Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, September 30, 2011

More, And Better, Democrats Are Our Only Hope

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, Friend of Blog "Martin" posts an excerpt from a piece in the LA Times and warmly comments on it:
"It's almost a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome, in which a hostage bonds with his captor despite the obvious threat to his existence. Even though many Democrats admit in private that they are shocked by Obama's position on civil liberties, they are incapable of opposing him. Some insist that they are simply motivated by realism: A Republican would be worse. However, realism alone cannot explain the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate or organized opposition to Obama's policies on civil liberties in Congress during his term. It looks more like a cult of personality. Obama's policies have become secondary to his persona."
It's not enough to point how much worse the Republicans are and promise that we'll support and elect better Democrats later. Democrats (especially in Congress) need to oppose Obama's civil liberties-destroying policies now, and loudly.

To this, I reply:

That the article demands we set what passes for "realism" altogether aside as inadequate to our circumstances and then leaps instead feet first into the most appalling obfuscatory anti-intellectual pop psychology should make you more leery than it seems to have done.

You say it is not "enough" to point out that Republicans are worse than Democrats, but I have to wonder just how "enough" is functioning in your thinking here. Where partisan politics are concerned, all you have are the parties and the platforms and the candidates that you have. If all one knows is that Republicans are worse than Democrats by your lights, then, actually, that is indeed enough to tell you all you need to know to vote for Democrats, surely? We are all of us hostage to reality.

Of course, when it comes to Democrats -- whatever your frustrations with much that they are doing or failing to do -- you also know that there is much that they managed to do despite unprecedented Republican obstructionism and a razor thin working Senate majority (where "working majority" has come to mean supermajority and this despite some Dems who were so socially conservative and corporate friendly themselves they were more or less working for the other side in many legislative areas in any case) and that you presumably do approve of, which you also surely must realize would not have survived a McCain-Palin presidency nor one presided over by any of the present killer clowns in the running. You may remember that the Obama White House and Pelosi House and Reid Senate overhauled the food safety system, advanced women’s rights in the work place, ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) in our military, stopped defending DOMA in court, passed the Hate Crimes bill, appointed two pro-choice women to the Supreme Court, expanded access to medical care and provided subsidies for people who can’t afford it, expanded the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), fixed the travesty of rescission and preexisting conditions deployed by insurance companies, invested unprecedented levels of money in clean energy, overhauled the credit card industry, making it much more consumer-friendly, began, with Dodd-Frank, the still necessary re-regulation of the financial sector, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been relentless in support of veterans, got help for people whose health was injured during the clean-up after the 9/11 attacks, and is beating the drum for more progressive taxes, more financial regulations, and so much more. When you declare that "we need to oppose Obama's civil liberties-destroying policies" it is important that you realize how many civil liberties expanding and affirming policies he has supported at one and the same time. Neither blanket opposition nor celebration makes much sense as a response to this record of accomplishment, frustration, and bad conduct.

Some of what you have said in your comment, Martin, honestly simply flabbergasts me. Anybody who really thinks Dems should be wasting energy and money on a completely quixotic primary challenge to Obama right now leaves me wondering if they may be suffering from a head injury (I say this, of course, as it were, pop psychologist to pop psychologist). I mean, the DCCC and DCSC haven't even gotten candidates to challenge every congressional seat yet for 2012 for pity's sake, at a time when winning back the House and keeping the Senate are desperate matters with little hope of success whatever their necessity.

I must say I despair a bit at the state of a mind like the quoted newspaper editorial writer's, at once so righteous in aspiration and yet so cartoonish in perception that the only way we are told one could regard Obama as the best actually available option for 2012 is by making recourse to assumptions about Obama as some sort of messiah figure enfolded in a cult of personality.

If anybody thinks that I, for one, am endlessly advocating More, and Better, Democrats here on Amor Mundi because I have succumbed to a variation of Stockholm Syndrome I can only assume you haven't noticed that the only people in power who advocate anything remotely like outcomes I cherish are all fucking Democrats while the fucking Republican Party is full of white-racist Christian-Talibanist science-denialist neo-feudal corporatists who want to dismantle civilization.

