A party for the insiders

Danny Katch explains the twisted workings of the mainstream political parties, in this excerpt from his forthcoming book America's Got Democracy! The Making of the World's Longest Running Reality Show, published by Haymarket Books.

Michelle Obama addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte (Steve Bott)Michelle Obama addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte (Steve Bott)

THE RULING elites of America don't just control the two parties. They actually are the two parties.

It's more obvious with the Republicans--among its last few presidential nominees have been two privileged prep school scions of famous wealthy political dynasties. The Democratic Party is a more subtle party of the rich. Sure, most of their members of Congress are millionaires--but they're earnest ones, who worry about how the rest of us are getting on.

The point goes deeper than politicians' incomes. Think about the structure of the Democratic Party. It's not a membership organization. You may call yourself a Democrat because you vote for them every election, but you're actually just a fan. You have as much input into party decisions as I have in the play-calling of the New York Giants, no matter how many jerseys I buy or how loudly I scream at my television.

It's true that you can become a part of the Democratic Party through volunteering or running for a local committee or public office. As a holder of a tiny share in a multibillion-dollar corporate party, you would have a direct interest in the party's fortunes, but still no influence.

The Democratic Party is 200 years old; the GOP is 150. That's an impressive lineage, but it also means both parties trace their roots to the days when political parties were handfuls of rich guys who found they had some common interests and decided to pool some money to buy candidates and votes. That's still a fairly apt description. Lance Selfa's indispensable The Democrats: A Critical History identifies the key feature of the party (which also applies to the Republicans): structurelessness.

It has no fixed membership or membership requirements...The party has no stated set of principles or programs...[C]andidates--from the presidency to the city council--are free to follow or to ignore the party platform in their election drives. It has no official political leadership outside of its candidate for president and important Democratic congressional officials. The Democratic National Committee...exists mainly to raise money...In essence, the Democratic Party is a loose federation of candidate-based local and state electoral machines.

Such a loose structure would seem to make the party ripe for takeover--or at least influence--by any large well-organized political interest. That's been the strategy for decades of labor, equal rights and environmental organizations that have poured ever-more resources into the Democrats with every election. In fact, the party's amorphousness is the insiders' secret weapon. Real power resides in the informal spaces of the Democratic and Republican Parties, in the banquets and closed-door meetings among major donors, and their army of think-tank researchers, lobbyists, consultants, pollsters and, yes, candidates.

The parties' most important decisions are made unofficially and off the record, which often makes their inner workings so mystifying to us outsiders. Are the Republicans actually crazy? Why are the Democrats so spineless? Is it by some law of nature that the conservative Blue Dog Democrats always get their way over the party's Progressive Caucus, even though the latter has far more members?

While both parties seem to be chasing the all-powerful median voter, the power blocs inside boardrooms and war rooms pull the entire spectrum of acceptable ideas toward them like a tractor beam on Star Trek. This rightward shift has only been broken during times of enormous non-electoral protests, but we haven't had one of those since the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, politics has been a choreographed jamboree, where the ruling class plays the fiddle. Call it the "Two Party Shuffle":

Hey Tea Party, looking for a fight?
Step from your right to your really far right!
Now reach for your partner, the GOP.
Pull them a step toward you on three!
Okay Democrats, now it's your turn.
Slide to where the Republicans were!
Now grab on to your liberal base.
Yank them a step to a "realistic" place!

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ONE EFFECT of 30 years of this ever rightward moving dance is that the Republican Party is now nuts. From denying climate change and evolution to allowing guns in classrooms, GOP leaders seem to be down for whatever crazy-ass position that will keep the party's small, but fervent hard-core happy. Since the right wing is too caught up in its Leave It to Beaver-meets-Mad Max fantasy to care about the actual world we live in, most Republicans seem to have no interest in governing.

Even some of this year's Republican presidential candidates don't take their own party seriously. They took the Sarah Palin path of simply using the campaign as an audition for the role of "former presidential candidate" on Fox News. For Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, running for president was primarily a way to hawk their books; both men displayed a degree of self-interest that would make Ayn Rand proud as they prioritized lucrative appearances at bookstores over campaign stops among undecided voters. Which makes it all the more embarrassing that each of those guys at one point was beating Mitt Romney, who wants to be president so badly he's willing to kiss the babies of commoners.

