Gently Rock The Vote

The state of the nation as Baby 2012 makes its squalling entrance is extremely hard to gauge.  The answer to the question of where we are politically, as is often the case, depends entirely on where you are standing, and what sort of filter you are looking through at the world around you.  From one position, the country is more divided than it has ever been, the previous year having been marked by street protests met with police brutality from one coast to the other, for what seems like the first time in ages.  From another, though, it begins as a quiet year, full of triangulations and calculations, and the most important form of political theater takes place not in the parks but in the studios, and the sounds are not screams but polite sniggers at the unpalatable items on the menu being presented by the Loyal Opposition.

It has been over 20 years now since the Democratic Party made its transformation from the oppositional liberal group it was before the Reagan Revolution to the moderate corporatist technocratic organization it is today.  Unfortunately, the changes in the character of the party have not been accompanied by similar changes in the electoral process, and we remain a staunchly two-party system, in which any meaningful opposition to the official Democratic candidate — voting for an unofficial candidate, voting for a third party, or not voting at all — seems destined to count as a win for the Republicans.  And since no one wants that, we find ourselves at an ugly impasse.

To say that Barack Obama has been a disappointment is…well, it’s both an understatement and an overstatement.  He was faced with a nearly impossible situation from the beginning; he came into office at the very beginning of a nearly unprecedented economic collapse which, though largely the fault of his Republican predecessors, came to be laid entirely at his feet.  He encountered an opposition terrifying in its vociferousness, the birth of a somewhat bogus but nonetheless influential populist movement that utterly despised him, and the chronic and lethal pre-existing condition of two unfunded wars.  But, given all that rope, he fashioned not a ladder with which to escape, but a noose with which to hang himself.

He expended a vast amount of political capital in passing a national health care initiative, but he spent more on getting it passed than making sure it was effective; years later, very few of its benefits have come to pass, and a huge number of Americans remain uninsured at a time when affordable health care is more necessary than ever.  The G.O.P. is still trying to kill “Obamacare” any way that they can, and it’s unclear if the Democrats have the power, or even the desire, to stop it from happening.  His support for unions and worker’s rights has been limited to a handful of roaring but toothless speeches, and he couldn’t get his own party to make the sound of a damp firecracker in support of his jobs bill despite crippling unemployment and underemployment.  Regardless of how much of a choice he had in the pathetic and costly bailouts, he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to keep the banks in line by reminding them of who saved their asses; he’s jumped feet first onto the misguided debt reduction bandwagon; and even his defense of programs like Social Security and Medicare can best be described as passive-aggressive.

Likewise, his defense of freedom of speech — particularly at a time when it was being tested every day on the streets against out-of-control law enforcement — was pretty flimsy, and like his colleagues across the aisle, he seemed to make more statements supporting democracy in the Middle East than he did supporting it here at home.  He eventually got us out of Iraq, but we remain bogged down in Afghanistan, and rumblings that he will soon move against Iran are depressingly plausible; it remains to be seen if it’s a truism that every president must now maintain a belligerent foreign policy, but if it’s not, Obama has done precious little to contest the idea.  And his continuing to play fast and loose with an international or domestic civil right more weighty than being gay in the military has recently moved from mistake to disgrace.  Even given his extremely limiting circumstances and being sidled with the worst Congress since the Civil War, he has not been a very good president.

But a funny thing happens when you make this argument to a lot of Democrats:  you are presented with a variant on the old “he may be a loser, but he’s our loser” routine.  A vote against the President, or no vote at all, you are reminded as if you didn’t know, is a vote for the opposition.  We live, like it or lump it (with “lump it” being the only option on display), in a two-party system, you are reminded as if you cannot count.  The 2000 elections will likely be mentioned, and the specter of Ralph Nader will be invoked, as if it were his fault that Bush ended up president and not that of a shameful betrayal by the Supreme Court.  A litany of horrors to be inflicted on the populace by a theoretical Republican president will be recited, as if that’s what you wanted, as if that’s what you were arguing for by the mere fact of lamenting how Republican the Democrats have become.  You will be reminded of George W. Bush, as if you voted for him.  You will be accused of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  You will be accused of acting like a spoiled whiny baby who cries whenever he doesn’t get everything he wants, as if decaying civil rights, unjustified foreign adventurism, and the wholesale abandonment of the social support network and the liberal consensus are minor policy issues not worth complaining about.  The whole lecture is sure to have a condescending tone, regardless of its particulars, as if you were too stupid to figure out that we are faced with once again pressing the lesser-of-two-evils button.  Of course, nobody will claim to be happy that the President has no progressive credentials, but the risk of seeking another solution is simply too great.

