Twas the night before the election and all through the progressive house…
- So it is election eve and like most rational people I am waiting with bated breath for this whole damn thing to be over. It is exhausting to say the least to have an election cycle that for all intents began on January 20th 2009 and has moved with a slow, relentless, pulverizing momentum that only enormous amounts of time and money can produce, until today it consumes everything in its path. I am done at so many levels with this election and yet whatever the outcome on Tuesday, I know that it will begin again almost immediately. Permanent campaigning is not, to borrow a phrase from my Occupy friends “what democracy looks like”.
- We are being told again by both sides that this is simply the most important election in history and that any sense of cynicism and apathy about the process is a form of betrayal. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in voting, even in voting when I don’t like either candidate, but I think it is legitimate to ask if the vast majority of Americans are really being served by the election system we have now.
- If I need to explain why Mitt Romney would make an awful president then you probably got to this blog by accident and should redirect to Gawker or NFL.com or whatever. Yes, Romney would be a disaster piled on the disasters that have come before and in that context voting for the president to keep Romney out of the White House is an understandable position to take in this cycle. My friends on what passes for the hard left these days make a good point that participating in the system merely gives the system legitimacy and helps to perpetuate it. By system, they often mean the WHOLE system, capitalism, democratic republicanism, hell private property etc. I don’t necessarily roll that way, but I feel like I do perceive a fundamental truth in what they say. As a progressive I often feel left out of the discussion within the large tent of Democratic politics. They make the right noises, but they often don’t come through for us and they are confident that we’ll show up to volunteer and contribute and vote for them because we don’t want the latest flavor of conservative crazy to win control of the government. We can look no further back than the presidency of George W. Bush for an example. Al Gore was not very exciting, and a lot of folks on the left especially after a pretty exhausting Clinton administration that had veered ever to the vanishing center, wanted to send a message… enter Ralph Nader and hanging chads and the Supreme Court and bam, there was George Bush. We were told that Bush and Gore were exactly the same and I suppose that from the vantage point of the Comintern they were, but the practical results were awful for our nation and for most of us as individuals, not to mention all the people around the world who died because we had the wrong guy in the White House. So yeah, elections matter. Gore, I am confident, would not have done what Bush did… But.
- This has been a pretty bad cycle indeed. In 2008 a lot of people poured their hopes and dreams and their decade long frustrations into the person of Barack Obama and that vessel could not contain them. I think that Obama’s presidency has been competent in light of the challenges he faced entering office. He followed what more and more is looking like the worst presidency in at least 150 years and maybe ever. He inherited a nation in the midst of an economic collapse the likes of which had not been seen in 70 years, embroiled in two unpopular, failed wars and riven by a deep and abiding political schism in which one party seemed to be going more and more off the rails while the other muddled along trying to clean up the mess like the long-suffering spouse in an abusive relationship. I think the president is a decent person, I can’t help but like him at that level. He’s educated, deliberative and nuanced in his thinking. And as a 52-year-old progressive, I got to do something in electing him that I honestly did not think would happen in my lifetime. I retain a residual affection for Mr. Obama that will not go away soon and that colors my perception of him. My friends on the left scoff at this sort of thing, but it is real and it is important, and of course I am also as susceptible as the next person to the US vs. THEM, often sports team conflated dichotomy that has come to be the central part of American politics: I acknowledge that I want Obama to win partially because I want to make the bad guys suck it!
- So I’d rather have a second Obama term than a Romney term, but make no mistake, Obama has failed on several crucial fronts that I don’t think he had to, and I am deeply disappointed in him. I largely give him a pass on the economy; there are forces at work right now that no president can control and certainly not in one term with a do-nothing Congress. The original stimulus was too small by half and people knew it at the time, but the president still seemed to think that he could horse trade with the GOP in Congress or compel them through this famously strong rhetorical arguments. Much of the stimulus got wasted in useless tax cuts to try to woo people who already seemed to actively hate him personally. His policies and those of the FED and yes, the “bailout” (I know, I know), probably kept us out of the Great Depression part II, but the recovery has been weak and Europe remains in trouble and it feels like we missed a chance to change things for the better and make the people who caused this actually pay. We needed systemic change, an end to the failed policies of the last 3 decades and real economic growth based on higher wages and better benefits for workers and less on corporate profits. Obama should have been stronger in making the Democrats in Congress do serious work on banking and financial reform but he wasn’t, either because he couldn’t or he didn’t want to – pick your flavor. Dodd/Frank is a start of sorts, but it is very weak and could have been better just by going back to the rules that worked so well for half a century between FDR and Reagan. Maybe this wasn’t politically possible, but it sure would have looked better if Obama had not filled his administration with bankers from Goldman Sacks and other Wall Street insiders, as in the case with the economy and healthcare, perceptions matter, and it sure looked like business as usual to a lot of us on the left.
- Healthcare is a case in point: Obama took his sizable election capital after 2008 and invested it in the first substantive healthcare overhaul since the 1960s. Obamacare is flawed, but it is a real step forward. It is also probably about as good a deal as the American people were likely to get despite the Democratic control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. But because the president didn’t want to make the mistake many thought that the Clintons had made in 1992, he decided to farm out the work to Congress which isn’t very good at writing or passing sweeping legislation anymore, unless it involves curtailing civil liberties. He also threw away a lot of what progressives wanted at the outset. He made deals with the pharmaceutical industry that kept them largely on the bench through this process which was smart politics but muddied his message. While Speaker Pelosi delivered the House without much problem, in the Senate we were treated to all the pork-barrel and Christmas tree lawmaking that Congress is infamous for. The president got a bill eventually but at tremendous political cost, and instead of being able to claim a victory he got slapped by just about everyone including progressive who were furious that he never even brought up “single payer”, not even to bargain away. Worse, Obamacare as it is now being called by everyone (I think the GOP may come to regret that choice of words), will be the last piece of major healthcare legislation for years to come. No one wants to fight that fight again on the Hill and so whatever chance we had at Medicare-for-all is gone for a decade or more and perhaps will have to wait till the baby-boomers are gone and the system readjusts.
