politics is to want something

mandag, november 26, 2007

I'm for Obama, but only because Ron Paul can't win

End the war, bring the troops home, and stop the imperial meddling in other nations' business. That's a wonderfully encouraging platform to see from a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. The fact that it is coming from a Republican who shares the field for his party's nomination with proud apologists for torture is even more remarkable. For this reason, Texas Congressman Ron Paul has been drumming up money and interest on the internet, and has even begun to register in national and state polls.
Predictably, a small number of those who would generally consider themselves on the left have also contracted Paul fever. My partner Nina and I have overheard several people say that they are "really for Ron Paul, but will settle for Obama" since Paul doesn't have a chance. I've seen chalk, spraypaint, stapleguns and wheatpaste, the full arsenal of the activist cadre mobilized to spread his message. Some are traditional libertarians, but others are campus lefty types. Though Paul is unlikely to make much of a dent when it comes to actual voting, it's all a pretty depressing reminder of just how silly folks on the left can be. This is the problem with not having a real progressive narrative, and the fact that our progressive leaders (like, um, Obama) won't actually spell one out in a way that really makes sense. Paul is for "change". Obama is for "change". People want "change". Ergo, Obama, Paul and "the people" all want the same thing. They don't, of course, but it is possible to make that mistake considering Obama's refrain about putting all that boring old "left vs right" stuff behind us.

Let's review, though, just for fun, all the ways in which Ron Paul is a serious nutjob, albeit an affable one: Paul is firmly anti-choice. He wants to abolish the federal income tax, along with most of the functions of the Federal government. Department of Education? Gone. EPA? Gone. IRS? Gone. NEA? Gone. What's left? Police to lock you up for performing and abortion.
Yes, he wants to pull us out of Iraq and NAFTA, but also the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. He has stopped calling for the immediate abolition of social security, but wants to phase it out. He identifies Federal regulation as the greatest threat to the environment (I didn't make that up). Amazingly, though undocumented workers pay millions of dollars into social security they will never see, his priority is to make sure that social security is for "Americans only." And that's just a small sample.
Many right wingers oppose foriegn wars. There has always been an isolationist tradition on the American right. Confusing it with progressivism is a very bad mistake.
Personally, I agree with John Edwards, Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinic, the three actual progressives running for president this year. They are all calling, in different ways, for a revitalization of our public sector. They've pointed out that we've seen the effects of the anti-government vision Ron Paul broadcasts at work: in the effective loss of New Orleans, in the foreclosure crisis, in our national health care disaster and in the privatization of our military. It's not "change." It's a deepening of the mistakes we've been making as a nation for thirty years. It's time to turn the page indeed.

PS: Just for fun, here's Ron Paul solving the problem of racism in our society through...limited government!

"A nation that once prided itself on a sense of rugged individualism has become uncomfortably obsessed with racial group identities. The collectivist mindset is at the heart of racism.
Government as an institution is particularly ill-suited to combat bigotry. Bigotry at its essence is a problem of the heart, and we cannot change people's hearts by passing more laws and regulations. It is the federal government that most divides us by race, class, religion, and gender. Through its taxes, restrictive regulations, corporate subsidies, racial set-asides, and welfare programs, government plays far too large a role in determining who succeeds and who fails. Government "benevolence" crowds out genuine goodwill by institutionalizing group thinking, thus making each group suspicious that others are receiving more of the government loot. This leads to resentment and hostility among us."

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tirsdag, november 20, 2007


At this weekend’s California Democratic Party Executive Board meeting, leaders in the Progressive Caucus, supported by outside organizations like the Courage Campaign, headed an effort to pass a resolution censuring Senator Dianne Feinstein for a number of her votes, including the push to confirm a pro-torture Attorney General. The resolution, submitted late, was killed in the Resolutions Committee: a supporter of the resolution was pushed by one Party staff member, and another staffer made inexcusably disparaging comments in the media about grassroots Party activists. It was all very unfortunate.

