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on October 17, 2008
With less than a month to go before the election and Obama's inauguration a mere three months away, Lance Selfa's "The Democrats: A Critical History" is critical reading for anyone interested in real change we can believe in i.e. not the kind Obama will bring.

For the American working class movement and the organized left, the Democratic Party has been a key stumbling block since the Populist Movement shook the country back in the 1890s. The Democratic Party has managed, contained, controlled, co-opted, rolled back and eventually destroyed every social movement that has arisen since then.

Selfa begins the book by looking at Obama's ascension to the throne of the American Empire in the wake of 9/11, eight years of Bush, and the collapse of the Republican Party after three decades of political dominance. In the second chapter, he analyzes the class nature of the Democratic Party, and points out that the Democrats are unlike most other parties in the world in that individual candidates, rather than the party platform, dictate their policies. He argues convincingly that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and cites as evidence where its politicians get money from, which think-tanks it takes advice from, who they staff campaigns with, its record on legislation, and its record on foreign policy. He devotes an entire chapter to explaining how and why the Democrats are just as imperialist as their counterparts across the aisle, and points out that all the major wars of the 20th century were launched by Democratic politicians who claimed to want peace while they prepared for war. The fact the party is viewed as being less pro-war than the Republicans is a feat that would impress Karl Rove, given that Democrats jumped into two world wars, used nuclear weapons, designed the Cold War, and started "small" wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats incorporate representatives of the oppressed and exploited (women, blacks, gays, unions) within the party as a subordinate component, giving them a meaningless "seat at the table." Doing so helps the Democrats maintain the fiction that they are the "party of the people," or that they're "friends of labor," unlike the big business-backed Republicans. The third chapter is dedicated to looking at the rise of the "New Democrats," i.e. Bill Clinton and the unapologetically pro-business GOP-lite Democratic Leadership Council that has controlled the party since the 1990s.

In the remaining chapters of the book, Selfa turns his attention from the nature of the party and its current trajectory to focusing on the Democratic Party's (abusive) relationship with social movements, unions, and the organized left. He starts with the Populist movement that united black and white sharecroppers in the rural West and South(!) against the growing power of the robber barons but made the fatal mistake of entering into an alliance with the Democrats. Next, he shows how the tremendous working-class rebellion in the 1930s that won Social Security and made the American Dream a reality for generations of workers was blocked from creating a European-style Labor Party, parties that single-payer universal health care systems in Europe and Canada that Michael Moore so envied in Sicko. Lastly, Selfa looks at the rise and fall of the civil rights, anti-war, women's rights, and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s.

In each case, the Democrats resisted these movements but eventually granted meaningful reforms because these movements became too powerful to crush. These movements ignored pleas by Democratic politicians to moderate their demands, to shut up and wait, and to stop organizing (Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the darling of liberals to this day, told civil rights organizers: "If you stop all this sitting-in s--- and concentrate on voter registration, I'll get you a tax-exemption.") At the same time, the Democrats worked hard to incorporate and co-opt movement leaders into the machinery of government, to transform community organizers into party/government bureaucrats sitting behind desks.

Sadly, in many cases, the strategy worked. Jesse Jackson, for example, agreed to endorse conservative Democratic loser Michael Dukakis and give him the Rainbow Coalition's delegates in exchange for putting several Jackson staffers (including Jackson's son) on the Democratic National Committee. While big business-friendly candidates kept its hands firmly on the wheel of the Democratic Party, progressives and their issues took their seats at the back of the bus. The book is rife with examples of movement leaders that decide "a seat at the table" is more important than changing the menu, the portions, or who gets served what.

The last few chapters of the book are devoted to whether or not the left can take over or use the party as a vehicle for social change. He uses Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s and today's Progressive Democrats of America as examples of how activists who set out to change and takeover the Democratic party end up changing, getting co-opted and neutered by the very forces they sought to challenge.

