The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Democratic Party Convention:
Populism & Patriotism

Aug 31, 1984

Mario Cuomo’s keynote address set the populist tone which marked the Democratic Party’s National Convention. Cuomo opened by comparing Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” to the other part of the city, “where some people can’t pay their mortgages and most young people can’t afford one, where students can’t afford the education they need and middle class parents watch as the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. In this part of the city, there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble. More and more people who need help and can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basement of houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city’s gutters, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city... it’s the same shining city for those relative few who are lucky enough to live in the good neighborhoods. But for the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city’s gleaming towers.”

That same tone marked all the important speeches, as the Democratic Party sought to portray the Republican Party as the “cold citadel of privilege,” in Edward Kennedy’s words; as it sought to portray itself as the representative of “the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised,” to use Jesse Jackson’s words. It sought to portray itself in Geraldine Ferraro’s words, as the party of “those working Americans who fear that banks, utilities and large special interests have a lock on the White House.” Or in Cuomo’s words, as the Peoples Party which “speaks for...the abject poor as well as the enlightened affluent...for the middle class, the people not rich enough to be worry-free, but not poor enough to be on welfare, the middle class, those who work for a living because they have to...for the minorities who have not yet entered the mainstream...for ethnics who want to add their culture to the magnificent mosaic that is America...for women who are indignant that this nation refuses to etch into our governmental commandments the simple rule ‘thou shalt not sin against equality’...for young people demanding an education and a future...for senior citizens terrorized by the idea that their only security, Social Security, is being threatened.” Mondale sought to characterize the difference between himself and Reagan in similar terms: “Mr. Reagan believes that the genius of America is in the boardrooms and exclusive country clubs. I believe that greatness can be found in the men and women who built our nation; do its work; and defend our freedom.”

The populism of this campaign rhetoric was not, any more than campaign rhetoric ever is, translated into specific proposals. The campaign platform – itself, nothing but a piece of paper – carried only the vaguest, most general of promises about equal justice and opportunity for all. To the extent that the 1984 Democratic Party platform carried specific promises, they stood in direct contradiction to the Democrats’ resurrected populist fervor. The most important items called for: “a reduction in the rate of increase in defense spending”, that is to say, further increases in the amount of military spending; “tax reform”, that is to say, tax increases; “controlling domestic spending”, that is to say, reducing the social programs still further; and finally, “A Democratic President will be prepared to apply military force when vital American interests are threatened.” In other words, the same program as Reagan’s, with a few details different.

Nonetheless, it was not the platform which television beamed into every living room: it was Cuomo’s radical sounding denunciations of Reagan, Jackson’s sermon on equality and brotherhood. And above all, it was Geraldine Ferraro, made into the symbol of this convention. It was Ferraro, who claimed that the Democrats, “by choosing an American woman to run for our nation’s second highest office,” have sent “a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.”

It’s certainly not a new thing to see the Democratic Party portray itself as the party of the working class, of the minorities, as a “Peoples Party”. But is has not been since the time of Roosevelt that a whole convention seemed to be so fully devoted to projecting that image.

In this regard, the nomination of Ferraro allowed the Democrats to appear to be ready to act on their rhetoric. In fact, the nomination of a millionaire, who also happens to be a woman, the nomination of a politician who owes her position today to family ties within the Democratic Party machine and to money given her by her husband, a wealthy owner of slum real estate – this nomination does not mean that the Democratic Party is now ready to address the problem of working class women who earn “59¢ on the dollar.” Any more than the spotlight put on Jackson means that doors are about to be opened for the immense majority of black Americans.

But the nomination of Ferraro, “this historic first” combined with the position given to Jackson, the so-called “first serious black candidate for president,” as well as the radical tone found by Cuomo may be just what the Democrats need to reinvigorate the kind of illusions which Roosevelt built up in the 1930s.

In Search of 14 Million Voters

If we gauge by the polls taken immediately after the convention, the Democrats may have found the chord they need to strike in order to surmount Reagan’s apparent big edge in the campaign. Of course, one poll doesn’t mean much; nonetheless, the poll taken immediately after the convention showed Mondale slightly ahead of Reagan, in contrast to the last poll taken just before the convention, which showed Mondale more than 15 percentage points behind.

