politics is to want something

søndag, mars 29, 2009

In Defense of Partisanship: Part One, All Politics is Political

Americans love to hate political parties. From the founding of the Republic, parties have been seen as dangerous barriers standing between people and their government. Parties are left completely out of the design of the state as constructed by the Constitution, and early American writing on politics treated their inevitable formation as an almost pathological social problem. As we all know, President Obama plays this stream of public opinion masterfully, even if his “post-partisanship” looks a little strange in the face of Republican discipline in Congress.
Personally, I’m a big fan of parties, mostly because I’m a big fan of organizing as a tool for generally less powerful people to tip the scales in their favor. I certainly understand the allure of politics without parties. Watching cable TV news makes even hardened politicos like me wish for a world with less polarization and conflict. But this longing is a mistake.
At the core of the anti-party argument is a quintessentially American evasion of the political. From the Founding Fathers through to the remarkably successful turn-of-century Progressive movement, we have labored under the utopian notion that there exists a discoverable, apolitical “common good” that is obscured and threatened by corruption, partisanship and self-interest. This thread of American political thought is reflected in contemporary appeals for politicians to “put aside their differences” and just “do what’s right” or “fix all the problems”. A more sinister version of this same desire to rise above politics can be seen in totalitarianisms of both the Right and the Left: if you hand the state over to the right “Folk” or class, politics will simply disappear.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a single “common good”. We don’t all agree on what the best solution is for a problem, or even what the problems are. That’s not a bad thing. What one person sees as the good society would be a dystopia for another. The world that John McCain wants to live in is substantively different than the world that Howard Dean wants to live in. They may agree on sugar imports, but such questions don’t necessarily define their politics. This is true even at the most local level, long a site of the most extreme illusions of non-partisanship. A libertarian small business owner, a hippie and a construction worker may all agree that potholes should be filled. However, despite the old adage, there are, in fact liberal and conservative ways of filling those potholes. Income tax? Parcel tax? Privatized road maintenance? These are all options that imply ideological preference and have huge social and economic repercussions.
Thus, all politics is political. In a democratic society, the way we go about making these decisions is by allowing citizens to choose between policies, even if this is done through representatives. In the United States, however, too often we don’t actually choose between policies or even ideas- we choose strictly between people. “Vote the man (sic), not the party” is so widely held a notion that it sounds almost un-American to disagree.
But voting for individuals doesn’t eliminate those difficult political decisions, it just takes it out of the hands of the voter. Instead of voting based on policy preferences, or even small but effective clues as to policy preferences like party identification, legally nonpartisan elections or “post-partisan” political culture encourages votes based on any number of pieces of information: name recognition (which can be bought), charisma, cultural affinity, gender biases or ethnicity.
Before I get accused of blatant idealism, let me also say that of course, there are also fundamentally competing interests in society. The point here, as well, is that the balance of those interests is achieved through politics. Nowadays, every politician everywhere hopes to score points with the electorate by denouncing “special interests”. What is almost hilariously obvious, however, is that the only common definition of “special interest” appears to be interests which the given politician opposes. Just as “pork” is any sum of money not spent in your own district, any group that you don’t like becomes a “special interest”. Here’s the thing: labor and business are competing interests, as are environmentalists and agribusiness. To the extent that government has a role in mediating those competing interests, we shouldn’t seek to depoliticize the process.
The idea of a disinterested, neutral set of elected officials serving as judges deciding which of these interests will prevail is as fundamentally undemocratic as it is unlikely. If the role of elected officials is to reflect the will of the people, elected officials should be voted in or out based on their views of how these interests should be balanced. Parties play a role in this process, as well, giving voters a clear sense of which collection of interests a politician is aligned with.
In the next section of this essay, I will look at the consequences of the restraints we’ve put on party activity. Of particular interest is the rise of nonpartisan voting systems at the local level, which has lowered voter turnout and advantaged candidates with strong social and financial capital. California’s Progressive experiment with effectively eliminating partisanship at the State Legislative level, thus handing governance over to industry lobbyists is another important case.

