Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oh What a Malleable War

The New York Times
February 18, 2007

MAYBE the Bush White House can’t conduct a war, but no one has ever impugned its ability to lie about its conduct of a war. Now even that well-earned reputation for flawless fictionalizing is coming undone. Watching the administration try to get its story straight about Iran’s role in Iraq last week was like watching third graders try to sidestep blame for misbehaving while the substitute teacher was on a bathroom break. The team that once sold the country smoking guns in the shape of mushroom clouds has completely lost its mojo.

Surely these guys can do better than this. No sooner did unnamed military officials unveil their melodramatically secretive briefing in Baghdad last Sunday than Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blew the whole charade. General Pace said he didn’t know about the briefing and couldn’t endorse its contention that the Iranian government’s highest echelons were complicit in anti-American hostilities in Iraq. Public-relations pandemonium ensued as Tony Snow, the State Department and finally the president tried to revise the story line on the fly. Back when Karl Rove ruled, everyone read verbatim from the same script. Last week’s frantic improvisations were vintage Scooter Libby, at best the ur-text for a future perjury trial.

Yet for all the sloppy internal contradictions, the most incriminating indictment of the new White House disinformation campaign is to be found in official assertions made more than a year ago. The press and everyone else seems to have forgotten that the administration has twice sounded the same alarms about Iranian weaponry in Iraq that it did last week.

In August 2005, NBC News, CBS News and The Times cited unnamed military and intelligence officials when reporting, as CBS put it, that “U.S. forces intercepted a shipment from Iran containing professionally made explosive devices specifically designed to penetrate the armor which protects American vehicles.” Then, as now, those devices were the devastating roadside bombs currently called E.F.P.’s (explosively formed penetrators). Then, as now, they were thought to have been brought into Iraq by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Then, as now, there was no evidence that the Iranian government was directly involved. In February 2006, administration officials delivered the same warning yet again, before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Timing is everything in propaganda, as in all showmanship. So why would the White House pick this particular moment to mount such an extravagant rerun of old news, complete with photos and props reminiscent of Colin Powell’s infamous presentation of prewar intelligence? Yes, the death toll from these bombs is rising, but it has been rising for some time. (Also rising, and more dramatically, is the death toll from attacks on American helicopters.)

After General Pace rendered inoperative the first official rationale for last Sunday’s E.F.P. briefing, President Bush had to find a new explanation for his sudden focus on the Iranian explosives. That’s why he said at Wednesday’s news conference that it no longer mattered whether the Iranian government (as opposed to black marketeers or freelance thugs) had supplied these weapons to Iraqi killers. “What matters is, is that they’re there,” he said. The real point of hyping this inexact intelligence was to justify why he had to take urgent action now, no matter what the E.F.P.’s provenance: “My job is to protect our troops. And when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we’re going to do something about it, pure and simple.”

Darn right! But if the administration has warned about these weapons twice in the past 18 months (and had known “that they’re there,” we now know, since 2003), why is Mr. Bush just stepping up to that job at this late date? Embarrassingly enough, The Washington Post reported on its front page last Monday — the same front page with news of the Baghdad E.F.P. briefing — that there is now a shortfall of “thousands of advanced Humvee armor kits designed to reduce U.S. troop deaths from roadside bombs.” Worse, the full armor upgrade “is not scheduled to be completed until this summer.” So Mr. Bush’s idea of doing something about it, “pure and simple” is itself a lie, since he is doing something about it only after he has knowingly sent a new round of underarmored American troops into battle.

To those who are most suspicious of this White House, the “something” that Mr. Bush really wants to do has little to do with armor in any case. His real aim is to provoke war with Iran, no matter how overstretched and ill-equipped our armed forces may be for that added burden. By this line of thinking, the run-up to the war in Iraq is now repeating itself exactly and Mr. Bush will seize any handy casus belli he can to ignite a conflagration in Iran.

Iran is an unquestionable menace with an Israel-hating fanatic as its president. It is also four times the size of Iraq and a far more dangerous adversary than was Saddam’s regime. Perhaps Mr. Bush is as reckless as his harshest critics claim and will double down on catastrophe. But for those who don’t hold quite so pitch-black a view of his intentions, there’s a less apocalyptic motive to be considered as well.

Let’s not forget that the White House’s stunt of repackaging old, fear-inducing news for public consumption has a long track record. Its reason for doing so is always the same: to distract the public from reality that runs counter to the White House’s political interests. When the Democrats were gaining campaign traction in 2004, John Ashcroft held an urgent news conference to display photos of seven suspected terrorists on the loose. He didn’t bother to explain that six of them had been announced previously, one at a news conference he had held 28 months earlier. Mr. Bush played the same trick last February as newly declassified statistics at a Senate hearing revealed a steady three-year growth in insurgent attacks: he breathlessly announced a thwarted Qaeda plot against the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles that had already been revealed by the administration four months before.

We know what Mr. Bush wants to distract us from this time: Congressional votes against his war policy, the Libby trial, the Pentagon inspector general’s report deploring Douglas Feith’s fictional prewar intelligence, and the new and dire National Intelligence Estimate saying that America is sending troops into the cross-fire of a multifaceted sectarian cataclysm.

That same intelligence estimate also says that Iran is “not likely to be a major driver of violence” in Iraq, but no matter. If the president can now whip up a Feith-style smoke screen of innuendo to imply that Iran is the root of all our woes in the war — and give “the enemy” a single recognizable face (Ahmadinejad as the new Saddam) — then, ipso facto, he is not guilty of sending troops into the middle of a shadowy Sunni-Shiite bloodbath after all.

Oh what a malleable war Iraq has been. First it was waged to vanquish Saddam’s (nonexistent) nuclear arsenal and his (nonexistent) collaboration with Al Qaeda. Then it was going to spread (nonexistent) democracy throughout the Middle East. Now it is being rebranded as a fight against Tehran. Mr. Bush keeps saying that his saber rattling about Iran is not “a pretext for war.” Maybe so, but at the very least it’s a pretext for prolonging the disastrous war we already have.

What makes his spin brazen even by his standards is that Iran is in fact steadily extending its influence in Iraq — thanks to its alliance with the very Iraqi politicians that Mr. Bush himself has endorsed. In December the president welcomed a Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, to the White House with great fanfare; just three weeks later American forces had to raid Mr. Hakim’s Iraq compound to arrest Iranian operatives suspected of planning attacks against American military forces, possibly with E.F.P.’s. As if that weren’t bad enough, Nuri al-Maliki’s government promptly overruled the American arrests and ordered the operatives’ release so they could escape to Iran. For all his bluster about doing something about it, Mr. Bush did nothing.

It gets worse. This month we learned that yet another Maliki supporter in the Iraqi Parliament, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Ebrahimi, was convicted more than two decades ago of planning the murderous 1983 attacks on the American and French Embassies in Kuwait. He’s now in Iran, but before leaving, this terrorist served as a security adviser, no less, to the first Iraqi prime minister after the American invasion, Ibrahim al-Jafaari. Mr. Jafaari, hailed by Mr. Bush as “a strong partner for peace and freedom” during his own White House visit in 2005, could be found last week in Tehran, celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution and criticizing America’s arrest of Iranian officials in Iraq.

Even if the White House still had its touch for spinning fiction, it’s hard to imagine how it could create new lies brilliant enough to top the sorry truth. When you have a president making a big show of berating Iran while simultaneously empowering it, you’ve got another remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” this time played for keeps.

Torture by Worms

The New York Times
February 18, 2007

JIMMA, Ethiopia

Presidents are supposed to be strong, and on his latest visit to Africa Jimmy Carter proved himself strong enough to weep.

The first stop of Mr. Carter’s four-nation African trip was Ghana, where he visited his projects to wipe out the Guinea worm, a horrendous two-foot-long parasite that lives inside the body and finally pops out, causing excruciating pain.

Mr. Carter was shaken by the victims he met, including a 57-year-old woman with a Guinea worm coming out of her nipple.

“She and her medical attendants said she had another coming out her genitals between her legs, and one each coming out of both feet,” Mr. Carter added. “And so she had four Guinea worms emerging simultaneously.”

“Little 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children were screaming uncontrollably with pain” because of the worms emerging from their flesh, Mr. Carter said. “I cried, along with the children.”

We tend to think of human rights in terms of a right to vote, a right to free speech, a right to assembly. But a child should also have a right not to suffer agony because of a worm that is easily preventable, as well as a right not to go blind because of a lack of medication that costs a dollar or two, even a right not to die for lack of a $5 mosquito net.

As president, Mr. Carter put the issue of human rights squarely on the national agenda. Now Mr. Carter argues — and he’s dead right — that we conceive of human rights too narrowly as political and civil rights, and that we also need to fight for the human right of children to live healthy lives.

