Surprised by criticism from the left

I just concluded a brief phone conversation with a MoveOn activist. It’s an election year, and her natural and obvious goal was to promote Barack Obama’s cause in November. She did not say much, however, and did not have a chance to speak at length, for when I heard Obama’s name after her organization’s name, I told her that I would never vote for Obama.

“Why,” she asked.

“Because he’s a war criminal, a promoter of authoritarian government, a tool of Wall Street and an opponent of authentic health care reform, among many other reasons,” I replied.

There was a brief silent moment which I used to punctuate my claim that “I [was] criticizing Obama from the left.”

I told her this because I did not want her to consult her talking points when she formulated her response.

She didn’t. In fact, she seemed stunned, and indicated that she could not understand why anyone on the left would criticize the President.

And that’s just one problem with those progressives who tie their political fate to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They lack imagination. They have severely small horizons. Their commitment to a pseudo-pragmatic electoral strategy binds them to a corrupt Democratic Party, to its commitment to war-making abroad, the security-surveillance state at home, elite lawlessness, a general austerity, a predatory economic system and mostly to the oligarchs who own them.

Their electoral strategy also blinds them to the false dilemma inherent in the lesser evil principle. Why is the dilemma false?

Firstly, the Democratic and Republican Parties do not exhaust the political options available to America’s nominally free citizens. Movement work and alternative party participation remain options for the critically minded American citizen.

Secondly, whereas the policies of the two parties differ on this or that issue and whereas their respective constituencies differ to a degree, they are not so distinct that they differ in kind. The Democrat and Republican Parties are system affirmative entities, and their commitments and policies reflect this fact. Their system affirmative nature means that voting for a candidate of one party affirms the core principles and political operations of the other party. It cannot be otherwise when both parties serve the same masters and generate whatever legitimacy they through the workings of the democratic mechanism. There is “not a dime’s difference” between the two legacy parties, as George Wallace pointed out decades back.

Thirdly, both parties form a party system which affirms and reproduces the larger political system of which they are members. They accomplish these goals because they and the elections they contest operate as filters which eliminate opponents of the American system as an electoral force while thereby producing legitimacy for the results of the election and for the political system as a whole. The United States is a democracy. Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. His election was valid. He thus legitimately occupies the office of the President. His deeds carry with them the authority of his office. Outsiders — Ralph Nader and his kind — typically are shunned and ridiculed. They are losers, and unworthy of holding power or enjoying widespread prestige. The policies they promote are impossible and therefore ridiculous. Even their mere presence (allegedly) produces catastrophes (the lesser Bush’s presidency). It is because the party system does not generate an opposition that it reproduces itself every election. National elections change little. The upshot: America’s national politicians re-present the state and the higher strata of the economy to civil society. An authentically democratic politics can be found only in the streets, the place where the demos is sometimes found. Sheldon Wolin evaluated these features of the American political system and thus identified it as an inverted totalitarian regime, a political system without an opposition, a system which functions best when it makes opposition all but impossible.

Fourthly, there are situations, electoral contests and political choices that feature lesser evils which are too evil to tolerate. A lesser Hitler remains a Hitler. An Obama acts like a Bush. A Clinton works hard to complete the Reagan Revolution. A Carter anticipates a Reagan. War, war crimes and lawlessness; mass murder, suppression of dissent and incarceration of whistleblowers; social austerity, economic predation and personal hardship — these are some of the evil policies and policy outcomes which MoveOn supports when it thumps the tub for Barack Obama.

The world often and unfortunately presents many with lesser evil options that a rational person would strongly prefer over the greater evil. Additionally, for some Americans, the lesser evil principle acquires its most persuasive force when one considers the New Deal and Great Society reforms which once marked the history of the Democratic Party. These reforms benefitted so many that a critic cannot deny this point without appear mendacious. One may suspect that Americans who voted for Obama and “change you can believe in” affirmed the collective memory of and institutional residues left over from these past victories. Today, however, these memories are mostly just phantasms. They lack an institutional referent, for The New Deal State and the political culture which supported it parted ways decades back. What remains is a security-surveillance state that governs an empire and imposes austerity on the weak.

Stated differently, it is obvious that militarism and empire, finance capital and the capitalist class have pushed labor and the lesser sort to the margins of the Democratic Party. This is the place where one will find MoveOn and the like. Party star Rahm Emanuel once denounced them as “fucking retarded.”

The ideologically committed liberal should ponder well the intent inherent in Emanuel’s words and, to be sure, his public insolence.

CounterPunch published an early version of this article.