The "S" Word and it's strange American Career

“Christ, do I hate socialism and socialists. Scum like Daraka - esp. his spiritual brethren running the Legislature - are why I left CA in the first place.”
- Joseph Turner, comment on Flashreport.com

Socialism. Is there a more dreaded word in American politics? Judging from the talking points of Republicans and their cheerleaders, there just couldn’t be. Granted, the histrionics over at Fox News does remind one of a hundred Chicken Littles with a hundred little doomsday messages. When everything is a sign of the sky falling, it’s hard to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, the argument that the Obama Administration is leading the country on a long march to socialism is pretty unavoidable nowadays.
As is generally the case in the facile world of American political discourse, one can find a lot of irony in conservatives’ over-use of the “socialism” charge. Last Fall, it was easy to hear Sarah Palin boast that in her bucolic State, natural resources are owned by the “people of Alaska”, and so it’s only natural that every Citizen receives an annual check paid from oil receipts. She would then go on to snidely readbait the bejeezus out of Obama’s health care, taxation and public investment plans. I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if some crazy Democrat ran for Governor of California calling for the people to take ownership over our considerable natural resources. I think it’s a safe bet that someone, probably someone who voted for Sarah Palin, would call that crazy Democrat a socialist.
In the minds of most Americans, “socialism” is at worst a synonym for totalitarian Communism, and at best some dangerously European government-run threat to cherished freedoms. Such a perception exists hand in hand with majority support for national health insurance, well-funded public education and a public hand in guiding financial markets- a fact that today’s Republican Party leaders are painfully aware of. It’s that visceral reaction to the word itself that has made it the go-to talking point for tearing down even modestly progressive policies over the past century. When you can’t beat it on its face, just call it names.
And so, conservatives use the word to tar almost any policy they don’t like- whether or not it has anything to do with anything any real-life socialist would advocate. Lately, the gigantic bailout packages being pushed by the Obama Administration are the main targets. Nevermind that spending a lot of money isn’t in itself socialist policy: if it were, Ronald Reagan would be the movement’s poster boy. To the extent that there is any consensus about what socialism actually is, it boils down to democratic control of the economic power-levers. Dumping a gazillion dollars into private firms with scant oversight (let alone public control) may be smart or stupid, but it sure as hell isn’t socialism.
Conservative ire is a little closer to the mark when it comes to Obama’s proposed budget. Thankfully, the Administration’s spending priorities are certainly more social than those of the Bush/Hastert era. Still, spending more money on education, infrastructure and social programs doesn’t make a body socialist. Calling it so reveals a lot about just how far to the right the Republican Party actually is.
In response to these old canards, the Obama administration has stuck to its own proven formula of painting the opposition as hopelessly ideological and their own policy priorities as eminently pragmatic. However, in more progressive precincts, it’s not uncommon to hear almost private mumblings of “if only…” To this point, Robert Scheer has written a wonderful piece about the missed opportunities of the Administration’s expensive but not expansive recovery agenda (be sure to read the comments). The Nation recently featured a surprisingly disappointing “debate” between progressives over the relevance of socialism in today’s political reality.
Perhaps the most illuminating debate, however, is the one brewing between the Obama Administration and European leaders- in which Obama’s calls for massive, internationally-coordinated stimulus spending is meeting a cold reaction from Continental governments, most of them led by parties of the Right and Center Right. While some American conservatives point and say “aha!, the President is even more socialist than those froo-froo eurosocialists”, the facts point to something significantly different at the root of the disagreement. According to many European leaders, the strong social safety nets and regulatory regimes prevalent in Europe make gigantic spending packages less urgent. In most industrialized countries, spikes in unemployment aren’t the catastrophes they are in the United States, where private health care, chaotic housing markets and a dogged refusal to consistently support domestic industry conspire to create the cycle of misery the Obama Administration is working hard to stave off. To oversimplify: they don’t need emergency “socialism” in Europe because they already have something closer to the real thing. I don’t remember my 8th grade English lessons well enough to say that that is an “irony”, but there is definitely something poetic going on.
