Synthesis/Regeneration 33 (Winter 2004)
Many times in United States history, power has shifted from one major political party to the other.
Predictably, the winners hail a “new era” and the losers warn of disaster. Sooner or later the roles reverse, but little seems to ever change.
This is “democracy in action,” we are invariably told by solemn voices. Rather than taking this at face value, let’s instead ask the real questions that need to be asked: Why are there two political parties? What are the differences between them? Isn’t it advisable to settle for the lesser of two evils? To answer the last question first, the short answer is “no.” To flesh out that one-word answer, we’ll discuss the first two questions, which should provide the answer to the third.
To maintain the illusion that working people make decisions, it is useful to have two parties that pretend to be different while representing the same folks at the top.
To answer the first question—why do two different political parties exist?—we need to go beyond the obvious. Yes, parties exist to achieve and hold power, but that obvious statement doesn’t really answer the question. Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They represent either the interests of social groups or at least a specific area on the spectrum of political opinion. The myth of the “wide differences” between Republicans and Democrats the corporate media continually bombards us with is rooted here. The Republicans try to obliterate the fact that they represent the richest men and women in the country.
Instead, the Republicans make their arguments on ideological bases and love to claim their “ideas” represent “common sense.” There is logic here. After all, saying “I’m rich and I’m going to screw you to stay that way” would not win many elections.
The much bigger myth, however, is the front presented by the Democratic Party. Democrats love to claim they represent working people and are against the ongoing massive upward flow of money into the hands of the richest people of society. This myth also serves the Republican Party, which then can scream “that’s class warfare!” at the empty rhetoric of Democrats.
Despite the low comedy that this ongoing act provides, we should keep in mind that there are two crucial differences between Republicans and Democrats. These two differences are entirely splits in the ruling class and represent competition among various ruling-class blocs. These differences are real, and it is on this basis that the two major parties compete and that accounts for the bitterness between the two parties.
US run by rich elite
When we use terms like “ruling class” and “super rich” and “captains of industry,” it is important to remember that these terms are not rhetorical flourishes. The United States, even more so than other countries dominated by the Capitalist economic system, is run by a rich elite that enjoys immense power over all areas of society and which intends to maintain this power, at whatever cost. This power is deeply rooted in economics and exercised through corporations. Convincing most of society that being a wage-slave and ceding control to those “who know what’s best for you” is what you really want is far easier than maintaining power at the end of a gun. It is also much more stable, so in the US we have “democracy,” complete with elections where we allegedly get to choose among candidates representing “wide differences” of opinion and interests.
Although we live in a sham democracy with police-state characteristics and not in a Fascist state or even in a country that is anywhere near a dictatorship in the classical sense, we should not be under the illusion that we have any choice or control over American society.
Republicans believe in the naked fist and Democrats believe in timely conciliatory gestures.
To maintain the illusion that working people make decisions, it is useful to have two parties that pretend to be different while representing the same folks at the top. More important is the fact that there are significant differences of opinion among the ruling elite. The two primary differences are: (1) a serious split on the best ways to maintain themselves at the top and keep everybody else down; in other words, tactical differences; and (2) the growing divergence of interests between Wall Street (the financial industry) and industrialists (the owners of factories and other producers of tangible products).
The tactical differences basically fall into two camps: Republicans believe in the naked fist and Democrats believe in timely conciliatory gestures. Democrats believe in the fist just as much as Republicans, but know that you can beat people only so much.
Republicans believe the way to maintain power is to continually attack; to extract the maximum at all times with no mercy. The plutocrat in this camp knows that his foot on everyone else’s neck is the natural order of the universe and sees any concessions made to any worker as an unthinkable sign of weakness and as taking away his right to enjoy the highest profit and the most power.
While he lives for his piles of money, he will, in specific circumstances, sacrifice profits in the short term to exert his power, knowing that his life on the top is contingent on his iron grip on economic and political power. This is why this plutocrat likes to force his workers to go on strike if he feels he can win. If he’s successful in breaking his workforce, he will more than make up for the lost short-term profits over the long term, anyway. Because of this mentality, the Republican plutocrat bitterly opposes any concessions, so he has a special loathing for the Democratic camp.
Society needs a safety valve
Democrats realize that you can’t continually press down on people. If you make people too desperate, they will eventually fight back, feeling they have nothing to lose. Therefore, it is better to push when and where you can, but also to be prepared to make concessions at other points as a safety valve. Sometimes you only have to give a little. At rare points in time, society has broken down so drastically that major concessions had to be given to keep the system in place.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt realized this during the 1930s, and so concessions that have not been seen before or since—unemployment benefits, social security, banking regulations—were forced out of the ruling elites by widespread social upheaval. Unions were even tolerated for first and only time in US history. Hard-liners certainly stewed, but Roosevelt knew that unless drastic concessions were made, the holder of history’s dustbin, who was beginning to come into view, might just have swept him and his peers away.
