Straight from the donkey’s mouth

February 28, 2017

When Democrats own up about what side they're on, we should believe them, writes Danny Katch, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation.

AT A televised forum in January, a New York University student named Trevor Hill asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi if the Democratic Party should move leftward on economic issues.

"Well, I thank you for your question," Pelosi responded, before letting out a laugh as she said, "but I have to say we're capitalist, and that's just the way it is."

Meanwhile, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few weeks later, Donald Trump declared that the Republican Party would be, under his leadership, "the party also of the American worker."

What the heck is going on? For as long as anyone can remember, Republicans were supposed to represent the country clubs, while Democrats had the union halls. Has all that been turned upside down?

Not exactly. As Lance Selfa noted in Socialist Worker after the election: "Clinton won a majority of voters among those with household incomes of $50,000 or less, which is a little lower than the median household income in the U.S. On the other hand, Trump narrowly won voters with household incomes greater than $50,000."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Wikimedia Commons)

Plus, Trump has packed his cabinet with billionaires and plans to stab the working-class supporters he does have in the back with anti-union laws and corporate tax cuts that funnel money away from public schools and hospitals.

The fact is that both major parties in America are 100 percent capitalist and always have been. The difference today is that millions of people like Trevor Hill who normally vote Democratic are asking whether that's a good thing.

FOR ONCE, you'll read these words at Socialist Worker: Pelosi's response was absolutely correct, because she understands better than most what being capitalist actually means.

Most people think of capitalism in terms of opinion. That's why Hill introduced his question to Pelosi by saying, "51 percent of people between 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism." His logic was clear: If young people don't support capitalism, then maybe your party shouldn't be either.

But Pelosi's response wasn't about what her party thinks. It was about what her party is. We are capitalist, she said, and by we, she meant not only herself and her office-holding colleagues, but also the executives and owners of industries across the U.S. who are also part of the foundation of her party.

Pelosi then tried to soften the blow by explaining that the Democrats may be capitalists, but they believe in a kinder, gentler sort of capitalism:

About 40 years ago, no less a person than the chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey talked about "stakeholder capitalism"--capitalism that said when we make decisions as managements and CEOs of the country, we take into consideration our shareholders...our workers, our customers and the community at large.

At that time, the disparity between the CEO and the worker was about 40 times more for the CEO than the worker. As productivity rose, the pay of the worker rose and the pay of the CEO...rose together.

Around 20 years ago, it started to turn into "shareholder capitalism" where we're strictly talking about the quarterly report. So a CEO would make much more money by keeping pay low, even though productivity is rising. The worker is not getting any more pay, and the CEO is getting big pay because he's kept costs low by depriving workers of their share of the productivity they've created...The disparity between the CEO and the worker under "shareholder capitalism" is more like 350 to 400 to 1.

This is a story that many Democratic politicians like to tell. Capitalism was working when the people who ran corporations were nice. Then, for some reason, they stopped being nice, and things have gotten more unequal.

But the story doesn't hold up under questioning. Inequality started growing in the 1970s, when--as we all know from watching Mad Men--lots of executives were going to consciousness raising sessions and exploring their inner hippies.

By contrast, inequality was greatly reduced in the 1950s, when corporate boardrooms were at their most square and conservative. It had nothing to do with whether CEOs thought of themselves are shareholders or stakeholders--and everything to do with the fact that more workers were in unions at the time, and more of those unions were willing and able to go on strike to increase their members' share of the overall pie.

Today, companies like Uber call their employees partners and refer to themselves as part of a sharing economy--phrases that would have made a 1950s suit want to puke.

But that executive would quickly get over his disgust and admire Uber's growth into a nonunion behemoth on the backs of drivers who often work 14-hour days and sleep in parking lots because they can't afford to live anywhere near their wealthy urban customers.

WHETHER THEY are naughty or nice, capitalists belong to a small class that benefits from things that aren't good for most of us, like low corporate taxes, weak environmental regulations and "flexible" labor practices that force employees to be at their beck and call at all hours of every day.

Different capitalists have different specific interests. Wells Fargo wants weak oversight of the financial industry so it can continue fraudulent activities, like charging people for fake accounts. Lockheed Martin needs a constant atmosphere of global tension and frequent wars in order to sell its deadly weaponry.

Sometimes, these different interests lead to conflict among capitalists. Google wants to break up Apple's monopoly on iPhone apps. Steel companies like trade barriers that protect them from foreign competition, while retailers like Walmart prefer "free trade."