These differences get at the real tragedy behind our current political predicament. If it weren’t so easy to derail progressive policy by painting it red, we might have more institutions that would make the present crisis easier to manage. Why do they have these mechanisms in other countries? Not because Europeans are any smarter, more sophisticated or just plain cooler than Americans- it’s because political parties and social movements influenced by socialism have been a powerful part of the democratic order everywhere but here. I don’t know that the “s” word will ever be a normalized part of the political debate in the United States, or that it is worth expending much energy on rehabilitating it, but I do know that we are poorer because of its vilification.
Truth be told, there actually are socialists in the United States, and some of them are Democrats or support Democratic candidates. Among progressive intellectuals, there isn’t the same reflexive fear of the vocabulary of socialism as there is in the realm of electoral politics, which is a mixed blessing. More generally, there are scores of constituencies (and at least one whole State) which have chosen to elect representatives who either embrace or are nonplussed about the socialist label. Republicans worked hard to redbait Ron Dellums, but Berkeley and Oakland sent him back to Washington year after year.
Here’s the dirty secret, conservatives: it’s true that the left of the Democratic Party would be right at home in mainstream parties labeled “Socialist” or “Labor” in other countries. So what? These aren’t wacky fringe parties: they win elections and achieve important victories for environmental, social and economic sanity. They include such subversive enemies of freedom as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. Incidentally, any honest mapping the politics of the Republican right, which includes open calls for religious-based government, justifications for torture, appeals to racism, and a crude Social Darwinism onto politics abroad would produce interesting results as well. Take a conservative Republican and throw them into Italian politics, and it would be hard to avoid the F word. No, not that one.
The gut-punch impact of the socialist label provides delicious possibilities for sound-bite politics on the right. Any connections between “admitted” socialists and Democratic politicians are put to wide use. If you can dig deep enough and find a purported socialist supporting a Democrat, that’s proof positive that they are socialists, too. Thus, the fact that Barbara Ehrenreich supported Obama, however critically, means that Obama is, well, you get the point. On a tiny scale, I’ve seen this dynamic first hand (again, don’t miss the comments).
Like full-blown McCarthyism, the chilling effect of this tactic is part of a deliberate strategy to marginalize any policy positions that don’t conform to the anti-government orthodoxy of modern conservatism. Unfortunately, it means that for survival’s sake, there is an understandable tendency for Democrats to give the stiff arm to the left. What’s most perverting about this system is that as a matter of course, the same thing doesn’t happen to elements of the Republican Party which embrace views are no less radical. The end result is a massive skewing of political discourse to the right, even though on individual policies, there is deep support for many of the left’s ideas.
The chill runs deep. In fact, as I write this little essay on my little blog, I’m painfully aware of the fact that everything I say can and will be used against me in a context not of my choosing. So, why write it? Because I agree with Robert Scheer- it’s just stupid to ignore the good things that socialist movements have achieved throughout the world because Newt Gingrich or John Fleishman will call people names.
This would all be strictly late night beer or coffee sort of discussion if it weren’t for a coming political battle that will put this dynamic front and center: health care. Achieving the humiliatingly overdue goal of universal health care will test the mettle of the Obama administration. We are likely to produce a more expensive, less efficient, less universal system in part because our side will be afraid of the inevitable name-calling.
Michael Moore’s Sicko (which I liked a lot) did a reasonable job of dramatizing the mobilization of anti-socialist rhetoric in the scuttling of several waves of health care reform efforts. The footage of Ronald Reagan’s first foray into politics as a shill for the insurance lobby should be required viewing. Moore’s film raised the important points that passing national health care doesn’t lead a country to socialism, and, once established, national health systems or national insurance systems become quite popular and durable- kinda like Social Security, which was also denounced as a red Trojan Horse in it’s day. But Sicko held back on marking an equally important fact- in almost every case, national health care systems were adopted because of governance by (or pressure from) movements that were not afraid of the “s” word.
In other words, you don’t have to be a socialist to think that health care for all is a worthy social goal. But in the coming months, you might wish that someone would stand up and say “so what?” when good policy is called bad because it carries a whiff of socialism.

