Voting and it’s Discontents: Elections, Movements, and Parties in Contemporary America

Imagination is often seen as the enemy of politics.  Political “professionals” believe that the “possible” is all that there is — and the possible means the demands of the moment. There is no before and there is no after. Everything other than what contributes to winning that election these cut-rate Machiavellians consider impractical and utopian. Barack Obama began his presidential adventure with a call for activism and hope. But the “professional” advisors and “large donors” now drawn to his campaign, (after abandoning the onetime front runner Hillary Clinton), are contemptuous of the movement that swept him to the nomination. Most of them dislike “ideology,” counsel against articulating an independent outlook on either foreign or domestic affairs, and are already tilting the candidate’s utterances toward that elusive “5%” of unaligned voters. Using foreign policy in particular to bolster their nationalist credentials, seeking a consensus response to well over an 18% drop in stock values on Wall Street during the week of October 6, 2008, the concern of the Democratic Party is with the “center.” Fears bordering on panic have accompanied what has become a world crisis of capitalism. These have been compounded by the vision of an old, crotchety, and erratic Senator John McCain in the White House, and a modern variant of the nineteenth century “know-nothings” ready to take his place in his vice-presidential running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Thoughts also linger about the Bush Presidency, the most reactionary and inept in modern history along with the reality of what has been perhaps the worst run Republican campaign in recent memory. These factors alone should produce a huge turn-out by people of color, women, students and those working people who constitute the base of the Democratic Party. But there is a lingering distrust of  the “pragmatists. Even a reinvigorated Democratic Party still has much to learn from its neo-conservative and intensely ideological opponents. Indeed, not only did President George Bush and his friends “win” (sic!) twice, but – for the worse – they instituted an agenda that transformed the United States and the world.

Neo-conservatives did not do so through timidity and compromise. Neo-conservatives evidenced little in common with more traditional conservatives who always tended to favor the unadventurous, the tried and true over the new and innovative. Old-fashioned conservatives never evidenced the crude and brutal embrace of capitalist values shown by the new right; after all, while it might be the established system, it is also destructive of traditional values and, as Marx put, creates a situation in which “all that is solid melts into air and all that is sacred becomes profane.” The established conservative perspective on foreign policy was predicated on a rather non-ideological realism and their concern was less with achieving absolute dominance in any region than with remaining first among equals and determinative in any balance of power. They were not intent upon spreading “democracy” without reference to existing constraints or toppling sovereigns without a sense of what to expect. Old-fashioned conservatives were, moreover, pragmatic or, better, parasitic. They, unlike neo-conservatives, have always been willing to (grudgingly) adapt to a new world of sexual and racial equality and even, in some nations at certain times, various reforms associated with the welfare state.

Neo-conservatives, by contrast, always saw themselves as revolutionaries. Their founding fathers were already aware in 1964 that the political future of the Republican Party depended upon having a program and a message that would unify what had been the two constantly warring factions of their party. Ronald Reagan initially sealed the alliance between those committed to an assault on the “socialist” welfare state in the name of free trade and individualism and those committed to an assault upon “liberalism” in the name of a traditional understanding of “community.” The basis was thereby laid for the victory of George W. Bush in 2000. His agenda went beyond the immediate bread and butter demands of the moment. His administration was from the first committed to shrinking the welfare state and privileging the most powerful investors, reversing the “Vietnam trauma” and the “adversary culture” of the 1960s, and – in terms of electoral strategy –mobilizing its base in non-urban areas and churches rather than merely relying on large contributors to the cause. Even after suffering a terrible electoral defeat in 2006, which included the loss of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Bush administration did not give an inch. It never back-tracked from the host of security initiatives that curtailed civil liberties, the unrelenting assault on the welfare state, and what can only be described as a bizarre and incoherent set of foreign policy ambitions.

The great fear is that Barack Obama will become the object of an increasingly vehement assault on his “character” – and, more to the point, his race. But there is also the danger of his presidency remaining defined by the Republican agenda. That need not be the case. But it has been the case for the Democratic Party throughout the dreadful years of the Bush Administration. This supposed opposition party has vacillated over withdrawing from Iraq;  refused to impeach the president and its cronies; and remained blind to the faulty assumptions – like the doctrine of the “pre-emptive strike”– driving American policy in the Middle East. Nor is the situation very different with respect to the domestic agenda where Democrats have compromised on the Patriot Act, wire-tapping, and the emergence of a national security state. The “triangulation” strategy originally employed by Bill Clinton, which involved placing the Democratic Party just a whiff to the left of Republicans on any major issue, has stripped the party of its identity. Gone is the vision of FDR: No longer are the Democrats the party of the “common man” fighting against the “party of big business.” With the original mass movement exerting pressure, perhaps, Barack Obama can revitalize that vision. As things stand, however, his campaign is pandering to the good citizens of Peoria – on foreign policy, on defense, and even on the domestic front.

