30 October 2012

The Left left behind and other observations

Election season is nearing crunch time, and, though Obama continues to be a solid favorite (the electoral map in particular favors him), his hold on the race has slipped slightly in the past few weeks, which means liberals are starting to fear the man haunting their nightmares. No, not Mitt Romney, Ralph Nader. No, the old man's not running again this year, but his ghost still gnaws on the minds of Democratic partisans as the race tightens, reminding them of who the real enemy is; Privileged Progressives who have the nerve to not vote for someone whose political views they don't agree with! Since this is on everyone's mind and no one cares what I think, I decided to put together some semi-scattered thoughts about left political strategy and tactics and the upcoming election (and electoral politics in general).

Before that, some caveats. First, despite the preening, it really doesn't matter who you vote for in the presidential election unless you live in Ohio or Florida. Other states are either a foregone conclusion or too small to make a difference. This is our great liberal democracy in action. I'm not going to complain one way or the other about who you do or don't vote for, because it's essentially irrelevant to anything but your own conscience.

Second, I am skeptical about third party presidential runs. Yes, it's absurd that the two-party cartel blocks access to debates and that their media mouthpieces shut any out voices not on a simple red vs. blue axis, but even in a perfect world where a third-party candidate could win, he/she could likely achieve next to nothing. The duopoly in Congress and the Washington bureaucracy would unite to make governing impossible and ensure that no such challenge could happen again. A third party would have to be built from the ground up, and I'm not bullish on that happening. Some of the reasons are the same as ones I'll elaborate on when I talk about "work within the party" types a bit later. But also the way American political institutions are set up makes it difficult to break up the duopoly. First-past-the-post elections, Congressional committee chairmanships, and so on. Remember, folks, the Constitution is a very conservative document; it is designed to protect elite power from the mood swings of the public. The last time we had a new party in American politics that had any mass impact there was a civil war a few years later. That should tell you something.

Third, as I've written before, I'm not wholly opposed to "lesser evil" voting. There are times when it might be the tactically necessary thing to do. If people really believe that they most vote for a "lesser-evil" because of their conscience, I'm not going to strenuously disagree with them. See point #1.

Fourth, unfortunately, I don't agree with some of my fellow travelers that a Romney win would buck up the left and cause them to become vigilant about things they used to think were monstrosities under Bush but now handwave away when Obama does them. Doug Henwood's article in The Nation makes a lot of sense and I agree with most everything in it. While we might wish it were otherwise, a Romney administration would just send us back to the Bush years on the left; the party rolls over and plays dead while the Republicans run through them and the rank and file pines for the next Democratic Savior. If you want a backhanded endorsement of Obama, it's that his reign has disabused many young progressives of the notion that the Democratic Party is looking out for their values.

With that very lengthy prologue out of the way, let's take a look at a couple pressing issues of electoral tactics and strategy facing the left.

1) A Romney Administration would be uniquely catastrophic. Back in 2008, the Democrats won a crushing victory. They completely dominated government in a way no party had in decades. The Republicans were so lost and defeated that some wondered whether they could continue to exist at all. What was the great result of this tremendous mandate for progressive government coming at the very moment in history when conservative foreign and domestic policy ideas had been thoroughly discredited? Half-assed financial and health insurance "reform" (the latter adopted from former Republican ideas*), a too-small stimulus bill weighed down with garbage, a continuation and actual expansion of Bush-era surveillance state and imperial intervention policy, all garnished with a repeatedly-demonstrated ability to lose negotiations to a fencepost. And I guess something about gays in the military which, in a time of worldwide political upheaval, widespread economic desolation, and looming ecological ruin, is the most pressing issue the left faces today. It ended, of course, with a huge defeat in the 2010 midterms, for which petulant hippies were to blame (but more on them later).