It is this aversion to risk, however, that has landed us in much of our current predicament.  As with everything else, we have learned a poor lesson from our bosses in the boardrooms:  publicize the risk, privatize the gain.  Nothing great is accomplished without risk, but risk has become too much to bear politically:  even a theoretical loss is unthinkable, and it’s better to maintain your party’s position than risk losing it to the opposition by trying anything bold.  There is a name for this:  it’s called being an office-holder.  A timeserver.  A seat-warmer.  A do-nothing.  Every great president we have ever had risked a tremendous amount, and made unpopular decisions.  Sometimes it cost them their position, or even their life, but they moved according to the principles of their souls, not the currents made by triangulating the rudders of public opinion.  Abraham Lincoln plunged the country into a horrific war, but he didn’t just punt the ball forward like Buchanan; and who today do we remember as great, and who do we remember as a failure?  FDR vowed to roll up his sleeves instead of twiddle his thumbs, and today we remember him as a man who won a war and tamed a depression, and we remember Hoover as a man who sat on his hands and let things get worse.  Jimmy Carter made commitments to civil rights, diplomacy, transparent government, conservation, and smart spending. They were risky, unpopular, and cost him his job.  But at least he stood in clear opposition to Reaganism, whose subsequent victories have run the country into the ground.  What would America look like now if Carter had been a tired, calculating centrist who failed to make a clear distinction between himself and his goals and those of his opposition?  Perhaps Michael Dukakis can answer that question.  Our vote has to carry some risk to mean something; if it’s just a hedge against a worse result, it’s a low-yield bet that will never pay off.

If you want to see the future planned for us by centrist technocrats like Obama, you needn’t imagine it; you just have to turn your clocks forward six hours and seem what’s happening in Europe, where bankers and financial experts call the shots.  Greece and Italy, with their vanishing safety nets, disappearing pensions, increasingly irrelevant unions, and drooping wages, are beginning to make southern Europe look a lot like the southern United States.  And with the exception of those like the Icelanders who took a huge risk in deciding they wanted to be the ones to dictate their country’s future instead of handing it over to financiers and credit agencies, the rest of Europe may be following the same path.  And the argument is always the same:  we must do as they do and lower our standards, or some shark of a nation will eat up our jobs.  Never is it suggested that we encourage those nations to adopt our standards; the race to the bottom is the favored sport.  And as economics goes, so goes politics:  instead of demanding more accountability and higher standards from our politicians across the board, we are told — by our fellow liberals! — that we’re better off putting up with increasing incompetence, corruption, and betrayal of our standards from our own party than we are risking the government falling even temporarily into the hands of a worse opposition.

Despite the rhetoric of the economic right, the markets are not a divine force that work independently of human agency;  they are creations of man that function based on the decisions of man.  And so too with our political system.  We made it, and the people who operate within it do so because we put them there.  The system is broken, and it did not break because that is its nature; it broke because it was made to break, and it will be repaired only if we move to repair it.  If the bus we are all traveling in catches a flat, we have a choice; we can listen to the condescending lectures of those who point out how hard it is to change a tire, and how much worse off we would all be if we had to walk everywhere, and how we might be going slow, but we can’t risk the other bus getting there first.  Or we can get out and fix the fucking thing.

10 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Mickie
    01/07/2012 at 9:47 AM

    Well-said. Do you think Obama will grow some fangs and claws if (oh no, I mean when!) he’s reelected? I have hope (get it?!) but that’s about it, it’s just hope, not even faith.

    When I read this line, “Never is it suggested that we encourage those nations to adopt our standards;” it reminded me of how we like to encourage other nations toward democracy but if they’re already a democracy, we want to be the worst of them!

  2. David Rothschild
    01/07/2012 at 11:24 AM

    First of all, I should say that I agree with you on most of your points. Obama has been a disappointment on a number of levels, some of which you haven’t even mentioned. I do think he has gotten bolder and stronger in recent months, particularly after he realized there was no upside with swing voters in trying to appear the reasonable one in fights with Congress. His “recess” appointments are vital steps in the right direction. So is his recent rhetoric. And it’s a good example of how the people who say the left should just shut up and cheer Obama were dead wrong. The people who critiqued him from the left deserve credit now.