The real issue for the Democrats, of course, is not the polls, it is how many of those voters who traditionally abstain can be mobilized this time. Given that there is a much higher rate of abstention among precisely those layers of the population who might be expected to support the Democrats: the blue collar and service workers, the young unemployed, and the black workers; the assumption is that when these layers vote in higher-than-usual numbers, the Democrats win. The problem for the Democrats is how to overcome the tendency of the most exploited layers of the population to be disaffected from the whole electoral game. Those who repeat the statement that Reagan took nearly 40 percent of the blue collar vote in the last election conveniently forget one fact: that it was 40 per cent only of those who voted; over 50 per cent of all blue collar workers didn’t bother to vote at all. Those who repeat that almost 90 per cent of the black voters supported the Democrats also forget: almost 60 per cent of the black population didn’t vote at all. The problem for the Democrats is to get an important part of those non-voters to the polls. Charles Manatt, the Democratic Party Chairman, has been quoted as saying that “Democratic hopes ride on expanding the presidential vote from 86 million in 1980 to 100 million this year.”

It was this problem that the whole media event which was the Democratic Party Convention was geared to answering. It was to those layers that the radical rhetoric and populist allusions were directed.

Populism as a Cover for Patriotism

Beyond the needs of the Democratic Party’s own electoral hopes, however, something else was served by this convention: the interest of the bourgeoisie in having the masses of the population tied to the Democratic party, and, through it, to the electoral framework, to the idea that they can find prospects for themselves within the bourgeois order.

That interest was served not just by the social demagogy of the Democrats, but also by their appeals to the most reactionary of social and political attitudes. Running through all the speeches was a glorification of war, even as the Democrats tried to portray themselves as the defenders of peace. Cuomo defined the Democrats’ attitude in the following terms: “Of course, Democrats are for a strong defense, of course Democrats believe that there are times that we must stand and fight. And we have. Thousands of us have paid for freedom with our lives. But always, when this country has been at our best, our purposes were clear.” Ferraro encouraged young people to give themselves to military service for the love of their country, and even went so far as to pay tribute to all the soldiers who supposedly died bravely for their country, to those at Normandy, to those in Viet Nam. Speech after speech was loaded with religious references, patriotic appeals, and glorification of the family. The solution the Democrats proposed to the “disadvantaged” – other than, of course, voting for the Democrats – turned around hard work, individual initiative, devotion and support from one’s family, belief in god, etc. Jackson proclaimed: “I have a message for our youth. I challenge them to put hope in their brains and not to open their veins. I told them that like Jesus, I, too, was born in the slum, but just because you’re born in a slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it, if your mind is made up.” Mondale actually dared to pull out that worn-out myth that anyone can become president – or, as the new Democratic Party version goes, will be able to do so in the next generation, given that the Democrats have now opened the doors for everyone by choosing a woman as vice president in 1984. And Ferraro spelled it all out: “Tonight, the daughter of working Americans tells all Americans that the future is within our reach – if we’re willing to reach for it. Tonight, the daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for Vice President in the new land my father came to love. Our faith that we can shape a better future is what the American dream is all about. The promise of our country is that the rules are fair. And if you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America’s blessings.”

Certainly, the Democrats make this reactionary, patriotic propaganda as a means to cover their right flank in the coming elections. Nonetheless, it is part of the general propaganda of bourgeois society, and it serves the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is the proof that the populism of the Democratic Party, just as populism always does, defends the values of bourgeois society. Today, maybe these reactionary appeals are in part the reflection of reactionary attitude which are more prevalent in society – maybe it’s the Democrats’ way to ensure a few more votes. But tomorrow, if the situation were to change, if the bourgeoisie found itself ready to take the nation to war, this reactionary demagogy will have served a purpose; it will perhaps have contributed to preparing the population to go to that future war.

A Barrier Prepared in Advance

Certainly, the Democratic Party has always been the main political vehicle for tying the working class to a bourgeois perspective. But, today, the economic crisis gives a special urgency to this problem for the bourgeoisie, and for the politicians who serve it. The working class is suffering under an austerity program which has been imposed on it from all directions: from the corporations, with the aid of the trade union bureaucracies; from the state apparatus, directly in the interests of a particular employer, as in the case of the Chrysler loan guarantees; and indirectly in the interests of the whole bourgeoisie, as in the case of the sweeping cuts in the social programs, combined with the changes in the tax laws and the increases in military spending and other corporate subsidies.

So long as the economic crisis continues, the possibility continues that the working class will find the means to defend itself, even if, up until now, it has not. Already, in the last year, we have seen an increasing number of strikes, of refusals by the workers to take further concessions. At what moment will one of those refusals take a more militant form, pulling in its train a larger social movement?