I agree that the Obama Administration has continued Bush Administration policies in too many areas -- I opposed his Afghanistan surge, I opposed the Libyan intervention, I oppose undeclared war via drone attacks, I oppose Guantanamo (which Congress failed Obama on not vice versa), I oppose military tribunals over civilian trials (again Congress was little help there), I oppose the ongoing consolidation of the Unitary Executive, I oppose the ongoing ramification of the surveillance/insecurity complex, I oppose the treatment of Bradly Manning, I oppose hysterical accusations that wikileaks is terrorism rather than reportage, I oppose the trumpeting of trumped up terror-plots and so on.

But to support the President (indeed to do so enthusiastically, as I do) in spite of all that is neither to support everything he does nor even to say that what I don't support matters less than what I do. I strongly believe that even when it comes to most of the things I do NOT support in the President and Democratic leadership the best way to empower those who might resist what I do not support and lend their effort to what I do support instead requires my support of the President.

This position only seems paradoxical if you make the mistake of pretending politics is a matter of the logical unfolding of arid abstractions rather than the material struggle and clash of contending stakeholders in historical and institutional settings. In the actual world, strong support of the President is indispensable to the facilitation and support of the election and empowerment of more of the people of his own party who will ride his coattails into office and to the frustration and marginalization of ever more Republicans hell-bent on destroying most of what I care about.

The people who can be facilitated into positions of actual power to do something about the issues I care about -- including the ones I have approved of in the President and Democratic leadership as well as others I have disapproved of -- are by far most likely as a practical matter to be helped by my support of Obama for President than otherwise.

It doesn't matter if thinking at this level of complexity breaks your heart or hurts your head. This is what actually conscious actually critical participation in politics requires -- but only to the extent that this politics is a partisan matter engaged in efforts at reform. Now, of course, there are other ways to do politics and other ways to work to ameliorate the suffering caused in the world by bad politics. One can do educational work via issues oriented organizations, one can do organizational work via campaigns toward better local legislation or lobbying for such at higher levels, one can do ground-level voluntarism, advocacy, support of vulnerable suffering populations, one can take up more revolutionary and insurrectionary forms that disdain partisan reform altogether. For most of these alternatives you know as a regular reader of mine that I am sympathetic -- if in varying degrees -- so long as those who engage in them know what they are doing and don't pretend what they are doing is something other than it is or has a better chance at a more progressive yield of outcomes than it really does.

Although reading old school environmentalists and black lesbian feminists as an undergraduate transformed my assumptions and aspirations in crucial ways, I would have to say that direct action and outreach, illegal needle exchange in empty after hours grocery parking lots with ACT-UP, NOW marches, bacchanalian Queer Nation sit-ins truly transformed my own political consciousness and made me who I am. Even if a movement like "Occupy Wall Street," say, does not easily align up with partisan programmatic politics (it may come more to do so as it discovers and elaborates more and more its vital ties with organized labor, but the larger point still stands) it is, nonetheless, absolutely and marvelously, a space where generations of folks are making connections among disparate struggles, are emerging into a more radical consciousness that will come to fuel the hard slog of reform politics in months and years and decades to come.

Sure, it upsets me a little bit that some people may be radicalized in the street in ways that lead them to disdain electoral politics and reformist struggles rather than to lend their energies and imaginations to those painful struggles, but I honestly don't think that is the worst thing in the world, and in any case plenty of people who like to brandish magic marker glitter font signs in protest festivals do then go on to phone-bank for compromised but best-on-offer progressive candidates for office (or become these themselves).

I am far from pretending that the reformist partisan politics I have come to prefer myself to revolutionary politics can be said to be, you know, actually working to get us where we need to go well enough, quickly enough, adequately enough -- so the fact that I doubt "ill-focused" mass protests will achieve their desired outcomes isn't exactly quite the strike against them one might think I mean by pointing this out. Since nothing is working, I think it is not a bad idea to try lots of things and enjoy the beauty that emerges while at once opportunistically availing oneself of the momentary advantages unexpectedly arising from the scrum.