fredag, november 21, 2008

Mandate. Mandate. Mandate.

It’s still all sinking in. Three States in the old Confederacy in the Democratic column for a black President. Striking distance from cloture in the Senate. A Republican Party stuck in clichéd states like “disarray” and “the Wilderness”. Huge voter turnout. And then there’s that single electoral vote in Nebraska. Absolutely fabulous. Am I happy? Yes, the grumpy, skeptical old man here is actually happy. And I’m not alone.

It’s a bit creepy, but nonetheless understandable that people are posting webcam footage of themselves crying with joy and elation. Jon Stewart was only half kidding- people do seem genuinely happier post-election, at least in the half of the country that wasn’t ever on board with the Bush-Rove experiment. There is dancing, literally and figuratively, in the streets.

But not so fast, blue America. Here come the killjoys. Beginning on election night, the punditocracy took to the airwaves to declare that, historic as it was, November 4th should not be seen as a mandate for “liberal” ideology, or even for Democrats as a Party. The country, their argument goes, did not shift to the left. Just like the “market”, another useful fiction, the “electorate” simply corrected itself, making up for an unwholesome shift to the right led by overzealous ideologues in the Republican Party. After all, voters passed homophobic ballot measures alongside Obama, and the Democrats only picked up a “few” seats in Congress. President-elect Obama is a pragmatist, not a progressive (as if these two things are mutually exclusive), and look- he’s appointing insiders and moderates to key positions.

This argument would hold some water if John McCain and Sarah Palin had run a different campaign. But they didn’t. Aside from their desperate ad hominem attacks in the final weeks, the Republican standard bearers made this election a referendum on Reaganomics. They did precisely what I had hoped our side would do, what Obama has always seemed unwilling to do himself. By responding to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression with a strict diet of anti-government platitudes (somewhat muddled at times, to be sure), McCain and especially Palin gave Obama a tremendous opportunity to put a basic and clear choice to the American people. To his credit, Obama did a masterful job of underlining that choice, of articulating a decisive break with the tired approaches of the past. Significantly, he criticized the blind worship of the “free market” on display in both parties. Then those same people gave him as strong and clear an answer one could hope for. Sorry folks, they gave him a mandate.

You can’t label your opponent’s proposals as radical, redistributionist, even “socialist” on Monday, and then when he wins on Tuesday say that people really didn’t vote for a real shift in economic policy. The exit polls are clear- people are ready to finally bury Milton Freedman. The only question is whether Obama will really get out the shovel.

Given, no mandate is a blank check. The expanded Democratic base is more socially conservative, more working class and even blacker and browner than it would have been with a smaller victory. That raises challenges for those of us who are as committed to social equality as we are to economic justice. But to argue that because we lost on gay rights in three states means that Obama should be cautious on health care, financial regulation or job creation is just plain duplicitous. Any majority to be built in a nation as large and diverse as the United States will be riddled with contradictions. I’m happy to have to deal with those contradictions if it means cutting into the Republican coalition.

The big question now, however, is whether January 21st Obama will be as bold as November 4th Obama was in seizing the opportunities given him by an economic crisis and the collapse of support for conservative policy frameworks. The last Democratic President had a similar, if less dramatic set of opportunities. It was the economy and health care in 1992 as well. Let’s hope it’s November 4th Obama and not the stack of Clintonistas piling up around him that will take the reins in January.


onsdag, mars 19, 2008

Heh Heh

your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams

“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

- Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave one of the most important speeches in recent American political history. In a different climate, with a different media and surrounded by a different presidential race, Obama’s speech would be seen as what it was: a paradigm-shifting argument about the nature of America, her many ills and their possible solutions. Instead, like a Beatles song used to sell sneakers, his words have been analyzed, cut and repackaged as nothing more than a response to an immediate threat to his position in the electoral horse-race. It was, after all, a response to yet another in a series of campaign-associate-says-something-stupid “scandals”.

Of course, there was a lot of beauty, art and thoughtfulness in yesterday’s watershed speech. His personal reflections and honesty about his family were incredibly touching. Even though few can directly relate to being a person of color who has to grapple with racist comments from their white family members (such a joy), Obama’s characteristic rhetorical genius was to tell such stories in such a way that it felt universal. His willingness to be nuanced and brazenly intellectual was amazing. His analysis of racial discourse, taking the media to task for their dumbing down of all talk of racism in America was masterful. I was especially energized to hear him call out conservative iterators’ cynical entries into the conversation. That was all great. But the big news is that Obama finally made an argument about what his movement really is.