He has led the way in waging that battle. Because of Mr. Carter’s two-decade battle against Guinea worm disease, it is expected to be eradicated worldwide within the next five years. It will be the first ailment to be eliminated since smallpox in 1977, and it has become a race between the worm and the ex-president to see who outlasts the other.

“I’m determined to live long enough to see no cases of Guinea worm anywhere in the world,” Mr. Carter said as he walked in blue jeans through a couple of villages in a remote corner of southwestern Ethiopia, the third country of his African tour.

After leaving the White House, Mr. Carter ended up “adopting” diseases like Guinea worm disease, river blindness, elephantiasis, trachoma and schistosomiasis that afflict the world’s most voiceless people. These are horrific diseases that cause unimaginable suffering, yet they rarely get attention, treatment or research funding because their victims are impoverished and invisible.

When Mr. Carter met with Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, then Pakistan’s president, President Zia had never heard of Guinea worm and didn’t know it existed in Pakistan. Nor did his health minister. But after Mr. Carter put the issue on the agenda, Pakistan worked energetically with the Carter Center to eliminate the parasite in that country.

The villages here in Ethiopia that Mr. Carter visited cradle a fast-moving creek, making a lovely image of thatch huts and bubbling water. But the creek is home to the black flies whose bites spread the parasite that causes river blindness, leading to unbearable itching and often eventually to blindness.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine the suffering of people with river blindness,” Mr. Carter said as he traipsed through the village beside his wife, Rosalynn.

Already, Mr. Carter’s campaign is making huge progress against the disease.

Kemeru Befita, a woman washing her clothes in the creek near Mr. Carter, told me that two of her children had caught river blindness in the last couple of months. After a visit to the witch doctor didn’t help, she took them to a clinic where — thanks to Mr. Carter’s program — they received medicine that killed the baby worms. They are two of the nearly 10 million people to whom the Carter Center gave medication last year alone, who won’t go blind.

At the end of the day, this one-term president who left office a pariah in his own party will transform the lives of more people in more places over a longer period of time than any other recent president. And I hope that he can also transform our conception of human rights, so that we show an interest not only in the human rights of people suffering from the oppression of dictators, but also from the even more brutal tyranny of blindness, malaria and worms.

Human Nature Redux

The New York Times
February 18, 2007

Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don’t even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.

This belief, most often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, begins with the notion that “everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Human beings are virtuous and free in their natural state. It is only corrupt institutions that make them venal. They are happy in their simplicity, but social conventions make them unwell.

This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led, first of all, to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying. It contributed to romantic revolts against tradition and etiquette. Whether it was 19th-century Parisian bohemians or 20th-century beatniks and hippies, Western culture has seen a string of antiestablishment rebellions led by people who wanted to shuck off convention and reawaken more natural modes of awareness.

It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves.

In education, it led to progressive reforms, in which children were liberated to follow their natural instincts. Politically, it led to radical social engineering efforts, because if institutions were the source of sin, then all you had to do was reshape institutions in order to create a New Man.

Therapeutically, it led to an emphasis of feelings over reason, self-esteem over self-discipline. In the realm of foreign policy, it led to a sort of global doctrine of the noble savage — the belief that societies in the colonial world were fundamentally innocent, and once the chains of their oppression were lifted something wonderful would flower.

Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded. It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists. As Steven Pinker has put it, Hobbes was more right than Rousseau.

Moreover, human beings are not as pliable as the social engineers imagined. Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups.

This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions. Most people today share what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision, what Pinker calls the Tragic Vision and what E. O. Wilson calls Existential Conservatism. This is based on the idea that there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.

Today, parents don’t seek to liberate their children; they supervise, coach and instruct every element of their lives. Today, there really is no antinomian counterculture — even the artists and rock stars are bourgeois strivers. Today, communes and utopian schemes are out of favor. People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn. Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.

This is a big pivot in intellectual history. The thinkers most associated with the Tragic Vision are Isaiah Berlin, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Friedrich Hayek and Hobbes. Many of them are conservative.

And here’s another perversity of human nature. Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism’s deepest truths.

[Click on image to enlarge.]

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

-- Theodore Roethke

Mystery: How Wealth Creates Poverty in the World

By Michael Parenti
February 16, 2007

There is a “mystery” we must explain: How is it that as corporate investments and foreign aid and international loans to poor countries have increased dramatically throughout the world over the last half century, so has poverty? The number of people living in poverty is growing at a faster rate than the world’s population. What do we make of this?

Over the last half century, U.S. industries and banks (and other western corporations) have invested heavily in those poorer regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America known as the “Third World.” The transnationals are attracted by the rich natural resources, the high return that comes from low-paid labor, and the nearly complete absence of taxes, environmental regulations, worker benefits, and occupational safety costs.

The U.S. government has subsidized this flight of capital by granting corporations tax concessions on their overseas investments, and even paying some of their relocation expenses---much to the outrage of labor unions here at home who see their jobs evaporating.

The transnationals push out local businesses in the Third World and preempt their markets. American agribusiness cartels, heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, dump surplus products in other countries at below cost and undersell local farmers. As Christopher Cook describes it in his Diet for a Dead Planet, they expropriate the best land in these countries for cash-crop exports, usually monoculture crops requiring large amounts of pesticides, leaving less and less acreage for the hundreds of varieties of organically grown foods that feed the local populations.

By displacing local populations from their lands and robbing them of their self-sufficiency, corporations create overcrowded labor markets of desperate people who are forced into shanty towns to toil for poverty wages (when they can get work), often in violation of the countries’ own minimum wage laws.

In Haiti, for instance, workers are paid 11 cents an hour by corporate giants such as Disney, Wal-Mart, and J.C. Penny. The United States is one of the few countries that has refused to sign an international convention for the abolition of child labor and forced labor. This position stems from the child labor practices of U.S. corporations throughout the Third World and within the United States itself, where children as young as 12 suffer high rates of injuries and fatalities, and are often paid less than the minimum wage.

The savings that big business reaps from cheap labor abroad are not passed on in lower prices to their customers elsewhere. Corporations do not outsource to far-off regions so that U.S. consumers can save money. They outsource in order to increase their margin of profit. In 1990, shoes made by Indonesian children working twelve-hour days for 13 cents an hour, cost only $2.60 but still sold for $100 or more in the United States.

U.S. foreign aid usually works hand in hand with transnational investment. It subsidizes construction of the infrastructure needed by corporations in the Third World: ports, highways, and refineries.

The aid given to Third World governments comes with strings attached. It often must be spent on U.S. products, and the recipient nation is required to give investment preferences to U.S. companies, shifting consumption away from home produced commodities and foods in favor of imported ones, creating more dependency, hunger, and debt.

A good chunk of the aid money never sees the light of day, going directly into the personal coffers of sticky-fingered officials in the recipient countries.

Aid (of a sort) also comes from other sources. In 1944, the United Nations created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Voting power in both organizations is determined by a country’s financial contribution. As the largest “donor,” the United States has a dominant voice, followed by Germany, Japan, France, and Great Britain. The IMF operates in secrecy with a select group of bankers and finance ministry staffs drawn mostly from the rich nations.

The World Bank and IMF are supposed to assist nations in their development. What actually happens is another story. A poor country borrows from the World Bank to build up some aspect of its economy. Should it be unable to pay back the heavy interest because of declining export sales or some other reason, it must borrow again, this time from the IMF.

But the IMF imposes a “structural adjustment program” (SAP), requiring debtor countries to grant tax breaks to the transnational corporations, reduce wages, and make no attempt to protect local enterprises from foreign imports and foreign takeovers. The debtor nations are pressured to privatize their economies, selling at scandalously low prices their state-owned mines, railroads, and utilities to private corporations.

They are forced to open their forests to clear-cutting and their lands to strip mining, without regard to the ecological damage done. The debtor nations also must cut back on subsidies for health, education, transportation and food, spending less on their people in order to have more money to meet debt payments. Required to grow cash crops for export earnings, they become even less able to feed their own populations.

So it is that throughout the Third World, real wages have declined, and national debts have soared to the point where debt payments absorb almost all of the poorer countries’ export earnings---which creates further impoverishment as it leaves the debtor country even less able to provide the things its population needs.

Here then we have explained a “mystery.” It is, of course, no mystery at all if you don’t adhere to trickle-down mystification. Why has poverty deepened while foreign aid and loans and investments have grown? Answer: Loans, investments, and most forms of aid are designed not to fight poverty but to augment the wealth of transnational investors at the expense of local populations.

There is no trickle down, only a siphoning up from the toiling many to the moneyed few.