I strongly suspect I oppose most of the very things that are provoking "Martin's" ire. But I think he and I have a responsibility actually to specify what we would mean by the demand that we "oppose" the things we do. That my own support of the President and the Democratic Party despite my shared opposition with Martin and other progressives to many specific Administration policies presumably invites frankly facile pseudo-psychological diagnoses of uncritical celebrity fandom or cult of personality or Stockholm Syndrome suggests anything but clarity on the part of the one who would differ from me on these practical questions.

If the form "opposition" to specific Democratic policies takes happens to enable Republicans who are no better on these issues at all and who are incomparably worse on most others then such "opposition" is objectively reactionary. It doesn't matter that a reactionary outcome arises from well-intentioned motives. Letting the fox into the hen house or shooting yourself in the foot are still what they are whatever gorgeous dreams inspire you to engage in such disastrous conduct. Again, this doesn't mean we should ignore terrible injustices enacted by figures we otherwise support, but only that we have to find ways of opposing those injustices that don't also or even only benefit those who are worse enemies of equity and justice otherwise.

Martin's only genuflection to specificity about the opposition needed is that it must be "loud[er]." But, "louder" certainly will do little good if, for example, it is a loudness that drowns out awareness of the crimes and evil plans of the right or demoralizes the always skittish left into an inaction that enables worse outcomes in every way. To recognize this isn't to advocate silence or acquiescence -- I think activists need to keep shining a spotlight on the Administration where it is wrong (for me, its militarism, invasions of privacy, undermining of equal recourse to law).

It is true that I am already nervous about "enthusiasm gap" stories that are already appearing in the press -- just as they were around this time before the literally catastrophic 2010 result -- and I think one needs to take into account the apparent skittishness of Democratic coalition voters and pay attention to the work Republicans are doing to game close outcomes with disinformation and disenfranchisement schemes. I do think one has to keep these factors in mind before one starts trumpeting blanket denunciations of the President or the Democratic Party when they may be all that reliably stands between us and world catastrophe (the clock is ticking on climate change, weapons proliferation, neoliberal immiseration, you know).

By way of conclusion I just want to return to this point: You know, it really does matter that everybody who sensibly IS criticizing Obama, everybody in power who sensibly IS struggling against what progressives and civil libertarians disapprove in Obama, everybody who is NOT afraid to point out these abuses on progressive terms happens to be a Democrat (or somebody who caucauses and works with Democrats) who will benefit from an Obama Presidency.

When frustrated people say nobody is criticizing Obama or Democrats that claim is patently false -- unless you are unwilling to count as real criticism any criticism that does not amount to struggling to topple his Presidency and diminish the presence of Democrats in Congress and Governor's mansions and State legislatures. I have to wonder if those who are frustrated with Democrats honestly think toppling the Obama presidency or demoralizing Democratic voters or losing the Senate or failing to regain the House will save a single person from Guantanamo or get us out of Iraq a single day sooner or end illegal spying? And that consideration is quite apart from all the complete evil idiotic authoritarian shit we all know Republicans will do if they can because they are already trying to do so right before our eyes!

I do not refrain from criticizing Obama, I do criticize Obama where I disapprove of him -- but I really must say that Republicans are behaving worse in every imaginable way and there are only so many hours in the day. It's certainly not that I am afraid or lack the guts to rail against Obama more immoderately or indiscriminately than I do, it's just that I have a brain and I am using it.

The sides are the sides they are. Which side are you on? One works to re-elect Obama or one is working to elect a Republican who will do nothing to support outcomes you claim to care about while doing incomparably worse in incomparably more.

I recommend you join and support the ACLU (I'm a card-carrying member, are you? if not, given your concerns, why not?) and Amnesty International, write your representatives to inform them of your issues (if they are Democrats they are likely to sympathize with much that you say and may even appreciate the nudge to do what they already know to be right), make your disapproving and potentially disruptive presence known to the complacent plutocrats by marching with the masses in the streets and celebrating the joy of public association, and also, yes, ALSO donate all the time and money you can as well as your vote to every goddamn Democrat you can.

