Democrats will only tinker

Submitted by AWL on 16 February, 2021 - 6:55 Author: Stephen Wood
Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders

Part of an ongoing debate: see here for all the contributions

In his letter to Solidarity 581, Barrie Hardy delves a little further into some of the wider differences that have been discussed in Solidarity in the run-up to the 2020 US Presidential election. I want to pick up one in particular.

Barrie says that I make a wrong-headed claim by dismissing Biden’s or the Democrats’ desire for democratic reform. I think what Biden has said and the record of the Democrats is proof that any such commitment is cynical rather than real.

As Howie Hawkins said in his interview in Solidarity 567, the US election process is entirely in the hands of the Democrats and Republicans. The parties of federal and state government have massive power over the conduct of an election. In Wisconsin it was the Democrats who worked to get the Green Party removed from the ballot.

And we don’t have to go back much further to see what kind of democratic reform the Democrats are actually interested in. Obama promised to stop voter suppression. There was even talk he would challenge the electoral college, good — but he didn’t. Even the most liberal of Democrats ambitions make no mention of challenging the electoral college.

Biden has portrayed himself as the great negotiator who can build coalitions, “work across the aisle”, and triangulate better than anyone else. He wants us to forget his most enduring collaboration was with the segregationist (and former Democrat) Strom Thurmond.

And he was still prepared to push these credentials in the run-up to the election against a Republican party more reactionary, right-wing, and in hock to a gangster leadership. The idea of cross-party collaboration is perhaps at its most fraught.

But even if Biden does go it alone, is he going to call his supporters into the streets to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act? All the evidence suggests the Democrats strongly oppose doing that, even when an election is being fraudulently taken from them.

Sarada Peri, a former Obama speechwriter, wrote in The Atlantic, “The rhetorical promise of democracy is inspiring; the nitty-gritty of bringing it to life, less so. It is easy to put off the work, the unsexy details, of ensuring that government functions and voters are heard. There is always another crisis to solve or another policy to chase. But unless our leaders prioritise that work, we are in danger of remaining a hobbled, impotent, perpetually imperfect union.”

That seems pretty apt, but Peri believes that the perpetually imperfect union is something that the Democrats could only reform if people played fair. I would argue, even if there were able to, they have little interest in anything beyond the kind of tinkering that reverses some of the worst of Trump’s excesses.

Stacey Abrams, a Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives, has written a plea in the Washington Post for reform to protect democracy in light of the events of 6 January. She cites the importance of DC statehood because it would mean the National Guard could be called in. While Chelsea Manning cannot look to the Democrats to protect her as a whistle blower, they do want to make sure that other protesters would not get the soft touch treatment of the 6 January rioters.

And to go back further? You don’t have to argue that perhaps Democrat Mayor Daley was over exuberant in his use of the Chicago Police to smash the demonstrations at the DNC convention in 1968. You can look at provisions in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act 1968 which Johnson passed alongside his other “Great Society” programs. This vastly increased the money going to federal and state law enforcement agencies, allowing them to buy more helicopters, gas masks, riot equipment, grenades and other projectile weapons. Later, Joe Biden himself would be the architect of the Crime Bill 1994 under Clinton.

Before that, alongside Strom Thurmond, he pushed the Comprehensive Control Act 1984. Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which he helped write, and its follow up Act of the same name in 1988. What all those bits of legislation had in common was increasing prison sentences and giving more power to crime agencies to arrest people on suspicion of drug possession and trafficking. The 1986 Act extended the mandatory sentences for possession of crack cocaine while leaving powdered cocaine untouched. That alone helped to fuel the huge racial disparities in incarceration.

If Biden now champions the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, he is mostly undoing his own work as a legislator, because one of the provisions of such acts is to award back former convicted felons their voting rights. That is utterly cynical electioneering.

Measures that counteract voter suppression are all well and good but the Democrats are doing it to shore up their position, not out of respect for democratic reform.

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