Now, however, many people are convinced that a Romney win would mean instant power to bring about the reactionary revolution. Why do people believe that close win with a split Congress means a massive mandate when the result of the 2008 election achieved so little for the other side, and what does this say about their opinion of their own party? Furthermore, these folks have spent much of the last four years trying to calm unruly hippies dissatisfied with the administration's lack of progress by admonishing them that the office of the presidency has little real power. How they work out that Romney will, upon ascending to the high office, cover the land in a second darkness using the dictatorial powers Obama doesn't have has not, I suspect, been completely thought out.

To buttress this argument, some claim that Romney's moderate record as governor of Massachusetts is a facade, and, now that he has been liberated from managing a liberal state, his true extreme-right self is bursting through. Maybe, or maybe not. Romney, as best I can tell, has two political goals: He really, really wants to be president, and when he gets to be president, he wants to enrich his plutocrat friends. Well, on the latter point I suspect he won't get much resistance from the Democrats. Beyond the second goal, Romney has a proven willingness to say and believe anything he needs to achieve the first. He's Nixon with better hair and less jowl. I don't see him doing much to override resistance on culture war issues. Of which...

2) Only Privileged White Males won't vote for Obama: We certainly know that anyone who can't vote for Obama endorses Romney and wants him to win. And they'll stand by ironically while Romney's goons round up America's women and put them in binders. This argument claims that the less fortunate are all loyal Obama supporters, and you'd do well to join them or you're complicit in their oppression.

Though not exclusively, this argument usually centers on the Supreme Court, and the idea that Romney will be able to appoint Supreme Court justices who will immediately overturn Roe v. Wade. I'm far from knowledgeable enough on SCOTUS procedures to know how likely it is that the court could just take a case with the established goal of inverting precedent. But, let's say we are faced with a SCOTUS nomination that would mean the end of legal abortion. What would the Democratic Party, the great champion of reproductive freedom, do? Would they meekly stand aside and watch? A further point, while contemporary SCOTUS judges are certainly partisan hacks, they aren't stupid partisan hacks. They aren't going to touch an inflammatory issue that's going to bite their party at the polls. Reproductive freedom battles will continue to be mostly contested at the state level, in Republican friendly territory, as we've seen clearly in the last year.

This accusation is usually leveled at Glenn Greenwald and the like who primarily write about surveillance state issues and the war machine. Because these apparently things that only affect White Men, except that, well, what? The surveillance state almost exclusively targets Muslims. Certainly Obama isn't bombing many white people in Asia and Africa. We know all about the drug war and prison industrial complex and its calamitous affect on African-Americans. And the effects of climate change will of course overwhelmingly fall on the poor around the world. Where is the Democratic Party on these issues? The secret of the "privilege" argument is that most people making it enjoy bourgeois-liberal class privilege themselves; they're not the ones facing down the American police state. Their notion of "privilege" is deliberately constructed to exclude anything that might include them.

Two final thoughts before I leave this section. For all their lecturing about the comfortable privileged non-voters or third-party voters who are helping Romney win, these liberals ignore the great mass of non-voters (about half the eligible voting population in any given election) among whom the poor and people of color are over-represented. I do wish that these very concerned folks would take their hectoring to said non-voters and give them the "helping Romney win" spiel, preferably as self-righteously as possible. Furthermore, if you do believe that only straight white dudes are Obama skeptics, I encourage you to check out Falguni Sheth, Black Agenda Report, or This is So Gay.


*Liberals really, really hate you pointing out to them that Obamacare was a Heritage Foundation-designed alternative to a pubic healthcare system adopted by Republicans, Mitt Romney most famously, in the 1990s. They will claim it's unfair because Republicans never intended to actually pass it (again, Mitt Romney?). That may well be true, but it doesn't do much for them. The point is that, when Barack Obama moved right to co-opt them, Republicans just shifted to the status quo they always favored. At least the public conversation was  once such that the right had to come up with some alternative, however insincere. Thanks to your contemporary Democratic party, that's no longer the case.