The debate over Obama's health care law showed that congressional Republicans are just as unserious. Before it was Obamacare, it was Romneycare, and before that, it was the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation, supported by many of the Republicans who denounce it as tyranny today.

What's remarkable about the Republicans' flip-flop is that the American health care system is not just a crisis for working people, but for their bosses, too--because the insurance and pharmaceutical industries parasitically feed off of employer-provided health coverage. It's hard to imagine a solution to this crisis that will ask more of ordinary people and less of corporations than Obama's law, but the Republicans rail against it anyways, because they've moved so far to the right that much of their base thinks it's the president's secret religious mission to kill America's white grandmas with death panels.

Democrats have quite a different relationship with their voters. The conservative analyst David Frum once quipped that while Republicans fear their base, Democrats loathe theirs. The same party that timidly concedes in debates with Republicans is quite the bully when facing even mild dissent from its left.

This was evident in the months leading up the midterm elections in 2010, when some supporters of the Democrats dared to mention that the party had barely accomplished in the two years they held the presidency and both houses of Congress. A time for humble self-criticism, perhaps? Not so much.

In an October interview with Rolling Stone, Obama presidentially pouted that the "idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible...[I]f people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place."

Obama's comments were part of a coordinated series of high-profile whip-crackings to steer the left of the herd back to the trail. Joe Biden told the base to "stop whining" and press secretary Robert Gibbs complained about the "professional left" that would only "be satisfied when we have Canadian health care, and we've eliminated the Pentagon."

I have to admit that I'm one of those people who like the sound of Gibbs' dystopian nightmare of world peace and free medicine. But it was odd to hear Obama's spokesman sound so much like Glenn Beck in describing people merely for having the audacity to still hope for change.

Not surprisingly, these putdowns didn't help the Democrats' enthusiasm deficit and the party got roasted that November, losing the House and many seats in the Senate. Obama seems to have learned something this year. Rather than telling his supporters what a bunch of shitheads they are, he's pulled out of his pocketbook some tiny tantalizing treats, from his personal nonbinding support for marriage equality to his pledge to reduce deportations of young immigrants. These morsels have been received enthusiastically but they are a far cry from the bold talk of four years ago.

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THE CENTRAL irony of American politics is that the bitterness of debate between the two parties tends to rise in proportion to how much they actually have in common, especially when it comes to the economy.

Consider the question of the budget, which has led to high-decibel fights in statehouses and threats of government shutdown in Congress, even though their policies of cutting schools and hospitals while preserving low taxes for the wealthy would seem almost identical to most non-American observers. Where the parties differ is in how they sell it.

Republicans like Scott Walker and Romney's running mate Paul Ryan are downright gleeful about massive cuts because they see taking food from poor children as a moral good.

These Republicans justify cuts to bus routes and day care programs that destroy families' budgets by using the ironic metaphor of a family budget: Mom and Dad have to balance their books so the government should too. Given that our government won't reduce its massive military spending or corporate tax breaks, the only family it could possibly resemble is one in which Dad forces Sis out of college, makes Mom to get a second job, and halves Grandpa's medication, just so he can keep himself deep in pure cocaine, untraceable handguns and hush money for the local cops.

Democrats, on the other hand, prefer a two-step process in which they first pass up the chance to raise taxes on the wealthy and then publicly agonize over the cuts they then inevitably make. Or, in the case of Congressional Dems, first, they have a majority but don't tax the rich, and then they get really eager to do it once they lose the votes to make it happen. They're like the guy pretending to be held back by his friends so that he can't get in a fight that he wants absolutely no part of.

I'm not saying the two parties have identical budget policies. Most of the time, Democratic proposals are not as bad as Republican ones, and in that difference are vital programs and services that millions of people consider to be reason enough to stay loyal Democrats. It would be a mistake to blithely dismiss these differences. But it's also a mistake to accuse those of us who don't support the Democrats of not knowing or caring about those affected by the difference between the policies of the two parties.