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21st Century Machiavellians 1.2: Elites View the Democratic Party as a Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent

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(This is a 3-part essay divided here into a total of 4 installments, with the first part divided into two) By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D. Attracting Popular Discontent The basic structure of concentric circles of the discourse and ideological “space” of a political party or partisan organization, described in the foregoing could apply to almost any political party or for that matter any group with a relatively passionately held set of beliefs against which they believe others are opposed.  Using this schematic diagram of a group, the specific role of “containment vessel for popular discontent” is more likely to be, in the now almost 50 year old neoliberal era, to be slated for a party like the Democratic Party or one of the Parties of the Socialist International, like the British Labour

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(This is a 3-part essay divided here into a total of 4 installments, with the first part divided into two)

By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

Attracting Popular Discontent

The basic structure of concentric circles of the discourse and ideological “space” of a political party or partisan organization, described in the foregoing could apply to almost any political party or for that matter any group with a relatively passionately held set of beliefs against which they believe others are opposed.  Using this schematic diagram of a group, the specific role of “containment vessel for popular discontent” is more likely to be, in the now almost 50 year old neoliberal era, to be slated for a party like the Democratic Party or one of the Parties of the Socialist International, like the British Labour Party, the German SPD, the Australian Labour Party, etc. 

On the other hand, when such center-left parties fail to attract popular discontent and they in agitating outside governing roles or acting in governing roles generate more popular discontent, other political actors, including center-right and far right political actors and movements, can capture popular discontent for their own purposes. Such was the case in 2016 in the United States, in Great Britain through the Brexit process with the emergence of UKIP and then the “Brexit Party”, the Northern League in Italy, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the National Front in France, the BJP in India, etc.  Less successfully or durably, other newer left of center parties like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise, or various Green Parties have attempted to represent discontents at one point or another which the traditional parties of the Left have failed to address. 

As a party cannot build physical “containment” walls around itself, it first must establish its core zone of attraction and, in discourse and activity, array around itself, again in discourse, its zones of repulsion and critique if not taboo.  Members, adherents and voters must be drawn to it and repelled from other alternative or opposed organizations and ideologies. 

The specifically “left” or “left-of-center” appeal of an organization like the Democratic Party, even though in reality currently its leadership is center-right, is premised on the idea that it will help “the people”, middle, working class and poor people, gain a better standard of living and better life via the application of reason, empathy with others, and better, more modern government policy.  In the further left wings of these mass parties, the emphasis is more on justice and egalitarianism, with increasingly the oncoming climate catastrophe playing an ever-larger role in at least discourse if not policy proposals and action.  The Democratic Party, as other nominally “left” parties in other countries, is more the party of the Enlightenment than its right-wing opposition, at least in relative terms.  We see this demonstrated for instance, in the rabidly anti-science posture of the current Republican Party versus the relatively pro-science and pro-Enlightenment stance of Democrats.  Being “left” or “left of center” means one, in theory, is applying rationality to improving government policy and institutions, using logical entailment united with ethical commitments to go from “bad” to “good” or “good” to “better”.   This application of rationality can sometimes seem politically bloodless and dispassionate as compared to the irrationalism embraced by the right-wing: it might be argued that only where the left holds a passionate view of social justice and a compelling vision of a better society, often in some version of socialism, can the dispassionate application of rationality be made politically vital. 

As capitalism creates, outside of a few exceptional geographical places and historical times, alienation and impoverishment of a majority of the people, a variety of deepening ecological crises, as well as the oppression of racially or ethnically marginalized groups, a lot of discontent is created or disparities between content and discontent, which can affect the politics of most nations and can be mobilized by ambitious political actors.  Tapping into that discontent or disparities for political reasons can be achieved by a range of techniques by a variety of political actors, but it is certainly the left-of-center’s “game to lose” to try to appeal to those who have economic or systematically-based discontents, including those related to racism and sexism. 

Over the past couple decades, during the height of the neoliberal era, the Parties of the (nominal) Left in the US and elsewhere have attempted to signal sympathy with discontent often via two main techniques: proposing technocratic incrementalist reforms based on “market” principles that court support of parties to the right of them, and playing the left version of identity politics (there are also right-wing versions as well), while abandoning class conflict-based and anti-corporate stances.  The parties of the nominal Left have offered voters and constituents a somewhat Faustian bargain: give up some economic rights in the favor of a feelgood tolerant, nominally anti-racist, anti-misogynistic, anti-homophobic cultural identity that has come recently to be called “woke”.  Some left-of-center versions of identity politics dovetail seamlessly with the neoliberal vision of a meritocratic market-based society, where people no matter their ethnicity or gender can fully draw on their individual resources to succeed or not succeed via the instruments of the market. 

