March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment
I recognize also that one reason it’s so difficult to have the discussion about the point at which it makes sense, if not to break with the Dems at least to stop lying to ourselves about the cataclysmic significance of voting for them or not, is that the election year is in a way not the optimal time to have it. This is precisely because of the immediateness of the stakes and the kind of politics—i.e., by definition not “transformative,” if we take the term to imply potential to alter the terms of political debate substantially—elections warrant and require. The problem, though, is that even within the ineffectual enclaves that pass for a left, as well as all the more solid left-of-center interest configurations— labor, enviros, women, civil rights, etc.—”politics” increasingly has come to mean only getting someone elected or defeated or some bill or initiative passed or defeated.
So elections are the only context around which it’s possible that even politically attentive people and those who see themselves as activists are inclined to discuss political strategy at all. And then, because the frenzy of electoral jockeying stokes passions and leads to extravagant claims, the discussion becomes overheated, and distinctions between tactics, strategies and goals blur, with the first likely to drive the other two rhetorically. The predictably exaggerated claims that support electoral mobilization, e.g., “Obama is a transformative politician,” etc, strive to channel and subordinate all political discussion to the immediate goal of winning what can be won right now and not really entertaining questions about how much, not to say whether, it’s actually worth winning, or even whether the victory could be pyrrhic.
So we “don’t have time” to have the strategic political discussion about how to try to change the terms of debate during the election year, and “we don’t have time” to have it between election years because (a) there are other, equally instrumental objectives that consume everyone’s time as immediately more pressing—some other 8% adjustment to fight for or against – and (b) the dilettantish left persists in the belief that some gimmick—some Special Candidate, some clever slogan (“No, we’re really the ones who ‘support the troops'” or “We need a policy that helps ‘working families’ and the ‘middle class'”)—can magically knock the shackles from the eyes of the majority that already exists as our constituency but doesn’t yet know it, if we could only find the right one.
Then we’re back to the next election year, and some new candidate becomes the embodiment of all our hopes and dreams and the one who’ll call that majority together for us. Frankly, I’ve begun to suspect that the election year version of the “now is not the time” argument and its sibling, the “get him elected first then hold him accountable” line, as well as their first cousin, “Well, that’s what they all have to do to get elected,” reflect nothing better than denial of the grim reality that we can’t expect anything from them or make any demands of them. After all, how can we hold them accountable once they’re in office if we can’t do it when they’re running, when we technically have something we can withhold or deliver?
The fact is that they know we don’t have the power to make them do or not do anything and treat us accordingly, and they will until we develop the capacity to force them to do otherwise. I know this is a difficult message for those who like to believe that politics is about good people and bad people, or that writing really smart position papers that demonstrate the formal plausibility of a win/win agenda that satisfies everyone’s concerns should be enough to counter the influence of those $30,000 per head corporate and hedge fund contributors, but that’s just not the way the deal goes down.
So the question is: how are we to break this cycle to be able to try to build the movement we need to do anything more than staunch the bleeding? Consider as well that the staunching looks less and less meaningful to the growing population that gets defined as on the wrong side of the triage line and that each iteration of the losing game further shrinks the ranks of the relatively secure economically, drives more and more people to the margins, and shifts the thinkable terms of political debate, as well as the electorate’s center of gravity, more and more to the right. We have seen, for example, that after nearly thirty years of bipartisan government-bashing, even in the wake of massive catastrophes like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the notion of public obligation to provide for the citizenry’s well-being is steadily being wiped out of public consciousness.
(And, by the way, those precocious NGO engineers are energetically instrumental in doing a lot of the wiping.)
And it’s crucially important for those who identify with the left to recognize that there is no designated moment at which the crisis becomes intolerable and “the People” either “wake up” or “rise.” That is simply not the way politics works. Absent concerted, organized intervention, it could go on indefinitely, with all kinds of inventive scapegoating available to stigmatize the previous rounds of losers and provide desperate reassurances to the next. And that would be a political situation and social order likely to grow ever uglier and more dangerous.