17 October 2013

Who really won the shutdown battle?

In light of Congress' eleventh hour passage of a bill Wednesday night to avert a government default and end the shutdown that paralyzed the federal government for 16 days, the New York Times is declaring victory for the Democrats.

But is it really so? Although Republicans failed to achieve their stated goal of de-funding the Affordable Care Act (Romneycare) and were unable to wring further spending cuts from the Democrats, this is still a big win for austerity and further confirmation that the Tea Party strategy works. The deal approved by Congress leaves in place spending cuts that Republicans won during the last major fight over the debt ceiling in 2011, and current levels of funding remain far below those preferred by Democrats, hovering a mere 2% from the funding levels proposed in Paul Ryan's 2014 budget. Moreover, the deal will only fund the government through January 15 and raise the debt ceiling through February 7, portending yet another fiscal impasse and the possibility of more spending cuts. This is austerity, American style.

Despite the outsized influence of the Tea Party and clear evidence that its extremist strategy to whittle away the federal government is working, much of the left has persisted in demonizing the radical right. While it may feel good to do so, progressives should instead learn from the Tea Party's relentless attack on the Republican Party and pursue the same strategy against establishment Democrats, thereby pulling the Democratic Party as a whole to the left and moving the political system a step closer to sanity.


  1. Wasn't the shutdown debacle both a victory for the Democratic Party and a big win for austerity? There is no contradiction here. We could only say there was if there was interesting sense in which the Democrats are a "left" party with some semblance of an anti-austerity politics. They are not. Perry Anderson was quite right in his recent NLR piece "Homeland" to say that the parties "play at" mimicking "left" and "right", but, in fact, the situation is much messier and it's not at all legtimate to assume that the Democrat's default is somehow left of center. Both parties are thoroughly, deeply committed to the project of austerity---the only disagreement between them is over how deep to cut and how to rhetoric seek legitimation from the population. They are different in important respects, but their substantive disagreements pale in comparison to the broad range of agreement among them on the core political questions of the day. It's easy to miss this because the media focuses so heavily on their disagreements and totally ignores the background consensus on throughly neoliberal policy. To be sure, the GOP pushed the Democrats to concede a lot of ground in the shutdown debates. But why were they able to do that so effectively? The Democrats have agreed to go along with cuts consistently since the crisis began. They didn't put up a fight when they had super-majorities in Congress and they aren't putting up a fight now. It's not all about the GOP. We should be careful not to accept the liberal narrative that the Democrats simply need to "grow a spine"---as if the problem with the party were some apolitical question of tactics or resolve. They are a pro-austerity party committed to cut-backs, privatizing education, battering unions, giving subsidies and tax breaks to the wealthy, imperialism abroad, etc. etc. The DP is a top-down, internally undemocratic organization that is largely funded by Capital. Rhetorically, they sell themselves as the most "responsible", "reasonable" administrators of US capitalism. Why, then, should we be surprised that they don't fight harder to stop cutbacks and austerity? It's really rather convenient a situation for them: austerity is unpopular, particularly among the sectors of the population most like to vote Dem... yet the Dems can perpetually avoid being punished for their embrace of austerity because it's possible to blame it all on the GOP--and particularly on the Tea Party. What we desperately need is a materialist analysis of the Democratic Party as a national organization with a history, with deep connections to Capital, that is helped by a lapdog trade union movement that delivers votes and money in return for nothing, etc. If we are to understand the results of the shutdown, we can't ignore the prominent role that the Democrats actively played---they aren't passive victims of Tea Party fanatics.

  2. In every single example in US history where we won progressive reforms, there were independent social movements on the ground challenging the Democrats (not seeking to cooperate from a position of weakness). This is true of the labor movement in the 30s, the black freedom struggle in the 50s/60s, the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, etc. etc. Movements are the condition of possibility of challenging the Democrats and forcing them to tack left and grant concessions. There are, as far as I know, no successful examples of entering the party and trying to successfully change it from within. This doesn't deliver the goods. I would be curious to know why we ought to think that primary challenges are the best way forward when, instead, a couple of high-profile criticisms or defections from the trade union movement would have much larger effects on the situation. It seems to me that we're far more likely to effectively pressure the Democrats if we work to build a fighting, independent labor movement that is capable of withholding support, challenging capital directly, etc. The sooner the labor movement breaks with the Democrats, the better for the struggle. I would be curious to know what folks think of this Robert Brenner article, which masterfully examines the history of movements and reforms, and the discontents of trying to enter the DP to push it to the left from https://ssl.vuzit.com/s/7gxna?sid=CQisAHHNRYvoFnHzDHHTeimjoFG8uaul

  3. I think your characterization of the Democratic Party as an austerity monolith papers over differences within the party. While your characterization may be accurate for the party's leadership, I'm not sure it accurately characterizes the party as a whole, since it ignores the Progressive caucus in the house, which has over and over again proposed non-austerity budgets, as well as admittedly bit players in the party's overall decision-making hierarchy, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who certainly aren't pro-austerity legislators.

    The shake-up going on in the Republican Party right now that is allowing the Suicide Caucus to exert disproportionate control over the party as a whole is clear evidence that internal differences can be effectively exploited by a small, tightly organized group to set the party's legislative agenda. The same thing could be done to the Democratic Party.

    This strategy does not necessarily entail "joining" the Democratic Party, as your comments suggest. While it may be the case that historically third parties and organized labor have been the force to drag the Democrats to the left, this isn't necessarily true today. There are no viable third parties, and the labor movement has been decimated. The Democratic Party is the only force organized enough on the left to counter the massive threat coming from the right.

    For the very reasons you describe - the Democratic leadership has been for austerity-lite, basically allowing the GOP to run the ball without offering a substantive alternative - there is a great deal of potential to put serious pressure on Democrats with an anti-austerity, pro-public investment narrative to which many Democratic voters as well as other independent voters who comprise the country's silent progressive majority would be very receptive.

    High profile defections from the labor movement would be nice, but I don't see them happening anytime soon, since the high profile unions seem pretty wedded to the Democrats. We could pressure them to break with the party and then enter the process of trying to build an independent third party or we would recruit them to use their position in the party hierarchy to push a harder line.

  4. I would add that I don't see challenging Democrats directly as antithetical to building an independent grassroots movement. In fact, think it's easier to build that kind of movement out of a specific, legislative agenda and electoral strategy than it is to try to build it in isolation from the policy-making and legislative processes.

  5. Trumka's recent statements regarding Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. seem relevant to this discussion.


    I would like to discuss the Brenner essay in more detail. A lot of my thinking on these issues has been influenced by his account of the post-wwii global economy in The Economics of Global Turbulence.

    My interest in the Democratic Party is as the most strategic point of resistance against the onslaught of the market. In this respect, I think it resembles what Ellen Meiksins Wood, a close ally of Brenner's, calls a "protective strategy" in this piece from the late 90s: