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.