Thursday, February 23, 2012

Que será, será

No matter who registered voters in the U.S. select to be the ruling class' spokesman for a four-year term, the coming presidential election will make very little difference to the lives of most Americans -- and non-Americans. Banks will continue to get bailed out, both overtly and by way of the tax code and other more covert means. Bombs will continue to be dropped on poor foreigners, be it in the name of humanitarianism or the fight against terrorism. The state will still serve the interests of the rich, and so on and so on.

That's not to say resistance is futile; that no matter what we do, the cause of building a better world is for naught and efforts to affect positive social change would best be abandoned. That's the caricature of the non-electoral stance one hears from partisans of the two major parties: that the rejection of voting for one of the two corporate-sponsored candidates in a presidential election is a byproduct of nihilism glossed up as radicalism; a tacit concession that, gosh, change is hard so we might as well say screw it and play some Xbox.

In fact, those of us who reject the electoral charade do so, not because we just don't give a damn, but because we see elections as a damaging distraction, a pressure-valve that enables the average American to feel they're Throwing the Bastards Out without risking any serious damage to the institutional bastardry that goes on in Washington.

But if who occupies the White House matters little in terms of tangible policy, does it follow that it matters not at all to the cause of furthering the social revolution that is necessary to build a more just, equitable world? In terms of awakening the public to the systemic fucking they are receiving and spurring people to direct action -- lobby Congress to keep my house? No, thanks, I think me and my friends just won't leave it -- does it matter which faction of the ruling elite calls dibs on the Oval Office?

Doug Henwood, of the old state-socialist left, thinks it does. He argues that reelecting Barack Obama will be good for left-wing activists as, when his second term does not usher in a new progressive era, no longer will Democrats be able to claim Republicans have a monopoly on corporatist, war-mongering evil. That, in turn, will lead more and more people to realize the systemic nature of the American problem.

Henwood's argument has a logic to it, but one can also imagine a different outcome: Should Obama be re-elected, he will continue to pursue the same establishment-friendly, banker-approved polices as he has in his first term. Rather than admit they had been fooled not once but twice, however, Democratic pundits and partisans will continue adhering to the tried and true formula of pointing to this month's latest crazy Republican, arguing -- as they always have -- that while their guy isn't perfect, at least he's not the other guy. Rinse. Repeat. Hillary 2016.

Were a Republican in office, however, there would be no confusion about who is on who's side, no clichéd anecdotes about FDR and the need to push Obama -- gently, lovingly -- to be the best Obama he can be. War, again, would be a bad thing; hell, their might even be an antiwar movement. Government collusion with major corporate polluters would spur nasty editorials in Mother Jones, as opposed to excuse-making lectures about Political Realities.

At the same time, though, were a Republican to win in November, it would likely revive the myth of a Democratic savior. While center-left opposition to war would, maybe, be a Thing again, it would as we saw with opposition to the Iraq war be a thing used to elect more and better Democrats. Soon enough, another Obama-type figure would be found to re-brand the nominally left-leaning establishment political faction and, god damn it, we'd back to where we started all over again.

And that's why, friends, insofar as there is a debate over which party in power would be better for spawning a broad-based progressive social movement, it's kind of a silly one (yes, I've just wasted your time). A second term for Obama won't in and of itself awaken the public to the bipartisan, systemic nature of American plutocracy anymore than Bill Clinton's second term did. A Republican in office might awaken the partisan left's devotion to peace and freedom again, but only until the next Democrat is in power.

When it comes to affecting positive and systemic social change, it doesn't much matter who wields political power. Indeed, what matters is that we, the powerless, recognize that it's power -- not those who possess it at a given moment -- is the root of the problems we face. And that argument, I think, can be fairly easily made no matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.


  1. Anonymous5:57 PM

    Who is President does make a significant difference in an American's life; it dictates the tone and tenor of many a conversation with friends and family.

    Other than that, no difference, of course.

  2. LorenzoStDuBois6:50 PM

    I do find it interesting the 11 dimensional chess, the jujitsu, of how electing which candidate will help the left. Maybe electing a Republican will help the left by reinvigorating opposition to right wing policies. Maybe electing a Democrat will prove that Democrats are useless. Maybe electing a Republican will further marginalize and depopularize the right. Maybe electing a Dem will allow a non-DNC left to prosper independently.

    Bottom line is, technically, it DOES make a difference who is in power. It's NOT the same. Perhaps the Repub is the drunk nutjob wielding a chainsaw in one hand, a bazooka in the other, and the Dem is an ice-cold sniper. That's different! Of course, if you're dealing with a drooling imbecile who thinks we need to elect a Dem because then he will be a liberal and make everything liberal, it is a nice blunt instrument to say it doesn't make a difference.

    And the point is taken: you're a fool if you look for salvation through which loser we elect.

  3. And if a Republican wins, we'll be blamed for the Democrats' loss, of course, not Obama.

    But it would still be better to have a Republican and have liberal opposition again. Basically three years of fake outrage at Republican policies to one year of get-out-the-vote-for-the-Democrats stuff. That's better than absolute support for whatever Obama would do.

