05 November 2012

The left left behind, and still other observations


3) Sure, Democrats suck, but the only way to change anything is to Work Within the System. I give this argument more credibility because it is trying to present an actual strategy, something lesser-evilists and apologists often don't do, and because it's frequently made by people I believe have a sincere commitment to progressive politics, i.e., not just people who want to lord their Seriousness over undergraduate hippies with their Chomsky and Zinn readers. For a good variation, see this Jacobin article just published today.

It goes like this: The Left should attempt to take over the Democratic Party by emulating the New Right takeover of the Republican Party (and the Tea Party more recently). Try to insert your own people into Democratic party organizations at a local level, win local offices and work your way up through the national party organization. Meanwhile, try to put forward more progressive candidates for national offices in primaries to knock out terrible right-wing Dems and, even if you fail, discipline the eventual nominee by reminding him/her that the base is restless. .

I see two main flaws with this approach:

A) Where does the money come from? If you want to imitate the New Right, you have to come to grips with how to match the bottomless well of money it has been able to draw on for the past thirty years. Various church organizations, the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, various local chambers of commerce, all have massive organizing and/or capital resources to back religious and free-market fundamentalists at all levels of government. By definition, a grassroots movement of the left is going to be organizing people who haven't got money, and, if it has any teeth at all, it isn't going to be a favorite of people who have. And running campaigns takes money, money that can't now be used for anything else.

This is not a complex equation: Political power rests in the right of both parties because that is where the funding is. And American political parties are, first and foremost, fundraising organizations.

But what about unions, MoveOn.org, environmentalist groups, or other members of the Organizational Left? Won't they step up to back a serious Work from Within movement? Well...

...B) Work from Within is basically incompatible with Lesser-Evilism. I hate to plagiarize arguments when I don't remember the source, but I recently came across an interesting theory as to why the popular media assigns the red-blue colors to the parties the way they do, when a global-historical shorthand would suggest the alignment should be the inverse. The argument was that Republicans are red because they are the "revolutionary" party in American politics, and the Democrats are the conservatives. I don't know if the observations regarding the colors is correct, but I think the assessment of the parties' roles in the system is.

Democratic partisans in the current climate have found themselves almost exclusively on the defensive, trying to protect the gains made from 1932-68. Lesser-evilism is the tactical manifestation of this. The Republicans are simply too bad, they say, to ever allow them to win an election. Our man's record is not so important, the main purpose is to prevent the Romney Revolution from happening.

What does this mean for the work-from-within strategy? Well, if you are going to run a primary campaign against, say, a bad senator, you are running a certain risk that, while you may have sent a message to the Democrats' right wing that you aren't to be trifled with, you may lose the general election. And the core tenant of Lesser-Evil Liberalism is that you can never lose. Ever. Because the Republicans are Just That Bad. This is why Democrats obsess over "electability" in primary campaigns (with electability being a nebulous concept largely defined by "who the party establishment funders will get behind") and run headlong into the arms of bland losers like John Kerry. The first Sharron Angle-type figure to come along and beat, say, Dianne Feinstein, and lose a general election will get the full Nader treatment, and that will be the end of your precious work-from-within strategy, hippie. I bet you wanted abortion to be illegal.

During its rise the New Right and its offshoots have shown the willingness to lose elections to maintain its ideological grip on the Republican Party. Lesser-Evil Liberals reject this possibility out of hand. This is why, when Goldwater lost, we got Reagan and the Bushes; when McGovern lost, we got Carter, Clinton, and Obama.

As I've written before in this space, I'm not hard-wired against voting for a "lesser-evil" as a tactical defense against a much more dangerous alternative. But those advocating for this tactic should have a long-term strategy for political action, both inside and outside the electoral arena. To their credit, the sincere work-from-within folks attempt to do this. (There's also an insincere type of this argument which isn't serious but gets thrown out there as a way to make hippies go away.) But they are barred, perhaps even without their knowledge, by the long-term lesser-evilists who have been making the same desperate pleas/threats toward the left for every election of my adulthood, and will no doubt continue to do so in 2016 in defense of Andrew Cuomo or whatever other corporate mannequin the Democratic funders decide is "electable" against the undying Republican hordes.