As I’ve said before, the Reverend Wright-inspired attacks on Obama will continue to plague him should he win the Democratic nomination. White America has discovered, almost at once, that Obama is, indeed, a black person, and like most black folks, has been in rooms full of other black people who will articulate an embittered account of racial injustice in America. For many, many white voters, that’s scary and off-putting. White people, we all know, tend to be somewhat touchy on the subject, which is why the national memory has cleansed even hard-fought struggles like the Civil Rights movement of anything remotely threatening.

And so, as a response, Obama could have taken the easy way out. Say what you will about the mean-spirited will behind Geraldine Ferraro’s comments, but she’s not wrong that loads of white folks were willing (and some excited) to vote for Obama because he seemed to absolve them of having to face the reality of black anger. Obama could have tried to sprint back into that cozy space, thrown his Pastor under the bus and moved on. He could have tried to stiff-arm a part of his constituency in that patently Democratic way that Party leaders have done to labor, African Americans and others for decades. He could have taken a cue from Colin Powell. He could have continued to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. as if King were a religious Bill Cosby. His speech could have called upon America to simply “transcend” race, as many of the headlines today misreport.

Instead, Barack Obama did something remarkable. He explained black anger. Then he did something even more remarkable. He explained white anger. And then he did something I haven’t heard him do in a long time. Instead of simply stating that anger is bad and unity is good, he explained why such anger, while understandable, is a mistake. He did that by talking about class.

Why shouldn’t black people pull away from the political process and be cynical about working together with whites? Because to do so is both pessimistic and unrealistic. Progress comes from coalition-building and struggle. Why shouldn’t white working-class people believe the racist scapegoating of the Right? Because it isn’t poor communities of color who deny their health care, destroy their schools and ship their jobs away. In a way, with this speech, Barack Obama wholly adopted the John Edwards narrative, and then radically improved on it. Finally, he named an enemy, however carefully: a “corporate culture” of greed and inequality, backed by a political opposition that deliberately sows disunity in order to protect that culture. He named this enemy, however, in the context of directly addressing the salient and tangible realities of race. It was a class appeal, albeit a very American one. And that’s a good thing. Nothing else would make any sense

This is a shift in Obama’s narrative. He has always called for, and certainly embodied a notion of reconciliation along racial lines, and, at his most distressing, he has spoken much about coming together across party lines to “deal” with challenges and problems facing the nation. That has always disturbed me, as I find such attempts to depoliticize politics to be dangerous and demobilizing. I must confess that while many of my friends swooned over his entreaties to “come together” and “move beyond the divisions of the past”, it has sounded to me like a song about triangulation sung to the tune of kumbaya. He’s always said that we are our “sister’s keeper”, but now he’s translated that familiar Christian notion into a political argument. We should come together because there are opponents whose pursuit of their own narrow interests poses a real and common threat. That’s an important caveat to the call for unity. In religious terms, it’s the difference between the Opus Dei and Liberation Theology, between throwing charity at people and throwing the money changers out of the temple.

This shift may not be enough to push through to beating John McCain. However, it was more than enough to make me very glad indeed that I voted for Barack Obama. I pray that Senator Clinton will be smart enough not to take any of this as bait.

fredag, mars 14, 2008

Notes on the Primary Process

Very quickly, I'd like to answer questions I've gotten about my opinion of the Primary process in the context of the likely scenario of a contested Democratic Convention.

As all my regular readers know, I am not a huge fan of primary elections in general, especially with the added antidemocratic practice of opening them to non-Democrats. The primary election process, promoted by liberal and reformist Democrats as a way of destroying the cartels and machines of old-school Democratic politics has, as these things tend to do, completely backfired. Instead of tightly controlled regional and urban machines, the power in the Democratic Party, as in all of American politics, flows in the form of campaign dollars. Our primary elections have degenerated along with the rest of our political process into battles based on spending power and charisma.

All of that being said, the Party has led millions of voters to believe that the primary elections and caucuses are meaningful. That's why they've turned out in droves, doubling, tripling even raising by an order of magnitude voter turnout in States across the country. We are going to need that energy in the coming general election, no matter who our Nominee is.

The worst possible thing that our party could do would be to allow Superdelegates to flip the outcome of the nomination process away from the results of the state-level caucuses and primaries. It may be legal, it may be exactly why Superdelegates were created, but it would be a horrible mistake.