The book closes by examining the missed opportunities to create broad-based third parties free of corporate domination, opportunities which the Democratic party sabotaged, more often than not with help from forces within social movements. The most ugly example is the American Communist Party during the 1930s and 40s. No matter how many strikes the Democrats broke, or how many working-class radicals were victimized by McCarthyism (another invention of the Democratic party), the CP toed a pro-FDR line even though there was a groundswell of support rank-and-file workers for an independent Labor Party due to strikebreaking and political betrayals by Democratic governors and FDR at the time. To read more about that, check out Sharon Smith's excellent book on U.S. labor history, "Subterranean Fire."

Two themes run throughout the book and form Selfa's conclusion: 1) the Democratic Party is part of the problem, not part of the solution if you want real, meaningful change and 2) change comes from grassroots movements independent of (and in opposition to) the Republican and Democratic parties. The lesser-evil strategy has been and will always be a complete disaster, allowing both parties the freedom to become more and more "evil" as time goes on, so long as they don't ever become equally "evil."

The only shortcoming of this book is that Selfa neglects to mention the fact that the Democratic Party is itself a misnomer. Forty percent of the votes that a nominee needs to win at the Democratic Convention are controlled by "super-delegates," current and former elected officials, who can vote however they want, regardless of how people in their districts or state vote. This system was instituted after George McGovern lost in 1972 to Nixon for the explicit purpose of blocking candidates that were deemed by party bosses as "too left-wing." This voting bloc exists to put a check on democracy within the party. Furthermore, the road to the nomination begins in rural conservative states (Iowa, New Hampshire) and continues through a gauntlet of the other 48 states, each of which have different and complicated formulas for awarding delegates, a system whose lunacy was on full display in the Clinton-Obama death march to the nomination that lasted twice as long as the general election. The system is rigged to ensure that only conservative nominees with millions of dollars to burn can win. Kuciniches need not apply.

This book is essential reading for any activist who wants to understand how to win change in this country and anyone who thinks we need an alternative to the two party state.
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on March 21, 2009
Anyone expecting change beyond the margins from an Obama administration should read this book first. Unfortunately, generation after generation of voters has opted for Democrats as the lesser of two evils. As a result, here we are today, a nation of hollowed-out economy, rotted-out empire, and max'ed-out consumers, thanks largely to the "lesser-evilism" of a Democratic Party. Worse, contrary to occasional pretentions, the party has never really offered an alternative to any of these pathologies. Author Selfa lays bare the party's dreary record of Wall St. collusion and imperialist expansion, despite fitful posturing from a parade of devious leaders. It's a sorry record that includes even the sainted FDR who is shown backing into New Deal reforms strictly as a defensive measure against deeper change.

Then there's the party's historical function to co-opt popular movements more progressive than itself. Presenting their candidates as the only realistic alternative, the party makes tactical concessions in order to maintain strategic dominance over the political left. But that dominance ironically traces back to the same moneyed interests that sponsor the political party of the right, the Republicans. No wonder the end result shapes up as change but no change, and the most disengaged electorate in the Western world. The Green Party is only the latest of political fall-guys to tumble into the graveyard of lesser-evilism. It's really a sorry record, especially when a lesser-evil like Bill Clinton seeks to undo what he can of a meagre New Deal legacy. How surprising is it, that the last 30-years of Repubocrat rule reads like a social survey of the 19th century in free-fall. The historical lesson is clear. Democrats don't make change, but mobilized social movements do. Readers can learn more about our biggest political party from this book than from a typical course in political science. I know I did.
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on April 5, 2010
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. At first, I was expecting a wholesale dismissal of anything the Dems have ever done or will do (i.e, a staunch Socialist perspective). But, as I went on, I sometimes started expecting a conclusion from Selfa that the Dems can indeed be "moved Leftward" (i.e., that there is still hope). Thus, I was very pleased at the end of the book to find that Selfa's conclusion rests somewhere firmly in the middle. The Democratic Party's victories in the past should not be wholly discounted, as they did help working class people. But they should also be measured against what was being called for--indeed, demanded--by the ever-growing social movements on the ground at the time (specifically during the Depression and 1960s, arguably the "heydays" of progressive Democrats). Measuring the "populist" nature of the Dems in this way, rather than simply against what Republicans stand for, is especially useful in that it breaks the dichotomous politics that tends to pervade the American psyche (e.g., liberal vs. conservative, pro-this vs. pro-that, etc.). It shows that, contrary to what the Right might be screaming, the true American Left is often left woefully disappointed by what Dems actually do when push comes to shove--and that's on a good day. On bad days, the Left is absolutely dumbfounded by what Dems do (e.g., escalating the Vietnam and Afghan wars, severely restricting welfare/medicaid services, etc.), often recoiling into fatalistic passivity. The book offers lots of historical examples of the Democratic party's diabolical nature and successfully shows that the strong-principled, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-civil rights elements of the Democratic party are probably more the exception than the rule. I would recommend this for anyone who considers his or herself "to the left" of George W. Bush.
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on July 14, 2012
Lance Selfa is certainly not the first person to provide an analysis about the true nature of the Democratic Party. Critiquing the Democratic Party from the left, his book may be found on the web at Michael J. Smith's site: Smith has a blog and a partially completed book of the same name. In "The Democrats: A Critical History", Lance Selfa, also writing his critique from the left, provides some brief but well documented examples demonstrating that far from being the part of "the people", the Democrats have been able to use that myth as a fig leaf to cover the fact that they have worked for the 1% for decades.
Selfa provides concrete examples of how organized labor and various movements (civil rights, women's liberation, and gay liberation) were alternately ignored, betrayed, undermined, or diffused by the Democratic Party.
Selfa's writing style is compact. He manages to deliver a dense, well-researched, informative book in about 200 pages. Chapter notes follow the Appendix. The tradeoff is that there is an implied assumption that the reader is familiar with the events, groups, and movements from the period spanning 1950 until today. For example, Selfa provides an excellent-play-by-play of the 1964 Democratic National Convention and the Democratic Party's shoddy treatment of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MFDP). He does not explain who or what the MDFP what is, he assumes the reader knows.
My only small criticism of the book is that he chose to omit any mention of the role of racism at important points in the Party's history. For example, he underplays the effect of racism in destroying the Populist Party of the late 19th century. He does not mention that African-Americans were initially excluded from applying for jobs with the National Recovery Agency. Following WWII, African-Americans were initially ineligible for benefits under the G.I. Bill. It is my opinion that white Americans need to be aware of discrimination against black and brown people. Historically, because they were unaware, white liberals had difficulty understanding African Americans and of perceiving them as whole, independent persons.
In an Appendix immediately following there is an essay by Hal Draper called, "Whose Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 68'" I had not heard of Hal Draper and looked him up online. Mr. Draper was a Marxist scholar who was involved in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Some of the issues concerning the Democratic Party sound as though they could have been written within the past 3 years. In his essay he posits that the explanation for the narrowing of differences between conservatism and liberalism (apart from the fact that liberals keep moving rightward) is due to the need for continuity to preserve capitalism and the New Deal reforms.
The value of this book is in its organization, meaning it will be used as a reference whenever I write on the the topic of the Democratic Party.
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on February 16, 2016
This was a fantastic, thorough read about the history of the Democratic Party and an essential text to go over every new election season when the Democrats try to pull the left back into the party machine. I highly recommend this book, especially to anyone interested in socialism and true solutions to society's greatest ills.
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on June 22, 2010
I have a feeling that especially under the current administration, at least at first, the left was too snake-bitten to pull through and create a coherent critique of the president's deeds versus what were assumed to be his promises on the campaign trail. I have seen this several times, where the left holds their nose and stands behind characters that support big business instead of the issues that pull the most political actors into politics to begin with.

In this book, _The Democrats: A Critical History_, you can find a well researched and finely laid out critique of the Democratic Party's continual co-optation of leftist movements and their inevitable turning away from the activist as they are power. It is a depressing history, but one that should be empowering as evidence that a third was is necessary and hopefully possible.

