without a prohibitive amount of research.
In any case, I think it’s pretty clear that Clinton’s and Gingrich’s priorities were not even close to comparable — a point which you arguably concede at the end of your comment, thereby undermining your own argument.
One might say that from the 30s to the 70s, the arc of the country followed the fortunes of the Democratic party — a Democratic party given progressive momentum by the earlier Progressive movement and militarist momentum by WWII. The progressive momentum was eventually killed by addiction to Cold War — stopping that stall was in some sense a real failure on the part of Carter, though perhaps an inevitable one. The country since then has followed the fortunes of the GOP as it descended into cultism and built a machine to take us over a cliff.
At the time their movement was taking its early steps, conservatives certainly felt “their” party had been greatly distorted by the years of liberal ascendancy — that’s partly why they were so rabid about turning it into something else. And progressives now are fully justified in feeling that “their” party has been dramatically distorted by the conservative ascendancy — and are fervently trying to change it, with the same recognition of 60s conservatives that it may take a while.
I find the formulation that “there’s no difference between the parties” maddeningly static and ahistorical. It ignores all the dynamics of change in US politics and in the makeup of the parties themselves over the past several decades. And it ignores the diversity within the parties that may or may not be being expressed at any given moment.
None of this is to say I don’t find the Democrats profoundly disappointing. If I had to say what reality I think the “no difference between the parties” language refers to, I would guess that it signals the perception that the Democrats are not currently a functionally progressive party in any meaningful sense, that there is no effective vehicle of left politics in the US — and with that, I agree. There are a lot real of progressives among the Democrats, but they in no way control the party, and the party is also riddled with narcissistic and spineless corporate panders. On many issues, the party does not function as an effective counterweight to the GOP. But even so there has never been a moment when equating them with the GOP was meaningful, and this extends back to the 1860s when it was the Republicans who were in the right.
As Glenn Greenwald says, political regimes are created by human beings and can always be remade by human beings. Given the practical options available in American politics right now, I choose as a motivation the shame of being associated with the failures of the Democrats over the righteousness of condemning them from outside. This has nothing to do with whether I like them. The “no difference between the parties” rhetoric just cedes to the corporations the only center of political power in the US with any progressive elements.
You said, in an earlier comment, “I will never vote Republican”. I find it hard to believe that only became true after Bush43 came to office. So what does “there’s no difference between the parties” even mean to you specifically? It obviously has no operative force: they are different enough that, given a choice, you know which one you’d choose.
The differences in positions were only a matter of degree and Clinton’s administration was way more conservative than Nixon’s for example (except for the paranoia thing). Nixon consolidated much of the positive gains of LBJ (expanding social programs, arts spending, and federal regulations on businesses) while Clinton rolled them back.
Yes, and Nixon had a Democratic congress while Clinton had a Republican one. The conservative movement was still relatively nascent under Nixon. What may be turning into a new, more broad-based progressive movement, was rarely even visible under Clinton. (I am also curious, given the dynamics of distortion I posited in the previous section, whether an argument could be made that Nixon governed to the left of Truman. I honestly don’t know.)
The same thing goes for the comparison between Bush41 and Clinton. The change in Congress made for a considerable leveling effect between what policies each might have pursued. The fact that there was a functional conservative movement and no effective progressive counterweight, plus the legacy of Reagan meant that the default path would end up being the conservative one.
As far as I’m aware, as regards overt corporatism, Clinton was, at the time he came to power, something of an anomaly among Democrats — he doesn’t seem to be the heir of LBJ and Carter anyway. (And I’ve never forgiven him for that elitist speech to the WTO during the Seattle protests.) Even if his “third way” rhetoric made political sense at the time, there was no reason that it had to be pursued in a way that ceded so much ground to corporate power (e.g. NAFTA).
Clinton is also not the Democratic party, even if until the rise of Obama, he was the party’s only major lodestar for so long, that it’s easy to identify his way of doing things with the party itself. However, a lot goes on in all the (not) dark, (not) hidden corners of the party that the media doesn’t pay attention to. And the increasing difference in treatment of the parties by the media is, as digby and Somerby will tell you in exhaustive detail, a necessary element of any assessment of their effectiveness.
If your measure is economic justice in some large sense, and you assume the parties are relatively uniform in composition, and you assume that what it was possible for Clinton and Bush41 to accomplish — even noting the variables of each one’s agenda, relationship with Congress, and level of public and institutional support during their time in office — represents the baseline of each party, and you assume that baseline is static, then ok, a case can be made that in that narrow comparison the parties appear equally useless.
However, if you use pretty much any other measure — quality of life, social safety net, secularism, fiscal responsibility, commitment to non-ideological science — I would say that, even accepting the other premises I stated, the Democrats in general, and even Clinton in particular, come out easily on top. And holding the line on these kinds of issues is critical precisely because economic justice is so utterly stalled in this country.
Even if you don’t accept that previous statement, I think the baseline premises are completely untenable. I think that by the time Gingrich takes control of the House, treating Bush41′s policies as representative of the GOP is ridiculous, and that such a premise becomes steadily more ridiculous through the rest of the 90s — let alone what’s happened since Bush43 took office. As far as I know, the GOP couldn’t reject Bush41′s policies fast enough after he left office.