  4. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Will the election change the overall direction of the country? No. Will it have a material effect on the welfare of millions of Americans? Yes. Chomsky is right. To hold that difference to be irrelevant is to hold the lives of those millions in contempt.

    As Charles says, the systemic argument can be made no matter who is in power. If that is true, there's no reason to play 11-dimensional chess with other people's lives.

  5. SeanLM1:28 PM

    Agreed with Anon at 1:18. Voting is close to costless for many people, especially the kind of middle class types who often make up the revolutionary left. Since it does, in fact, matter a little bit which variety of bloodstained motherfucker rules us, why not do it?

    The only objection I can think of is that you don't want to look like you are actively supporting whichever asshole wins. But this shouldn't concern a materialist, it's just a strategic move. Plus, you can always just TELL people you're only voting for Emperor X because he seemed marginally better than Y, and the real solution is to work outside the system. Your conclusion in this post only precludes elections as an avenue for revolution, it doesn't preclude voting as a strategic measure.

    I just don't see the logic in abstention at all. Is the idea that the people will see lack of participation at the voting booths as indicating the fundamental illegitimacy of the state? Please. As long as there's some minute fraction actively voting, our system will be held up as legitimate.

    Is it that by staying away from the polls, we are signaling to elites that we're sick of their bullshit and they better clean up their act and be better rulers? Again, I don't buy it.

    Honestly, you're a good writer and actually care about changing the system, so I'd like to hear what your rationale is.

  6. Anonymous2:22 PM

    how can voting, currently constituted in amerikkka, be strategic? regardless off whether or not i vote, or even i i could get all my friends and family to vote a certain way, it doesnt make a fucking difference in the outcome. the other way i could not make a fuckin difference is to not vote. that way i dont have to leave my house on voting night.
    the last time i voted (the last time ill ever vote) i just wrote in the names of my friends for every position. it didnt make a difference, but i giggled while i did it.

    but, until felons and prisoners can vote, fuck voting.

  7. SeanLM3:15 PM

    How the fuck can being a single body at a protest, or one worker trying to strike, make a difference? Collective actions are effective because they're collective; if every individual makes the same "I'm gonna stay home because I don't make a difference" calculation, the collective action fails, whether it's getting some douchebag elected or effectively occupying a building.

    If you mean that US electoral institutions are subpar, no shit. That's why I said I agree that elections can't be a vehicle for revolutionary social change. But up until the point where they are literally rigging elections instead of just stacking the deck, it allows us to select a marginally less douchey douchebag.

  8. Anonymous4:03 PM

    Since it does, in fact, matter a little bit which variety of bloodstained motherfucker rules us....

    I for one am quite glad we have dispensed with such ugly and clumsy things as proof, logic, reasoning and rhetorical quality, and instead just trade baldfaced assertions which cannot ever be proved because they're quite false and therefore insusceptible to proof.

    Those tiny distinctions really do matter. For example, if Obama doesn't win in 2012, whomever succeeds him will be SOMEONE ELSE -- literally, someone other than Obama.

    And that right there is a massive difference.

    Sure, it's a difference without a substantive distinction, but we've all agreed that what matters is naked ambition in telling a lie, not whether something could ever be proved as true or correct.


  9. I suppose I would be more inclined to vote for a lesser evil if I thought there were in fact such a thing. To my mind, the notion that Democrats, though bad, are marginally better than Republicans, particularly with respect to the most marginalized elements of society, is at this point little more than liberal lore.

    Look at Barack Obama: He not only continued his Republican predecessor's wars and assaults on civil liberties, he expanded them, killing US citizens and bombing Libya and Yemen without even a nod in Congress' direction. He's expanded the war on drugs in Latin America and attacked medical marijuana more than George Bush. He voted for and implemented a bailout of Wall Street. He capped BP's liability for damages from the Gulf oil spill and saved it from bankruptcy. His crowning progressive achievement to date is a health care law that one could easily imagine having been passed under a President Romney.

    Bill Clinton, likewise, passed NAFTA and welfare reform while bombing Serbia, Sudan and Iraq. Democrats in Congress, like Charlie Rangel and Joe Biden, led the push for the most regressive drug laws of the Reagan era. Liberal Democrats launched the wars in Korea and Vietnam; Harry Truman dropped nukes on Japan, over the objections of a future Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    Meanwhile, Bush expanded Medicare's prescription drug coverage, worked with Ted Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind, and increased federal spending at a faster rate than any president since LBJ. Dick Nixon gave us OSHA and the EPA, of which I hear Democrats are quite fond.

    That Democrats are marginally better than Republicans is taken for granted, but there's not a whole lot of evidence for it. Once you get past the rhetoric, which the ruling factions of power tailor to their respective bases, the policies are at best the same. History shows they are often even worse under a Democrat. Left-wing criticism is muted under a Clinton or Obama, tribal party loyalty proving to be more powerful than principle, and reactionary policies that'd provoke howls under a Republican are rationalized or even cheered by the liberal faithful. An exploitive system of state capitalism is given a kinder, gentler face.

