“What If This Is As Good As It Gets?”: Social Democracy in America


The video above features Speaker of the RI House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello in discussion with reporter Kate Nagle of GoLocalProv, an internet venue that can be fairly described as attenuated to more sensational headlines (even if their political sympathies might be a few clicks closer to the center than Washington Babylon). Through a true wonder of 19th century statecraft, Mattiello is in fact the most powerful elected official in the entire state, far stronger than the Governor, borne of nothing more or less than raw power politics in backrooms.

Carl Davidson+Crosby=No Relation? (David Crosby photo by Glenn Francis/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Simultaneously, I have been engaging in an extended Facebook exchange with Carl Davidson, the Maoist-turned-social democrat whose career highlights have included being an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society, the Rainbow Coalition, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Democratic Socialists of America, the Online University of the Left, and, perhaps most notably, a stunt double for David Crosby, sporting a walrus mustache that is the envy of all mankind.

The topic of our exchange has as a centrifuge a rather basic argument: I see RussiaGate as a waste of time and distraction that is keeping radicals from talking about Abolishing ICE, getting kids out of concentration camps, and reuniting them with their families. Davidson’s responses, persisting in discussion of how Russian Facebook ads impacted the 2016 election and Trump’s ties to the mob, demonstrates my argument in real time.

Rep. Mattiello is a picture-perfect definition of a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). He opposes social safety net programs, abortion rights, and barely eked out an electoral victory against a Republican challenger in 2016 where he sent constituents viciously xenophobic postcards in order to emulate The Donald.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Davidson. Even if I consistently disagree with his strategic logic, his email newsletters are sometimes interesting and his free webinars on radical theorists like Antonio Gramsci are cheaper than a graduate-level classes where I would have to pay for such instruction. His arc of political ideology, having started as a New Lefty who wanted to re-kindle the romantic spark of the old Communist Party during the Great Depression, is one I comprehend quite well (even if hindsight shows that Chairman Mao’s proposed schema was not only misguided but in reality driven by an ego trip).

In 1997, James L. Brooks, writer/producer on The Simpsons, directed the Oscar-winning romantic comedy As Good As It Gets, a pretty hilarious picture even if its treatment of mental illness is a tad reactionary (I say this as someone with many family members as well as personal mental healthcare diagnoses similar to those shown onscreen). At one point, Jack Nicholson stoically queries a depression support group “What if this is as good as it gets?

I think Mattiello in this video demonstrates a situation that welcomes repetition of Nicholson’s inquisition. What if a counter-productive, perpetually-malfunctioning polity run by a macho Italian bigot, a casting reject from a Z-grade Roger Corman Godfather rip-off that makes Robert Davi seem like Robert De Niro, is the best that America can reach in attempting to create a “Scandinavia-styled social democracy” (or whatever the F$&k it is the hipsters at Jacobin magazine want to accomplish)? What if the rules of our loopy federalist Constitution, buttressed by the playing field geography of our neoliberal late capitalist economy, have set the ceiling to a height that has Mattiello’s face plastered on it, his supple Sicilian jowls grimacing down upon the masses in some depraved spoof to the Sistine Chapel?

What if this is as good as it gets?

In the past 45 years now, the arc of history has been rather consistent. From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Obama and beyond, candidates running as “reform-minded” Democrats that were intending to “clean up the party” and get rid of its distasteful, purportedly-corrupted elements ended up being right wing hacks whose definition of “corrupt” was every positive element of the New Deal coalition (labor, minorities, welfare state beneficiaries, regulatory agency/consumer advocates, et. al.) in order to cater more to Wall Street. Charles Schumer, sans one or two superficial aspects, is next to indistinguishable from Nelson Rockefeller. Nancy Pelosi has more in common with Barbara Bush than Eleanor Roosevelt. With the exception of Bernie Sanders and a few freshman Congressional reps in the past three years, it’s a pattern that has be thoroughly homogeneous and altogether predictable.

The problem is not a lack of political imagination, a situation where our elected leaders are simply too unoriginal to formulate policy that recalls the old governing methods of liberal northern Democrats. Instead, it is rather the opposite, our political leaders are constantly trying to formulate new ways to wiggle within the ever-shrinking margins of a policy menu that mandates austerity. Voters don’t have as much sway as Wall Street and that is the end of the discussion. Trying to flip that paradigm and develop a state system where people have more power than banks is, well, revolutionary.

Why is it that so many radicals from the 1960s have turned into shepherds for the Democratic Party, reliably helping paddock the younger generations with haunted parables ripped out of a Stephen King paperback about the big bad GOP werewolf that will gobble them all up should we not turn out the vote for the Democrats? Why don’t these shepherds ever use their astute Marxian analysis to point out austerity is the Number 1 catalyst of white supremacy’s growth within the white worker’s mentality, a truism demonstrated by the election of no less than Adolf Hitler?

In 2012, Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report was having none of this and made his argument against voting for Obama in the video below:

With all due respect, I think quite honestly that many people that say they are more radical than the liberals they turn out to be when push comes to shove are that way because they are awful as organizers.

In my experience (limited as it is, admittedly), many people with radical ideas and analysis are not trained organizers. So with resignation they shrug and fall back on the pre-existing social structures (political formations, civic organizations, labor unions, churches, etc.) and use those preconstructed skeletons for the assemblage of their own efforts. They look at “working within the (Democrats/AFL-CIO/whatever)” as the best that is possible because they are too embarassed to admit they don’t know how to organize without the help they get from these pre-existing groups they aim to “take over from the inside.” (Indeed, this was one of my major takeaways from trying to organize with the Green Party on the state and national level).

It makes sense, really. Why admit you are lacking at a necessary skill when instead you can fall back on pre-cut molds, created by the liberal elements within the elite governing class, and have that skillset service done for you by someone being paid to do so? Look, I’ve worked on a Democratic Party political campaign before, it’s an operation that comes with a substantial set of proprietary tools, owned exclusively by the DNC, that can make or break a campaign. Their canvassing software, NGP VAN, is a behemoth that was the make-or-break of the City Council campaign I volunteered for. The Green Party, the largest and widest progressive third party in America (flaws and all, that’s the truth), has absolutely nothing remotely close to what the Democrats have in NGP-VAN. (Indeed, rather than putting energy into that, their national email lists instead are occupied with jabber about obscure nonsense and crabby old white hippies being, well, the white people…)

RussiaGate likewise functions in such a fashion. Liberals and progressives like Davidson squawk incessantly about the Kremlin because it very conveniently outsources everything that should be done to oppose Trump to elected officials rather than accepting that the real struggle against Trump is to be fought out by organizers who both are opposed to austerity but also have radically different proposed solutions, namely, socialism or national socialism?

What if this is as good as it gets?

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