Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Play Politics -- Or Take Your Ball and Go Home

One of the more interesting developments of the last few years is that President Obama seems to bring about very polarized responses within the Left -- which for current purposes I'm calling that wide swath from Clinton Democrats to doctrinaire socialists, pacifists, and the like. At least since the George W. Bush era, we have heard of increasing polarization within the US electorate: red states versus blue states, evangelicals versus "secular-progressives," the heartland versus East Coast elites. In the Bush era, the most vicious disagreements seemed to be between liberals and conservatives (again, broadly construed). As Iraq dragged on and New Orleans flooded, you could pretty much count on anyone to the left of Donald Rumsfeld to despise the Bush administration. What we have now, though, is a bit more surprising: a rift within a bloc that was unified by their anti-Bush sentiment. This unity was, it seems, as short-lived as any alliance made against an external foe -- like a Bin Laden. With the foe vanquished or vanished, all the old disputes resurface. And so it seems that among those who voted for President Obama, we now have staunch defenders who will not brook an unkind word said against the administration and disgusted partisans who consider him to be a spineless panderer or "worse than Bush."

This last claim seems inflated by hysteria. Certainly, one can find single issues on which the administration has either continued Bush policies (Guantanamo and black ops prisons), compromised with Republicans (the deal to extend tax cuts for the most wealthy), or imposed more Draconian measures of their own (immigration). However, one can also find single issues on which President Obama was able to succeed in ways that has Democratic predecessors had failed: outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, passing health care reform, mandating gender equity in pay.

Within the fraying leftish coalition is a group who decries failures of the administration to impose policies that we would like as proof of either the President's weakness or the Democratic Party's secret conservative agenda. I would say that this group does not like politics -- a strange aversion, considering how often they utter the word. Outside of autocracies, politics does not work by imposition. The process of political negotiation proceeds based on what you can get others to agree to do. Therefore you do not get everything you want -- even if you are "right." Being "right" barely enters the equation, sadly. Moreover, even when you get what you want and what is right, that victory often has unintended consequences -- foreseen and unforeseen messes that have to be cleaned up. That's why the song goes: Pressure. Persuade. Negotiate. Rinse. Repeat.

To say that participating in political life means accepting the fact of concessions does not mean that one should not hold positions. It means that the difference between pragmatism and idealism is not determined by the supposed cowardice of the pragmatist. (The loud insistence that the reason the Left has not achieved total victory lies in Obama's secret conservative ideology or well-concealed lack of vertebrae run on variations of this theme).

Idealism is a worthy game, but it is a different one from engaging in the political process. In any group situation, from a theater to a business or government, no one ever reaches the ideal. There are too many egos and ideological differences to contend with--not to mention the fact of human fallibility. But one can still get tasks accomplished in these settings. They are simply unlikely to reflect exactly any one participant's ideal. And even if one person's ideal were achieved, sustaining it becomes dependent upon the leverage and charisma associated with that personality.

That gulfs separate ideology from legislative settlement -- and both from enactment -- does not justify abandoning ideals--far from it. Still, it is time to recognize that the fight of politics takes more than simply stating the ideal with eloquence and force. It takes all the persuasion, negotiation, and concession necessary to inch (and sometimes leap) forward on important matters.

While I find the exposé style of Obama's Left-intellectual critics to be ineffective, I also cannot support the strategy of those who put their true beliefs aside and overlook the President's concessions. Disagreeing with the President's choices and demanding that the Democratic party return to some core principles is not an act of disloyalty--even in the midst of virulent right-wing attacks on the First Black PresidentTM. It's really what being a constituent is about: reminding representatives of who they represent and what we expect of them. We need not accept the rightward drift of the Democratic Party and should continue showing up and pushing in the opposite direction. Taking our ball and going home is not an option. But neither is allowing the party to ignore us.
The current Left opposition to Obama simply wants to take their ball and go home, as far as I can tell. They view the party as inherently corrupt--truly no different from the Republican party.

I think the Democratic Party is as opportunist as any poliitcal party -- certainly no less so than the Republicans. I do not think they have a consistent set of intentions (e.g., to favor corporations). The party doesn't even a consistent ideology, as we move from, say, FDR to LBJ... and arrive at Clinton and Obama. Considering that the party already has an infrastructure and name recognition, it seems a more viable and efficient plan to push the party leftward than it does to build an alternative party from the ground up. As I see it, because Democrats believe there are not sufficient votes on the Left, they continue to seek votes on the Right. Favored tactics by disgruntled members of the Democrats' coalition-- such as voting for third parties and refusing to vote at all -- amount to leaving the party in a huff and allowing them to surge farther rightward. 

Disappointed partisans on the Left (from Marxists to minority constituencies) need to take a page from the Tea Party book: that is, we need to make ourselves visible as groups of constituents with the capacity to help or damage candidates by granting or withholding our vote. Simply, we have to turn out to vote in self-identified blocs. 

Indeed, it wouldn't be damaging to have groups that organize around single issues. The NRA has been tremendously successful in this regard. I understand that single-issue voting is supposed to be a huge no-no. Most left intellectuals are opposed to analysis that doesn't take into account the interconnectedness of a global system of oppression--including everything from slavery, colonialism, rape culture, homophobia, international monetary policy, militarism and police states... and more. Again, this is an unparalleled and necessary analysis of interconnected phenomena. But the vision of a global system is not a method for overturning it in total and all at once. In fact, the fact of interconnectedness would mean that putting pressure on one point will surely have effects on the total system. Therefore, single-issue voting is not stupid or provincial. It is both practical (that is, do-able) and, perhaps, the only means of achieving social change in a complex system.

I was a student in a graduate program that, I am proud to say, was deeply invested in criticizing, refining, and extending the Marxist tradition of economic and social analysis. The department and Left-leaning intellectuals (both in universities and outside them) pride themselves on being political. But in less than a year away from radical New York, I realize that many intellectuals have confused political analysis (which we do spectacularly) with the political process. Having an accurate analysis has, unfortunately, never guaranteed the implementation of policies in accordance with it. Considering that Left intellectuals are so good at debunking myths, it is about time that we abandoned our own most cherished one that confuses intellectual debate with political persuasion. Although our political system supposedly rests upon a base of the Light of Reason, we now have ample evidence that it doesn't today--(see Palin, Bachmann, et al). Unreasonable elements have always been a part of political pageantry from campaigning to the engagement in, as it is aptly called, public service. Therefore, intellectuals -- left and right -- have to learn how to engage in politics as it is -- with our ideals in mind but understanding that it's a long slog through the mud.

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