    I do also want to put an asterisk beside your critique of Obama’s health care reform. From what I gather, no matter what form it would take, it would take a long while to be implemented and for its effects to be seen. I can’t criticize Obama on those grounds. I do think, based on my limited understanding, that he got something imperfect but deeply significant passed, that the Republicans won’t be able to shoot it down with ease.

    Also Dukakis is not an example you want to run with. He was a charisma-free technocrat, granted, but he was unabashedly liberal, not running away from his ACLU membership or even the word “liberal.” He could have gone after red meat in response Bernie Shaw’s Kitty Dukakis question, but he didn’t- he ignored the hypothetical and patiently explained why he opposed the death penalty. He was not a triangulator and he did not down play his policy differences with Bush the elder.

    I also don’t see what concrete proposals are involved in your risk. Not voting at all? Voting for a third party candidate? Granted you live in Texas and I live in New York, so our votes are basically worthless, but assuming we had some power to defeat Obama and put Romney in office, would you do it? I wouldn’t and that’s just because I haven’t seen any evidence that electoral defeat leads the Democrats to put more left wing candidates up. 12 years in the wilderness gave us Bill Clinton, someone significantly to the right of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. 8 years of Bush did not make the Democratic party less conservative or corporate. Put aside the argument of whether Ralph Nader’s run helped elect Bush (I think he played a part, along with a number of other factors). Did his candidacy leave behind a structure that could threaten and influence the Democrats, the way the religious right can threaten and influence the Republicans? Is there a single elected official local or national who can say she’s there because of Nader? I don’t think the problem is that it’s a risk, I think it’s that’s a bad risk, a risk with no evidence of succeeding.

    On the other hand, after 8 years of Clinton, a centrist triangulator, we got the candidacy of Al Gore, who I believe would have governed to Clinton’s left, had he been allowed to serve.

    Finally there is part of the structure of politics that we are not going to fix, not in our lifetimes. The electoral college and the misshaped Senate, and the power a geographic minority has, is, as you say, the result of a human institution. But it would take practically God-like power to change it, given how deeply they’re ensconced in the constitution and how unwilling people living in those states would be to give up power. I think the best we can do now is provide an intellectual foundation to fight on that later- I wouldn’t even want my ideal fantasy candidate to run against those things, because he’d lose badly.

  3. Andy Axel
    01/07/2012 at 12:27 PM

    Ah, the specter of Nader. It takes me back to the year 2000, where the Florida result would have been completely irrelevant if Al Gore had only won his home state of Tennessee.

    Even Walter Fucking Mondale, the very model of cannon fodder for legions of cannon fodder to follow, had a supporting organization at home that didn’t allow Reagan to run the table on him.

    You want to blame a group of people for losing the presidency in the year 2000? Don’t blame the Naderites. Blame the colossal and continuing incompetence of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

    Offered in further evidence: Tennessee’s Democrats held majorities in both houses of the state legislature for approximately seven human generations — from Reconstruction until the year 2004. Only after the middling, centrist, business-friendly, multimillionaire legacy of the HMO industry Phil Bredesen (a man who has the unswerving temerity to refer to himself as a Democrat, even after dismantling the state’s TennCare program and implementing disastrous workman’s comp reform) took the reins as governor did the state house and senate swing to Republican majorities. After 140 years of being gerrymandered into the margins, the GOP is more than a bit eager to register some payback.

    • Andy Axel
      01/07/2012 at 12:38 PM

      Adding: The point of all of that was to demonstrate that it is simply not enough to have a convincing electoral win, such as the one effected by Bredesen in which he won all 96 Tennessee counties in his sole re-election bid. That electoral win needs to be used to consolidate and support an infrastructure that can continue a partisan legacy into the future.

      Instead, the party apparatus was used solely as a Bredsen campaign office.

      It brings to mind what happened during Bush’s 2nd term, and the political hay that was emphatically not made about the non-management of corporate governance, the economic upheaval that began in earnest as early as 2007, the continued ineptitude in conducting bullshit wars overseas, the continued shoveling of money into that effort, the botched federal response to the Katrina catastrophe… the Democrats could have stepped on the gas, but instead opted to coast.

  4. LP
    01/07/2012 at 1:08 PM

    Okay, let’s see if I can respond piece by piece:

    1. The recess appointments could, indeed, be a watershed for what his second term might look like. We’ll see. Both the guys he nominated have solid credentials for the jobs, and the specific nominations have to do with labor and finance regulation, which would certainly send a message about his priorities to the progressive branch. My only concerns are that I wish he’d shown that kind of muscle in the past on more important issues like the jobs bill, and that, since it comes on the heels of his support of NNDA 1021 and his sabre-rattling over Iran, just plays up how incoherent his liberalism really is.

