Saturday, March 27, 2010

Political Questions We Cannot Raise

I just ran across this excellent video of Chomsky on the political system in the United States.

One moment of his talk that I found particularly striking was his claim that "most of the issues that the public cares about...weren't even allowed to come up (in discussion surrounding elections" (5:01).

As Chomsky puts it, "many major issues that the public cares about... are big economic issues...issues on which the public has extremely strong opinions...but none of it could be brought up in the election" (5:38).

This is a key point in making sense of politics in contemporary societies. It's not just that we are encouraged to internalize the wrong answers to political questions (e.g. we shouldn't want single-payer health insurance because that means "big government"). The most damaging problem is that we aren't even able to raise the most important political questions at all.

Some social scientists have called this phenomenon "nondecision-making":
Nondecision-making is a means by which demands for change in the existing allocation of benefits and privileges in the community can be suffocated before they are ever voiced; or kept covert; or killed before they gain access to the relevant decision-making arena; or, failing all these things, maimed or destroyed in the decision-implementing stage of the policy process". (see Bachrach and Baratz (1970: p.44))
But this analysis of politics is not one we obtain by default. If one were to simply internalize what's said about politics in, say, the New York Times, they would have an entirely different analysis of politics from the one above. The default understanding of power that we are spoon-fed in Civics textbooks and mainstream news media is as follows. The boundaries of what is to count as a political issue are set by the established political system. Politics is simply the narrow agenda discussed among elites in existing political institutions.

Now, take note of what this excludes. Among other things, this entire approach to politics completely ignores potential issues that the established political system prevents from becoming actual. As Bachrach and Baratz point out, this approach to politics totally ignores many key issues, especially issues that "...involve a genuine challenge to the resources of power or authority of those who currently dominate the process by which policy outputs in the system are determined". Merely raising certain question that pose a threat to existing relations of power is proscribed from the agenda.

This method of exclusion is precisely how our electoral system functions. We have two more-or-less pro-Business parties with minor differences (there are, of course, differences, but they are minor all things considered), and political questions are restricted to rather small set of relatively uncontroversial matters. We are asked to focus in on disputes over minutiae, whereas the big questions about which the public has strong views are frozen out of the discussion. For example, polls have shown for many years now that the idea of single-payer (or Medicare for all) is popular with the public (something like 60% support it, which is more support than Obama got in the 2008 election).

Of course, the public is never asked to vote on whether we should have a for-profit, market-based healthcare system or a public, single-payer system. What they are asked to do is to choose between a Democrat or a Republican every election cycle, neither of whom desire to challenge the powerful position of the private health insurance industry (which is what it would take to get single-payer passed). Thus there is a large gap between what the public wants and what they are able to ask for via the electoral system.

What can we do about this gap?

I'll weigh in on what I think about what we can do in a moment. But if you ask certain Democrat-friendly liberals, they'll tell you that we just need to elect a couple more "progressive" Democrats to office in a handful of states. Perhaps we could exchange a Joe Liberman for a Ned Lamont, they'll argue, and that would more or less solve the problem.

This is preposterous. Notwithstanding the utter powerlessness of the existing bloc of "progressives" in the House and Senate, the problem isn't the lack of a couple of "more progressive" individuals in the Democratic Party. The problem is a systemic one, that has more to do with institutions and practices than the preferences of any one individual in the Party. You can waste valuable resources and time trying to elect a person that starts off supporting single-payer. But in order to function within Washington and the Democratic Party apparatus that person will have to conform to protocol and the requirements of operating within this instutional backdrop.

What, then, should we do about this massive gap between public preferences and a political process dominated by elites?

I find myself returning again and again to two important examples. I'll restrict myself to the first, which is the Civil Rights Movement (or, what, at the time (according to Angela Davis) was simply called the "freedom movement"). (The other example I find particularly interesting is the massive wave of labor militancy in 1934 that led to the passage of the most progressive elements of the New Deal).