    Voting isn't a mortal sin, but I see it as only adding perceived legitimacy to an illegitimate system. It does aren't matter how deeply you may loathe the alleged lesser evil so long as you end up voting for it. And why put yourself in that position when the notion that Democrats are marginally better than Republicans is at best a contentious theory?

  10. SeanLM5:05 PM

    I appreciate you taking the time to spell out your views.

    I'll take the criticisms on Presidents since their wheelhouse - national security and enforcement of laws - makes them all fairly pernicious, but DW-Nominate scores show even the most right-wing Democrats vote left of Republicans the majority of the time. The range of differences of opinion among the elites is narrow, sure, but whether some kid has an Upward Bound program or not, or whether a person on benefits gets 3 months or 6 months worth of support, makes a real difference in those people's lives. To the extent there's any difference at all, I feel like it's worth it to go ahead and cast the vote, especially since it costs so little.

    Again, I don't see how even if everyone on the left stopped voting this would substantially hurt the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of most Americans. Most people already don't vote, and no one seems to think it's a big deal. The court academics will chalk it up to economic rationality, or something.

    We're actually getting somewhere with the tribal loyalty angle: I agree that most liberals and even some leftists have been two-faced about the Obama administration's reactionary policies and that there'd be more of an outcry among "progressives" if Republicans were in power. But would the outcry really result in anything other than another Obama?

  11. SeanLM5:56 PM

    I looked over my previous posts and see that I come off as pretty shrill, so to be clear I'm not a Party sheepdog who believes it is the moral duty of all good comrades to vote for the Democrats or whatever. I've just never found any arguments against voting to be all that convincing, so I was curious to hear an articulate opinion on the subject.

  12. I don't think it's wise to vote for a lesser evil -- they can turn out to be just as or more evil, and with respect to Democrats it bolsters their (not unjustified) belief that they can do any reactionary thing they want so long as a "worse" Republican is out there -- but, all told, I suppose there's more horrible things one could do than sneaking out of the house and begrudgingly pulling the lever for some politician. My real problem is with those who see voting not as, at best, a small part of the struggle for social change, but the key, culminating part of the struggle.

    Look at any big liberal blog and see how much time and energy is devoted to elections; primaries and presidential campaigns dwarf the coverage of protests and citizen activism, and not just during election years. Energy and resources that could be put toward, say, building alternative media outlets or community health clinics go instead to helping elect some person who even many partisans, when pushed, will concede is only marginally less evil than the person they're running against.

    Boycotting the vote, and loudly proclaiming the whole process illegitimate, is a way to counter this misdirection. Again, I don't think voting makes one Counter-Revolutionary, but I don't see it making much of an impact. And insofar as it serves as encouragement for the politicians and partisans who come out from their rocks every two to four years to preach about the Most Important Election Ever, whatever impact it does have is decidedly negative.

  13. SeanLM1:35 PM

    100% agreed on how out of wack people's priorities are when it comes to elections. Bill Maher just announced he's going to donate a million dollars to Obama's campaign - I used to work for a direct services organization, and when I think about how much could be accomplished for actually decent human beings with that kind of money, it makes my blood boil.

    At any rate, I appreciate the food for thought.

  14. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Voting isn't a mortal sin, but I see it as only adding perceived legitimacy to an illegitimate system.

    The crux.

  15. Sean LM:

    ...Voting is close to costless for many people, especially the kind of middle class types who often make up the revolutionary left. Since it does, in fact, matter a little bit which variety of bloodstained motherfucker rules us, why not do it?...

    I voted for Bonnie Prince Billy once, and honestly, I think it ended up costing myself and millions of other supposed middle-class "revolutionaries" a hell of a lot, thankyouverymuch.

    Holy shit, but I'm sick and tired of being told that I can prove how much I care about the defenseless downtrodden by giving just one more vote pretty pretty pretty please to some shit like Obama, Pelosi, Clinton I, Clinton II, or whatever equally smug self-satisfied asshole Democrat is holding court locally. IOW, these people demonstrate repeatedly that they do not, in fact, give a shit about my own decline and that of millions of other "middle class" types. And yet, voting for pious assholes who are proven to not care is going to somehow prove that I care. And in the process, it's going to put me one or perhaps one thousand steps closer to joining the ranks of the defenseless downtrodden helpless citizenry that my vote is magically supposed to protect from further pain...?

    Give me a damn break, already.

  16. I suppose you could burn your own village down and shamble off into the woods..(don't worry I know you won't publish this, you ARE a Greenwaldian after all)

  17. Anonymous11:27 PM

    What is it that John Dean said,
    something about how voting should be "compulsory" right after Bush vs Gore.

    He was talking about the ever srinking voter turn-out of course.

    But this NOT a question of a lesser evil rather, which vast evil to vote for. I'm tired of voting criminal for president and so I want no part of it.

    That said, I have to wonder if it would effect the electorate to see that MOST Americans were NOT on board with ANYTHING going on in Washington. I'm indeed expect the lowest voter turnout EVER in this nations history. A vast nation of the despondent for that is what we are now.

    Why reward evil people with a vote? I will not, I can not.