In their perpetual confusion, some liberal critics conclude that foreign aid and IMF and World Bank structural adjustments “do not work”; the end result is less self-sufficiency and more poverty for the recipient nations, they point out. Why then do the rich member states continue to fund the IMF and World Bank? Are their leaders just less intelligent than the critics who keep pointing out to them that their policies are having the opposite effect?

No, it is the critics who are stupid not the western leaders and investors who own so much of the world and enjoy such immense wealth and success. They pursue their aid and foreign loan programs because such programs do work. The question is, work for whom? Cui bono?

The purpose behind their investments, loans, and aid programs is not to uplift the masses in other countries. That is certainly not the business they are in. The purpose is to serve the interests of global capital accumulation, to take over the lands and local economies of Third World peoples, monopolize their markets, depress their wages, indenture their labor with enormous debts, privatize their public service sector, and prevent these nations from emerging as trade competitors by not allowing them a normal development.

In these respects, investments, foreign loans, and structural adjustments work very well indeed.

The real mystery is: why do some people find such an analysis to be so improbable, a “conspiratorial” imagining? Why are they skeptical that U.S. rulers knowingly and deliberately pursue such ruthless policies (suppress wages, rollback environmental protections, eliminate the public sector, cut human services) in the Third World? These rulers are pursuing much the same policies right here in our own country!

Isn’t it time that liberal critics stop thinking that the people who own so much of the world---and want to own it all---are “incompetent” or “misguided” or “failing to see the unintended consequences of their policies”? You are not being very smart when you think your enemies are not as smart as you. They know where their interests lie, and so should we.

Michael Parenti's recent books include The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), Superpatriotism (City Lights), and The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press). For more information visit:

The Democrats After November

by Mike Davis
New Left Review
February 16, 2007

Was the November 2006 midterm election an epic political massacre or just a routine midterm brawl? In the week after the Democratic victory, partisan spinmeisters offered opinions as contradictory as those of the protagonists in Rashomon, Kurosawa’s famously relativistic account of rape and murder. On the liberal side, Bob Herbert rejoiced in his New York Times column that the ‘fear-induced anomaly’ of the ‘George W. Bush era’ had ‘all but breathed its last’, while Paul Waldman (Baltimore Sun) announced ‘a big step in the nation’s march to the left’, and George Lakoff ( celebrated a victory for ‘progressive values’ and ‘factually accurate, values-based framing’ (whatever that may mean). [1] On the conservative side, the National Review’s Lawrence Kudlow refused to concede even the obvious bloodstains on the steps of Congress: ‘Look at Blue Dog conservative Democratic victories and look at Northeast liberal gop defeats. The changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one.’ William Safire, although disgusted that the ‘loser left’ had finally won an election, dismissed the result as an ‘average midterm loss’. [2]


But Safire doth spin too much. Although the Democratic victory in 2006 was not quite the deluge that the Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay unleashed in 1994 (see Table 1), it was anything but an ‘average’ result. Despite the comparatively low electoral salience of the economy, the opposition’s classic midterm issue, the Democrats managed to exactly reverse the majority in the House (the worst massacre of Republicans since 1974) and reclaim the Senate by one seat. Indeed, the Senate gained its first self-declared ‘socialist’, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Democrats, for the first time ever, did not lose a single incumbent or open House seat. Independent voters (26 per cent of the electorate) swung to the Democrats by an almost two-to-one ratio—‘the biggest margin ever measured among independents since the first exit polls in 1976’. [3] With the strongest female leadership in American history, they outpolled Republicans among women 55 to 45 per cent in House races; but more surprisingly, they also managed to reduce the gop’s famous lead among white men (a staggering 63 per cent in the 1994 House contests) to 53 per cent. [4] According to veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg, one out of five Bush voters moved into the blue column; but none so dramatically as the electoral market segment of ‘privileged men’ (college-educated and affluent) where the gop’s 2004 margin of 14 per cent was transformed into a slim Democratic majority. Although the slippage among the gop hardcore—evangelicals and white rural and exurban voters—was slight, the party of the moral majority declined 6 per cent among devout Catholics, while angry Latinos, recoiling from the gop grass roots’ embrace of vigilantes and border walls, murdered Republicans in several otherwise close contests in the West. [5]

In state races, the Democrats demonstrated even more traction. On election eve, the gop boasted a majority of governorships (28 to 22) and a slight lead in control of state legislative chambers (49 to 47, with 2 tied). [6] Contrasted to overwhelming Democratic dominance in state legislatures before 1994, when Republicans controlled only 8 states, this rough parity—according to John Hood, the president of a North Carolina conservative think-tank—has been ‘one of the most significant and lasting products of the Republican Revolution’. But it is a legacy now lost as the Democrats have exactly reversed the partisan ratio of governors (leaving Republican executives in only 3 of the 10 most populous states), while winning control of 8 more state chambers (now 56 Democrat versus 41 Republican, with 1 tied). ‘What’s worse for the gop’, Hood points out, is that the majority parties in state legislatures will control congressional redistricting in the wake of the rapidly approaching 2010 Census. ‘If Democrats retain their current edge, the us House will get a lot more blue.’ [7]

Regionally, Republican candidates were decimated in the gop’s original heartland, New England—including notoriously conservative New Hampshire, where Democrats took over the legislature for the first time since the Civil War—and the Mid-Atlantic states, leading one prominent conservative to lament that ‘the Northeast is on its way to being lost forever to the gop’. [8] Democrats also made surprising gains in the Midwest and the ‘red’ interior West, especially in Colorado where hi-tech money leveraged a growing Latino vote. [9] Even in the South, the Democrats managed to arrest their long-term decline and claw back 19 seats in state legislatures. (Despite the prevalent myth of a solidly Republican South, the Democrats still retain a 54 per cent majority in Dixie state houses.) [10]

In Kansas—Tom Frank’s icon state of voter false consciousness [11]—Democrat Nancy Boyda defeated incumbent Jim Ryun (the former Olympic track star) in a congressional district that Bush had carried by 20 percentage points two years earlier. Popular Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius was easily re-elected, while the other top state offices, the lieutenant and attorney generalships, were won by former Republicans running as Democrats—a startling reverse in the trend of political conversion. The state’s foremost cultural conservative, the fanatically anti-abortion attorney general Phil Kline, was pulverized: receiving barely one-third of the vote in the usually Republican exurbs of Kansas City (Johnson County). [12] Nothing seemed particularly ‘wrong’ with Kansas in the fall of 2006.

Such results convincingly refute the legend of invincibility that had been woven around Karl Rove’s signature strategy of intensive base mobilization (usually stimulated by hysteria over some imperilled Christian value) and massive negative advertising (usually perpetuating some outright lie or slander against the opposition). According to Stanley Greenberg, ‘the Republican Party has ended up with the most negative image in memory, lower than Watergate’. But the Democratic pollster (writing in collaboration with Robert Borosage and James Carville) was adamant that Republican losses are not necessarily Democratic gains. ‘The Democratic Party also ended up being viewed more negatively during this election than in 2004 . . . Democrats have only modest advantages—and are chosen by fewer than 50 per cent on such key attributes as being “on your side”, “future-oriented” and “for families”.’ [13]

Thomas Edsall agrees that ‘Democratic triumphs are fragile’ and warns that they are ‘based far more on widespread dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq than on the fundamental partisan and ideological shift that was apparent in 1980 and 1994 Republican breakthroughs’. [14] Partisan registration remains closer to parity (38 per cent Democrat versus 37 per cent Republican) than at any time since the late nineteenth century, and control of the House is arbitrated by swings of just a few percentage points: the reason the Republicans have been so keen to undertake controversial midterm redistrictings and gerrymanders to buttress their power. [15]

The victors, moreover, share no consensus about the direction of their party. In contrast to 1994, when the gop was rapturously united around the programme of its congressional ‘revolution’, Democratic ideologues at the end of 2006 were fundamentally split. While progressives like Ezra Klein (American Prospect) fretted that Blue Dogs and dlc-ers were ready ‘to lock liberals out of the halls of power’, Christopher Hayes (Nation) applauded the ‘new Democratic populism’, and Michael Tomasky (American Prospect editor) argued that the party was cleverly moving to the centre and to the left simultaneously (‘the party managed to sustain this left–centre coalition and render the distinctions between the two groups less important’). [16] Hillary Clinton and her chorus of sycophantic voices boasted of the miracle of the ‘vital, dynamic centre’, while other Democrats pessimistically agreed with Safire’s acid prediction that the party was headed towards civil war.