While challenging corporations and the widening gap of wealth and income inequality have become largely taboo to Parties such as the Democratic Party, the British Labour Party, etc., the Establishment “left” has signaled indirectly to the discontented that they are “their” party by standing behind successful individuals from systematically marginalized or oppressed groups, such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, and using their identities as a symbol (mostly in reality a distant echo) of empathy and understanding for the downtrodden and persecuted.  These individuals such as Obama or Clinton that make it to the top levels of the Democratic Party, unlike for instance the more dissident, Bernie Sanders-supporting Keith Ellison or Nina Turner, have politics and policy views that are sympathetic to those of the corporate and donor classes that fund the Party Establishment.  In Great Britain, Chuka Ummunna had a similar function within the British Labour Party to such a degree that he has now abandoned left-tending Corbyn-led Labour for the centrist Liberal Democrats.

As there are principled progressives and leftists who are from marginalized identity groups (in the US, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aforementioned Keith Ellison and Nina Turner), the deployment of identity as wedge against universalistic progressive, anti-corporate ideas is not a necessary feature of recognizing and defending identity-based rights or political advocacy more generally.

Still the neoliberal “Left” playbook is not only identity but also very cautious reforms that do not challenge the fundamental economic and social status quo that also attract some of the discontented to the Democratic and like parties in other countries.  The Affordable Care Act and Clean Power Plan were two such cautious though, by Republicans, vociferously opposed policy initiatives that politically were attempts to establish the credibility of the Democratic Party (under Obama and thereafter) as the party of the economically distressed and environmentally aware.  Each of these plans were compromises from the start and constituted efforts to woo a mostly non-existent moderate Republican over to the Democratic side, rather than solve in the best way possible social problems and win over the broad electorate and the disaffected to the Democratic Party.  That these were opposed by the now utterly reactionary GOP were also used as signs for reinforcement of the sense of righteousness and “left”-ness of the Democratic Party, even as it occupied and occupies a center-right position on policy.

A Discourse of Self-Doubt: Containing Popular Discontent

Once attracted into the Democratic Party sphere of influence and identifying with the various political stars of the Democratic Party, including the charismatic Barack Obama, Democratic elites and their most loyal followers have set about containing and policing discontent.  More than mobilizing discontent, once within the safe precincts of the Party organization and discourse, paradoxically most efforts are exerted to stymie and defuse discontent and its mobilization for further political gain.

Notable events that reinforce the view of the Democratic Party as a containment vessel for popular discontent are several over the past decade, events that seemed contradictory to the aims of a political party attempting to grow in political power.  After his 2008 electoral win, Barack Obama demobilized his mass following and dismantled his substantial grassroots campaign organizations turning instead to (attempts at) elite horse-trading and vain attempts at courting the increasingly fanatical Republican Party as the primary political strategy of his Administration.  These attempts to water-down his campaign message and to work against popular discontent were rewarded with catastrophic political results in 2010 and thereafter in almost every electoral contest except for Obama’s re-election campaign of 2012.  Obama, including via siding with bankers and against distressed homeowners in the crash of 2008-9 and appointing Establishment figures to his Administration, signaled that popular discontent was more of a thin rhetorical twist and marketing strategy for him rather than a motive force of his Administration.  Some have tried to trace this to idiosyncrasies of his personality, which may be the bedrock for him specifically, but he was reproducing here a broader pattern in the Democratic Party elite.  Obama’s rise, though controversial to Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008, was facilitated as was Clinton’s by the confidence of ultra-wealthy donors, like the Pritzkers, in his fundamental philosophical sympathy and non-antagonism to their business plans and goals.

Obama would often take the attitude of a chiding, disapproving “adult” vis-à-vis the wishes of his constituents for help from government, claiming that the government had a deficit problem and turning mostly in the direction of Republican or Wall Street Democratic lawmakers, academics and pundits for approval and guidance.  Even as he proposed a fairly large stimulus package in 2009, that package was trimmed so that its effects were more muted and less durable than they might have been in the near-Great Depression downturn of the Great Recession of 2008. 

More recently and quite explicitly, as noted in the introduction, the current Democratic Congressional leadership has been actively attempting to demobilize and defuse popular anger at Trump and work against the insurgent freshmen Congresswomen, called “the Squad” (Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley).  While riding a wave of discontent into power in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi has been signaling to the base that she would try to limit the power of her office and of the new Democratic Congressional majority.  Pelosi’s adherence to the nonsensical budget rules (pay-go) inspired by the Republican austerian Pete Peterson are in line with her attempts to dampen public outrage at the Trump Administration, even as she has mocked and chided Trump verbally.  In November 2019, Pelosi has renewed her assault on progressives, calling into question the marquee policy of Medicare for All, a not-so-veiled shot at two of the frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination.  Pelosi’s strategy is analogous to Obama’s semiotic efforts to signal “progressivism” relative to the GOP while at the same time holding up a hand of warning that the “base” must not mobilize for their own interests or that other Democrats must not attempt to mobilize that base.

The handling of the Trump impeachment inquiry and process by the elite Democrats has similar dimensions and warning signs that may lead to a catastrophic failure of that effort.  Pelosi in opening the inquiry, finally, seems to have been backed into it by the more right-leaning parts of her party, including veterans of the national security Establishment now in Congress, defecting to a pro-impeachment stance.  The occasion she chose is Trump’s effort to recruit the Ukrainian government for a political favor to expose the Establishment Democratic candidate, Joe Biden and his son, who had been using standard run-of-the-mill and still-legal political influence to gain lucrative contracts and positions for relatives.  Rather than expose the elite and business corruption of the Trump Administration, much of it illegal, almost from the start, Pelosi and her allies are trying restrict the inquiry in a way that emphasizes only the national security Establishment’s beefs with Trump and has the appearance of payback to defend the privileges of the political Establishment of both parties.  An impeachment inquiry, so restricted, opens the Democrats and that inquiry, easily to “populist” right-wing attacks by Trump and his supporters.  The easy route of exposing all manner of corruption by the Trump Administration is made by the Democratic Establishment and their media allies to seem to be difficult and dangerous when it is the opposite.

Elite media, think tanks and center-right academics have reinforced these strategies by the Democratic Establishment and the remaining wisps of moderate Republican elites, providing a reinforcing echo and support to the views of people like Pelosi, Tom Perez, Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton.   One of the key recent “moves” in media and punditry has been the strange redefinition of the concept of “populism” in the era of insurgent far right candidates and political leaders. The recent and unfortunate equation of “populism” largely with the stoking of nationalist and white racist sentiment by the far right, including Trump, creates in the mainstream press and in academic circles, an equation between ugly anti-modern elites and propagandists and popular uprisings of all sorts.  The intellectual operation of equating populism with crude right-wing social attitudes makes popular grassroots actions and maverick candidates taboo within Establishment media, because they are made to appear always potentially racist, intolerant and anti-Enlightenment, reinforcing the self-image of the status quo elite as the only rational and enlightened groups on the political spectrum. In historical reality, populism started out on the Left (in the United States) and has tended to have a left-ward center of gravity, as well as a history of left social movements that have shaped many societies, however the current media and academic campaign against “populism” then instead makes it seem always anti-democratic and vaguely fascistic via re-definition and re-framing.

What is created via a combination of the strange machinations of Democratic Party leadership and the discourses created by pundits and academics of the late neoliberal era is a discourse of popular self-doubt and cautious self-monitoring of wants and needs, within the middle- and working-class base of the Democratic Party.  Party leaders are there to attract, beguile with virtue signals and clever gestures of superiority over the increasingly ham-fisted, sociopathic Republicans but at the same time to demobilize and “contain” popular discontent.  The rage directed by some Democratic loyalists, within the Democratic Party’s elite central zone and its “zone of identity”, at Bernie Sanders and his supporters throughout much of the 2016 election cycle and thereafter is, in my opinion, a product of the frustrations formed by this self-imposed self-containment of wishes for a better life and a more straightforward moral-political stance.  Sanders and his supporters are considered by these supposedly savvy insiders to be hopelessly naïve and disruptive of the elaborate game of political horse-trading in which only the Party elite is deemed worthy enough to engage. On the level of the Party elite, of course, livelihoods are at stake for Party insiders, if the symbiosis between the donor class and Democratic political leaders and operatives is broken by a progressive turn in the Party.  For those in the more peripheral “zone of identity”, the core of the Democratic Establishment base, admiration for “finesse” in the containment and diffusion of discontent by elite leaders is a framing assumption, while Sanders and those who place open, direct demands on government leaders and corporations are considered to be uncouth and/or hopelessly naive.

