Wednesday, May 2, 2012
The habit of electoralism
This carnival has evolved. The role of television, for example, has transformed national elections into beauty pageants with $200 haircuts, attractive faces, winning smiles, and cute families superseding issues and programs. But before television, party bosses delivered the votes with patronage and Election Day "services." The common denominator throughout the ages is money. Money, and the effort it buys, have been and continue to be decisive. Merely the ante has changed, growing astronomically until only the super-rich or their friends can vie for the highest offices. Inexorably, the staggering role of money exponentially multiplies the influence of a tiny cabal of the wealthiest in picking winners and shaping policy.
None of this is strikingly new or even seriously deniable. But what is striking and serious is the continued acceptance of this state of affairs by the millions of increasingly desperate citizens who cling to elections as an expression of their interests. Though elections are becoming more and more irrelevant to serving those interests, the cycle continues unabated.
For the "one percent," the electoral circus is an undeserved gift that allows a refreshing of the ruling elites on a regular basis, with little chance of any renegades sneaking into the ruling clique. The pool of reliable candidates is determined well in advance based upon their service to capital and then the populace is allowed to pick from two duly anointed choices (certainly I recognize that in some "liberal" or minority districts better candidates vie, but this is consistently challenged with gerrymandering and hyper-spending geared towards embedding trustworthy and spineless social-liberals with no animus towards corporations).
For the ninety-nine percent, the elections are the meager meal that keeps the pitchforks in the barn and staunches the illusion that the US is a democracy.
While none of this is really disputable or even often challenged by the left, most of the left continues to dutifully climb on board the Democratic Party bus every election cycle. Sure, the thought of electing an ex-FBI snitch, clumsy B-film movie actor as President in 1980 drove most of us to vote for a mediocre Democratic incumbent who had already signed onto the neo-liberal agenda and betrayed his entire 1976 program (Ted Kennedy ran against him in the primary for exactly that reason). We should have known better—the Democrats had secured near-total dominance of the electoral arena after the Nixon fiasco and frittered it away, demonstrating no intention to further a progressive, popular agenda.
Election after election, the Democratic Party mobilizes its progressive base by stoking fears of the wacko-right. And like Pavlov's dogs, the base pulls out all the stops to support well-groomed, corporate-friendly lawyer-candidates who promise, but never deliver. And now—over thirty years after Reagan—the incumbent Democratic Party President is on record as enthusiastically expressing his admiration for Ronald Reagan, the demon who stoked the great fear of the ultra-right. A bitter irony, but an irony lost on a new generation of leftists and progressives who hold their nose and work hard for a Democratic Party victory.
Why is this?
Arguments for repeating the same pattern abound: from future Supreme Justices to ending military occupations and containing economic predation. Yet the ideological disposition of the Supreme Court continually drifts rightward; the wars and occupations overlap from one regime to another; and inequality continues to grow unabated. Clearly, any merits of the "lesser-of-two-evil" tactic are not realized in practice.
What began as a credible tactic—put aside ideology, and deny the extreme right a shot at ruling—has since become an unthinking and unproductive habit, a habit that fails to stop or even slow the rightward drift in US politics. To break this habit, someone must pose, advocate, and work to popularize a new tactic that promises to turn back this vicious trend. To reverse this trend, a new approach is urgently needed.
But it would be naïve to believe that a new approach would emerge from within the Democratic Party. Party leaders have no interest in seeing such a movement arise and have been complicit for some time in smashing any internal insurgency by changing the rules against democracy, by siding with "winnable" moderates and rightists, and by undermining progressive candidacies; it's their party and they're keeping it. Yet many still tilt at these windmills.
Instead, devising a new approach falls upon the left, a left that seems determined to avoid this responsibility. The harsh reality is that the left in the US, even broadly defined, has little to no influence upon electoral outcomes and, therefore, has little to lose in exploring independent answers. That is not to deny that the labor movement in the US does seriously impact elections. But its long standing intimate relationship with the Democratic Party promises little change without a popular movement to show the way. Finding a new approach is one problem, but none will be found unless we begin to look for one.
Standing in the way are the naysayers, the perennial advocates for staying the course. Recently, I read an analysis by a "Communist" who castigated some on the left because they "disparage the electoral battle." He pompously stated that the elections are the "main form of class struggle." Such a view is sheer nonsense and an impediment to advancing both class struggle and class politics. Certainly, elections can be a form of class struggle, but never an effective form, except when influenced by powerful, independent and principled forces. We have known these moments both in the 1930s when the left mobilized millions in opposition to failed economic policies, and in the 1960s, when militant actions supported civil rights and challenged an imperialist war. If the results of the 2008 election (with a Democratic sweep) are a measure of the success of this form of "class struggle", then its success for those on the wrong side of the class divide. If we learn anything from the malignant Tea Party, we should understand the value of not tendering our support unless we get something for it. And if the Democrats don't need our support, then we are foolish to offer it.