Although the book was written in the middle of the 2008 campaign season, Selfa's critique is wonderful as he does make some uncanny predictions. I wanted the author's crystal ball after reading the following passage, which were truer than my own hopes for the administration:

"So when Democratic leaders get down to discussing what can be done to fix the health care crisis, it is likely that they will produce a `universal health care' plan that will preserve the dominate role of private, profit-making insurance companies that are the main reason for the existing disaster that is U. S. health care. And as was shown by the Democratic Congress's capitulation to President George W. Bush between 2003 and 2008 on almost all aspects of the Iraq War, a Democratic administration will want to prove itself as a responsible trustee of U. S. imperialism."
Check. And Check. I do want however, a new chapter. I will substitute my rant for his more reasoned discussion:
"I knew that he wasn't as radical as many people wanted him to be. He is a good politician, and we've seen that. Just when the right started painting him Red, I think some people on the left started to believe it too. The fact that he has accomplished a lot is true, but there are many groups that supported his candidacy who feel left behind and not supported over the course of the last year.

E.G. Gays hate that DOMA and Don't ask - don't tell are missing; unions hate that the employee free choice act is out of mind; economic liberals think the stimulus was too small; health care advocates are angry that single-payer was abandoned without a fight; anti-corporatist balk at the handouts to finance, health care, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries; many deep-blue democrats hate that the republicans are dictating what is going on. And these are people who voted for him.

Obama sold himself to the American people I feel as more of an image than a specific set of policies. A vote for Obama was a vote against Bush (Makes me think of the escalation in the wars; pacifists hate that he has extended foreign conflicts) more so than a vote for anything particular. In that setting, the real Obama and his actions will be a disappointment from whatever your ideal Obama was. ... See More

People are coming to terms with this. I for one, who didn't vote for him, am much happier that he is in there and not his closest challenger. That being said, I understand the panic from the left as they lose their nominal super-majority needed to pass anything it seems. My two biggest villains right now aren't amongst the Democrats in Mass, but the two-party system that keeps centering the economic and moral problems somewhere to the right of center, and the antidemocratic parliamentary rules in the Senate. And this is not just a stance from expedience, wanting to see my own personal agenda to pass, but I spoke out against the filibuster in 2004 when the democratic minority was using it to block judges. Also holds placed on nominees and seniority rules erase the myth of egalitarianism in our republican chambers (small 'r'). It makes me think of that old chestnut: "If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?"

And now we are left with no good options on passing a watered-down health care bill. It looks like the public interest will lose out again, in the face of the possible."

The book is good and meets its own promises. I would rate it higher but for one thing. The text is somewhat dry and impersonal in a way, making it hard to read. This is a subjective stylistic preference, but important for me. One problem is the essay included in the appendix directly after the main text of the book. Hal Draper's "Who's Going to be the Lesser Evil in `68" hits many of the same points Selfa does with more wit and verve, making the solidly constructed main text seems more workmanlike in juxtaposition.
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on October 17, 2009
The Democratic party has long been a sort of Venus flytrap of politics for Left Wing movements. God knows how Huey Long got as far as he did. People react with shock at the apparent weakness of the democrats despite a super majority, never realizing, that most of the party doesn't want real reforms in health care, regulation of the Financial markets, Full Employment, the list goes on. There have been a few good ones, but they are the exception.

At times Selfa does go a bit overboard. George McGovern was at least as acceptable a leftist as Ralph Nader, but he is somewhat casually dismissed. The Democratic Socialists of America...well okay they pretty much deserved it for backing Mondale over Jackson when there most prominent member was Ron Dellums? WTF??!!, and FDR....well, he wasn't perfect, but he was decent enough. Overall, some very unpleasant truths for the left are expounded upon throughout the course of the book

Fundamentally what one should take from this book, is that the Dems will never ever do the right thing unless pushed to the limit. They seem to be learning it now, and may ever carry it into midterms. But as the book makes clear, the lessons they learn will inevitably be forgotten when the other Corporate party waves Sarah Palin, or Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney in there faces.
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on August 29, 2009
Lance Selfa does a good job in looking at the Democratic Party. Often portrayed as the party of the working class, the Democrats have done their best to keep their corporate masters happy while appearing to support workers. It takes a socilist to view the Dems without the usual right-wing knee jerking.

All-in-all, the is a read everyone on the left who's still aligned with the Dems should get.
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on March 21, 2014
This is the original, 2008 edition. The book was updated in 2012. Let me know when the 2012 edition is available as an e-book for my Kindle and I'll buy it.
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on May 12, 2016
It's a wonderful book that showed the Democratic Party to be beholden to corporate money as are the Republicans.
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