Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pay heed to Reed, he knows what he's writing about.

I found this excellent column at The Progressive online, and if Adolph L. Reed, Jr.'s feelings are an accurate reflection of what most voters have in their hearts and minds (and I believe they are), then we had better think about who we're prepared to throw away our votes for come January.

The Democratic candidates who are anointed "serious" are like a car with a faulty front-end alignment: Their default setting pulls to the right. They are unshakably locked into a strategy that impels them to give priority to placating those who aren't inclined to vote for them and then palliate those who are with bromides and doublespeak. When we complain, they smugly say, "Well, you have no choice but to vote for me because the other guy's worse." The party has essentially been nominating the same ticket with the same approach since Dukakis.

Read on, dear reader, read on...

A friend of mine characterizes this as the "we'll come back for you" politics, the claim that they can't champion anything you want because they have to conciliate your enemies right now to get elected, but that, once they win, they'll be able to attend to the progressive agenda they have to reject now in order to win. This worked out so well with the Clinton Presidency, didn't it? Remember his argument that he had to sign the hideous 1996 welfare reform bill to be able to come back and "fix" it later? Or NAFTA? Or two repressive and racist crime bills that flooded the prisons? Or the privatizing of Sallie Mae, which set the stage for the student debt crisis? Or ending the federal government's commitment to direct provision of housing for the poor?

This time, the nominal frontrunners have Rube Goldberg health care proposals that protect the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the chief sources of the health care crisis. They discuss the murderous adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan mainly in bloodless, managerial terms—as a "broken policy" or some other such technician's euphemism. Not only do their references to the tragic loss of American lives seem pro forma and constructed by focus-group engineers; they also reinscribe the presumption that only American lives count. This is part of what undergirds the broader framework of a foreign policy hinged on cavalier use of military assault and invasion in the first place—what used to be clearly recognized as imperialism. Edwards, who seems somewhat better than the others on Iraq, apparently needs to make up for it—lest what seem like expressions of decency be grounds for accusations of weakness—by being even more bellicose than they regarding Iran. However, all of them have indicated a lusty willingness to attack Iran, Syria, or any other country that can be demonized either for not dancing to our government's tune or even just because it's convenient to do so as a prop for some other purpose.

Yes, Reed brings out the criticisms against Bill Clinton. It's a legitimate question we all need to ask ourselves, as we seem prepared to hand the Democratic nomination to the conservative wife of a conservative former president whose only claim to the political party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman appears to be based on little more than a voter registration card. But that's not Reed's main point. Far from it.

At the end of the primary campaign, one of the "serious candidates" is going to get the nomination and form a ticket with another version of his or her triangulating self. (I still wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be Clinton-Obama, in an all-Oprah ticket, an exercise in massive short-term self-delusion and empty identity politics that will guarantee the White House to whichever combo the GOP puts up.) Maybe by Election Day I'll be moved or guilted or frightened into voting for that ticket, whatever it is. But I'm just as likely to sit this one out.

And here it is in a nutshell: hand the nomination to Billary W. Clinton, and the Democratic Party (and the rest of the country) is probably going to have to endure eight more years of Republican domination. There's a reason the GOP candidates vying for their party's nomination feel comfortable taking on Hillary Clinton, to the point where they join in the propaganda of "inevitability" with which the Clinton campaign seems to have brought itself to the brink of pseudo-victory. It's that the Republican ticket will waste absolutely no moment, and no opportunity, to wage the most heinous and vicious attack job unlike anything America has seen before in a presidential race. If you think otherwise, you're kidding yourself.

Consider the reason the Repugs are hot to see Clinton take the nomination, and the obvious answer to the question of what they'd do if another Democrat -- say, John Edwards or even Dennis Kucinich -- wins the nomination of his party. Have you guessed it, yet? If you said, "I don't know," then welcome to the RNC's worst nightmare. Because if an actual, populist Democrat disinclined to take shit from the Republicans' ticket and inclined talk to the American electorate about the issues that truly matter were to be elected, the GOP can kiss it hopes of retaining its hold on the White House goodbye. And the Republican National Committee knows this as much as, if not better than, anyone else. But Reed isn't finished making his argument, not by a long shot.