More, and Better, Democrats is our only hope. I'm not asking you to like it, I'm asking you to face it.


ian @ paul said...

After having participated in political struggles over the last decade that sought no reforms (and won none), I sympathize with the call for more and better Democrats. In fact, I find myself coming closer and closer to Thoreau's conception of engagement from "Civil Disobedience":

"But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."

Certainly, it's the "practicality" of this proposal which constitutes its appeal. My fear however, is that when this logic is carried forward fully into an electoral political strategy, we have to assume (hope?) that the electoral system is actually a winnable arena for anyone but the corporate funders of campaigns.

I think that the turn away from voting and electoralism as a strategy for the radical left over the last couple of decades in the U.S. has been an overall positive one in that it exposes the inadequacy of capitalist liberal democracies to respond to the problems of the world. However, I do believe that rather than ignore electoralism, the proper response would rather be: voting and lobbying are a helpful tactic in the political arena but are not, and never will be, enough to transform society.

History is ripe with examples of liberal democracies breeding the full multiplicity of modern horrors, including fascism, imperialist war(s) and genocide. With these possibilities always on the horizon of possible futurities (especially when looking at the current discourse of the Republican party and the radical right in Europe), I feel that we must not only try to ward off these currents in the electoral system, but we also must work to organize autonomous anti-fascist and anti-capitalist formations to be ready for a possible failure of the electoral system. Similarly, if we ever hope for a more directly democratic society, we must both struggle to reform the current system in this direction, but must also begin organizing forms of direct democracy in our everyday lives regardless of the state’s current form.

-i (@)

Dale Carrico said...

voting and lobbying are a helpful tactic in the political arena but are not, and never will be, enough to transform society

I definitely prefer both-and to either/or when it comes to transformational politics: supporting and voting for more, and better, democrats -- while also engaging in education, agitation, organization, creation that shifts the practical and aspirational terrain on which the more and better democrats are doing our voting.

Part of the problem right now is just how truly evil and insane the Republicans are. Truly, I think the GOP is the most dangerous organized force in the world right now. Electoral/ partisan politics are the space in which the most desperate skirmishes with them are playing out. Of course there are larger terrains in which one fights the neo-feudal market fundamentalists and christianist fundamentalists, but the key thing to grasp is that the left actually already won the culture wars. America is a diversifying, secularizing, planetizing (environmental consciousness and network formations are not conventionally national) society -- it is the desperation of an ever more alienated and marginalized far right that makes its place in our partisan politics so intense and dangerous.

Larger issues of plutocratic corporate-militarism and the surveillance/insecurity complex are susceptible to intervention by networked environmentalist and fair trade politics of the kind that are boiling up everywhere. The 2008 financial crisis was wasted, but perhaps the ongoing European one will not be.

Austerity is, after all, just dead-ender Thatcherite TINA-ism. You would be amazed how quickly how much changes the moment you impose transaction taxes to rematerialize faux-spiritualized-financial capital on digital networks -- just as you would be amazed how quickly how much changes the moment capital gains taxes start squaring with other income taxes in the US and the taxable cap on income for Social Security is raised. Many many people, including many in high places, are fully on board to institute these solutions -- but there has to be a tipping point which shifts us from neoliberal/ neoconservative pieties back to social democratic and democratic socialist pieties. Environmental pressures and exposure to precarity via planetary networks is driving us ever closer to this tipping point. (Environmental catastrophe or social instability can easily provide the occasion for plutocratic retrenchment to the final ruin of the human world, of course -- and we are, of course, courting disaster even as we pressure the neoliberal/ neoconservative order.)

Progressive income and property taxes are the answer -- I say, tax and spend! Tax enough to restrain anti-democratizing concentrations of wealth and then spend it on single payer healthcare, lifelong public education, affordable housing (constituting or supplemented by a universal basic income guarantee to ensure consent is nonduressed and nobody is forced into military conscription, wage slavery, or exploitative arrangements), a suite of safety regulations, equal recourse to law, ensure the franchise and eligibility to hold office, and ensure access to reliable knowledge via freedom of association, expression, and press in place, and then everything else will take care of itself.