    2. There’s no question than any significant health care reform would take a long time to pass; I don’t mean to make that aspect of it the main thrust of my criticism. My main problem is that the thing was already pretty toothless by the time it got put to a vote (a single-payer system was never seriously considered; the current plan requires the purchase of insurance, which does nothing to help the poor, who are the biggest group of uninsured citizens; it contains massive sops to the insurance industry), and even then, he was barely able to get it passed.

    This, in fact, illuminates one of my key problems with the current Democratic party. It’s so risk-averse, and so filled with a fear of failure, that it won’t even entertain any genuinely liberal ideas, even though whatever they do, the GOP will call them radical communists. If any health-care reform plan is going to result in Republicans smearing you as a dangerous Euro-socialist, why not just go ahead and be one, and present a single-payer plan? If it passes, you’ve got real and vital health care reform instead of this half-assed patchwork we ended up with; if it fails, at least you’ll satisfy the progressives, and you can tell the rest of the country, hey, we TRIED to give universal health care to EVERYBODY, and you can see who shot it down. It should be obvious by now that this calculating, poll-driven triangulation, far from pleasing everybody, pleases nobody.

    3. It’s a fair enough point about Dukakis, though I’d argue that he was a social liberal far more than an economic liberal. I was trying to focus on his ‘charisma-free technocrat’ qualities rather than his actual policy positions, whatever they were.

    4. The concrete proposals I have mentioned involve financial reform, electoral system reform (which I’ll address later), and a systemic program of progressive voters voting ONLY for progressive candidates, even if that risks the loss of an election when some centrist sell-out is more likely to win. I wouldn’t vote for Romney, of course, but I don’t think it would be the world’s greatest disaster if Democrats lost the presidency, provided they took it as a lesson to reform and get back on the progressive track. People keep telling me this never happens, that it only causes the party to move to the right. That’s true, if you think that the only history that matters is the history of the last 20 years; but what about the 1880s? The public, flush with robber-baron cash, voted out Cleveland, and put in Harrison, who was standoffish about enforcing anti-trust laws and was a foreign policy hawk. When the economic bubble burst and the robber barons proved more adept at robbery than barony, Cleveland was re-elected, and the Democrats became more progressive than they’d ever been. In the 1920s, the public got sick of blandly sincere, ineffectual technocrats of the Woodrow Wilson school and handed things over to the Republicans. After the spectacularly corrupt Harding and the laissez-faire business toady Coolidge, the economy tanked, the blundering Hoover did nothing about it, and America went Democrat again — and the party stood behind FDR, the most liberal president in history. After the priggish, inconsistent Truman, America handed control to the hands-off Eisenhauer, and when they got sick of him, the next wave of Democrats (Kennedy and LBJ) were far more liberal than Truman had been. The tendency of the Democrats to move right after losses isn’t universal; it’s cyclic, and I see no reason to think we’re not due for another swing.

    5. I dunno, man. People keep telling me that electoral reform is impossible. For one thing, it’s certainly impossible if no one ever bothers to try it, which is the situation we’re in now. For another, dozens of countries both great (Russia) and small (tons of third world countries) have instituted electoral reform just in my lifetime. If they can do it, in systems that are often hostile to the entire democratic process, I don’t see how the US, the entire existence of which is predicated on democratic reform, can’t do it too.

    Otherwise, here’s what we’re stuck with: We have a two-party system. Nobody likes it, but we can’t change it. The liberal party gets less liberal every year, and nobody likes that, but we can’t change it, because if they lose, the conservative party will get in, and the liberal party will just get less liberal again in response to the loss. We can’t change the electoral system to make multi-party coalitions a realistic option, because anyone advocating that will lose. We can’t change the money system that makes the liberal party just as resistant to campaign reform as the conservative party, because anyone advocating that will lose. And we have no mechanism by which to hold the liberal party responsible for deviations from liberal policy (since to do so would risk weakening the party and allowing a conservative win), our only choice is to vote for whatever liberal party candidates are offered in perpetuity, which, given we have established that the party must continue to move to the right (a loss cannot be tolerated and would lead to a shift to the right; a win is the only possibility and, since it involves appealing to the largest number of voters, also necessitates a shift to the right), means an endless future of voting for ever-more-conservative liberals just to maintain the status quo. As I’ve said elsewhere, that’s the laziest, most cynical approach to politics that I can think of, and if that’s our only option, then thanks but no thanks.