And let me be clear: I think this is true no matter who comes into the convention with more delegates. There will be no way to untangle or disprove large scale feelings of sexist or racist power-brokering if party officials are seen to be responsible for blocking the first black or first female President from advancing. Let's not do that.

Likewise, I completely support efforts to find an equitable way of including delegates from Florida and Michigan, but only with some method that allows voters or caucus-goers in those states to chose from among all the candidates still contesting the election. The Clinton campaign's cynical claim that the delegations should be seated as-is is honestly laughable. However, she and others in the party are completely right that going into the general election having burned two state's worth of Democrats (one of them ever-crucial Florida) would be foolish.

Etiketter: ,

Jeremiah and Geraldine

Barack Obama is a black man. Hillary Clinton is a white woman. I'm sorry to break this news, but it's true. Ask them.
In recent weeks, two figures affiliated with the rivals have engendered passionate denunciations for essentially stating the above uncontested truths. True, some of what has come out of Geraldine Ferraro's mouth has been appallingly insensitive to the realities of racism in the United States, and Pastor Jeremiah Wright's now infamous sermon about Obama and Clinton made it seem as if gender simply didn't exist. However, the controversial kernels of both of their controversial statements are unimpeachable.

First, let's take Ferraro's bitter complaints on behalf of Senator Clinton. There is a truckload of sexism at the core of the current election season, and no serious proponent of Obama's campaign could or should deny that his racial identity is crucial to his appeal, his experience, his soul and, yes, his success. I mean, come on. Duh. What's galling and blinkered about Ferraro's statements is that she implies that this is a bad thing, and that, somehow, Clinton's race and gender aren't also shaping her life in important ways. Clinton, in Ferraro's assessment, is primarily a victim of sexism, and isn't also a beneficiary of racial privilege. One strikingly honest thing that Ferraro did say, about herself and about Clinton, is that their gender played a huge role in their advancement to the top (or possible top) of the Democratic ticket. Clumsily, and with a blindness toward race that is sadly typical, Ferraro has said what a lot of people won't say. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and that accounts both for a measure of her success, but also for the particular and vicious attacks on her personal worth and character that have plagued her since she entered the race.

In many respects, Pastor Wright has done the same thing. Speaking in the language of black Christianity, Wright has worked to remind black congregants, and black voters in general of the simple truth that Barack Obama is also black, and that he has shared many of the experiences of other black people in America. The fact that this simple reminder has shocked and awed so many white pundits (and, anecdotally, potential voters) is distressing but predictable. Just as Clinton has had to be very careful in walking a line between being "too" or "insufficiently" feminine, Obama's got the same problem with his blackness. Wright's comments are a reminder that just because there is a mainstream black candidate for president does not mean that black people have forgotten about the realities of racism in the United States.

Of course, a lot of what Wright has said in his sermons sounds extreme to many Americans. "God Damn America" is not something I'd want ringing around my campaign. No doubt, it's a PR problem for Obama, and is part and parcel of the fact that as a liberal politician in Chicago, he's rubbed shoulders with parts of the left that have been effectively shuttered out of the mainstream. We can all look forward to more of such attacks based on Obama's "associations", something that Clinton doesn't have to worry about because she didn't have to move up from the grassroots of big city politics. Incidentally, there's nothing about Wright's sermons that is any more "radical" than what comes out of the Evangelical movement churches that Republican candidates frequent, but Obama's not going to be able to fix the ideological and discursive double standard in national American politics in the course of one campaign.

I don't envy either Obama or Clinton for having to walk these treacherous lines. At the same time, I'm pretty fed up with watching both of their campaigns pounce whenever there appears to be the potential of point-scoring.

We live today in the shadow of the reductive and destructive “debate” over “political correctness” that emerged in the 1990’s. That framework helped to reduce the realities of racialized and gendered inequalities to sparring over word choices and speech. The problem of racism, sexism or homophobia became one of hurtful, offensive statements, as the popular imagination merged concepts of bigotry and plain old rudeness together into a useless mishmash. In the end, simply mentioning the existence of race or gender, or class or sexuality as real factors in the real world experience of real people becomes a lightning rod. We can't talk about any of it in a serious way because the only way that people know how to talk about oppression is by denouncing someone's speech.