First of all, consider where the politics of race stood in the 1940s-50s in the United States. The "major political issues" defined by the agenda set by the established political process and mainstream press did not include the problem of racism as a major concern. The interests of the masses of ordinary black people were simply not on the radar of the established political system. Despite a couple of landmark events and Supreme Court decisions, the issue was by and large pushed aside by the political system.

But by 1964, there was enough pressure on the entire political system to force the passage of major civil rights legislation, against the default prerogatives of the ruling party (i.e. the Democrats).

How was this massive gap closed?

First, consider how it wasn't closed. The political movement for racial justice that began to pick up steam in the early 60s did not directly focus on electoral politics at all. They did not focus on creating PAC's to funnel funds to the Democrats, they did not focus primarily on lobbying elected officials, and they did not emphasize playing within the conventional political rules. They did not simply ask nicely and sit back and hope that elected officials would "do the right thing".

They formed organizations and social movements independently of the political system and by means of direct actions, marches, agitation, consciousness-raising, organizing, propagandizing, and so on they put the problem of racism on the table in a way that the political system could not ignore.

Visionaries like MLK and Malcolm X did not go on TV and talk in the narrow terms of electioneering and Congressional maneuvering. They did not accept the constraints of what was then considered "politically realistic" or prudent. They challenged those very constraints and in-so-doing altered the horizons of what was politically possible.

Malcolm X did not attenuate his own criticisms of the existing order so as to avoid pissing off elites. He didn't think of those determined to maintain racial hierarchies as potential "stakeholders" in a public discussion about policy: he publicly challenged the very legitimacy of their authority.

Yet this entire political orientation, which could instructively be applied to many other political situations, is foreign to the default conception of politics pedaled by politicans, pundits and the mainstream news media. The default conception teaches us to think of ourselves as isolated consumers, not as potential participants in a collective project. We are told to think highly of such vacuous notions as "centrism", "moderation", and "bipartisanship". Oppositional politics are shunned as "divisive" or "polarizing". The result is that any serious criticism of the status quo is frozen out of the discussion: you simply cannot raise such objections at all, no matter how much public support they may have.

Ask yourself this: If we had a vote tomorrow, a national referendum, on whether or not we should have stay in Iraq indefinitely or get out immediately, what would the outcome be? If polls and the discussions during the 2008 election are any indication, an overwhelming majority of Americans would not vote in support of Obama's extension of Bush's foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Or, take Obama's proposed spending freeze. Obama has suggested that we totally freeze all social spending, except for defense spending (which should be allowed to continue to increase). Now, if there was a national referendum asking people whether or not the United States should spend the billions slated for the Pentagon on (A) funding uncessary foreign wars and occupations or (B) on schools, public transit and public services... which do you think people would choose?

But neither of these are questions that can be raised within our political system. These questions do not map onto the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats since both of them more or less agree that we should buck the public will on both counts. That's part of what it is to have two different factions (with a small set of distinguishing features) of what is in effect one pro-Business party.

Although there were massive shifts in electoral balances of power (think of the makeup of the Senate in 2004 vs. 2008), there have not been corresponding shifts in policy. Despite the fact that the country completely repudiated the GOP at the ballot box two election cycles in a row, the Democrats have basically kept the agenda set by Bush intact. The Paulson Plan for bailing out Wallstreet was continued, EFCA was suffocated and set aside, Immigrant Rights were ignored, foreign wars and occupations were escalated, drone bombings increased, freezes on social spending were proposed, etc.

If the Democrats cannot deliever when they have control of every major branch of government, with super-majorities in the Senate, when can they deliver? What do we have to look forward to? Should we hold our breath until they finally get back to the point when they obtain a super-majority again? Isn't this supposed to be the end of the rainbow in terms of electoral power?

I think it's time to divest from the Democrats and start exploring oppositional, independent political organizations that empower ordinary people and enable democracy from below.

1 comment:

fwoan said...

I loved this post and linked to it here: