You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
The politics of compromise

November 16, 2007 | Page 2

ACTIVISTS WHO refuse to compromise on their demands should get their heads out of the clouds, goes the argument. Sure, they can say they stood by their principles, but in the end, they won't have any influence over anything.

The "realistic" strategy is to package your demands so the politicians will embrace them--and above all else, get the Democrats, no mater how bad their candidates, elected as a lesser evil compared to the Republicans.

With the 2008 election season in full swing, the pressure is on for activists to start doing the "reasonable" thing--and adjust their expectations and demands to something that can be achieved.

In fact, however, a look at the last several weeks of the Democrats' behavior--both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail--offers object lessons about who the "party of the people" really listens to (not us), and how much it will deliver (not much) unless it faces pressure.

The problem with the politics of compromise is it accepts that the Democratic Party represents "the people." And it assumes that the rights and freedoms we have today are the product of what politicians achieved in the past, so we need to work for the best of them today to push back the Republican agenda.

Both points are wrong.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The Democrats, rather than serving all "the people," are most concerned with what just a few want--the ruling establishment that runs America's corporations, controls the media and sets the political and social agenda.

So, for example, when the Democrat-controlled Congress faced a vote on legislation that would increase taxes on Wall Street hedge funds, party leaders kept their most important "constituency" in mind.

As the Washington Post reported, "In early June, as the Senate Finance Committee began examining how a new breed of Wall Street titans could be paying a special low tax rate on executives' salaries, one of the richest of them, hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors, cut the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) a check for $28,500.

"Just days later, with DSCC Chairman Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) equivocating on legislation to raise taxes on publicly traded equity firms, hedge fund giant James H. Simons, who earned $1.7 billion last year at his Renaissance Technologies LLC, donated another $28,500 to the DSCC.

"By late July, Schumer was off the fence--and on the side of the hedge funds and private-equity firms in opposing the Democratic legislation."

Viva Hammer, who recently left the Treasury Department, told the Post. "If you're a Democrat and you have to choose between the alternative minimum tax and the hedge fund industry, that's one tough ideological choice." Hammer concluded, "It's a choice between your votes and your wallet."

Likewise, when Congress last week overrode its first veto since George Bush took office, Democrats were exultant. "The important point," declared Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), "is that we have said today, as a Congress to this president, 'You can't just keep rolling over us like this. You can't make everything a fight, because we'll see it through.'"

Really? What did the Democrats fight for? An end to warrantless wiretapping? Funding for children's health care? Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq?

No, Congress "saw through" the override of Bush's veto of a $23 billion spending bill for water projects that was packed with pet programs of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

The Democrats' failure to fulfill hopes that they would take action to end the occupation of Iraq needs to be understood the same way. They may have talked tough about the war to win their November 2006 victory, but the Democrats are every bit as committed as the Republicans to defending U.S. economic and military interests around the world.

Some Democrats differ with the Bush administration on how the war was carried out and how the occupation should continue. But there's agreement on the goal. That's why, in a recent debate, none of the three front-running presidential contenders would commit to pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of a hypothetical first term--2013, a full decade after the invasion.

When it comes to the domestic front in the "war on terror," Democrats are even less inclined to challenge the White House.

Senate Democrats could have stopped the confirmation of Bush's nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey--a man who refuses to say whether he believes waterboarding amounts to torture.

But no. The Senate approved Mukasey by a 53-40 margin, with six Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York, voting yes. To top it off, every one of the five Democratic Party presidential candidates sat out of the vote.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HISTORY SHOWS that nothing is gained by activists moderating their demands and hoping that Democrats will do the "right thing." Pressure from below has always been the key.

For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is known as the president who saved U.S. workers from the disaster of the Great Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal years introduced unemployment insurance and Social Security, to name a few important reforms.

But as historian Art Preis pointed out in Labor's Giant Step, "The picture of Roosevelt as a 'friend of labor' giving the people concessions out of the tenderness of his completely false. Roosevelt was a clever, adroit politician who carefully gauged popular sentiment. His slightest concession to the workers was given grudgingly out of fear of the masses, and to prevent their moving left."

Waves of strikes and protests by the unemployed forced concessions from the Roosevelt administration, which understood that if they didn't make concessions to popular demands, U.S. capitalism faced the danger of outright collapse.

In the same way, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson get the credit for granting civil rights to African Americans. But the legislation that overthrew Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South never would have happened without the sacrifice and struggles of countless people--whose demands for civil rights were considered entirely "unreasonable" at the time.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations would have been happy to ignore the issue of civil rights and appease the segregationist Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party in the South--had student activists and Freedom Riders not exposed the horrors of Jim Crow for the world to see.

Bill Clinton's presidency is another illustration of the same point--but a negative one. Without a struggle from below--because unions and liberal organizations held off from organizing protests in the interest of giving a Democratic president the space he said he needed to make good on the campaign promises such as universal health care and the Freedom of Choice Act--the Clinton years saw the dismantling of a number of gains from the New Deal.

When the Democrats are confident they will have no opposition from the left, it frees them up to move further right. As the socialist Hal Draper wrote of the "lib-labs" (liberal-labor) in 1967: "The Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces on the right."

When activists tone down their demands, it doesn't get them more influence. It gets them less. If anyone has their heads in the clouds, it's the people who think Democrats have ever met activists' demands without being pushed.

Change isn't made by compromising on what we want. It's made by organizing and fighting for it.

Home page | Back to the top