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Both Main Parties Remain Haunted by 2016

The American political system and its two main parties are in the deepest legitimacy crisis in their history. There is a struggle being waged for the soul of the nation, for the very identity of America. And it has polarised opinion. Not for nothing do some refer to the situation in America today as a ‘peaceful’ civil war. Unless something changes very radically, the United States is in for a prolonged period of civil strife and political violence.

While the GOP is threatened by a war from the extreme Right, the Left is trying to re-engineer the Democratic party into a European style social democratic party to tame the worst excesses of a Wall St corporate capitalism that leads the drive to massive inequality of income, wealth and, therefore, political power. Neither development is welcome to the respective party establishments as they remain financially and ideologically yoked to corporate interests and mentalities regardless of the financial crisis of 2008 and the failure of the Obama administration to emulate President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and forge a new political coalition that drew down the power of big banks and finance houses. The main parties are unmoored from the electorate and appear to be resistant to, or possibly, beyond reform.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci died long ago but his analysis of the dangers to ordinary people of political parties in decay could hardly be apter than in today’s America:

“At a certain point in their historical lives,” he noted, “social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men or women who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny.’”

If we want to recognize the full force and meaning of Gramsci’s warning, look no further than the words of US Senator Bernie Sanders during the Democratic party primary campaign:

“Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.”

He won 13 million votes, not including the caucus states he stormed through last year. When before in American history has an openly socialist candidate in national elections commanded such support? Never.

A recent YouGov poll showed that the majority of millennials are defining themselves as socialist or communist – not Republicans or Democrats.

If the Republicans thought their crises in the run-up to the 2016 election had been overcome by their takeover of both House and Senate in November, they were burying their heads. Democrats who thought they could blame their defeat on Putin, Wikileaks, or black and women voters, the FBI – anyone but Hillary and the DNC – remain in shock as Trump’s political base remains strongly loyal. Both parties have lost their moorings, are cut off from their mass base, and appear to have no ideas of how to rebuild their credibility.

It is that stark fact that explains why Donald Trump is in the White House and is likely to serve out his entire term and probably stands a good chance of the second period as commander-in-chief.

Steve Bannon, former Trump White House chief strategist, and now back on his perch at the fascistic Breitbart website has declared war on the GOP establishment to drive it even further to the extreme right. His project seems to be to use the Trump locomotive to remake the Republican party, possibly to split it in the process, into an openly anti-immigrant and anti-minority white-nationalist nativist bloc, political preparation for a holy global race war he believes is inevitable. The Senate election contest in Alabama – with Roy Moore as the Bannon-backed candidate mired in allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior towards under-age girls – is one to watch for the resilience of the hard Right.

The Democrats have their own reformist ‘insurgency’ demanding the party open its doors to independent voters and radical millennials – those who backed the Sanders juggernaut for socialism, mobilising millions and raising funds from small donors only – not a single dollar from Wall St. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who remains the most popular politician in the USA – with approval numbers at one point topping 57% – is trying to remake the Democratic party into a social democratic reform party, in a more gentlemanly war on the Democratic establishment. Unlike Bannon, Sanders is trying to save the Democratic party from oblivion and irrelevance, not destroy it, but that’s not how the DNC sees his challenge. As former DNC chair, Donna Brazile has shown in her memoir, backing up emails leaked by Wikileaks from John Podesta’s account, the party establishment has waged covert war on Sanders’s anti-Wall Street stance, and remains in thrall to the latter.

But the facts are clear: that President Obama left the Democrats in a parlous state, losing both houses of Congress and over 1000 state legislative seats since 2008. This represents a cliff-style fall off of political support not equaled since the American civil war. It currently has a favourability rating at under 40% – the same as that for President Trump.

According to an “autopsy” of the 2016 defeat by Sanders-inspired Democrats, the party is in danger of complete collapse unless they ride in on the coat-tails of increasingly significant social protest movements. They point to the example of Sanders adopting the Occupy Wall Street slogan – “we are the 99%” – to gain electoral traction and suggest that harnessing grass-roots resistance to Trump policies to recruit volunteers, online support, small donations and election turnout. They want to harness to the party machine mass discontent and resistance.

In itself, this is a positive development – it shows that millions of Americans – and up to a third of registered Democrats – have rediscovered mass protest to stand up to racists and fascists, to protect the environment against corporate greed, oppose America’s continuing militarism and wars, and to resist numerous and systematic injustices against immigrants, women and workers’ rights.

But incorporating and harnessing mass protest to the Democratic machine appears to be the move of a party in deep crisis but which remains itself attached to Wall Street and all that entails as to the corporate order at home and its militarism abroad. This is most visible in Democrats’ support for Trump’s increased military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan and compromises with trillion dollar tax cuts for the richest 1% to fix an allegedly broken tax system.

It is difficult not to conclude that the Democratic party, despite hitting an electoral dead end by its embrace of Wall Street, is willing to appear once again as the voice of the people, hijack popular struggles and lead voters to the polls to place the party back into the seats of government – at which point all talk of mass protest will likely cease and politics return to “normalcy”.

All this shows is that Democrats have failed to learn the lessons of 2016 – there is no returning to normalcy unless politics and government address deep-seated social inequality, loss of hope for the future among the young, and a society ravaged by market-mentalities that serve only one class of people – the super-rich. The Clintonites’ response to Brazile’s expose of Hillary’s effective purchase of the DNC in 2016 is instructive – to smear Brazile claims as “false Russian-fuelled propaganda”.

That the Democratic party has failed to grasp the meaning of 2016 indicates that it is an unlikely vehicle for popular aspirations even in the face of the most unpopular, divisive pluto-populist president in American history. Indeed, they may well be paving the road to another Trump administration, much as Obama and Clinton cleared the path to his election in November 2016.

Written by Leigh Brown

Leigh Brown is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served nineteen years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. He was the CIA Chief of Base for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and was one of the first Americans to enter Afghanistan in December 2001. Leigh is Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group that seeks to encourage and promote a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is consistent with American values and interests.

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