In any event, the Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have two years to consolidate their enhanced electoral support and effectively arm Hillary Clinton for a very nasty brawl with either John McCain or Rudy Giuliani in 2008. [17] (Neither of the two mystery phenomena—Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama—are likely to survive the brutal scrutiny of the presidential primaries, although they may be recycled as vice-presidential timber.) [18] The 110th Congress will give the Democrats extraordinary opportunities to repeal the reactionary agendas established in 1994 by the ‘Republican Revolution’ and in 2001–02 by the ‘War on Terrorism’. But the Democrats will be torn between two categorical imperatives: on the one hand, to sink as many Republicans as possible with George Bush’s ship of state; and, on the other hand, to reclaim the mystic ‘centre’ and the support of corporate lobbyists. If the recent past is any guide, a seriously populist and ideologically combative Democratic politics is totally incompatible with the Clintonite project of making the Democrats the representatives par excellence of the knowledge economy and corporate globalization.

More specifically, the new Democratic majority must test its ambiguous promises of crusading populism and inclusive centrism against the recalcitrant realities of the four mega-issues that will inevitably dominate the new Congress: (1) the Iraq fiasco and the War on Terrorism; (2) the legacy of Republican congressional corruption and corporate fraud; (3) urgent, unmet social needs (including the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast) in the context of the huge Bush deficits; and (4) the growing unrest over the social costs of economic globalization. In each case, the hopeful expectations of last November’s voters for real changes in Washington are likely to be betrayed by the higher imperatives of electing Hillary and assuaging big business.


Unlike the 2004 presidential election and the controversy over the importance of ‘values voters’, there was nothing equivocal about the key issue that mobilized a majority of voters in November 2006. With the housing-bubble economy still puttering along (although a real-estate-induced recession may not be far away), and with Mexican- and gay-bashing failing to ignite significant national backlashes, the defining issue was the looming defeat of the us intervention in Iraq.

Six out of ten voters told pollsters that they were upset at Bush’s management of the war—the spiralling carnage in Baghdad and the paralysis in the White House—and had voted accordingly. Editorial page punditry, likewise, was united with exit-poll surveys in agreeing that Iraq was the Archimedean lever that had shifted independent voters so massively toward the Democrats. [19] Conservative ideologues and business lobbyists, meanwhile, were appalled to see their domestic agendas upstaged by the Frankenstein monster of Iraq. [20] Even that ‘wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party’ (as columnist Rosa Brooks has called it), the military electorate, has begun to bolt the stable: Military Times polls show the percentage of soldiers identifying as Republicans declining from 60 per cent in 2004 to 46 per cent in late 2006. Only slightly more than one-third of gis currently approve of Bush’s handling of the war. [21]

After twelve years of arrogant majority rule in Congress, the gop has seemingly foundered on the contradictions of the new imperialism. Or has it? The irony of the anti-war vote, of course, was that it elected Democrats who are under no obligation to actually end the barbarous us occupation. Writing shortly after the election, Tom Hayden praised the citizen groups in Chicago and elsewhere who had fought to make the election a plebiscite on an increasingly unpopular war, but warned presciently that ‘neither party is prepared to accept that the war is a lost cause’ and that the Iraq Study Group report would offer the Democratic leadership common ground with congressional Republicans ‘to eliminate “immediate withdrawal” as an option’. [22]

Despite majority public belief that Iraq is a ‘bad war’ and the troops should come home, the current Democratic strategy is to snipe from the sidelines at Bush’s ruinous policies while avoiding any decisive steps to actually end the occupation. Indeed, from the standpoint of cold political calculus, the Democrats have no more interest in helping Bush extract himself from the morass of Iraq than Bush has had in actually capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. Accordingly, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, ‘Pelosi and the Democrats plan no dramatic steps to influence the course of the war’. [23] Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, who once claimed to be the very incarnation of the anti-war movement, now cautions that the most the public can expect from the new majority is ‘some restraint on the president’. [24] Likewise Pelosi has renounced from the outset the Democrats’ one actual power over White House war policy: ‘We will have oversight. We will not cut off funding’. [25]

The real Democratic opposition to the war (John Murtha’s highly publicized defection aside) has come from the ranks of the Black Caucus, whose members—including John Lewis, Charles Rangel and Barbara Lee—are also the chief instigators of the recently organized Out of Iraq Caucus, chaired by Los Angeles’s fiery Maxine Waters. The substantial overlap between the anti-war caucus (which also includes ten or so Latino representatives led by New York’s outspoken José Serrano) and the House membership most strongly committed to urban social programmes is expressive of a fundamental political trend that the media has all but ignored: the widespread consciousness in communities of colour that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (costing more than $2 billion per week) are stealing critical resources from human needs in poorer inner cities and older suburbs, as well as putting immigrant communities under the shadow of disloyalty.

This new equation between urban needs, immigrant civil rights and anti-imperialism could become a potent counter-agenda in American politics if it were reinforced by grass-roots activism and consistent protest. But here is the rub. Although the Out of Iraq Caucus has grown to 74 members (more than one-fifth of Democratic House membership) in the wake of the November vote, its clout is considerably diminished by the absence of a national anti-war movement, as well as by the failure of the major progressive trade unions such as seiu, here-unite and the aft to make withdrawal a political priority.

Indeed the electoral landscape in November was shaped by the central paradox of soaring anti-war sentiment without a visible anti-war movement. In contrast to 1968 and 1972—or even, for that matter, 1916 and 1938—voter opposition to intervention overseas was not buttressed by an organized peace movement capable of holding politicians’ feet to the fire or linking opposition to the war to a deeper critique of foreign policy (in this case, the War on Terrorism). The broad, spontaneous anti-war movement of winter 2003—whose grass-roots energy filled the void of Democratic opposition to Bush’s invasion—was first absorbed by the Dean campaign in spring 2004 and then politically dissolved into the Kerry candidacy. The 2004 Democratic Convention, which should have been a forum for wide-ranging attacks on Republican foreign and domestic policies, was transformed into an obnoxious patriotic celebration of John Kerry as the Brahmin Rambo.

Although many activists hoped that an autonomous peace movement would re-emerge from the ruins of the Kerry campaign, there have been only a few regional pockets of sustained protest. One of Howard Dean’s principal assignments as national Democratic chair (and the major reason for his selection) has been to keep anti-war forces immobilized within a diffuse and hypocritical Anybody But Bush coalition. By making Bush and his political parents Cheney and Rumsfeld the paramount issues, Democratic sophistry has avoided a real debate on Iraq. Leading Democrats may bash the President for the chaos in Baghdad, but none of them has offered a critique of American responsibility for the larger anarchy that is rapidly engulfing a vast arc of countries from Pakistan to Sudan. There has been no debate on the Bush administration’s green light for the Israeli massacre of Lebanese civilians or, more recently, on the cia’s sinister role in instigating the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the us air strikes there. The Israeli right, meanwhile, knows that Hillary Clinton will be as intransigently supportive of its policies in Gaza and on the West Bank as any Texas fundamentalist eagerly awaiting Armageddon.

Indeed the Democratic leadership—the Black Caucus and a few notable progressives aside—has exploited domestic resentment against Bush policies in Iraq to consolidate, not debunk, the underlying Washington consensus about the War on Terrorism. Whereas a national anti-war movement would presumably have linked the apocalypse in Iraq with looming catastrophe in Afghanistan and a new regional war in the Horn of Africa, the Democratic platform, in contrast, reaffirmed commitment to the war against Islamists as part of a larger programme of expanding, not reducing, global counter-insurgency. ‘Bring the troops home now’ was not a Democratic plank, but doubling the size of the Special Forces ‘to destroy terrorist networks’ and increasing spending on homeland anti-terrorism are centrepieces of the Democrats’ ‘New Direction for America’ (a collection of sound bites and slogans that offers a pale shadow to Gingrich’s robust 1994 ‘Contract with America’). [26]

The Democratic leadership likewise has deliberately avoided a debate on the constitutional implications of the Patriot Act; not a single prominent Democrat has proposed the straightforward rollback of the totalitarian powers claimed by the presidency since 9/11. Indeed Hillary Clinton has signalled that she favours imprisonment without trial and even the use of torture in certain circumstances. Speaker Pelosi, meanwhile, has emphasized that the chief Democratic goals in the 110th Congress will be, first, to pick the uncontroversial, low-hanging fruit of mainstream reform (minimum wage, prescriptions, student loans and so on), then move quickly to pass an ‘innovation agenda’ for hi-tech industries. Foreign policy debates in the House—thanks to the hawkish counterweight of more than 100 New Democrats and Blue Dogs—will not reach beyond the bipartisan assumptions of the Baker–Hamilton Plan or whatever new, coercive strategy for Palestinian national self-liquidation is proposed by Condoleezza Rice.

