Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch - In terms of organized politics the explosion of radical energy in the 1960s culminated in the peace candidacy of George McGovern, nominated by the Democrats in Miami in 1972. The response of the labor unions financing the party, and of the party bosses, was simply to abandon McGovern and ensure the victory of Nixon. Since that day the party has remained immune to radical challenge. Jimmy Carter, the southern Democrat installed in the White House in 1977, embraced neo-liberalism, and easily beat off a challenge by the left's supposed champion, the late Ted Kennedy. The antiwar movement which cheered America's defeat in Vietnam mostly sat on its hands as Carter and his National Security aide Zbigniev Brzezinski ramped up military spending and led America into "the new cold war", fought in Afghanistan and Central America.

Demure under the Democrat Carter, the left did organize substantial resistance to Reagan's wars in Central America in the 1980s. It also rallied to the radical candidacy of Jesse Jackson, the first serious challenge of a black man for the presidency. Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister and political organizer who had been in Memphis with Martin Luther King when the latter was assassinated in 1968. With his "Rainbow coalition" Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and in 1988, with a platform that represented an anthology of progressive ideas from the 1960s. He attracted a large number of supporters, many of them from the white working class. Each time the Democratic party shrugged him aside and elected feeble white liberals - Mondale and Dukakis - who plummeted to defeat by Reagan and George Bush Sr.

The left's rout was consummated in the Nineties by Bill Clinton who managed to retain fairly solid left support during his two terms, despite signing two trade treaties devastating to labor - in the form of the North America Free Trade Agreement and the WTO; despite the lethal embargo against Iraq and NATO's war on Yugoslavia; despite successful onslaughts on welfare programs for the poor and on constitutional freedoms.

Two important reminders about political phenomena peculiar to America: the first is the financial clout of the "non-profit" foundations, tax-exempt bodies formed by rich people to dispense their wealth according to political taste. . . Much of the "progressive sector" in America owes its financial survival - salaries, office accommodation etc -- to the annual disbursements of these foundations which cease abruptly at the first manifestation of radical heterodoxy. In the other words most of the progressive sector is an extrusion of the dominant corporate world, just are the academies, similarly dependent on corporate endowments.

The big liberal foundations were perfectly happy with Clinton's brand of neo-liberalism and took swift action to tame any unwelcome radical tendencies in both the environmental and the women's movements. Clinton's drive to ratify the "free trade" treaty with Mexico and Canada provoked a potentially threatening alliance of labor unions and environmental groups. Eventually the big liberal foundations exerted some muscle, and major enviro groups came out for the treaty. It was John Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council who crowed, " We broke the back of the environmental resistance to NAFTA." . . . By the end of the nineties the green movement - aside from small radical, underfunded grass roots groups - had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, hence of corporate America.

For its part, the women's movement steadily devolved into a single issue affair, focused almost entirely on defending women's right to abortions - under assault from the right. Women's groups, many of them getting big money from liberal Hollywood (which devotedly supported Clinton), swerved away from larger issues of social justice and kept silent as Clinton destroyed safety nets for poor women. The gay movement, radical in the 1970s and 1980s, steadily retreated into campaigns for gay marriage and "hate crime laws", the first being a profoundly conservative acquiescence in state-sanctioned relationships, and the second being an assault on free speech. . .

The Bush years saw near extinction of the left's capacity for realistic political analysis. Hysteria about the consummate evil of Bush and Cheney led to a vehement insistence that any Democrat would be qualitatively better, whether it be Hillary Clinton, carrying all the neo-liberal baggage of the nineties, or Barack Obama, whose prime money source was Wall Street. Of course black America - historically the most radical of all the Democratic Party's constituencies, was almost unanimously behind Obama and will remain loyal to the end. Having easily beguiled the left in the important primary campaigns of 2008, essentially by dint of skin tone and uplift, Obama stepped into the Oval Office confident that the left would present no danger as he methodically pursues roughly the same agenda as Bush, catering to the requirements of the banks, the arms companies and the national security establishment in Washington, most notably the Israel lobby.

As Obama ramps up troop presence in Afghanistan, there is still no anti war movement, such as there was in 2002-4 during Bush's attack on Iraq. The labor unions have been shrinking relentlessly in numbers and clout. Labor's last major victory was the UPS strike in 1997. Its foot soldiers and its money are still vital for Democratic candidates - but corporate America holds the decisive purse-strings, from which a U.S. Supreme Court decision on January 21 has now removed almost all restraints. . .

For the rest of his term Obama, can press forward with the neoliberal agenda that has now flourished through six presidencies. He and the Democratic Party display insouciance towards the left's anger. Rightly so. What have they to fear?

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