I know that some outraged readers are going to write in, fulminating about how nihilistically ultraleftist I am to criticize the Democrats in this way and how irresponsible The Progressive is to publish the criticism—especially now, when the stakes are so great and it's so crucially important for the future of the country, the world, the galaxy, the cosmos, that some Democrat—anyone, no matter how worthless—wins the Presidency. (That they make the same cataclysmic claim about every election never seems to dull their self-righteous fervor.) They'll explain that we have to understand that we can't get everything we want all at once, that the Democrats can't go any further than they go, and that a half-hearted promise of part of a stale loaf of bread in some unspecified future is better than no bread at all—especially for those who don't really need the bread at the moment.

Well, in part, they're right. The Democrats are what they are. We should all know that by now, after two decades of their failing to stand up to the rightwing juggernaut, of presenting themselves as more responsible and steady managers of the country's slide to the right. By the time the national elections come around, there really are no options other than to vote for their predictably worthless nominee, make an existential statement (or engage in wish-fulfillment, if you think it's more than that) by voting for a third party candidate, or just not bother. This bleak reality reflects the left's failure to build any durable extra-electoral force between elections that can bring pressure to bear on the Democratic contenders and debate.

Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to. It's a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them. This is a lesson that progressives have forgotten or failed to learn.

As an illustration, consider the recent contretemps between John Conyers and the pro-impeachment, anti-war activists who attacked him as a sellout for failing to push impeachment over Nancy Pelosi's and the House Democratic leadership's opposition. His critics accused him of betraying the spirit of Martin Luther King. But that charge only exposes their unrealistic expectations. Conyers isn't a movement leader. He's a Democratic official who wants to get reelected. He's enmeshed in the same web of personal ties, partisan loyalties and obligations, and diverse interest-group commitments as other pols. It was the impeachment activists' naive error, and I suspect one resting on a partly racial, wrongheaded shorthand, to have expected him to lead an insurgency. If the pro-impeachment forces had been able to organize a popular movement with militant local to national expressions on a wide scale, Conyers would have had the leverage necessary to press the movement's case to Pelosi and Democratic leadership, or at least he and the others would have felt real pressure to act more boldly on this issue. Instead, an understandable sense of urgency led them to take a politically self-indulgent, doomed shortcut. The result is much wasted effort, unnecessary enmity, and another demoralizing defeat.

Unfortunately, like the Democrats, our side fails to learn from experience. Despite a mountain range of evidence to the contrary, we—the labor, anti-war, women's, environmental, and racial justice movements—all continue to craft political strategy based on the assumption that the problem is that the Democrats simply don't understand what we want and how important those things are to us. They know; they just have different priorities.

That's why the endless cycle of unofficial hearings and tribunals and rallies and demonstrations and Internet petitions never has any effect on anything. They're all directed to bearing witness before an officialdom that doesn't care and feels no compulsion to take our demands into account. To that extent, this form of activism has become little more than a combination of theater—a pageantry of protest—and therapy for the activists.

Then at the apex of every election cycle, after having marched around in the same pointless circle, chanting the same slogans in the interim, we look feverishly to one of the Democrats or some Quixote to do our organizing work for us, magically, all at once.

We need to think about politics in a different way, one that doesn't assume that the task is to lobby the Democrats or give them good ideas, and correct their misconceptions.

It's a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn't vote ourselves into this mess, and we're not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It's not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn't happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they're concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we've won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power.

The anti-war movement isn't coherent or popularly grounded enough to exert the pressure necessary to improve the electoral options; only the labor movement has the capacity to do so, but it doesn't have the will. None of the other progressive tendencies has the capacity to do anything more than lobby or exhort. Effective lobbying requires being able to deliver or withhold crucial resources, and none but labor has that capacity. Exhortation works only with people who share your larger goals and objectives; other than that it's useless except as catharsis.

We also need to think more carefully about what our demonstrations and protest marches can and can't do. Here we could take a lesson from Martin Luther King. His 1962 Albany, Georgia, campaign failed because the local authorities figured out that the success of King's mass marches depended on meeting brutal resistance from local officials. When they didn't forcibly stop the marches, the movement fizzled.

