Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who Cares about Colorado? Against Electoral Politics Part II

NYTimes is thrilled about this, but I don't see what the big deal is. Who gives a shit?

Ostensibly, elections are held to elect representatives so that they will pass legislation that the people want. People wanted an end to occupation and war, significantly increased social spending (in particular on health care and education), increased taxation for the rich, and so forth (polls repeatedly bear this out). None of these social needs have been satisfied.

Instead we got a smooth continuation of Bush's policies re: Wall Street, increased aggression in Afghanistan, attacks on Medicare and Social Security, a tepid health "reform" bill with not even a Public Option, broken promises to labor and glbt movements, 180 on oil-drilling, and so on.

But according to the NYtimes, this is the wrong way to think about elections. Elections aren't for the sake of something else (e.g. social change); on the contrary, elections are important for their own sake. A sports analogy will help: mainstream media act as though we should take the same interest in electoral politics that we do in, say, baseball. It's an endless cycle of seasons and games, where the rules are fixed in advance, and the only two legal teams are managed by wealthy elites. If you don't like this kind of "politics", well, then too bad for you. You must just have different "entertainment preferences" in the "marketplace of political ideas".

So, rather than being about social change, fighting oppression, justice, what have you, politics is only about elections. And what are elections about? The NYTimes would have us believe that elections are about the reproduction of some party's power as an end in itself. It's not what a party does, it's not what their principal goals or values are, it's not whose interests they represent... no, no politics is merely a matter of latching onto the narrow strategic maneuvering that the political class employs to keep their own power intact (war-chest spending, rhetorical packaging, marketing, PR, etc.). The result is that politics is no longer about people having some external claim or demand on the system itself. On the contrary: politics is only about internalizing the narrow strategic calculations made by wealthy, "visible" campaigns waged by one or other of the two big corporate parties. This is, in essence, the subject matter of the "political" coverage on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, NYTimes, WaPo, etc. etc.

Rather than being a mere means to some end, elections come to be ends-in-themselves. This is completely ass-backwards.

"Progressives" or people on the Left in general, have no independent interest in seeing the Democratic Party reproduce its power as an end in itself. The liberal argument was supposed to be that left-leaning people ought to support the democrats because they will allegedly pass progressive legislation.

Of course, when the Democrats don't do anything progressive (but do quite a lot of damage in the meantime), that is, when they show their true colors as an organization enthusiastically committed to Wall Street and Big Business, the liberal argument above should be obviously refuted. There should no longer be any good rationale to uncritically support the Democratic Party as an agent of progressive change.

The correct inference to draw here is this: Left-leaning people shouldn't throw their weight and resources behind a basically conservative, pro-Business political organization that has too much invested in the status quo to change it.

But this isn't the inference we're encouraged to draw by the mainstream liberal press. There, the political line is identical to the one described above in the NYTimes: left-leaning people have an interest in the continued reproduction of Democrat control of congress, as an end in itself. It matters not what they do. "Left" doesn't connote some determinate set of political principles or demands; on the contrary, "Left" just means "whatever the Democrats do". Thus the grounds for criticism melt away, and the status quo is insulated from serious scrutiny. How can the Democrats do anything wrong if whatever they do is ipso facto "Left"?

Once you accept this bit of sophistry, you're prepared to accept another bit: if whatever the Democrats do is automatically "Left", then any criticism of them must be from the Right. In other words, any critique of the politics of the Democrat establishment only helps the Right wing. Hence, the media obsession with the Tea Baggers (while excluding innumerable expressions of popular left-wing anger), appear to license the inference that left-wing people must uncritically return to the Democrats in order to stave off a right-wing backlash. The message is clear: sit down, shut up, and vote Democrat because we don't want a "Tea Bagger Nation".

How long are we prepared to continue this never-ending cycle of conservatism? Republicans get elected --> Democrats pose as the agents of progressive change --> infuriated voters reject GOP --> large Democrat majorities emerge only to demonstrate the obvious: the Democrats basically keep the political program of the GOP intact and shamelessly bow to Business --> GOP poses as populist critics of the Democrat Machine --> repeat cycle ad infinitum.

As Peter Camejo observed, "every major gain in our history, even pre-Civil War struggles such as the battles for the Bill of Rights, to end slavery, and to establish free public education -as well as those after the Civil War, have been the product of direct action by movements independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them".

Just to name two of the most obvious recent examples: the Social Security Act arose in a context created by militant sit-down strikes in 1934 that put the fear of God in the Ruling Class; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was reluctantly passed after massive extra-electoral struggle and unrelenting black rebellion against the existing order forced the issue.

The formal political system in the united states is a symptom of other factors: shifts in economic configuration, the level of class struggle, the power and organization of social movements, etc.

The electoral system is not a prime-mover; the big shifts in policy arise from shifts in economic power and social struggle. Focusing intensely on the symptoms to the exclusion of the causes is a recipe for perpetual political exclusion.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I have dealt with the subject of the uselessness of the electoral process, if not its mendacity, in a series on my blog under the label Vote or Die.

You may find my post about what the influence of people like Rahm Emanuel and Jamie Gorelick on the US political process particularly interesting, as well as the one that starts from the premise of how can the process can be of any utility when elected officials feel under no compulsion to communicate with you?