Nietzschean “Super-People”, Self-Doubt, and the Death of the “American Dream”

The sometimes-perceptive commentator Umair Haque, has pointed us in the direction of the philosopher Nietzche to understand our era.  Haque can at times be impressionistic and off-base in his commentary, biased now against everything associated with the United States, but he has had a number of blindingly acute insights into the cultural malaise of our society and other developed societies more generally.  One of the aspects of Nietzche’s philosophy which Haque highlights is Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch or “over-person”, the inspiration, as well, for the comic book and movie character Superman. (Übermensch is sometimes translated as “superman”.).  Nietzsche also pioneered or promulgated notions of a superior race, the “blond beast”, and biologistic ideas about the “poisoning” of supposedly pure superior races by among others, Jewish “blood” that had a strong influence on Adolf Hitler and the Nazi ideology that ruled Germany in the period 1933-1945.  The influence of Nietzcheanism cannot however be confined to specifically Nazi or Nazi-tending political tendencies.

The “American Dream” up until the late 20th Century was a dream that one did not have to be an “over-person” to achieve happiness and prosperity in the United States, abundant land (often stolen by genocide of the native peoples), the spoils of unpaid or underpaid African-American labor, and in the mid-20th Century the formation of a semi-generous, semi-just welfare state, created some of the possibility for many ordinary people, particularly though not exclusively of white ethnicities, to achieve a modicum of economic security and prosperity, without being or becoming some approximation of what they or others would call a “superman” or “superwoman”.  Some lucky few in oppressed groups also achieved a portion of the American Dream, always with lesser security than with those considered to be of the white majority.  In the late 20th Century and early 21st Century, in the neoliberal era, that Dream has mostly died, leaving still standing the mythos of Übermenschen (super-people).

With the death of the American Dream, Americans, striving as they have been for superiority in both innocuous and highly oppressive, deadly ways, are attracted to the idea of the Übermensch but, most, failing themselves to achieve the status of the “over-person” can be wracked with waves of rage, anxiety, depression that can lead to irrational and deadly outcomes on political and cultural levels.  If the sole model of the legitimate person is now only a superperson, then a pervasive cultural and political discourse that implies self-doubt, despite the boilerplate and increasingly irritating urgings of politicians and cultural figures like Tony Robbins to be the most successful and fulfilled individual you can be, is to be expected.  Increased expressions of and exacerbations of racist sentiments are to be expected as people try to claim the booby prizes for not being “super-people”.

There is a cultural divide at the top, in terms of the preferred image of the super-person: the Republicans have put forward the lucky (mostly white European-origin) heir, lottery winner, pumped-up muscleman, military hero, gun-slinger or businessman, while the Democrats are totally invested in the supposedly meritocratic person (of any ethnicity or gender) who “wins” over others in the market or elsewhere via merit, mostly measured or enabled by being book-smart, by educational attainment or at least credentials.  Both visions lead different groups of people to feel “left behind” and badgered by the promoters of the “super-person” narrative.  In those people, an underlying narrative of self-doubt and questioning of their own interests as undeserving has had political uses for elites who are intent on keeping “the (political insider) Game” going in their favor for just a little bit longer.  The Democratic Establishment and their media allies have then intimidated people, to doubt their own self-interests and to leave them outside their political decision-making. 

A Leadership That Doesn’t Lead

The promotion of the culture of self-doubt, while reinforced by the media and Party elite, seems to have penetrated almost the entire leadership of the Democratic Party, as witnessed its performance in the face of the rampaging Trump Administration and Republican Party majority in the Senate.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, disastrously, have, until very recently, shown almost no resistance to the Trump Administration and GOP’s continued plundering, anti-worker policies, neo-fascist actions especially directed at immigrants, and violations of rule of law and procedure.  Pelosi’s, until September 2019, steadfast, avoidance of taking any concrete action against Trump, shows a fundamental lack of courage and of political imagination, as she, for 8-plus months in 2019, shirked her Constitutional duties to hold the Executive Branch accountable.  Fundamentally, the Democratic elite lawmakers see themselves as the beneficiaries of and the keepers of comity between their party and the Republicans, even as the latter would be almost immediately impeaching a Democratic President for far lesser crimes than Trump.

The current Democratic Party leadership is an unmitigated disaster for the middle- and longer-term viability of the Party, seeking as it has, to avoid all substantive efforts to form a durable party ideology. Such an ideology would give coherence to the Party and motivate the Party base.  Consequently, the current Democratic leadership mostly avoids or is backed into fighting for what is right, be it their own ideology or as above, for fighting for upholding generalized rule of law independent of ideology.  The Party’s strategy, such as it is, is to limp from one event to the next, hoping to draw subtle contrasts with the Republicans as a means to maintain a sliver of party identity and electoral success, without taking risks on Big Picture policies or simply representing and upholding the law against an increasingly lawless Republican opposition.

Many prominent 2020 Presidential candidates started out their campaigns, differing from the established Party leaders at least, in embracing many of the Big Picture policies proposed by Bernie Sanders in 2016 and championed now by “the Squad”.  Since the beginning of the 2020 campaign there has been some shaking out and differentiation, as well as changes of allegiance within the field with the current leadership of the Congressional Party attempting to steer candidates, with some success, away from Big Picture change and ambitions.  The leading candidate favored in the early running by the Establishment, Joe Biden, has views consonant with the Party leadership and there are a row of less convincing advocates for Big Picture change between, on the one hand, Biden and, on the other, Elizabeth Warren and then Sanders. 

A Junior Partner in the Neoliberal Firmament

Despite the rumblings of change in the 2020 Presidential field, the Congressional and DNC leadership, by contrast, have continued the new tradition of the Democratic Party seeing itself, even with polling advantages and now a large Congressional majority in the House, as a junior partner to the GOP.  Obama, ever touted as the master politician and a political powerhouse (in winning two Presidential elections) has still always on a policy front courted the Republicans assiduously and to the great detriment of his Presidency and the American people.  On a policy front, there was not much fight in him, endorsing Republican ideas, like Romney-care (later Obamacare) as the starting point for policy initiative.  Facing the 2020 election and drift of the Democratic Party to the Left, Obama seems to be hinting that he will throw his still-substantial personal influence against the progressive contenders

Since the “Reagan Revolution” and the triumph of neoliberal ideology, the Democratic Party via the Clinton and Democratic Leadership Council take-over of the Party in the 1990’s, has treated itself, its base, and its policy efforts as subsidiary to the Republican Party’s ideology and donor base.  The tortuous efforts of Democratic Party leaders to conform to the mold laid down by Reagan (government is the “enemy” and markets [code for the private sector/big corporations] will fix everything by themselves” in combination with massive subsidy to the wealthy) were again borne out by Pelosi feeling the need to gratuitously quote Reagan in her acceptance of the House Speakership this year.  This was no isolated incident as Pelosi continually refers to Reagan in a laudatory manner.   Pelosi’s ideology about the federal budget is entirely defined by the Republican “deficit hawk”, Pete Peterson, whom she also feels the impulse to repeatedly praise at random intervals. 

Pelosi is not an outlier in the Democratic Establishment for these views, as Obama was also equally prey to deficit- and public-debt-hysteria.  The actions of the leadership in 2019 are entirely consistent with this view. The current Democratic Party leadership seem to think of themselves as helpmeets, the “conscience” of the Republican Party not as an independent, self-defining political force.  Establishment Democrats also have an uncritical distance to and corrupt relationships with the national security Establishment and the military-industrial complex, both of which need to be seriously reformed or excluded from critical decision making about foreign and fiscal policy.

The Usefulness of a Self-Defeating, Self-Limiting “Left” Party

The question remains then, why a party so at odds with what might be its historical mission and so seeming uninterested in exerting political power to that end, would exist and maintain itself over several decades.  Also, in a related question, why would that party be so hostile to the few politicians that believe strongly in the mission and potential of that party to be a majoritarian and powerful party for the common good?  Clearly loyalty to the plutocratic donor class plays a role…but how?