Our approach to mass mobilization is like the Albany campaign. Our actions don't raise public consciousness because they're treated dismissively, if at all, in the mainstream media. They don't even connect with the residents of the cities where we hold them because we agree to strict march routes and rally sites that make certain we don't engage with anyone other than ourselves. And we agree not to disrupt routine daily life more than a homecoming parade would in exchange for having a designated place to gather and talk to ourselves. Even the civil disobedience is carefully choreographed and designed to be minimally disruptive.

Whether or not we admit it, these are features of a politics that is focused mainly inward, on shoring up the spirits of the participants in the actions themselves. They don't send a message that those in power can't simply ignore, and they don't inform, excite, or win over anyone who's not already on board with the movement's agenda. It's telling in this sense that our movement culture has evolved elaborately clever techniques for keeping participants entertained through the stale, all-too-predictable cavalcade of speeches and chants and puppets on stilts.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that people don't need to engage in rallies and protests. It is self-defeating, however, to collapse the difference between the activities that make us feel good and the work that is necessary to build the movement. There are no shortcuts or magic bullets. And, if we don't confront that fact and act accordingly, we'll be back in this same position, but most likely with options a little worse than these, in 2012, and again and again.

Okay, yeah, I know. That's one hell of a long read. Be glad I didn't just copy and paste the entire column. But pay attention to what I'm telling you, and ask yourselves this question: are we, as Americans, better served by electing the same center-right or far right politicians to power in an endless cycle of self-deluding sham elections designed to keep things as they are? Or are we better served by nominating and electing a Democrat whose commitment to true change and Progressive reform is as solid as his commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law? Are we better served by electing another conservative Democrat, who will continue the country's backward slide into an age of empire and ruin? Or can we put aside our partisan differences and agree that what this country needs is a new FDR, a new New Deal?

If you think we need a new direction, nay, if you damned well know we need a new direction -- an end to war; single-payer, not for profit health care; well funded education; strengthened labor, environmental and food safety regulations and laws; a re-invigorated foreign policy in which the United States of America lead by example instead of imperial edict; if you know in your heart, mind and gut that these and other Progressive changes are long overdue, then think seriously about which Democrat can and will bring all this.

He's the candidate who, as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, fought the banks and private energy company to save the city's municipal power company. Yes, he took a big hit to his political career and for a long time he was out of politics. But he didn't hesitate to put the good of the people who elected him above the selfish interests of the city's financial bosses. He's the only presidential candidate who has tried to introduce true health care reform, HR 676, to the table in a serious attempt to provide universal health care. He is the only Democratic candidate for president who voted against the war in Iraq, against the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Act, and against continued funding for the Iraq war. And he is the ONLY presidential candidate who has mounted any effort to hold George W. Bush and Dick Cheney accountable for their multitude of crimes.

That candidate, dear readers, is Dennis Kucinich. Yeah, yeah, spare me the lame attacks and insults. And especially, spare me the tired old, "he can't win" nonsense. I know he's got a snowball's chance in hell of winning the nomination. But that's not why we all need to vote for him. We need to vote for him so that the Democratic nominee knows that without the Progressive bloc, without the support of people who truly want reform, there is no hope under Heaven (or above Hell) of winning the presidency. We must not hand the nomination to Billary W. Clinton, or Barack "I can't make up my mind whether to channel Hillary or Dubya this week" Obama. John Edwards has a real chance to take the nomination, and at this point I think he's the best chance we've got right now to turn things around, if only enough Democrats quit holding their noses to vote for candidates who run opposed to everything we stand for both as Democrats and -- more importantly -- as Americans.

But we need to decide, right NOW, if we're really serious about winning the White House and keeping Congress. If we are, it means voting for Kucinich instead of Clinton or Obama, so that Edwards will be able to win the nomination. Reed's column offers a dire warning, one we all must heed, if we do not do this: allow Clinton or some other center-right candidate to win the nomination, and a lot of voters are likely to stay home and not vote at all. Considering how much GOP vote fraud relies on low voter turnouts, it's a warning we cannot afford to dismiss or ignore.

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