Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The limits of liberalism

In 2006 I did something monumentally stupid, something that can only be chalked up to pure, unadulterated ignorance and the folly of youth. I voted. For a Democrat. And I did so -- wait for it -- under the impression I might be helping to end a war.

Those readers still with me, please control your laughter and let me explain. At the time I justified my decision on the basis that maybe, just maybe, if the Democrats took over Congress they might feel tempted -- if only for purely partisan political gain -- to fulfill their stated goal of bringing the Iraq war to an end. I know. I know.

In my defense, I only voted; there were no late nights at the phone bank for me, no impassioned letters to the editor imploring my fellow citizens to fulfill their patriotic duty. Others, however, whom I respect and share much in common politically, did dedicate both their time and financial resources to electing Democrats under the genuine, but wholly mistaken, belief they would stand up to the Bush administration every once in a while. We know how that turned out.

And that brings me to the recent primary elections, which I believe illustrate a point I have learned many times over since '06 -- namely, that electoral politics is at best a diversion, a tried-and-true means for the political establishment to channel public anger with the status quo in such a way that the status quo is never seriously threatened. Oh yes, the unwashed masses can celebrate the ritual Kicking Out of the Bums -- Good bye Arlen Specter! See ya in hell Blanche Lincoln! -- but only with one ginormous catch: they inevitably have to select some other bum to take their place.

Take the race to be the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, a contest that pitted the turncoat Specter against congressman and former admiral Joe Sestak. Despite the backing of President Obama and support from the rest of the Democratic establishment, Sestak was able to beat the decrepit, principle-less incumbent. A success, right?

That's how it's being played on the liberal blogosphere. "An amazing night!" wrote OpenLeft's Chris Bowers upon receiving news of Sestak's win. "The energy is with Dems and progs again!"

Except, well, it's not so clear electing the younger, more photogenic Sestak serves any real "progressive" goal, outside the fleeting ephemera that comes with knowing Arlen Specter is probably feeling sad for himself somewhere. Should Sestak win the seat in November, he'll probably hold the seat for decades, which certainly won't improve the lives of those suffering under U.S. military occupations and the constant threat of Predator drone strikes -- not that Democratic primary voters much cared -- given Sestak's wholehearted embrace of Obama's 30,000-plus troop surge in Afghanistan and his ramping up of the illegal, undeclared war in Pakistan.

The hated Specter, on the other hand, at least made a show of questioning Obama's foreign policy, even declaring his opposition to the surge. Details.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, corporate Democrat (ed. note: redundant) Blanche Lincoln has been forced into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a former Clinton administration official whose chief qualifier appears to be that his name is not Blanche Lincoln. He also has excellent hair. But with the demise of Lincoln's political career increasingly appearing to be a given, even proponents of Halter, like FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher -- a genuinely well-intentioned activist whose work I often admire, and who helped spearhead the effort to unseat Lincoln -- concedes he is "no raging liberal." He is, however, "a Democrat, whereas Lincoln is a corporatist." To which I say, there's a difference? Again, to hop on my hobby horse, there certainly will be no difference for the victims of America's bipartisan-endorsed warfare state, as Halter's campaign page makes clear he's committed to "ensuring success in Iraq and Afghanistan and crafting a strong, forward-leaning foreign policy." For those at home, the words "forward-leaning" probably mean the good people of Yemen and/or Iran should seriously start thinking about investing in some bomb shelters.

As I've argued before, instead of activists spending so much in the way of time and resources in electing more and better politicians, why not skip the middle man? Instead of raising funds and organizing house parties for some snake oil salesman, crossing your fingers and praying they uphold 1/8th of their campaign promises, why not redirect those efforts to taking matters into one's own hands -- relying on the power of people voluntarily acting in concert to improve their communities rather than hoping some asshole politician sends an earmark your way? I understand the impulse to support what appears to be incrementalist reform, but at a certain point the dedication to incrementalism neuters the ability of people to consider the holistic, systemic reform the U.S. needs.

Instead of banking on a politician improving our world, my advice? Improve yourself. Be an example to others. Work not on the behalf of a political party, but your community. Put simply, forget the polling booth and head to the soup kitchen. At least then you won't be complicit in a bloodied, immoral system.


  1. Well said and well thought.

  2. Acting in concert to improve one's community, unfortunately, requires dealing with political parties. Political parties, even as corporate fronts, control the public purse, and can thus frustrate independent good deeds.