Already there are voices, albeit still somewhat small in number, who insist that elections are a waste or insist they will vote for Ralph Nader, who has seriously outworn his welcome, or some irrelevant third party. Such a stance not only marginalizes the left but serves as an objective apology for the right. Radicals have endlessly debated why and whether to “vote.” That discussion is growing increasingly tired. An election is not a moral choice. Compromises are always necessary – and the choice is almost always one between the “lesser of the two evils.” Making a decision on how to vote depends upon drawing empirical distinctions between the voting records of respecting candidates. The alternative is to dwell in Hegel’s “night where all cows are black.” Accepting the lesser evil can backfire. But history suggests there is a better probability of achieving a “progressive” result by voting for the “lesser evil” than by voting in such a way that the more reactionary candidate will win. The possibilities for building radical movements are best when more progressive candidates are in office. Frances Fox Piven is correct in suggesting that the degree of strength attained by these movements determines the possibilities for more radical action by more progressive politicians like Barack Obama.

There is nothing mutually exclusive about voting for the lesser evil while participating in social movements disgusted with the current foreign policy, the upwards shift in income, the gutting of welfare programs and regulatory agencies, and the erosion of civil liberties.

If the “left” is seriously going to challenge the neo-conservative legacy, which will undoubtedly remain powerful, it needs to mobilize those core constituencies that elites in the Democratic Party take for granted. That takes imagination and the development of core proposals for redistributing social wealth downwards, fostering institutional transparency, rolling back the security state, creating a new energy policy, cutting defense spending,  and promoting a foreign policy sensitive to international concerns. The new does not simply appear ex nihilo and, precisely because there is no other meaningful strategy for shifting political priorities and constraining the market, refashioning the theoretical and practical inheritance of social democracy and the New Deal is the place to begin.

With that goal in mind, the aim for progressives today is not merely to provide a scatter-shot set of reforms but, rather, an agenda with an ethical outlook. Imperialism, hyper-nationalism, and militarism have never been discreet phenomena. They have always been interconnected and parts of the arsenal employed by capitalist interests in an on-going class war and an assault upon liberal democracy. That is as much the case today as it was in the early twentieth century. Only the lies that veil these tendencies are different. The invasion of Iraq and the geo-politics attendant upon the “endless” war on terror orchestrated by the Bush Administration has resulted in a precipitous decline of American prestige abroad. That, in turn, has only increased the provincial feelings of a nation under siege while fostering a new form of “imperial presidency” contemptuous of congressional interference in its prerogatives and intent upon constricting civil liberties through a variety of legislative means including the Patriot Act. The heightened militarism required by these imperialist policies, and justified by a resurgent American nationalism, is meanwhile helping bankrupt the welfare state and undermine the commitment to social justice.

Refusing to connect the dots undermines the possibility of offering a coherent response to the legacy of Neo-Conservatism and the Bush Administration. Understanding the total character of this neo-conservative reaction – its drastic impact upon social welfare, political democracy and foreign policy — is a matter of utmost importance for any concern with making sense of American politics. Many who are dissatisfied are content to believe that, sooner or later, the pendulum will swing back the other way without recognizing that it would take a virtual policy revolution – something tantamount to the legislation of the 1930s and the 1960s – to bring the country back to where it was in 1968. The enormity of the undertaking is precisely what generates the sense of caution by adherents of the mainstream in the Democratic Party. Or so they say.

The refusal to engage a radical course is not simply because the Democratic Party is a “party of capital.” It has always been that. New is the way in which elites have become fearful of the core constituencies within their own organization. Experts and advisors of the Democratic Party are still increasingly drawn from the corporate sector and the usual institutes and political science departments at Harvard-MIT-Stanford-Yale and the like that are so straight that they creak. There is nothing conspiratorial about the suggestion that the reason the Democratic Party is unwilling to either set an alternative agenda or develop an ideological justification for it is that a genuinely radical program that connects the dots would also threaten its own elites. That is where “the left” must enter the scene. What the Democratic Party appears incapable of doing is precisely what intellectuals and activists outside its confines must begin to do. But this calls for dealing with three interlocking constraints: the translation problem; the coordination problem; and the communication problem. These are not problems that can be solved in a short essay such as this, but they can at least be described with some indication given for their solution.

