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.

Quote of the day

The latest one originated from the late Alexander Cockburn‘s typewriter back in the late 1980s:

I came to the United States in, June of 1972, the month Nixon’s burglars broke into the Watergate, and I am writing these lines fifteen years later while Colonel North lectures Congress about the role of executive power in the Iran-Contra scandal. Looking at North’s cocksure, edgy ingratiating profile I am reminded of his avatar: the ‘can do’ guy in Nixon’s White House, Gordon Liddy. The contrast is a good measure of the political and social distance the country has traveled between the two scandals.

Liddy, endlessly testing his ‘will’ and firing himself up with Nietzschean vitamins, had the beleaguered paranoia of a sworn foe of the sixties counter-culture. Bad fellow though Liddy was, there was always an element of Inspector Clouseau about him. He held his hand over a candle to prove his fortitude against pain, and when the time came, he stood by the can do’ guys code of omerta and served his time in Danbury federal penitentiary without a whimper.

Back in the Watergate hearings you could look at the burglars, at their sponsors in the White House, at Nixon himself and see that despite noises of defiance and protestations of innocence they knew they had been caught on the wrong side of the law and, though they would do their utmost to keep clear of the slammer, it would not come as a shock to them if the slammer was where they finally ended up.

North is as true a memento of the Reagan era as Liddy was of that earlier time. North has Reagan’s own capacity for the vibrant lie, uttered with such conviction that it is evident how formidable psychic mechanisms of self-validation, in the very instant of the lie’s utterance, convince the liar — Reagan, North — that what he is saying is true. But if Liddy embodied the spirit of fascism at the level of grand guignol, North has the aroma of the real thing, eighties all-American style: absolute moral assurance that his lawlessness was lawful; that though he was there to ‘get things done’, he was following orders; that all impediments in his path, legal or moral, were, obstructions erected by a hostile conspiracy.

From Liddy to North to whom? This obvious question lacks an obvious answer. One might consider George W. Bush to be the provider of that image. We need only recall his searching for WMD around his office and under his speaking lectern while the Washington press corps and other beltway insiders snickered, humorless and thoughtless shtick which amused these well-connected Washingtonians. Rahm Emanuel provides another worthy candidate. Surely his “fucking retarded” outburst when characterizing a few liberal groups that wanted to attack those Blue Dog Democrats who were unwilling to support Obama’s corporate-friendly health care bill stands out for what passes as noblesse oblige in contemporary Washington. Yet I believe that the compelling symbol today is not a member of the political elite justifying his or her actions to Congress or a court or the public. Rather today these men and women mostly need not justify their crimes for these crimes are largely ignored by the much of the press, the public in general and most politicians. In the United States today, the rule of law applies to the many whereas a few enjoy the rule by law. The image of lawlessness has thus shifted from key members of an amoral elite confronting their crimes in public to the well-known and not-so-well-known victims of those crimes — to the Mannings and Padillias, the Assanges and Stewarts, as well as every black site prisoner who exists as homo sacer, civilly dead beings wholly lacking political rights; to the individuals sprayed, cuffed and beaten by police forces which have come to use barely restrained power on America’s rights bearing citizens; to those made bankrupt by a predatory banking system, by job loss, by massive and unavoidable debt and by a government committed to austerity and war. This is America today:

Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever (Orwell, 1984).