  5. Cheryl
    01/09/2012 at 11:57 AM

    I’m not disappointed with Obama because I didn’t have high hopes to begin with. He’s simply the guy I voted for because President McCain was impossible to contemplate. He’s the guy I’ll vote for this time because President Romney/Santorum/Paul would be worse than President Obama. There is no such thing as ‘the liberal party,’ that died out a long time ago if it ever actually existed at all. There’s an occasional liberal in the Democratic Party, but they are few and far between and some of them are crazy.

  6. David Rothschild
    01/11/2012 at 7:49 AM

    Leonard, sorry to let so much time pass:

    1. Yeah, I think a wait and see approach is good. I think he’s always going to be crap on civil liberties (although I suspect it would be close to political suicide not to sign the bill it was attached to), and what’s particularly sad is that he seems to have pulled away from earlier, more principled stances the longer he’s been in office.

    2. I guess, as Reagan said about proof about that Martin Luther King was a communist agent, we’ll just wait and see how history holds out. I really don’t know enough about health care beyond what I’ve been told, and I can’t say what would have been politically possible to pass in 2009.

    3. I think that’s about closed.

    4 and I guess also 5, since they both involve reform. I think financial reform is something to fight for, and something possible, although the Supreme Court certainly has made it more difficult. I think changing the Senate rules and getting rid of the filibuster would be good, even if it hurts the Democrats when they’re a minority in the Senate.

    I would like a stronger progressive wing of the Democratic party, but I think it’s got to be built up on a local level- getting strong progressives in congress and getting voting blocks that have to be bowed to. This dovetails with getting money out of politics- left leaning states like New York and New Jersey are also centers of finance and insanely expensive places to campaign. I don’t believe anti-corporate reformers can take over the Democratic Party when they can’t even keep Russ Feingold in office. You know history better than I do, but who is around now with real power who would be equivalent to Roosevelt? Certainly not the man holding down his old job of New York governor.

    I don’t see any chance of getting us away from a two party system, and from the pernicious electoral college and the absurd weight that “key states” hold both in it and in Senate representation. Just don’t see a movement strong enough behind it to bring about the constitutional amendments it would take. Again, I don’t see much of a movement at all, although I see the kindling for it, and I think you’re asking for it to sprint before it’s demonstrated it can crawl.

  7. David Rothschild
    01/11/2012 at 8:01 AM

    Andy-

    All I can say is I don’t think you read my comment beyond the word “Nader.” I specifically put aside his role as a spoiler. I was asking what good he had done- did he make the Democratic Party move left, did he have any coat tails, did he make his party stronger? Would he have if Gore had won? I don’t think there are any terms on which his 2000 campaign wasn’t a tremendous waste of progressive energy, no matter how bad the ground game was in Tennessee.

    • Andy Axel
      01/13/2012 at 2:58 PM

      David:

      Wasn’t actually responding to you, but to LP’s line about “invoking the specter of Nader.” Owing to something where I had to start and stop writing, I hadn’t seen or read your post until I hit “submit” on mine.

      But honestly, my point is that I believe wholeheartedly that the whole question of Nader’s candidacy would have been relegated to footnote status if Gore had stood down Donna Brazile and if he would have spent more than five minutes in Tennessee. If he had acted publicly as if his campaign was doing anything beyond taking TN’s 11 electoral votes for granted, it would have helped a lot. I know some people pretty close to the national campaign, and the negative polling data coming out of Tennessee was really not a bother for them in the war room, and was something that they were chalking up to statistical anomalies. Within the margin of error, blah blah blah.

      (Speaking specifically about wastes of energy, those five minutes in Tennessee in 2000 were spent announcing his running mate, Joe Lieberman.)

      • David Rothschild
        01/15/2012 at 2:40 PM

        Andy, my apologies for the misreading. I’ll agree on the general incompetence of the 2000 Gore Campaign. On the other hand, and now we’re getting way off Leonard’s point, we tend to forget the victor made a number of errors that, undone, would have also have moved the Nader campaign and the butterfly ballot to the realm of trivia. Rove and Co made a stupid, resource-wasting attempt to win California. The Bush D.U.I revelation was a last minute surprise that pushed a lot of people to Gore- if it had come out earlier, it probably would have been forgotten by November.

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