With respect to the translation problem, it is important to remember that the great moments of progressive reform occurred when there were people in the streets, when mass demonstrations took place, and when the system was threatened with disruption. Or, to put it a different way, radical reform was embraced when mainstream liberals got scared. Unfortunately, they are still not scared now. People are currently not in the streets. Yet it seems evident that there is a progressive mass constituency “out there.” That is what made the electoral campaign of Barack Obama so interesting, instructive, and thrilling. It testifies to the fact that — whatever the profound division within the country — most oppose gutting the welfare sate, constricting civil liberties, and the chauvinistic foreign policy of an imperial presidency. It remains a matter of translating such dissatisfaction into political power and policy. Opposition will emerge not only from Republicans but also from conservative (and even neo-conservative) Democrats who recognize that articulating this anger and dissatisfaction from the base would force them to confront their own complicity in the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration. Better for them to worry in public over the way in which a more radical politics would alienate “swing voters.” Again, the loss of “swing voters” can be offset by increased mobilization of African-Americans, public sector employees, union workers, students and women.  It therefore becomes incumbent upon genuine progressives to stress the need for militant tactics, highlight the failures of the liberal mainstream, and address the concerns of the party base.

As far as the coordination problem is concerned, ironically, the issue is less important when people are in the street than in dealing with the astonishing growth in the number of progressive interest groups. They replicate tasks, divide loyalties, compete for resources, and challenge one another over the priorities of progressive politics. The result is that the whole of the left has become far weaker than the sum of its parts. Dealing with this situation requires both practical and ideological work. Careerists in different left organizations have a stake in suppressing calls for intra-group solidarity in favor of autonomy so that they can maintain their own positions of authority. Given their populist roots, moreover, many on the American left have an exaggerated fear of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Activists within different groups and organizations need to be brought together more regularly and in a more organized fashion in order to develop themes and concerns. It is essential to begin conceiving of a program that speaks to the interests of working people in all groups but privileges none in particular. Success in pressuring the more conservative elements and aiding the more progressive forces within the Democratic Party depends — especially when action in the street is not taking place — upon the degree of coordination between the existing interests groups, community organizations, and unions that, loosely speaking, comprise the left.

Finally, there is the communication problem. Mainstream newspapers and news programs are having a credibility crisis among everyday Americans. Everyone knows that they are not publishing everything that is fit to print, that the range of political debate is narrowing, and that skewed coverage is more the norm than the exception. Hearing left public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges, former chief of the Middle East desk at The New York Times on the mainstream media is the rare exception rather than the rule. It is also an open secret in the humanities and social sciences that the most genuinely innovative and radical research and reporting are usually ignored by the most highly touted professional journals. Bridging the gap between academics and a new general reading public is an essential part of any new communicative politics. Improving the current situation would require little more than that more academics, in spite of the pressures associated with tenure and promotion, devote just a bit of their time to writing for on-line magazines and journals. The left has a stake in insisting upon more perspectives from more news outlets in public debate and in the classroom. Organizations like Truthout and MoveOn have, for better or worse, influenced the American political landscape. They have shown that informing the public and mobilizing it are flip sides of the same coin.

If genuine progressives are to make their presence felt then they have no choice other than to keep one foot inside and the other outside the Democratic Party. Legislative acts and electoral victories have an impact on the lives of individuals – and especially the poorest and weakest among them. But, of course, more is required than discreet legislative acts and electoral victories. Not this or that candidate but social movements challenge existing political priorities and economic imbalances of power. Despite the catastrophic consequences of the Iraqi invasion, a looming economic depression, and loss of civil liberties, the “left” still remains on the defensive. The more “pragmatic” (or sectarian) it becomes the more it will either be taken for granted or ignored. Neither cynicism nor self-righteousness will enable progressives to confront the pressing problems of social and political life. The ability to imagine the possible will determine the prospects of contemporary progressives not merely with respect to elections but by reminding them what radical politics at its best always has been – a call for empowerment and a protest against the exercise of arbitrary power.


*STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER is the Senior Editor of Logos. A Distinguished Professor (Professor II) of Political Science at Rutgers University, his recent works include Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation and Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement










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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Logos Journal - Scalia Myths