What then has the anti-war vote actually won? At the end of the day, public disillusionment with the messianic politics of the neo-Conservatives has paved the way for a ‘Realist’ restoration under the aegis of the Baker–Hamilton plan that reconciles the foreign-policy establishments of Bush Senior and Clinton. The bloodbath in Iraq has opened every sarcophagus on the Potomac, disgorging a palsied army of ancient secretaries of state and national security advisors (Scowcroft, Eagleburger, Brzezinski and, of course, the chief mummy, Kissinger himself) eager to lecture Congress on ‘rational’ approaches to imposing American will on the rest of the world. Hillary Clinton, of course, is the Queen of the Realists (except when it conflicts with Israeli interests), and the new Democratic majority in the House is unlikely to stray very far from the already manifest script of her 2008 campaign. In future debates with Rudy Giuliani or John McCain (who has recently appointed himself saviour of ‘victory’ in Iraq), Hillary is poised to be a hard-muscled gi Jane, parrying every macho gesture with even tougher stances on al-Qaeda, Iran, Palestine and Cuba.

The silver lining, if it exists, is that the Democrats in Congress, with the Black Caucus and its allies lobbying for withdrawal, are more likely to be swayed by public anger as insurgency and civil war in Iraq continue to exhaust the resources of the Occupation. In a desperate gambit to appease Sunnis and defend a zone of control in Baghdad, the Bush administration is currently weighing an all-out assault (‘surge’ is its military precondition) on the slum militias of Muqtada al-Sadr. A new war with the Mahdi Army (hugely enlarged and better trained since its first battles with American troops in 2004) would open another Pandora’s box, risking unsustainable American casualties and an explosive response from the entire Shiite world. (Inevitable us air strikes on Sadr City would produce grim scenes reminiscent of the Israeli bombardment of southern Beirut.)

If Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates sanction this ultimate escalation, they have a good chance of bringing some macho Democrats aboard (although they will almost certainly lose some leading Republicans). Senate leader Harry Reid has already demonstrated his epic confusion by endorsing and then quickly retracting support for the proposed ‘surge’ of 35,000 more us troops into Baghdad. In the Senate, the hawkish Joe Lieberman, who was re-elected as an independent after his defeat in the Democratic primary, will be a powerful swing vote in favour of escalation. Pelosi, at the time of writing, is considering resistance to new monies for the ‘surge’, but will not tamper with funding for existing troop levels.

What stance Pelosi and Reid ultimately assume, and how hard they actually push for the ‘phased withdrawal’ proposed in their six-plank November programme, will be largely determined by the resurgence—or not—of the anti-war movement. Last November’s voters certainly had fewer illusions than their candidates about the hopelessness of the situation (according to exit polls, ‘only about one in five voters say they think that either the President or the Democrats have a clear plan for Iraq’), [27] and public opinion may again find volcanic alternatives to an impotent Congress. Indeed, only mass protest, unfettered from theRealpolitik of Howard Dean and, can shift the balance of power in Congress towards a decisive debate on withdrawal.


One of the most savoury moments of the November vote was the election of Nick Lampson to Tom DeLay’s old seat in the 22nd District of Texas. Lampson—a school teacher who was formerly the Democratic congressman from Galveston—had been one of the principal victims of DeLay’s infamous 2003 redistricting of Texas: an unprecedented mid-decade gerrymander that was made possible by the massive and illegally laundered corporate donations that the House Majority Leader had deployed to elect a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature the year before. Thanks to the courage of a local grand jury and Travis County da Ronnie Earle, DeLay was indicted for perjury in September 2005, and soon afterward, under federal investigation for his close ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he was forced to resign his majority leadership, then his congressional seat.

DeLay, of course, was the Robespierre of the 1994 ‘Republican Revolution’, perhaps the most ruthless crusader for one-party government in us history. As one of the co-founders of the so-called ‘K Street Project’, [28] along with Rick Santorum and Grover Norquist, he was notorious for coercing huge campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists (as well as promises to hire only Republicans) in exchange for allowing them to directly write gop legislation. As Majority Leader (or ‘Hammer’ as he was known to Republicans as well as Democrats), he imposed unprecedented ideological discipline on the gop (even defying a White House attempt to give a small tax break to low-income families) while slashing at every vestige of bipartisanship and collegial civility. In partnership with the infamous Abramoff, he was also the advocate of the sleaziest causes in the Capitol, ranging from support for indentured labour in the sweatshop paradise of the Northern Marianas (a us territory without the protection of us labour laws) to under-the-table favours for a giant Russian corporation that in turn kicked back money to DeLay-related causes. [29]

After more than a decade of being roadkill in the wake of DeLay’s sleaze-financed campaign juggernaut (with Karl Rove as hit-and-run driver), the Democrats now have the opportunity to begin to roll back the Republican Revolution—which is to say, to break up the corrupt flows of money and power personified by DeLay and the K Street Project. Congress, of course, has always been about ‘pay to play’ and the lubrication of politics by lobbyists, but never before 1994 had the Republicans employed such stark coercion to impose themselves as the obligatory rather than simply the natural party of business. (In part, this was a reaction to Democratic successes in attracting support from bicoastal, new-economy sectors like entertainment, media, software, bio-tech and gaming.)

The exhilarating promise of the November victory is that a cadre of veteran liberal Democrats—Charles Rangel (Ways and Means), Barney Frank (Financial Services), Henry Waxman (Government Reform), David Obey (Appropriations), Ike Skelton (Armed Forces), and John Rockefeller iv (Senate Intelligence Committee)—will use their hard-won committee chairmanships to mount sweeping inquisitions of the Himalayan corruption and collusion of the DeLay years. With subpoena power finally in the hands of the opposition, the interlocking special interests that dominate the Bush administration will face the comprehensive exposure and accounting that they managed to elude in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. Indeed, as the skeletons come tumbling out of the Republican closet, and the public realizes how vast the extent of graft and fraud in the occupation of Iraq, the non-reconstruction of New Orleans, ‘homeland security’ boondoggles like the phony Bioshield programme, and the subsidization of the insurance, pharmaceutical and oil industries—then voters will overwhelmingly endorse a new regime of government oversight, renewed environmental and health-and-safety regulation, and serious campaign finance reform.

This is the real opportunity to which the Democrats could rise in theory, but there is little chance that their leadership will actually allow congressional probes to follow money and corruption all the way upstream. Progressive hopes that Congress might return to the heroic days of Thurman Arnold’s anti-trust investigations of the late 1930s, or the Watergate Committee’s exposés of Republican law-breaking in the 1970s, are pipe dreams in face of Pelosi’s insistence that Democratic watchdogs be tightly leashed, in the interests of building ‘centrism’. She has already extracted humiliating loyalty oaths from the two senior Black Democrats most likely to rock the bipartisan boat: forcing John Conyers (chair of the Judiciary Committee) to recant his advocacy of impeachment (‘the country does not want or need any more paralysed partisan government’, he said recently) and making Charles Rangel, who has hammered Dick Cheney like no one else in Congress, sing a chorus or two of the company song (‘I have to take a leadership view’, he promised). [30] Even more diabolically, she has put Henry Waxman (‘White House Enemy No. 1’) in charge of ensuring (in the words of analyst Brian Friel) that congressional oversight does not ‘open Democrats up to charges of obstructionism and extremism in the next campaign cycle’. [31]

In the absence of relentless pressure from labour and environmental groups, the Democrats are unlikely to discomfort powerful business interests that they would otherwise delight in wooing away from the Republicans. Certainly there will be some reckoning with Halliburton and contract fraud in Iraq, and perhaps the perjury trial of Scooter Libby (Cheney’s indicted chief of staff) will be spiced with new revelations from Rockefeller and his Senate Intelligence Committee about the administration’s lies and fabricated evidence on the road to Baghdad; but a widening circle of exposure will meet increasing resistance, not simply from Republicans fighting for their lives, but from Democrats trying to protect their renewed ties to the very corporate groups at the core of corruption and scandal. The opportunity to expose and reform will be counter-balanced at each step by the temptation to make deals and collect campaign contributions. As the Economist cynically but accurately put it, ‘the new house chieftains do not see themselves as revolutionaries. Their goal, after all, is not to enact a specific agenda, but to prepare the ground for the presidential election of 2008.’ [32]

Because corporate lobbyists are scared of the subpoena power wielded by Rangel and Waxman (however constrained by Pelosi), they will happily seek refuge in Democratic campaign committees. The fusion between Corporate America and the Republican Party appears less permanent and unassailable than it did a year ago and, as BusinessWeek predicted shortly after the election, ‘companies will be rushing to stock up on lobbyists with Democratic credentials’. [33] The Democratic leadership, for its part, is brazenly cruising for cash. The next election cycle will be the most expensive in history, and Hillary Clinton is unlikely to relish congressional hearings into the crimes of the pharmaceutical, oil and military-construction industries that could unleash massive corporate retaliation against her in 2008. From a strategic perspective, it makes far more sense for the Democrats to concentrate congressional exposés on a handful of Administration villains, while quietly rebuilding parity of representation on K Street, where many of the winged monkeys are reputedly rejoicing at their recent liberation from DeLay, the wicked witch of Texas.