    The US electoral system may be essentially corrupt as the aristocracy it protects, but ceding the field of conflict seems a poor strategy for reform. Better to organize independent parties to challenge the corrupt and initiate change.

    Build influence and power locally, especially keeping in mind that cannot be sustained without some type of political infrastructure to recruit, socialize and nurture an ongoing pool of new leadership. Mixing things up electorally and otherwise needs the continuity and funding that only a party provides. Activism that eschews governance is doomed.

  3. Charles,

    Your advice is spot on and your words need to be heeded.

    Political activism has merit at the smallest and most localized level, because a citizen can gain direct access to meetings, proceedings and machinations of city/county officials and councils. At the state or national levels, though, it's plain foolishness to think that a donated dollar will make a dent in a larger edifice that is broken to begin with, and which regularly generates impoverished (pseudo-) "debates" with infantile language and kindergarten-style mudslinging.

    Over $2 billion - with a B - got raised in the 2008 presidential campaign, folks. How many people could have been fed, sheltered, medicated, clothed, counseled, trained, and educated with that much money?

    And that's just the presidential campaign.

    More hundreds of millions of dollars went to 2008 House and Senate campaigns, plus the gubernatorial campaigns of that election cycle, plus all the local races. The cash register popped with donations from the wallets of citizens, when all those combined resources could have benefited so many people.

    And what did all that money gain us? A Congress that is in the pocket of lobbyists who waste THEIR money (well, it's not "wasted" in the sense that Big Pharma and Big Military don't get what they want; they most certainly do) as a leverage play.

    Citizens can participate in politics with their voices, though I'd recommend direct service, action and help as your essay so eloquently stated. At the very least, I want citizens to no longer give away money - which is now more precious than it was three years ago - to this broken and markedly ineffective political system we have.

  4. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Very nice - except I seem to recall that Blanche Lincoln comes from Arkansas. Sorry for the pedantry.

  5. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the catch - pedantry is much appreciated around here. In my defense, though, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln are so indistinguishable politically that they could trade places and only a handful of their constituents would ever notice...

  6. I remember the democratic win of congress. I thought I would see people in the streets cheering, horns honking and people hugging on the sidewalks. Seriously.

    nothing ~ not a clue that any type of a change had taken place. Life looked and felt exactly as it had the day before. I was stunned.

    You were not alone in your hope Mr. Davis.

    I don't give full attention to the Specter/Sestak, Lincoln/Halter races these days. Does it matter who wins? Don't they all want to belong to the group of people with the money and power. "More and better politicians"? Where are they?

    We all have to refuse to accept what politicians are doing to the country. Soup kitchens and community are a start.

  7. Investing in one's self is a great theme to hit on in our consumer democracy. Keep banging away.

  8. I loved and appreciated this article. I'm right there with you on thinking a change would be afoot when Congress exchanged hands. I also must say I whole heartily agree with returning change and activism to the people's hands instead of hoping for earmarks that never come.

    As a side, I found this comment disturbing "Activism that eschews governance is doomed." I also believe that attitudes such as that perpetuate everything that is wrong with our government of the people, by the people, and for the know, it is that exact line that most people seem to forget.

  9. I've said the same thing for a number of years. Just imagine what the effort to get out of Iraq could have accomplished if all that volunteer time and money had gone into it instead of Obama's campaign. But, it's like talking to a brick wall. People that identify with the parties as a vehicle for change relate to them like sports fans relate to their favorite teams, think of the Republicans as the Celtics and the Democrats as the Lakers. Politics has been reduced to entertainment.

  10. The "Yea Team!" form of politics we're stuck with today leaves little room for nuance or principle. All candidates seem to come from the same pool of glib narcissists, no others need apply.

    The local area is the only place where the scum hasn't sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Luckily, it's also where we happen to be!

  11. Anonymous6:17 PM

    One of Obama’s campaign promises was to step up the war in Afghanistan…

    I don’t know what’s worse. Them or someone who can’t see what they are.

  12. Right.

    The Obama adminstration is moving the goalposts on Iran, making it clear that war, after a few years of crippling sanction is the goal.

    And all the 'liberal' blogs can talk about is the 'barbarian' Ron Paul.

    I too checked out Sestak's positions and was amazed that he is considered a progressive victory. He is 'pro-choice' - other than that, pretty much straightahead 'muscular liberalism' - bombs away!