U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?

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U.S. Election Notebook #11 Richard Nixon George Wallace Republican Democratic Dime

February 18, 1974 – Then Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace, on a platform with then Republican president Richard Nixon during “Honor America Day” (Oliver F. Atkins, Wikimedia Commons).

In the eleventh of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca professor Paul Kellogg examines arguments which equate the Democratic and Republican Parties. In the tenth blog, he explored Michelle Alexander’s important reframing of contemporary U.S. politics.

Two party system?

There is a well-worn path taken by critical thinkers, equating the Republican Party with the Democratic Party.

  • 2010, left-wing analyst Noam Chomsky said: “In the US, there is basically one party – the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans.”
  • 2004, prominent left-wing writers, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair published a book, Dime’s Worth of Difference, whose title they attributed to country singer Waylon Jennings. Jennings, they wrote, when asked to describe the two parties in the early 1980s, said: “There ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”
  • 1988, liberal journalist James Reston argued that “both parties … have adjusted their policies and prejudices to a changing political and economic world, and have actually come closer to one another on major domestic and foreign policies than any two major parties in any other modern nation in the world.”
  • 1975, liberal gadfly and author Gore Vidal said: “there is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two wings: Republican and Democrat.”

With these bits as our only evidence, the practice of putting an equal sign between the two parties would seem to be the property of the left and some liberals. But examine the Jennings quote a bit more closely. St. Clair references it again in 2012, in an obituary for Jennings. St. Clair tells a story from 1978 Indianapolis, in the context of a Democratic Party event at which Jennings was performing, and for which St. Clair was fund-raising.

In conversation about the two parties, Jennings told St. Clair: “Son, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the lot of them” a position which shocked St. Clair at the time, but to which he says he came around a decade later. So impressed was St. Clair with Jennings’ words, that he and his co-author – as we saw – used it as the title for a very left-wing critique of the Democratic Party.

“Not a dime’s worth of difference”

The problem is, in 1968 – ten years before the Jennings-St. Clair conversation – the “not a dime’s worth of difference” position was the slogan of, not the left, but the far right – the notorious anti-Civil Rights Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. On announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Wallace said: “[T]here’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.” This was not a throw-away line, but a central theme of his “Stand up for America” speech, a phrase that became strongly associated with his political profile. Jennings – a rockabilly southern boy from Texas –would have been familiar with the Wallace phrase. St. Clair and Cockburn don’t seem to be, not referencing George Wallace once in their entire book.

Another voice has to be brought into the mix. Michael Goldfield is the author of The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics. In it, he says that while placing an equal sign between the two parties, as do Vidal and others, does “express a good deal of truth,” the analysis is nonetheless “facile.” Goldfield provides a powerful, sustained, well-documented counter-analysis, insisting on highlighting racism and racialization as central to understanding party formation in the United States.

From “the end of Reconstruction and until after the New Deal period” he argues, the Democratic Party could be characterized as “the party of the South and of the large plantation owners.” The Republican Party, by contrast, while partially shaped by its role in prosecuting the Civil War, was also the party of northern capitalists. By the end of the 19th century, it was without question the latter aspect – the northern capitalist aspect – which dominated. Content to base themselves upon northern business interests, the Republicans ceded “full independent control of the South to the Dixiecrat politicians and planters.”

Democratic party in flux

The Democrats also were in flux. While the Dixiecrats remained powerful, the 1930s-era New Deal welfare state, shaped by the Roosevelt Democrats, began changing that party as well. By the 1920s, African-American identification with the Republican Party had worn very thin. And, as was argued in an earlier post, the New Deal 1930s, began a mass migration of African American support from Republican to Democrat, and a parallel “white flight” of voters from the Democratic party towards the Republican.

Goldfield in a very grim and sobering manner, captures one side of this process.

“The whole of post-World War II American politics up to the present may be usefully characterized as a series of escalating and increasingly successful experiments in the building of a national white racist political coalition. Like the Dixiecrats in an earlier era, the appeal to racism has often served as a cover for a number of pro-business, pro-rich public policies.”

In the 1950’s a “movement of massive resistance” whose “main organizational vehicle was the Citizens’ Council,” formed in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a ruling that said it was unconstitutional for states’ to organize segregated public schools – one system for African-Americans, one for whites. The massive social movement of the Citizens’ Councils were organized to prevent desegregation, and it “spread throughout the whole South, developing a solid white racist front.”

In the 1960s, there was the emergence of George Wallace as a national figure, campaigning on an openly racist basis. In our era, we have had the frequent presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, a man openly nostalgic for the segregated Jim Crow era (the era of lynchings examined in an earlier post), where, according to Buchanan, “black and white lived apart … but we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.”

Trump’s candidacy this election has taken Wallace and Buchanan type politics from the margins to the mainstream. He has mobilized a white, nationalist, racist coalition and organized a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, against the corporate neoliberal elite who thought it was their party. Trump’s calculation – unfortunately proven correct – was that an open appeal to white, racist nationalism would be more powerful than the traditional voices of fiscal and social conservatism.

Being tested

Not a dime’s worth of difference? That analysis is being tested this election. Trump’s open appeal to racism and violence in front of angry crowds of thousands is unlike any Republican or Democratic presidential campaign in living memory. Acknowledging this difference does not lead automatically to support for Clinton.

Renowned philosopher Cornel West has argued that “Trump will be a neofascist catastrophe” but that Clinton would be a “neoliberal disaster.” West supported Bernie Sanders in his campaign to carry the Democratic standard. Once that campaign failed, West moved his support to Jill Stein of the Green Party. But many others share West’s analysis, but not his conclusion – hence the almost 50% of Clinton backers who, as we saw earlier, are in her camp not because they are for Clinton, but because they want to stop Donald Trump.

In the next post, entitled ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’, Paul Kellogg reminds us of a great insight from W.E.B. Du Bois.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures

Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

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Goldfield, Michael, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: New Press, 1997)
Hennelly, Robert, ‘Cornel West: Trump Will Be a Neofascist Catastrophe and Clinton a Neoliberal Disaster’, AlterNet, 2 August 2016 <http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/cornel-west-trump-will-be-neofascist-catastrophe-and-clinton-neoliberal-disaster> [accessed 2 October 2016]
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