As BusinessWeek reassured nervous readers, any tendency toward populist excess in the new Congress would be counteracted by the millionaires, corporate lawyers and hi-tech entrepreneurs in the ranks of Democracy itself, especially the fervently pro-business New Democrat Coalition (the House arm of the Democratic Leadership Council) chaired by Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California. ‘In a narrowly divided Democratic House, Tauscher’s band of about 40 economic moderates would wield extraordinary power to influence tax, trade and budget policy.’ Moreover, ceos worried about possible indictment or evil corporations fearful of losing their lucrative federal contracts could always appeal to K Street’s new wonder, George Crawford, who as Nancy Pelosi’s former chief of staff has positioned himself to be Washington’s chief deal-maker. (‘In recent months,’ reveals BusinessWeek, ‘he has added Exxon Mobil Corp. and Amgen Inc. to his client roster.’) [34]

Beyond the uncontroversial agenda of the ‘100 hours’, few of the promised reforms that have attracted progressive voters to the Democrats are likely to make any headway against the coming hurricane of corporate lobbying and political fundraising organized by Crawford and other Democratic insiders. Energy policy, for example, has been one of the party’s highest-profile issues, and Senator Barbara Boxer (new chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) has rallied a broad coalition of environmentalists around tough emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles. But as journalist Richard Simon recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit automakers and Texas oil men are surprisingly unworried. ‘We’re confident that there are plenty of Democrats who know and understand us’, a leader of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association told him. [35]

The ‘understanding Democrats’ in the 110th Congress will include senators from energy-exporting states, such as Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), as well as the powerful chair of the House Energy Committee, John Dingell (Michigan), who will fight to defend every last molecule of carbon dioxide emitted by a Ford Explorer or Chevy Suburban. Nancy Pelosi may take away some of the oil industry’s more outrageous tax breaks, but Barbara Boxer will never take away rich Americans’ suvs or reduce their dependence on foreign oil. No matter how many millions of people may be terrified by global warming’s ‘inconvenient truth’, there will always be Democrats to help filibuster any cap on greenhouse emissions or vote to preserve the oil industry’s special entitlements.


In contrast to most European parliamentary systems, the American party system is only partially ‘nationalized’, and regional and local agendas preserve exceptional salience in the operation of Congress. The 2006 election is a spectacular case in point: whether or not the electorate actually shifted left, congressional clout—in one of the most dramatic geographical power-shifts in memory—moved back to the Blue coasts. Texas, Florida, Virginia and Georgia (whose suburbs were the strategic pivots of the 1994 Republican revolution) are out, and California and New York (the pariahs of the age of Bush) are in. Or, to be more precise, Democrats representing the golden triangle of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley now rule Congress.

Although California and New York (together with Massachusetts and Washington) hegemonize the knowledge economy and the us export of technologies, entertainment and financial services, they have become cash cows for regionally redistributive Republican policies since 1994. California is perhaps the extreme case. For fifty years, from Lend-Lease until the fall of the Berlin Wall, California’s aerospace and electronics industries had been irrigated by an aqueduct of defence dollars; since 1990 at the latest, fiscal subsidies have switched direction and California now exports its federal taxes to heavily Republican states. Whereas California once received $1.15 in federal expenditure for every dollar it paid in federal taxes, it now gets back only 79 cents. (The inequities are worse than depicted in Table 5, since California and New York are also the largest ports of entry for new immigrants and finance services that should be federal mandates.) Partly as a result of this shortfall, the world’s premier science-based regional economy is supported by scandalously decayed physical, social and educational (at least, primary and secondary school) infrastructures.

But the Democrats will have to fight themselves, and not just Republicans, if they want to reverse the relative decline of federal expenditure, especially in the ageing cities of the Bluest states. While the new Congressional leadership, especially Pelosi and Clinton, have individually lobbied with great ferocity for their own districts’ and states’ needs, they have collectively tied the party’s hands with a cargo-cultish commitment to deficit reduction and fiscal frugality. Although Iraq and political corruption were the most important issues amongst voters, that ancient Republican battle cry—‘fiscal responsibility’—was the programmatic centrepiece of the Democrats’ ‘New Direction for America’.

Despite claims in the Nation and elsewhere that the Democrats are now channelling their ‘inner populist’, the party remains completely in thrall to ‘Rubinomics’—the fervent emphasis on budgetary discipline rather than social spending that characterized the reign of former Goldman Sachs ceo Robert Rubin as Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury. In practice, this translates not simply into a Democratic reluctance to undertake new spending, but also a refusal to debate the rollback of any of Bush’s $1 trillion in tax cuts for the affluent. ‘Tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend’, Senator Kent Conrad (chair of the Budget Committee) told the New York Times, ‘we’re not going there’. [36] The president can give away the Treasury to the super-rich and run up colossal debts as he invades the world, but the Democrats are now sworn to a path of anti-Keynesian rectitude that would have made Calvin Coolidge blush.

Indeed Congress’s most ‘rabid budget-balancers’ (this is the official description on their website) are the Blue Dogs, a caucus of conservative Democrats organized in 1995 in jealous emulation of Gingrich’s Republicans. Hailing mainly from rapidly growing smaller cities and exurbs such as Merced, Tallahassee and Hot Springs, the Blue Dogs cultivate a downhome guns-and-bibles image in contrast to the cappuccino-drinking New Democrats (who tend to represent wealthier suburbs in Connecticut and California). Although they share the hawkish politics of the dlc New Dems, they are less friendly to hedge funds and free-trade agreements. The real fire in the belly of the Blue Dogs is their demagogic opposition to state welfarism and, especially, federal aid to Black and Latino-majority big cities. With 44 members in their expanded ‘dog pound’ and plentiful allies on the Republican side, the Blue Dogs vow to cap spending in the next Congress, while gathering votes for a constitutional amendment to require an annually balanced federal budget. [37] One of their chief allies, South Carolina’s John Spratt, will be chair of the House Budget Committee and, with Pelosi’s blessing, the Party’s ‘chief enforcer’ of budgetary austerity. [38]

Terrified of the perceived electoral and financial repercussions of attempting to reform the current tax system, and with the Blue Dogs barking at their heels, the leadership prefers to let Republican deficits and tax cuts dictate Democratic policy. Karl Rove proposes to do precisely that and, in the New Year, Bush invited the Democrats to join him in balancing the budget, ‘a goal that would tie the hands of the Democrats’, leaving them ‘little or no room to manoeuvre their priorities through Congress’. [39]


The Democratic leadership’s public preference for balanced budgets over human needs is thus partly a reflection of the balance of power within the party, where the Blue Dogs (either alone or in combination with the New Dems) now claim de facto veto power over new legislation. It was presumably this pressure from conservative white Democrats that led congressional election strategists under the command of Illinois representative Rahm Emanuel to deliberately delete any mention of New Orleans from 2006 campaign advertising. [40]

The fate of New Orleans, of course, is one of the great moral watersheds in modern American history, but most Democrats shamelessly refused to make federal responses to Hurricane Katrina or the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the Gulf Coast central issues in the campaign. Although President Bush himself had declared in his Jackson Square speech that ‘we have a duty to confront this poverty [revealed by Katrina] with bold action’, the Democrats have shown no greater sense of ‘duty’ or capacity for ‘bold action’ than a notoriously hypocritical and incompetent White House. Their priorities were exemplified by the six-plank national platform in November that stressed deficits and troop buildups but failed to mention either Katrina or poverty.

Even the Black Caucus, with some individual exceptions, has been surprisingly listless in its response to an unending series of Bush administration provocations (including, most recently, the decisions to knock down 4,000 units of little-damaged public housing in New Orleans and abruptly end housing aid to thousands of Katrina refugees outside the city). Although Harlem’s Rangel has promised new congressional hearings on poverty in the light of the New Orleans catastrophe, he is unlikely to defy the leadership’s deficit-reduction fetish. It will be easier to hand out more blame (richly deserved, of course) to Republican policies than to roll back tax cuts for the rich to pay for new social spending.

But Nancy, Harry and Hillary do have one domestic crusade whose importance transcends other dogmas and constraints: the promotion of the ‘innovation agenda’ that the Democrats hope will dramatically solidify their support among hi-tech corporations and science-based firms across the country. If you wanted to find the missing urgency and passion that the Democrats should have focused on Katrina and urban poverty, it was evident last year in the rousing speeches that Pelosi and other leading Democrats delivered in tech hubs like Emeryville, Mountain View, Raleigh and Redmond.