I can certainly sympathize with the sentiment that most Democrats (and the Clintons particularly) are, on balance, useless as regards economic justice, but that is not enough to make them equivalent to the GOP. As I noted earlier: there is a big difference between saying “a plague on both your houses” and “there’s no difference between the two parties”.
LBJ expanded the war against communism that JFK started (I would use this example to counter your assertion about Democrats and war above),
“That JFK started“? A good argument can certainly be made that JFK had a fairly scary Cold Warrior mentality, but what element of the “war against communism” did he start? At first I thought you might mean that he started the intervention in Vietnam, but that isn’t really accurate either.
When I talk about the notion that “war equals national redemption”, I’m referring to the Michael Ledeen/Victor Davis Hanson belief in martial glory as the core element of national identity. That’s not a sentiment I associate with the Democratic party. Nor is it one that I associate with the Cold War in general — the nuclear threat was too real and too universal for armchair warrior theatrics. The combination of American Exceptionalism and a more run-of-the-mill militarism so common in the US is not the same thing.
Bush 41 was the president that formed the IPCC to begin to address climate change, while Clinton expanded authority on wiretapping and other invasions of privacy, shepherded NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO (the last two being deeply anti-constitutional) and started his own war.
[I forgot to write after Bush41 formed the IPCC, it was Clinton that first refused to sign Kyoto…]
I might be wrong on this, but didn’t Bush41 form the IPCC as a complete stall so that we wouldn’t “bet the economy on global warming”? If that’s correct, then (from the denialist point of view) the IPCC becomes an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Clinton (well, literally: Gore) did sign Kyoto. The Senate refused to ratify it in its original form. Unanimously. So hardly a mark in favor of Democrats, but not one specifically against Clinton.
A lot of progressives were also in favor of Clinton’s war. I remember there were various articles in The Nation where the authors puzzled over the fact that they found themselves in support of US military intervention. It is hard to argue that it was a situation perpetrated by the Democrats which progressives stood against with any unity. What is your take on the Kosovo intervention? Are you trying to argue that it is morally equivalent to, say, Bush41 in Panama?
Institutional liberals were in line for the Iraq war until it turned to s**t, then it suddenly became “mismanaged.”
I’ve never argued that a substantial portion of Democrats in power aren’t supporters of imperialism.
It is also the case that at the time the Iraq war began, Americans in general and Democrats in particular, didn’t know that Bush was insane. A lot of them really didn’t believe he’d pull the trigger. This is not an excuse, but it does indicate that the political dynamic among Democrats was not a direct support of the Republican policy.
It seems like the Republicans over the last 10-12 years have degraded to a point never seen before. Newt lead a charge which is now headed right over a cliff. But it is a recent anomaly ripe for a correction. We will see a correction in the next election and there will (out of necessity) be a reshaping of the Republicans back to Bush41 styles and the corporate/imperialist elites will be pleased again. Huckabee scared the s**t of of them…
As I indicated above, I don’t think Bush41′s policy is a baseline, and I doubt they could return to it if it was.
The glorious, oh-so-popular non-candidacy of Michael Bloomberg seems like an indication that our plutocratic overlords are rather puzzled over what to do. They will, of course, figure out something. Unfortunately, I suspect it will involve further, more direct co-optation of the Democrats.
Bush43 is not an aberration with respect to what American conservatism and the Republican party currently are — he’s more like the ideal. He’s what the movement has always wanted. On some level though, his version of capitalism — which basically consists of shoveling taxpayer money to his cronies — seems to implement self-interest actually too narrowly to serve the needs of the plutocrats as a class. Perhaps, the GOP, in achieving the dreams of avarice bestowed upon it by the plutocrats, has in the process become ill-suited to the purpose for which it was intended. Apparently though, if Naomi Klein is to be believed (and I haven’t read The Shock Doctrine, so I could be getting this wrong), that may be an overly optimistic assessment of what the plutocrats think at this point.
Don’t expect a Democratically controlled administration and congress to roll back the civil rights violations, the torture provisions, the war in Iraq, defense spending, or corporate patronage. We will see a little improvement on abortion rights, maybe gay rights, and at least a dialog on healthcare. Not issues to ignore, but thin gruel when our whole system is so profoundly diseased.
I think this, too, refers to a baseline that doesn’t really exist.
Overcoming the expectations of diappointment that Democrats have generated in recent years is admittedly a tough hurdle, but I honestly have no idea what to expect from an Obama administration at this point. It’s possible he might govern fairly anemically and just gave a good speech every so often, but it’s also possible he’ll actually try to bring real change to the system. And while he’s not going to go after anything fundamental (like, say, the legal doctrine that corporations are the equivalent of human individuals for purposes of civil rights), given how positively many Republicans (regular folks, not the pols) respond to him, if he does try, he might even have a chance to accomplish something worthwhile. Obama has made strong statements about ending the war and restoring civil rights that it would seem folly not to follow through on if elected.
Six months or a year ago, I would have predicted him to take the first of the two paths I mentioned above. Now I just don’t know — and he killed another substantial chunk of cynicism on Tuesday. But then, on some level, I’m an optimist.