Equally unfortunate, however, was the fact that the Progressive Caucus of the party, of which I am proud to be a member, spent the greater part of it’s meeting time talking about the Feinstein resolution, even though only a handful of members voted against endorsing it (full disclosure: I was one of them). As a result, the Caucus had only passing discussion of the rest of the business of the Executive Board, and did not take a position on anything except the doomed, symbolic resolution of Censure. At stake: the Party’s positions on a multi billion dollar Indian gaming expansion contested by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, a highly contentious education funding initiative and a plan to overhaul term limits. No official positions were taken on these issues by the Progressive Caucus.

Hardly anyone in the state cares or knows about resolutions passed by the California Democratic Party. Sure, a resolution of censure would make some headlines, but it was also a non-starter in a Presidential election year. The most that would come out of it would be a series of press stories about unruly Democrats. Meanwhile, the Eboard meeting was flooded with union folks, Native American tribes, political operatives and education advocates debating where the Party should be on the issues which will actually appear on the next ballot. Those folks know where the party does have power, and were there to attempt to wield it. It’s on those issues where a progressive strategy, where input from the left of the party would be meaningful. But we were busy on the Feinstein resolution, along with much of the “netroots” activist community. I respect and admire many of the progressive leaders in the Party, and am always straightforward and constructive when I disagree with them. This was one of those moments.

I want to move toward setting the agenda as much as anyone. It’s not enough for us to react to things which are brought to us. But a big part of moving an agenda is moving one which is focused on issues which effect people’s lives directly, and not getting swept up almost exclusively in issues which are sexy or which animate communities we are the most comfortable with. I think that there were good people on both sides of the debate over the resolution, and disagree with the idea that the important fault line in the party is between those who support such actions and those who oppose them. All the time and energy that was spent on the resolution, I believe, would have been better spent educating delegates and the public about the initiatives we just took positions on, furthering progress in developing the party’s infrastructure, and building our clubs, central committees and leadership. I know that it’s possible to multitask, but it’s also crucial to prioritize.

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mandag, november 19, 2007

blue primary blues

The American Presidential season is generally source of soul-destroying agony for progressives. Between the sliminess of the mainstream media, the hegemony of corporate money and cynicism of the professional political class, there is rarely much to find inspiring. Usually, I find myself keeping Max Weber’s famous dictum about the strong slow boring of hard boards nearby in order to keep from throwing myself from a window.

At first, this election cycle seemed to give us reason to be cautiously excited. If someone had told me two years ago that the Democratic Presidential field would be dominated by a young and brilliant black man, a skillful and talented woman and a Southern white man who is running on what amounts to a social democratic platform, I would have assumed they were stoned. For the first time in my life, there is almost no outcome of the Democratic Primary that wouldn’t lead to a politically meaningful campaign as opposed to our usual rearguard action.

As we approach the first set of votes, however, the soul crushing has commenced. Let us take it as a given that Senator Clinton is working within the DLC framework: a carefully honed appeal to skittish middle class voters, a reminder to everyone else that the Republicans are worth beating and an invincible fundraising and networking operation. The smart money is on her winning the nomination fairly handily. Campaigning for the first woman president, especially against a political party that will appeal to misogynistic fears of cultural upheaval will bring a high level of excitement to the race, at least for me. Nonetheless, it is depressing that after six or more years of building, of concerted efforts to reassert some kind of proud and vibrant liberal message, of watching the Republicans come so close to completely dismantling the legacies of social movements and rational public policy at every level, that the best that we could come up with is another centrist Clinton. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do.

Watching Edwards’ social justice message ridiculed because of his wealth, attractiveness and haircut is a stark reminder of the bizarre reality of America’s lack of a rational class discourse. Somewhere, a smart grad student is launching a dissertation in trying to unpack the irony and convoluted ideology that both feminizes and class-baits a candidate who is finally talking about rolling back the Reagan revolution in way that is meaningful to working-class voters. And I’ve heard these talking points from Democrats, even self-identified progressives: Edwards isn’t serious about reform because he’s rich.

The diminishing prospects for John Edwards should worry everyone. There is no hope of building a lasting progressive majority in America without winning back Joe and Jane six-pack. They won’t be won back permanently until Democrats are meaningfully leading on reorienting the economy in their interests. Edwards’ campaign is the most serious attempt at such a project that I have seen in my lifetime. It's a new realignment strategy, or what historians might call re-re-alignment.