To contemplate this requires that one allow for Machiavellian motivations and maneuvering to exist even in an era of supposedly Enlightenment-based, democratic governance.  We invoke the Renaissance Florentine diplomat and writer, Niccolo Machiavelli, the author of The Prince, as representative of murky pre-Enlightenment forms of governance and politics.  In feudalism/absolute monarchies, where rulers and courtiers maneuvered behind the scenes and in the open, often against the interests of their peoples and sometimes with great cruelty, these political actions violated what we now hold to be universal human rights and the requirements for popular rule inscribed in numerous constitutions throughout the world.  The popularity of Game of Thrones is a cultural expression of an interest in Machiavellianism without using social science terminology; GoT fans (I have watched only a few episodes) have perhaps understood that Machiavellian maneuvering has relevance in the 21st Century.

Machiavellianism has come to mean the desire and willingness to act by any means necessary to acquire more personal power, be it in political or other contexts, often via intrigue rather than transparent dealing and open conflict.  There are those who would wish to look away from this dark maneuvering and greed for power, in the service, they think, of countering Machiavellians.  I think that instead we need to divide a prescriptive from a descriptive view of Machiavellian activity:  one can observe Machiavellian activity and describe it, without endorsing or admiring that activity, something that those committed, as am I, to democratic governance, tend to shy away from.  For those attaching hope to the Democratic Party or at least some progressive political vehicle that might replace it as some point, it is often hard to soberly look at the Party as it is, in all its gruesome detail.  In other words, to describe Machiavellian machinations is not to endorse them or praise them.

Contemporary Machiavellian activity takes place within a context, of course, where political actors have goals and political systems continue to evolve or devolve. For the plutocratic billionaire and centimillionaire class that now finance most of the elite political class in the United States, the presence of the junior-partner, twisted-against-itself Democratic Party has the effect of legitimizing an order that has made these plutocratic individuals and families multifold richer in the last several decades.  The legitimation of a political and legal order is important for its continued functioning, otherwise it can easily fall apart. While people in general have an interest in maintaining a functioning society, the prime or luckiest beneficiaries of that social order are particularly invested in its ongoing functioning at least in appearance or the functioning of the circuits of reward within that social order that benefit them specifically.  That junior partner Democratic Party has the function in what looks like an increasingly “Soviet” (in the sense of inauthentic and unrepresentative sham parties invented to legitimize the one-party state that engage in Kabuki style maneuvering) political system of capturing popular discontent and giving the impression of political representation to less-privileged groups in the social hierarchy, either by class, race, ethnicity, or sex/gender identity. 

The Democratic Party functions as the “caring face” of the plutocratic donor class, including the military-industrial complex, and Establishment Democratic politicians are literally paid to “perform” a caring veneer and offer a thin dribble of “caring” actions and legislation while supporting a basically pro-corporate, pro-ecocidal, pro-imperialist/militarist, pro-wealthy agenda, as do their Republican colleagues automatically and more ruthlessly.  This is, scandalously but unsurprisingly, a massive political scam that nevertheless persists because, in part, of the (antiquated) structure of the US political system that has become increasingly corrupted by ever more obscene concentrations of wealth.  Also rampant global economic inequality and the global nature of the billionaire, donor class, the existence of transnational media networks owned by billionaires, means that other, less antiquated, political systems (many parliamentary systems for instance) are also endangered by some of the same forces.

The stubborn fighting of progressive ideas and leaders and the hatred shown to them by both Establishment Democrats and the media sympathetic to them becomes then more understandable.  Progressives’ straightforward and, to the contorted, turned-against-itself rationality of the supporters of Democratic Establishment narratives, naïve-seeming belief in representative government and social progress exposes the elaborate, twisted scam of Establishment and local machine Democratic politics for what it is: often a self-limiting Kabuki theater of “supporting” and pseudo-representing constituents and their concerns.  Establishment Democrats and local machine pols are in this view, actors who are paid to appear “caring” while doing the political dirty work of the donor class, consisting of large corporations and wealthy individuals.  Their “act” is endangered as is their entire career trajectory, if a class of politicians emerges that are doing real actually-caring work for their constituents by changing laws and government institutions to better serve the people.  Or certainly, if some within the Establishment and local machines are doing some actually-caring work, the competition for definition of what is political caring and service for one’s constituency is a bothersome thing for an Establishment politician, as they by definition cannot challenge powerful uncaring and anti-caring interests directly.  Furthermore, the challenge to their often-monopoly position on being the “caring” politician (as opposed to the harsh sadism or bully-boy, bully-girl identities of the Republican politicians) is a source of intense irritation.