Unlike bringing the troops home from Iraq or rebuilding homes and lives in New Orleans, the innovation agenda is a ‘real’ Democratic priority. Angry at the Republican failure to renew all-important r&d tax credits for Silicon Valley firms, tech industry leaders, including the ceos of Cisco and Genentech, worked with Pelosi and her Bay Area Democratic colleagues to develop a list of key demands—including new stock option accounting rules, permanent r&d credits, patent reforms, subsidies for alternative energy, a doubling of funding for the National Science Foundation, and ‘network neutrality’ for the internet—that the Democrats have promised to pass in 2007. [41] (Democrats have also long supported the h1-b visa programme that keeps Silicon Valley awash with cheap foreign engineers, most of whom do not have the right to join unions or organize.) [42]

The Democrats’ avid interest in patents and innovation was punctually rewarded with a 50 per cent increase (over 2004) in campaign contributions from hi-tech industries to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. [43] At the same time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while in 2000 the Republican share of Silicon Valley political money ‘was 43 per cent, now it’s 4 per cent’. [44] Since the first days of the Clinton administration, seducing the software and biotech sectors and their allied venture capitalists (along with deepening already profound ties to entertainment and media industries) has been the Democrats’ equivalent of the Republicans’ K Street Project. [45] Now, with Al Gore sitting on the boards of Google and Apple, and Pelosi plotting virtual futures with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Millennium has arrived. Indeed with the ascent of Bay Area Democrats to such commanding positions in Congress, New Orleans may continue to moulder in misery, but Silicon Valley and its outliers can now trade pork as equals with the oil men and defence contractors still bunkered inside the White House.


The Democrats, as Thomas Edsall frequently points out these days, represent two very different and largely incompatible population universes. Two out of five Democratic voters fit the stereotype of ‘well-educated, well-off, culturally liberal professionals’, but the rest of the party’s base are people who are ‘socially and economically disadvantaged’ in the new Gilded Age: the Black and Latino working classes, white women in lower-end information-sector jobs, and white men in traditional but rapidly shrinking industrial occupations. [46] The post-New Deal Party led by the Clintons is entirely mobilized to articulate and defend the interests of affluent knowledge workers and the globalized industries in which they work; the rest of the Democrats ride in the back of the bus on the cynical assumption that Blacks, immigrants and Rustbelt whites have nowhere else to go and thus are an automatic blue vote.

Since the rise and fall of Jesse Jackson’s electrifying ‘Rainbow Coalition’ campaign in 1984, there has been no serious challenge to the dominance of the New Democrats and their version of ‘Third Way’ ideology, alloying economic neoliberalism and cultural tolerance. Yet the dream of a new populist, anti-Yuppie uprising, fuelled by righteous blue-collar anger and rousing the party’s long neglected majority, has continued to inspire progressives and veterans of the Rainbow as they have suffered under the arrogant yoke of dlc centrists and economic globalizers.

Then, a few days after his stunning upset of George Allen in Virginia, Democratic senator-elect James Webb published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal under the provocative headline ‘Class Struggle’. Webb, who was Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, warned that an ‘ever-widening divide’ of socio-economic inequality was plunging the United States back into ‘a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the nineteenth century’. While their wages stagnated and social security declined, working-class Americans were diverted by carefully orchestrated hysteria about ‘God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag’. ‘The politics of the Karl Rove era’, warned the former leading Republican, ‘were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life.’ [47]
Webb’s column predictably shocked many wsj readers, but it delighted progressives, who recognized that he was quoting almost verbatim from What’s the Matter with Kansas? and endorsing Tom Frank’s call for the Democrats to reclaim the mantle of economic populism. Webb argued that the Democratic victory would ensure that ‘American workers [finally] have a chance to be heard’ in their legitimate complaints about the social costs of free trade and job export. ‘And our government leaders’, he intoned, ‘have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.’

Bombast or the manifesto for the long-awaited uprising? Writing in the Nation a few weeks later, Christopher Hayes argued that Webb’s born-again concern for working-class victims of corporate globalization was part of a genuine populist trend within the Democratic Party, whose standard-bearers also include congressional victor Heath Shuler in North Carolina and new Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio. [48] Certainly their appeals to economic patriotism (Shuler accused his Republican congressional opponent of ‘selling out American families’) and strident denunciations of ‘internationalists’ and ‘free traders’ struck real sparks in Carolina and Virginia textile towns and the Appalachian counties of Ohio, where whole industries have died in the last decade. In 2004, John Kerry lost the mountains and piedmont (including hardcore Democratic West Virginia) because he had almost nothing to say about the regional jobs crisis; this time around, the Democrats fielded first-class demagoguery in a local drawl.

But as Hayes himself eloquently emphasizes, ‘economic populism has a dark side’, and he allows that other analysts have raised the spectre of the rise of a ‘Lou Dobbs’-like wing of the party whose economic arguments are inextricably linked to a racialized nationalism, the kind of populism that’s equally comfortable bashing corporations that outsource jobs and ‘illegal aliens’ who take away Americans’ jobs here at home, and whose opposition to the Iraq War, like Pat Buchanan’s, is rooted in an America-first isolationism.

Although Hayes prefers to believe in the progressive trend of figures like Webb and Shuler, I think he is most accurate when he compares their politics to racist media demagogues like Dobbs and Buchanan. [49]

A careful reading of Webb’s ‘class struggle’ article, for example, reveals precisely his belief that Mexican gardeners and investment bankers are coequal exploiters of the native working class, with a ‘vast underground labour pool from illegal immigration’ waiting to drown American values and wages. A strange passage about the ‘unspoken insinuation’ that ‘certain immigrant groups have the “right genetics” and thus are natural entrants to the “overclass”’ can be decoded as a reference to the Yellow Peril fantasies that infuse Webb’s public utterances. As Secretary of the Navy he was one of the principal advocates of a continuing Cold War with China, which he later saw developing a ‘strategic axis with the Muslim world’, and he broke with Bush policies in Iraq precisely because he feared that Rumsfeld was criminally ‘empowering’ the real enemies—Iran and China. [50]

Heath Shuler, the former star quarterback for the Washington Redskins, likewise turns many hard hats his way with passionate screeds against North American Free Trade and the export of Heartland jobs. But like Webb’s, his populist message is poisoned by a nativism that includes television campaign ads depicting Shuler as a lone hero fighting against amnesty for illegal immigrants. Ezra Klein in American Prospect recently argued that liberals should not worry unduly about the jingoism of Webb and Shuler, or about their reactionary positions on gays and abortion. In a Congress dominated by Democrats, Klein explains, ‘they’ll have precious little opportunity to exercise their social conservatism. Their economic beliefs, however, will get more play in a Congress aching to, at long last, turn its attention to health care, jobs, inequality, corporate regulation and all the other domestic issues Democrats so love to address.’ [51]
Aside from Klein’s heroic assumptions about Democrats’ reforming intentions, he seriously underestimates the dangers posed by economic nationalism within Democratic ranks. Karl Rove and the White House, for their part, were dramatically blindsided over the last year by the explosion of anti-immigrant hysteria within the conservative grass roots; and the editors of American Prospect (the magazine of ‘progessive Democrats’) may yet rue their underestimation of Democratic xenophobia. At least half of the 30 seats that the Democrats took from Republicans were won by candidates with conservative positions on immigration. Throughout the South and Midwest, moreover, Democrats attacked Republicans for being ‘soft on illegal immigration’, and one Democratic senate campaign committee’s website even juxtaposed images of people scaling border fences with portraits of bin Laden and Kim Jong Il. The Blue Dogs, in particular, are avid supporters of a continental-scale border wall and the use of local police to enforce national immigration laws. [52]

In the new Congress it will be interesting to see how far the Webbs and Shulers travel with their ‘proletarian’ attacks on the free-trade principles held sacred by New Dems and Clintonians. (My hunch is that the hidden injuries of class will matter less to both politicians after they have had some heartwarming conversations with the wealthy hi-tech types in the Research Triangle and Beltway science parks.) On the other hand, there is a very real chance that the anti-immigrant and sinophobic aspects of their erstwhile populism will be amplified in synergy with like-minded Republicans. The Democrats can take temporary delight in the self-destruction of the Republicans’ ‘Latino strategy’, but they are not immune to such devils within their own party. In the worst-case scenario, the long-hoped-for New Populism would simply become midwife to a bipartisan regroupment of bigots and cranks, while the Democratic leadership continues to take its cues from Goldman Sachs and Genentech.