Barack Obama is chasing realigment as well, but more semiotically than politically. I have watched Obama’s political career almost from the beginning, volunteering on his first successful run for office, and watching as he negotiated the deadly terrain of Chicago politics. He can talk to disaffected white working class voters, (including my family in central Illinois), inspires young and liberal voters across racial lines in an unprecedented way and, more than any other candidate in this race, exudes the optimism and infectious energy of the Kennedy era.

It may be possible to charismatically and symbolically forge a winning coalition. His is the most “fired up” organization, recruiting thousands of enthusiasts into politics for the first time, which is always a good thing. Obama is running on the mystique of the “new”, a trope which can be a powerful mobilizer but which often frustrates as a substitute for substance. In some speeches, Obama speaks of moving beyond the conflicts of the 1960’s, in others the 1990’s, rhetoric which casts Senator Clinton as stale, appeals to generations X and Y, and reassures white voters that he’s not going to burn the mansion down. It also pitches him as running against Washington, a posture that never seems to get old (and cuts both ways ideologically). Its smart politics, even if it’s a bit creepy, and I believe that he wants to win because he wants to do good things.

However, there are two major reasons I haven’t jumped on an Obama bandwagon: First, I don’t have a very clear sense of what Obama would be like as President. Is he a New Frontier liberal or a Third Way centrist? He sounds alternately like both. It’s hard to sift through with only a couple of years of a voting record at the Federal level, and a policy team that is all over the map. My friends who support him tend to point to his choice of metaphors and his biography to emphasize his transformative agenda, but I’m still smarting from the Bill Clinton burn. I’m not one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, (hell, I supported Dean), and so policy squishiness isn’t the bottom line for me, it’s the campaign.

Obama’s campaign, like his appeal, is centered around Obama: not a larger organizational project the way that Howard Dean’s was, not rooted in social movements the way Jesse Jackson’s was. An independent organization based in San Francisco called Vote Hope is trying to utilize Obama’s appeal to simultaneously contribute to his victory and to recruit, train and mobilize activists for the long-run. That’s a great project, and I care about it’s outcome. However, it’s the exception in a larger reality. The new Obama activists I have encountered don’t seem particularly interested in sticking around, moving the party, building organization or learning how to be leaders. I don’t have data on this assertion, but I’ve talked to other Party activists who have noted the same thing. They still need to be outreached to and engaged, but in most parts of the country, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, Obamamania seems more about fandom than movement.

It is a commonly held faith in most progressive circles that the left has fallen behind in its ability to present effective narratives and “big picture” vision. In part, the growing attraction to Obama in certain neighborhoods of the progressive base is that he seems capable of breaking that destructive pattern. More than any candidate in recent memory, both biographically and rhetorically, Obama offers a remarkably compelling story of what America is and could be. At moments, that narrative is just what we need: radical and pragmatic, honest and compassionate. Other times, however, it seems virtually contentless. “Different and new” for sure, but what that means is largely unclear. Politics won’t be realigned in this country without a set of broad, accessible messages from the left. However, those messages must be deeper than platitudes and hipness.

Let me also say that I don’t buy any of the campaigns’ rhetoric around “electability”. All three of the “top-tier” candidates, plus Richardson (and perhaps even Dodd and Biden) could win in November ’08. Edwards is not too pretty, Obama is not too black and Clinton is not too female to win the Presidency.

And that’s exactly why I’ve got the blue primary blues. This is a year in which the wind is at our backs. People really are hungry for change, and the other team is off their game. We’re gonna win. The stakes are higher than just correcting the dazzling incompetence and mean-spiritedness of the Bush Administration. Republican rule since 1981, including the Clinton interlude, has primarily been an era of destruction for social equity and solidarity, both institutionally and culturally. We have a real shot at pushing that back, not just restoring the New Deal and the Great Society, but moving beyond them, updating American liberalism for a more dynamic, globalized economy and finally allowing the best of it’s benefits to touch the lives of oppressed and marginalized communities. Great things are possible.

But not likely.

Next: The Second Clinton Presidency

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