- Of course for many progressives it is the president’s abysmal civil liberties record that galls the most. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should have been impeached and removed from office, and they should have stood trial for war crimes for the things they did while in office. I don’t care about motivation or incompetence or whatever, the Bush administration has done terrible lasting damage to the concept of the rule of law in this country and just being remembered as a crappy president isn’t enough frankly. By that measure Barack Obama should also have a day in the docks. He promised to close Gitmo and never did. He claimed to end torture, but his administration has allowed a dangerous and continued opacity in intelligence matters and is perhaps even more secretive it is dealings in our new Cold War than the Bushies. I see no reason to believe them even if I am more inclined to support them. The drone war is a foreign relations and human rights disaster and has very troubling connotations for policing and surveillance in our own country. The security and surveillance state has only grown under this presidency and in signing the NDAA with its controversial language authorizing the president to selectively kill American citizen without charges or trial, we saw a further, shocking disregard for the Constitution (from a guy who taught constitutional law, for crying out loud), and constitutes a reasonable explanation alone for why so many progressives are seriously thinking about sitting the election out. What can I say to them? Romney would be worse? It’s clearly true, but is a lousy answer all the same.
- But I can’t sit out the election because Romney WOULD be worse. A lot worse, I think. This president has been disinterested in pushing for action on climate change which is probably our biggest national threat going forward, but he has put more money into clean energy than anyone before him. I think we have a better chance to save Social Security and Medicare with Obama in the White House than Romney and Ryan. I think we have a better chance of avoiding more conflicts in the Middle East with Obama than Romney, who has hired the entire discredited Bush foreign policy team to advise him. And we have a better chance of keeping women’s reproductive choice legal, over-turning Citizens United, saving the EPA, getting equal rights for gay people, relying on science instead of superstition, and coming up with a sane immigration policy with Obama in the White House and Obama nominating the next couple Supreme Court justices.
- So what do we do Wednesday? Both parties will begin gearing up for mid-terms in 2014 and of course the next presidential cycle in 2016. I am not exaggerating. As progressives we can bow out, we can sign the occasional petition and go to the occasional rally when it is something we feel strongly about and so then in 2016 we can lament that no one is talking about our issues. We can say, oh it is all too hard and everyone is a liar and if only we could be like Egypt or Spain or something. We can wring our hands and complain and wait for some new leader to come along… or we can do what many of us have started to do. We can continue to organize ourselves, we can join forces across ideology and special interest, we can use the levers of power and we can vote with our wallets and our feet as well as our ballots. You know this may seem odd, but for some time I have looked at the way the Christian fundamentalist community does its business with a certain sense of awe. In many regards, they are just awful, but they are very organized, they are relentless, they rebound quickly from defeat, they compromise when practical but they stick with their core goals and they are in it for the long haul. They support their friends and they punish their enemies in the extreme. Without wanting to be them, I can say that there is a lot to learn from them. So many on the left want a movement outside conventional politics, well the fundies tried that and it didn’t work; now they have largely co-opted the Republican Party and the conservative movement. They don’t have complete control, but they are a real force to reckon with such that the bankers and the apparatchiks have to deal with them. They fuel the Tea Party and they make sure their ideas, no matter how outlandish, get into the mainstream discussion, and they require adherence to the party line even when it means losing temporarily. They have their own media system, their own entertainment and business community that exist in a strange parallel universe to popular culture as a whole. They used to be mocked and taken for granted by the Republican leadership, who said what the hard right wanted to hear at election time and then did as they pleased. That is no longer the case and there are lessons for the secular left that bear learning if we are to get more out of our troubled relationship with the Democrats.
- I know some folks want that separation. They dream of a European system where tiny splinter parties have outsized power. Good luck with that. Frankly, I’d rather have two large centrist parties where national consensus and compromise are the rule, than one where unreconstructed Bolsheviks and Neo Nazis can cast meaningful votes – but that’s just me. By the way, I don’t necessarily think that is what we have now, in fact I think we have a fun-house mirror version of that these days, and that won’t change until the GOP is punished at the polls for acting like spoiled, kind of crazy children and the Democrats learn there’s a price to pay for walking away from their base. I think we have to make Democrats take us seriously by offering them the carrot of our support with real strings attached and punishing them when they go astray. Part of this means building an infrastructure that finds and nurtures progressive candidates and gets them elected at the local level (which is how the conservatives do it), training them and cultivating them and building a structure that supports them when they are out of office as well. A lot of this sort of thing sounds too messy, too much like playing by someone else’s rules for my hard left friends who dream of general strikes and popular uprisings. In some ways, I’m with them. I’ve walked on picket lines and spoken at demos and I will again. But I also helped found APV because waiting for some organic moment when the dialectic shift and a new thesis emerges is not for me. I want to fight back, and to do that you need the right tools and you need to master the terrain. So I’ll be voting on Tuesday and I’ll be back at work on Wednesday whoever wins.