Certainly, nothing is foreordained, and the existence of the economic crisis, in and of itself, does not inevitably lead to a massive struggle of the working class; if there were such a direct and necessary link between the economy and social and political life, we long ago would have seen a vast social movement of the working class, and maybe even the dumping of the Democrats and the Republicans. Nonetheless, the continuing persistence of the economic crisis continues to raise the possibility of a social explosion. Such an explosion could mean that big layers of the population turn away from the traditional politics of the two bourgeois parties, the possibility that the working class could seek to forge its own political goals, independent of the bourgeoisie and of the bourgeois parties.

This convention, if it proves able to rekindle illusions in the Democratic Party as a “Peoples Party”, will help prepare a barrier in the way of the working class.

It would not be the first time that the Democratic Party had been able to create illusions in itself, and thus help to divert the struggles of the working class from pursuing an independent goal. The New Deal, first set forth in 1932, had its real impact starting in 1936 and going up into World War II, during that period when the working class was on the verge of directly opposing the capitalist system.

Apologists for the Democrats

Of course, in the 1930s it was not simply the Democratic Party which created illusions in itself. If the illusions had depended only on the Democratic Party, and on Roosevelt, it is likely that the working class would have been able to bypass the snares thrown out by the Democrats.

What disoriented the working class was that its own leadership, a leadership forged in the struggles that were sweeping the country, and one therefore which truly had the confidence of the workers, directed, and redirected, under various guises, the workers away from forming their own party and back into the fold of the Democratic Party. It was the trade union leadership which led the workers into the Democratic Party. However, the role played by the Communist Party was very important, for the simple reason that the C.P. militants were in many cases those who had really led the struggles of the workers. In 1936, the C.P. directly called for a vote for the Democratic Party; in 1940, although running its own candidate, nonetheless – at least by the time the election came – it used its own campaign to call on a vote for the Democrats. Thus, the C.P. helped to reinforce the role played by the growing trade union bureaucracy in imprisoning the working class within the Democratic Party.

Many groups in the left have become focused on Reagan over the last 4 years, losing sight of whose policy it is that Reagan carries out, losing sight of the continuity between Carter’s policy and Reagan’s, losing sight of the fact that it is a Democratic Congress which has passed Reagan’s program. Convinced that Reagan is responsible for the turn to the right, once more sections of the left are arguing for the “lesser evil” of the Democratic Party.

The Communist Party is among the most blatant in the pursuit of the Democrats. The Daily World has been repeating, at face value, the propaganda being made by Ferraro, Mondale and Jackson. It has gone to pains to emphasize the labor support for Mondale, the “historic” aspect of Ferraro’s nomination, the demonstrations by workers in support of the Democrats, etc. The degree to which they have turned over their paper and their own campaign to the Democrats can be seen in the fact that they felt called upon in their own paper even to justify their own candidacy to their members. The main argument they give (in an article appearing in the July 12, 1984 Daily World, page 21D), is that their candidacy will “prod the Democratic candidate to fight,” and at the same time it won’t split the vote, particularly if the C.P. can carry out its own “job”: “to get millions into motion against Reagan, particularly those who have stood on the sidelines in the past and the new young voters. A number of them will vote for Gus Hall and his running mate, Angela Davis. Others will find other ways to vote against Reagan. And that’s the point – to develop a mass anti-Reagan movement.”

It is not only the C.P. which has become an apologist for the Democrats – although the other groups are not so blatant. In some cases, it is Ferraro and in other cases, it is Jackson, presented as a sign of something different on the political scene this year. But in all cases, the reasoning leads to the same end: that is, that the Democrats can be susceptible to the pressure of the masses, that the Democratic Party could be turned into a vehicle to express the will of the masses, even if it isn’t at this moment.

Today, certainly, there is no left organization comparable to the C.P. of the 1930s, as far as influence in the working class is concerned. In that sense, what the left proposes and does today has much less possibility to harm the working class, at least directly. Nonetheless, to the extent that the left once more turns itself into an apologist for the Democratic Party, those small sections of the working class who might look for a way outside the trap of the Democratic Party have less chance to find an alternative.

By comparison, the Socialist Workers Party does put forth a clear alternative, a way, given the national scope of their campaign, for those who would like to register opposition to the Democrats and the Republicans to make themselves heard. They characterize the Ferraro nomination as “no advance for women,” and the Jackson campaign as “a false step in the fight for black equality.”

The revolutionary organizations are very small, so they cannot really offer prospects to the working class. Thus, it is not easy to stand independent of the Democratic Party. But the role of revolutionaries must at least be to denounce the populist trap the Democratic Party sets in front of the working class. To fall for the Democrats’ populist demagogy, to reinforce it, is a betrayal of the working class.