Danny Katch should get an award for the catchiest political title of the year. As you might expect, “Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People” is not just about the election of Donald Trump. Katch finds problems with the entire American democracy and in the fact that our two dominating political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are effectively owned by the rich. Whatever else their differences are, they collude to keep alternative parties from gaining traction.
Got that? It’s not just the Republicans that are doing their best to benefit the wealthy, particularly on the national level. And if you object, citing that the Democratic Party is the party that brought us Social Security, Medicare, anti-poverty programs and the New Deal, Katch would remind you that all those programs were enacted under the pressure of union struggles and people getting out in the streets. And besides, what have Democrats done for us lately? Even health care reform, arguably the most significant legislation passed during the Obama administration, “started off by ruling out genuine universal health care ... then abandoned even a ‘public option’ ... and finally ended up with a ‘universal’ health-insurance law that was literally written by an insurance company executive.”
Katch cleverly starts out his discussion with a quote from a major party presidential candidate: “The fact is that we now have people from the Middle East, allegedly, coming across the [southern] border.” That wasn’t Trump in 2016; it was the 2004 Democratic Party nominee John Kerry. Kerry was pandering, of course, trying to outflank former President George W. Bush on an issue of national security. Katch describes in detail how the Democrats have moved far to the right in the past decades, in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Republican Party by taking over some of their issues. Then, as the Republicans doubled down on their conservative base, the Democrats have used the specter of right-wing governments to persuade progressives to keep voting for increasingly centrist candidates.
Katch says there’s a better way. He’s heartened by the movement inspired by Bernie Sanders, though he points out that what seems radical in Sanders’ program is already mainstream Social Democratic politics in Europe, a politics that has been eroded in recent years by the tendency of the mainstream left to compromise with the needs of capitalism. Katch sees hope in the upsurge represented by the Sanders campaign, but building unity and trust “will require more than just a progressive economic platform.” It requires directly “challenging the racism that divides us.”
Katch also doesn’t believe someone with Sanders’ politics could ever take control of the Democratic Party. He warns that “Real power in both parties resides in the informal spaces, the banquets and closed-door meetings among major donors, and the army of think-tank researchers, lobbyists, consultants, pollsters, and, yes, candidates. The parties’ most important decisions are often made unofficially and off the record.” As far as the prospects of progressive activists, he later adds, “The Democratic Party ... is a diverse and seemingly open organization that can become a very comfortable home for progressives by allowing them to win small policy battles at the cost of surrendering ... their political souls.”
Katch surveys the current resistance to Trump with a critical eye, saying that we need to do more than return politics to the pre-Trump status quo, which, after all, ended up getting us Trump. We need to articulate what we’re for, as well as what we’re against; we need to address the increasing economic inequality affecting most of the people in the country, while supporting the movements for racial and gender equality. We need to “rebuild a culture of solidarity, the idea that people can unite across their differences not just because they are ‘nice’ but because they have a common interest in not allowing themselves to be divided and conquered. ... Solidarity is an idea, but it’s also a tangible set of relationships and networks built on trust and reliability.”
The goal, Katch says, is a mass socialist movement, tied but not subservient to independent electoral politics. He points to the victory of Syriza, the far-left party in Greece, as an example of how this kind of explicitly anti-capitalist politics can win. Of course, Syriza eventually knuckled under to the demands of Greece’s creditors — something that Katch attributes to the personal illusions of Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, and the organization’s unwillingness to “organize widespread strikes and resistance.” It’s not too promising that Katch’s best example of resistance to neoliberalism has ended so badly. And it’s a blind spot to attribute the failures of progressive movements to the personal weaknesses of their leaders.
There’s also the unmentioned elephant in a book written by a socialist with a title like this. After all, bad governments happen to good people under socialism, too. While we all should be able to get behind Katch’s call for real democracy, as opposed to the limited options we now get during election season, it’s never been the case that the people took power and then all lived happily ever after. This doesn’t mean that we might as well give up trying. But we need to acknowledge that it’s not just capitalism that threatens democracy.
Katch gives a well-written and often entertaining summary of the case for getting out of the two-party trap we’re stuck in, though his path out is not that clear. But, as he puts it, “As we hurtle toward an uncertain future, we might as well fight like hell to make it ours.”
Wait, there's more. Check out the full November 15 issue.