This is not to say that discourse isn’t important, or that words do not have power. However, actions by both the right and left during the “culture wars” over political correctness helped create an environment in which the stupid rantings of a comedian on stage was nearly as big a story as the horrific crimes of New Orleans.

Perhaps it is utopian folly to wish that mainstream public discourse around race, gender and class would be anything other than superficial in the United States. But in this election season, faced as we are with the most sociologically complicated set of choices imaginable, the superficiality of our discussion is as stark as it is dangerous. The campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are doing themselves, their party and their natural constituencies no favors by choosing to score points amid the maelstrom instead of concentrating on issue differences and together denouncing racism and sexism.

The Republicans are taking notes.

Etiketter: , , ,

mandag, februar 04, 2008

a letter (or, how I almost learned to stop worrying and love obama)

In lieu of a nice analytical essay, below is an email I sen to a somewhat random list of people who were having the Obama vs. Clinton debate:

Hey everyone,

This has certainly been an interesting conversation to eavesdrop on, and an interesting campaign season overall.

I just wanted to say that I really, really hope that everyone on this list who is excited about the prospect of an Obama nomination is ready and willing to put in the work that it will take to elect him president. This is no less true of Clinton supporters, of course, but, my experience is that Obama supporters seem to underestimate the amount of work it’s going to take to beat John McCain in November. History is full of candidates who excited generally demobilized parts of the Democratic base (especially young people) who rode a wave of excitement to the nomination but were defeated in the general election. So, Micah and Erik I hope to see your names first on the list for trips to Nevada or Colorado or wherever the polls say is the front line.

I was a strong supporter of John Edwards, both because he is the first serious Democratic candidate in my lifetime to articulate the need for a different kind of economy and because I think he was the strongest candidate for the general election. This is for reasons both good (a populist appeal to Reagan Democrats) and bad (racism, sexism). A central demographic challenge for creating and maintaining a Democratic (and progressive) majority in the United States is winning back white working class men (this is what’s “wrong with Kansas”). We’re not going to do that this year, and so I expect that our majority (Insha'Allah that we have one) will be slim.

With Edwards gone, and after a whole lot of hand-wringing, I’ve decided to vote for Obama. It has been a hard decision. We know that a Clinton presidency will be filled with unnecessary concessions and triangulation. However, I find Obama’s anti-partisan rhetoric extremely dangerous even if it is effective in the short run. Also, I agree with others who have pointed out that policy-wise, Obama is not clearly more progressive than Clinton, and on health care is actually worse. There’s also nuclear power and social security, two issues on which Obama has said strangely conservative things. I also think that there is no small bit of sexism in the fact that so much of this race has been about “likability” and charisma, two aspects that socio-semiotically favor male candidates. It’s hard to imagine a female candidate inspiring the kind of savior-worship that surrounds Obama. A lot of the Hillary-bashing I hear makes my stomach turn, even though her policies and those of her coterie are well worth withering critique.

But make no mistake: it will be hard to win in November. We haven’t seen Obama’s negatives. We all know what the Republicans will do to Clinton. But the same is coming for Obama, and all of the post-partisan rhetoric in the world is not going to inoculate voters against the onslaught. This will be especially true versus McCain, who also rides on a wave of maverick non-partisanship. There is a reason that many voters in New Hampshire were torn between McCain and Obama: they are running very similar campaigns. Don’t get me wrong, I like Obama a lot. I met him as a College student and walked precincts for him when I lived in his State Senate district. He is an impeccably moral and serious person, perhaps the most intelligent individual to seek the office, and would make an amazing president. I just don’t think that he is the messiah. Remember that the brother, talented as he is, has never really run for office against a Republican.

I’ve decided to vote for Obama for one reason- all you folks who seem excited and energized by his campaign. I hope that he wins the nomination so that you and everyone like you across the country will hit the streets and the phonebanks this year and turn people out to beat the Republican. I also hope that those of us who do this all the time will be able to convince a few of you to stick around after November and continue in the struggle for a more just and sustainable future. It’s not going to be over in November. Obama is right- yes, we can. But we have to do it.

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