Still other pseudo-Marxists justify their electoral obsession and fealty to the Democratic Party by appealing to the writings of Georgi Dimitrov. Dimitrov introduced the notion of a united front against fascism in his 1935 report to the Communist International. On their reading, the left should make common cause with the Democrats to defeat the ultra-right, thought by them to be the contemporary embodiment of fascism. But this is a felony against history: we are not faced with the fascist threat of 1935. Nor do these Marxist poseurs represent Dimitrov's views faithfully. He never advocated surrendering the left's identity to rival political parties; he never advocated fighting the class enemy solely in the electoral arena; and he never endorsed making nice with the Parties of the big bourgeoisie. Certainly US Communists didn't interpret Dimitrov in this fashion when they ran Earl Browder and James Ford in the 1936 election against Franklin Roosevelt.
Another variant on this opportunist "Marxist" theme postulates stages or levels of struggle by anointing collaboration with the Democrats in their electoral bids as an intermediate stage on the road to a distant socialism. With this view, any motion at all towards that distant goal must await the final conflict with the ultra right.
Except this is not Marxism. Rather it is the pretentious appropriation of Marxist jargon to justify marriage to the Democratic Party. Marxists, first and foremost, recognize the direction of processes. And in the case of marching in lockstep with the Democratic Party, this policy has hardly been a productive process. In fact, it has led, over decades, to a continued rightward retreat under the banner of "the lesser of two evils," a dubious launching pad for a higher stage.
From the perspective of an even lighter shade of red, Bill Fletcher has stirred a lively internet debate with his recent excoriation of those he sees as disdainful of electoral politics. In his "My Frustration with the Left when it comes to Electoral Politics", Fletcher caricatures the debates on the left as between sensible, pragmatic leftists who bring their issues into the electoral arena and wild-eyed, cynical radicals who scorn elections. Like all caricatures, his simplifies and obscures differences and evades a real confrontation with the limitations of electoral politics in the here and now. Fletcher postures the electoral "arena" as a "field of struggle" for "popular power" and a place to "raise issues that have the possibility of gaining greater recognition."
But is it? Certainly, it could be, under specific and ideal conditions—for example, the existence of a left bloc with the temerity and determination of our Tea Party foes on the right. But is the 2012 election such an arena for the left?
The answer is clearly "no." A Democratic victory promises neither "popular power" nor the projection of any new, progressive issues. Surely, the betrayal of the meager program promised by the 2008 Obama victory underscores this point. Fletcher conflates what could be with what is. Elections could be meaningful if we had a class-based or anti-monopoly Party, but we don't. Furthermore, Fletcher scoffs at the idea of building one. Instead, he projects one possibly arising "from an 'insurrection' within the Democratic Party and a major section of its base…" Waiting for this "insurrection" to spontaneously ignite has been a dream for generations, a dream of those blessed with patience, but short of vision and realism.
History teaches a different lesson: from the abolitionists through the anti-war movement of the sixties and today's Occupy movement, change has come from organized forms resolved to press issues regardless of the electoral consequences and independent of electoral maneuvers. Were the abolitionists' strategy to take the focus of struggle solely into the electoral arena, the cause would have languished for decades. Similarly, without labor's independent militancy outside of the electoral arena in the early thirties, workers would have been saddled with the corporate-friendly NRA and the toothless section 7A.
Bringing struggles into the Democratic Party and entrusting it to advance these issues legislatively, as Fletcher suggests, inevitably dilutes, co-opts, and divides popular struggles. Certainly Democratic Party leaders opportunistically and parasitically adopt popular movements when they capture the attention of voters, but they do so to contain, compromise, and exploit those movements. That process was clearly demonstrated in the Obama era, with far-too-many leaders of the anti-war movement passing the cause on to the Administration. As a result, the wars continued to expand and the movement is virtually silent. Today, the Democrats are fervently trying to suck the energy of the Occupy movement into the electoral campaign. Should it succeed, it will eviscerate the movement.
Fletcher is correct to argue that we have yet to build a foundation for a left party in the US. However, we will never build one, if we do not fight to keep our struggles and movements independent of the Democratic Party and outside of a reliance on electoral politics. People should and will vote as they please. But energy spent on working for a Democratic victory in November is energy diverted from building our movements. Movements are the enforcers of ideas and policies. When the left builds its base, it will have something to advance or trade with bourgeois politicians and it will not surrender its support for nothing.