[1] Bob Herbert, ‘Ms. Speaker and Other Trends’, New York Times, 9 November 2006; Paul Waldman, ‘A Big Step in Nation’s March to Left’, Baltimore Sun, 12 November 2006; and George Lakoff, ‘Building on the Progressive Victory’,, 14 December 2006.
[2] Lawrence Kudlow, ‘Reach Out to the Blue Dogs’,, 8 November 2006; and William Safire, ‘After the Thumpin’’, New York Times, 9 November 2006.
[3] William Schneider, ‘Swing Time’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[4] Thomas Edsall, ‘White-Guy Rebellion’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[5] Robert Borosage, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, The Meltdown Election: Report on the 2006 Post-Election Surveys, Democracy Corps, Washington dc, 15 November 2006, pp. 2–3.
[6] There are 98 partisan chambers in 50 states, but Nebraska, thanks to its great Progressive, George Norris, has had a unicameral, non-partisan legislature since 1937.
[7] John Hood, ‘gop Car Wreck’, National Review, 4 December 2006. Democrats doubled the number of states (from 8 to 16) where they control both the legislature and the governor’s mansion. See analysis in Tim Storey and Nicole Moore, ‘Democrats Deliver a Power Punch’, State Legislatures, December 2006.
[8] Jonathan Martin, ‘Damn Yankees’, National Review, 18 December 2006.
[9] For a hysterical view of ‘how liberal millionaires are buying Colorado’s politics’, see John Miller, ‘The Color Purple’, National Review, 4 December 2006.
[10] Storey and Moore, ‘Democrats’.
[11] Frank’s brilliantly written and highly influential 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, portrays a white working class that has surrendered any rational calculation of its economic interests to hopeless, manipulated cultural rage. Like many other progressives, he calls for the Democrats to counter Rovian cultural populism with their own economic populism. My 2005 critique of Frank, ‘What’s Wrong with America?’ (prepared for a ucla debate) appears in In Praise of Barbarians: essays against empire, Chicago 2007.
[12] Peter Slevin, ‘Trounced at Polls, Kansas gop Is Still Plagued by Infighting’, Washington Post, 30 December 2006. Slevin argues that the culture wars—evolution and abortion particularly—have deeply, perhaps irreparably split the Kansas gop.
[13] Borosage, Carville and Greenberg, Meltdown Election. Republican pollster Frank Luntz agrees with Greenberg: ‘So much of it [the election] was a statement of disappointment in Republican leadership rather than an embrace of the Democratic alternative. The election was a referendum on the national gop.’ Storey and Moore, ‘Democrats’.
[14] Edsall, ‘White-Guy Rebellion’.
[15] The Senate, in which Wyoming with less than 500,000 people has the same representation as California with nearly 35 million, provides the Republicans (dominant in the rural, more thinly populated states) with a notorious advantage.
[16] Ezra Klein, ‘Spinned Right’, American Prospect online, 8 November 2006; Christopher Hayes, ‘The New Democratic Populism’, Nation, 4 December 2006; and Michael Tomasky, ‘Dems put the “big tent” back together’, Los Angeles Times, 12 November 2006.
[17] The backlash of independent voters against Bush pumped wind into the sails of both McCain and Giuliani, perceived as the only Republicans who can win that segment of the electorate; but even more dramatically, it increased the value of ‘Terminator’ futures. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose political fortunes collapsed in 2005 after a disastrous stint as a conservative Republican, has returned from the dead in a new, hugely popular incarnation as a big-spending stealth-Democrat. His backers are currently canvassing the possibility of a constitutional amendment that would allow the foreign-born actor to run for president in 2012.
[18] An Opinion Research/cnn poll of whom voters did not want to be their party’s 2008 candidate found Mitt Romney at 50 per cent among Republicans (just behind retired Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) and Barack Obama at 38 per cent among Democrats (behind Al Gore and the luckless John Kerry). See ‘Poll Track’, National Journal, 2 December 2006.
[19] William Schneider was fascinated by an almost exact numerical correlation in every region between disapproval of the war and disapproval of the president: ‘Swing Time’. Charlie Cook, another well-known psephologist, gave Iraq credit for 70 per cent of the national shift from red to blue. Charlie Cook, ‘The War’s Wave’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[20] See Bara Vaida and Neil Munro, ‘Reversal of Fortunes’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[21] As Brooks emphasizes, the aggressive Republicanization of the professional military is a relatively recent phenomenon (since Reagan and the Second Cold War) that has been reinforced by gop policies that have shifted military bases and officer-training programmes to more conservative Sunbelt states. Rosa Brooks, ‘Weaning the military from the gop’, Los Angeles Times, 5 January 2007.
[22] Tom Hayden, ‘Election Interpretation’, handout to his class at Pitzer College, 9 November 2006.
[23] Noam Levey, ‘Democracy To-Do List is Modest at Outset’, Los Angeles Times, 2 January 2007.
[24] William Schneider, ‘Warring Sects’, National Journal, 18 November 2006.
[25] Levey, ‘Democracy To-Do List’. Pelosi echoes the position of chief Democratic Leadership Council ideologue, Will Marshall, that ‘those mindful of history [e.g., Vietnam] will shy away from trying to take over Iraqi policy by, for instance, cutting off funding for the war.’ James Kitfield, ‘Next Steps in Iraq’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[26] When the National Journal asked Ike Skelton, the new chair of the Armed Services Committee, about his priorities, he responded: ‘Are they getting jammers? Are they getting body armour? The infantry and the Special Forces need to be larger, better trained, and have better equipment.’ ‘Democrats to Watch’.
[27] Pew Research Center data cited in William Schneider, ‘The Price of Patience’, National Journal, 2 December 2006.
[28] ‘K Street’—after the office address of many corporate lobbyists—is the metonym for the revolving door that punctually turns former members of Congress (especially committee chairs) and their aides into highly-paid lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies, oil giants, real-estate brokers, arms dealers and foreign dictators. Although civics textbooks have yet to acknowledge its enormous importance, ‘K Street’ is truly the fourth, ‘financial’ branch of national government in the United States.
[29] See Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress, New York 2004.
[30] Richard Cohen, David Baumann and Kirk Victor, ‘Going Blue’, National Journal, 11 November 2006, p. 16; and ‘Democrats to Watch’.
[31] Brian Friel, ‘Junkyard Dogs, on a Leash’, National Journal, 11 November 2006.
[32] ‘Old dogs; few tricks’, Economist, 11 November 2006.
[33] Richard Dunham and Eamon Javers, ‘The Politics of Change’, BusinessWeek, 20 November 2006.
[34] Dunham and Javers, ‘Politics of Change’.
[35] Richard Simon, ‘Green laws no slam-dunk in new Congress’, Los Angeles Times, 18 December 2006.
[36] Edmund Andrews, ‘The Democrats’ Cautious Tiptoe Around the President’s Tax Cuts’, New York Times, 4 January 2007.
[37] Blue Dog Coalition, ‘12-Point Reform Plan for Curing Our Nation’s Addiction to Deficit Spending’, at
[38] ‘Democrats to Watch’.
[39] Joel Havemann, ‘Bush wants budget balanced by 2012’, Los Angeles Times, 4 January 2007.
[40] ‘It’s as if this year, Katrina was the subliminal issue.’ Michael Tisserand, ‘The Katrina Factor’, Nation, 1 January 2007.
[41] Jim Puzzanghera, ‘Pelosi likely to speak up for tech industry’, Los Angeles Times, 13 November 2006.
[42] David Bacon, ‘Immigrants Find Hi-Tech Servitude in Silicon Valley’, Labor Notes, September 2000.
[43] Puzzanghera, ‘Pelosi likely to speak up’.
[44] crp communications director Massie Ritsch in one of the National Journal’s ‘Technology Daily’ communiqués, August 2006.
[45] See Sara Miles, How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley, New York 2001.
[46] Thomas Edsall, National Journal, 23 September 2006. He uses Pew Research Center data to characterize the Democratic electorate.
[47] James Webb, ‘Class Struggle: American workers have a chance to be heard’, Wall Street Journal, 15 November 2006.
[48] Hayes, ‘New Democratic Populism’.
[49] Hayes, ‘New Democratic Populism’. I leave aside for later discussion the emergent presidential campaign of John Edwards who, in a quest to outflank Hillary on the left, has seemingly embraced a more robust and authentic progressivism than the trick-populism that disappointed his followers in 2004. For an intriguing preview, see Perry Bacon, ‘The Anti-Clinton’, Time, 15 January 2007.
[50] James Webb, ‘What to do about China?’, New York Times, 15 June 1998; and ‘Heading for Trouble’, Washington Post, 4 September 2002.
[51] Klein, ‘Spinned Right’.
[52] Brian Friel, ‘Splits of Their Own,’ National Journal, 9 September 2006.


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