While certainly there are some Machiavellian schemers helping organize this scam, a majority caught up in the centrist Establishment of the Democratic Party and affiliated media do not think of themselves as operatives in a political machine or scam.  Instead, a constant flood of discourse is created that normalizes the career goals and trajectory of the median Democratic Establishment politician or political consultant.  The progressive alternative of seeing government as a tool for improving the lot of the people overall often in conflict with corporate interests is constantly placed into the “taboo” zone of political discourse, so those caught up in the Democratic Party and Establishment media discourses, do not think much or hard about a progressive, really-caring alternative to the largely, merely performative [there are other, more profound definitions of the word “performative” but here I mean its now-popular usage, “for appearances only”] caring of Establishment Democratic Party operatives.  A social reward system has been set up in both culture and politics that makes belief in the Democratic Party Establishment “story” comfortable while disbelief and critical distance from it, uncomfortable and potentially socially isolating.  The model of small-donations or banning Big Money from politics as a campaign has created an existential challenge in the form of actually-progressive candidates and office holders for the would-be junior partner in the neoliberal political duopoly and these battles between progressives and Establishment are likely to continue.  Let’s hope the twisted Machiavellian machinations or simple political bungling of the Democratic elite against the progressive insurgents do not enable the complete takeover of US government by the still more corrupt and malignant Republican Party, discussed in the next section of this piece.  That Democratic Party elite and media allies constantly blame the progressives for any Republican wins (like Trump’s) while disowning all of their own incompetence, a topic of endless debate over the past few years.

Sham Politician Caring Creates (Paranoid) Enemies

Defenders of the Democratic Establishment blame progressives for as many losses as possible by the twisted-against-itself Democratic Party but ignore the pretty much inevitable role that the sham-caring of the Democratic Establishment has in fueling far-right paranoia, political strength, and random gun-toting terrorist attacks. The Democratic Party’s appearance of caring is, of course, a routine target of Trumpists and before Trump, the right-wing leadership and base more generally.  It was Reagan after all, who promoted the canard that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.  Reagan’s words express the rampant paranoid culture of the current right-wing as drilled into them by countless hours of television and radio commentary. That right-wing discourse is built around (also) neoliberal assumptions of the inherent fallibility of government and the perfectability of the private sector and by extension, private individuals, functions also as an implied ego boost for much of the population, who, after all, make up the private sector (and even public employees as individuals, who when at home are part of the private sector).  In the paranoid right-wing culture that attracts many disaffected but incurious and not book-smart people, the canard that government is “always wrong” except when engaged in brutal killing and suppression of hated others, the contradictory discourse of government’s inherent fallibility provides a temporary elevation in self-esteem:  “I can do better than ‘those fools’ in government”.

The Democratic Party Establishment has decided not to challenge the myriad-times-repeated nostrums of the right-wing about governments’ fallibility, with perhaps the exception of the intelligence and national security apparatus, with whom they have now allied themselves.  At the same time, the Democratic Party Establishment play exactly into their opponents’ vision of government as corrupt, by being corrupt and inauthentic in their caring for their constituents.  Over the past three decades, the wholesale abandonment of large swaths of the United States via disinvestment, austerity, globalization was a bipartisan effort, but the Democrats played the role often of the hatchet men and women, which in turn created the appearance of duplicity, which fed popular hostility, both exaggerated by paranoia in some but with some substantial realistic basis in the Democrat’s support for bipartisan policy and political decisions.  The Democrats, stupidly, have played the fall-guys or frontmen and -women for the bipartisan, anti-popular economic policies of the last 40 years.

It is only via a political faction, like today’s upstart progressives, that are committed to consistent public service and combatting big-donor influence that this vicious cycle of self-reinforcing paranoia about government and cynicism about prospects for a brighter future can be at all challenged and beaten back in the political sphere.  Breaking through that paranoid culture via positive, disconfirming action, rather than empty words, is the only way forward to rescue and enhance something like democracy and civilization in the United States.

Michael Hoexter
Michael Hoexter is a climate and energy policy analyst and marketing consultant for energy efficiency and renewable energy, serving individuals, organizations, governments and enterprises. In addition to writing for New Economic Perspectives, he blogs about climate change and energy transformations at www.greenthoughts.us. He is developing a combined climate/energy and full employment policy solution called “the Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan”. He received a Ph.D. in Psychology from University of Michigan and a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University.

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