These individual concerns lead capitalists to shop for individual politicians to fight for their specific concerns--and in some cases, they can lead to one capitalist party fighting harder for a specific industry the way Republicans do for Big Oil or Democrats do for Silicon Valley.

But most corporations make sure to spread their money across both parties to ensure that no matter what happens every November, they always win. And they all share a common goal of continuing economic and political policies that send an ever-greater share of wealth to flow to themselves and their friends.

So the major difference between the two parties isn't who they represent among the 1 Percent, but how they sell themselves to the rest of us.

For over a century, Republicans have put themselves forward as the party of business and appealed to those who think that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough, while Democrats made a more populist pitch as the party of the underdog.

But during that time, there's been an important shift between the two parties on what has always been one of the central questions of U.S. politics: racism.

For 150 years, the Democrats were the official party of Southern slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Their populism was the racist variety, explicitly geared toward white workers, including European immigrants, in many Northern cities.

But as segregation was challenged and then defeated by a mass movement in the second half of the 20th century, the Democratic Party was forced to abandon what had been a core element of its platform and put itself forward as the party of civil rights.

Meanwhile, Republicans, starting with Richard Nixon, adopted the "Southern strategy" of appealing to white supremacy.

Ronald Reagan infamously began his 1980 presidential campaign in the Mississippi town where three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered 16 years before. Just four years ago, Mitt Romney--who today scolds Trump for his racism--said that he was unpopular with civil rights groups because they just want "free stuff" from the government.

Now Trump has made the racism more explicit--or less "politically correct," as his supporters would put it--with an added emphasis on the evils of Muslims and Latino immigrants.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is now the official party for unions, civil rights and feminism, but does its best to organize these constituents as separate voting blocs in competition with each other for crumbs--even though the majority of workers are women and people of color, and all working people would benefit from major reforms like stronger unions, wealth redistribution and a serious fight against segregated housing and education.

MANY PROGRESSIVES who want the Democrats to stop being a capitalist party had their hopes up that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign last year, would become head of the Democratic National Committee with the election in late February.

Instead, top Democratic leaders, including Barack Obama, helped defeat Ellison by backing the more moderate Tom Perez--with the excuse that if the party gets too left wing, it will lose elections in states that voted for Trump.

In fact, the Democrats lost to Trump not because Hillary Clinton was too radical, but because many potential voters saw her as a corporate tool, and stayed home on Election Day. But Democratic leaders like Clinton and Pelosi want to keep the party in the middle because they think that Trump's populism gives the Democrats a chance to be the "responsible" party of business that the Republicans used to be.

In truth, however, even if Ellison had become DNC chairman, he wouldn't and couldn't have changed the basic reality about his party that Pelosi frankly acknowledged: They're capitalist.

Despite the disagreements between the left and right of the Democrat Party, both sides agree that their main task is to start organizing for the 2018 Congressional elections and the 2020 presidential race.

When they look at the incredible protests that have been broken out in recent weeks, they aren't wondering how they can help expand this resistance to make the country ungovernable and block Trump's nightmare agenda. They're wondering how they can "harness this energy" into get-out-the-vote operations 20 months from now.

We'll see if that works for getting some more Democrats elected in a few years but it's a horrible strategy for all the immigrants, LGBT people and workers in Trump's crosshairs right now.

THERE'S ANOTHER way. When ordinary people have made progress in this country, it hasn't been because there were nicer people in charge, but because we organized and fought for ourselves.

Abraham Lincoln didn't "free the slaves." Black people ended their own enslavement by fighting and dying, along with hundreds of thousands of white soldiers in the Civil War.

Franklin Roosevelt didn't just decide to create Social Security and unemployment insurance. Millions of workers formed unions and launched a wave of strikes that scared FDR into creating a social safety net in order to prevent a revolution.

Today, tens of thousands of immigrants aren't patiently waiting for better people to get elected some day after they've already been snatched away from their families by ICE agents in the middle of the night. They're marching and going on strike even in the face of tremendous fear and repression.

Looking back on American history, it's remarkable not only how many of our most important gains had nothing to do with elections, but that they were won by people who didn't even have the right to vote.

The lesson isn't that voting doesn't matter. But it certainly isn't the only thing that matters--especially when those of us who lack a major stake in a large corporation don't even have a party to call our own. And that, as Nancy Pelosi might say, is just the way it is.

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