Besides, over time you can always take your concessions back, or at least most of them. Better to give up something when you must, to release pent-up pressures and to give working people the illusion the system works for them. The Democratic plutocrat sees his hard-line Republican counterpart as something of a dinosaur, unwilling to consider new strategies. Concessions are never forever. Once the upsurge in street-level protest dissipates, you can start taking the concessions back.
Other than in the 1960s, when new mass rebellion broke out, the last 50 years are a nearly unbroken record of take-backs. As long as people continue to be duped into believing in the Democrats and the “lesser of two evils,” this will continue.
Now on to the second difference between Republicans and Democrats: the growing divergence of interests between Wall Street and industrialists. This tends to be overlooked, but this split in the ranks of the ruling class is openly acknowledged, if you know where to find the clues. The most common euphemism for this split is the so-called “Wall Street vs. Main Street” conflict, as it is gently referred to in business-news pages. “Main Street,” however, does not mean working people; it is a reference to industrial concerns. It is also a reference to small businesses and shopkeepers, and the “Wall Street vs. Main Street” conflict also represents a secondary fault line, big business vs. small business.
There has always been an inherent tension between the interests of Wall Street (the financial industry, or finance capital) and the interests of industrialists (the direct owners and operators of the means of production), but the conflict between these two groups has become much more acute during the past 20 years as a result of the imbalance that has developed between them.
Falling out of balance
Historically, the two sides were in rough balance. Both, of course, agree they deserve the pie and that working people deserve nothing. The two sides need each other. Wall Street giddily bids up prices, creating more profits and driving up the value of industrialists’ property, while the industrialists extract profits from their workers, without which there is no finance capital.
…the industrialists have clung to the Republican Party, while the Democrats have come to represent Wall Street.
Since the dawn of the Reagan era, however, Wall Street has gained the upper hand and now dominates the industrialists to a degree never before seen. This, too, is openly discussed under the cover of business-press euphemisms—the favorite term here being “market discipline.”
What does this infighting have to do with Republicans and Democrats? Simply put, as the historical balance between the two sides has given way to dominance by Wall Street, the interests of the two sides often conflict. Since these ongoing struggles, which are, in part, philosophical in their own way, inevitably spill over into the political arena, political entities inevitably grow to represent the two sides.
As this struggle has intensified since the start of the Reagan era, the industrialists have clung to the Republican Party, while the Democrats have come to represent Wall Street. An important clue to this is George W. Bush’s choice of treasury secretary upon taking office in 2001—the head of Alcoa, an industrialist. Normally, the head of the Treasury Department is from Wall Street, since the department exists to benefit finance capital. Bill Clinton’s treasury secretaries, for instance, were drawn from Wall Street’s biggest investment banks.
The party of Wall Street
That the Democratic Party would come to be the party of Wall Street is not as strange as it might sound.
Whenever a company announces bad news that results in a stock-price decline, a flurry of lawsuits will be filed, seeking financial recouping of the shareholders’ losses. The officers of the company being sued in this situation stomp their feet in rage—being a captain of industry is supposed to mean never having to admit a mistake—swearing they are as innocent as a new-born baby. This kind of mess, which happens all the time, winds up in court. It’s highly profitable for the law firms that represent the interests of Wall Street to pursue these lawsuits, and sometimes, of course, there is chicanery going on and not simply bad management or a downturn in the market.
The symbiotic relationship here is that trial lawyers and Wall Street interests need laws favorable to lawsuits, to rules geared toward investors and to open flows of accurate business information, including requiring companies to report details of their operations. In turn, Democrats love the piles of money these interests give to them.
Industrialists believe it should be almost impossible to sue their companies, want the rules tilted in their favor and hate having to reveal any information. They form the upper ranks of the Republican Party and direct its ideology on economic issues.
These differences are not absolute, of course. There are Democrat industrialists (in certain industries, such as entertainment) and Republican Wall Streeters. Republican Wall Streeters, however, are far more common than Democrat industrialists, so the “new breed” of Democrat—exemplified by former President Bill Clinton—knows his party must try harder to be the official party of Wall Street while also trying to appeal to industrialists who might be won over. The party must be driven ever further to the Right to achieve this. In this way, the Democrat feels her party can compete on an equal footing with the Republicans. Meanwhile, just as industrialists often step directly into bodies like the US Senate and into top leadership roles in the Republican Party, Wall Street fat cats, flush with cash, are increasingly doing the same thing in the Democratic Party.
So to return to the third of the three questions asked at the start of this essay, about settling for the lesser of two evils: Do you feel either of the sides described above represents you? If not, you should make a clean break with Democrats, as well as with Republicans. To create a better world, to eliminate the economic domination exerted by a relative few at the top, use your vote on a candidate who represents what you believe in, and, much more importantly, join the ranks of protesters and demand change.
Supporting a lesser evil only leads to more evil.
Pete Dolack lives in Brooklyn, New York.